Drew Merklinghaus practically grew up on skis. Since the age of 3, Merklinghaus, now 63, has been slowly making his way down ski runs around the world. Today, he makes daily runs down Baldy and Dollar Mountain as an instructor with the Sun Valley Snowsports School, including teaching the Mountain Masters program, which he considers one of the best ski instruction programs in the world.
“Sun Valley is the site of the first ski school in North America,” he said. “New York industrialists, Hollywood elite came here, and when they came here, they took ski lessons,” Merklinghaus said. “You wanted to learn how to ski, you came to Sun Valley. That was in the late ’30s, ’50s and ’60s. Quietly behind the scenes, we’ve hung on to that. It’s in our DNA.”
What makes Sun Valley Snowsports School unique is the pride with which instructors take their roles, Merklinghaus said.
“It was my dream to eventually retire from my corporate job and wear a red jacket every day,” he said.
But before he could get there, his life took several turns, through the professional world of competitive skiing and the corporate world of being an executive of his own apparel company, before he would ultimately return to call Sun Valley home.
Merklinghaus grew in up Washington, where as a sophomore in high school he became interested in becoming a ski instructor.
“Skiing has always been a little ex-pensive—it’s always been a little hard
to get your hands around. Accomplished skiers that fall in love with the sport and become mountain people have to figure out a way to do it,” he said.
Even today, he said, “my biggest interest in becoming part of the ski school was getting my lift tickets paid for.”
Throughout high school, Merklinghaus taught and became a professional skier, a World Cup freestyler involved in the PFA World Trophy Tour between 1976 and 1981. Alongside his professional ski career, he opened a ski school in Washington, Skiing Unlimited, located between Snoqualmie Summit and Crystal Mountain. In between ski tours in Europe, he’d coach young, aspiring youths to polish their competitive skills or learn new styles of skiing—aerials, mogul skiing and ballet skiing.
“It was a really wonderful time to take what I’d learned and hand it down to the next generation,” he said.
Soon after his professional ski career, he started a clothing company with friends that led to a 30-year corporate lifestyle until 2007, when the economy sunk.
“I lost my job along with 30 million other American guys like me, and I’m trying to figure out what to do,” he said.
He ended up moving back to Sun Valley, where he had lived as a ski bum in the 1970s.
“Skiing has always been a part of my life and a part of my family—I’m kind of landing back where I started,” he said.
Merklinghaus said that since 2012, when he began teaching for Sun Valley, he’s been falling back in love with the business of ski instruction. He also started another apparel company, alongside his wife, Leah. Together they run two shops, one in Hailey and one in Ketchum. But Merklinghaus’ true love is the mountain, and part of what he loves about Sun Valley in particular is its vast terrain.
“Terrain is your biggest friend when it comes to overcoming fear,” he said, “something that is a natural response to a sport that is so unnatural. [Dollar Mountain] is so gentle and so easygoing and so unintimidating that you can go out there and work on your technique and never feel scared about falling.”
When he returned after 30 years, Merklinghaus noticed the major technological advances that had been made.
“Skis have gotten shape to them, the runs are groomed, the chairlifts are high-speed and they got snow machines. All of that stuff used to not exist,” he said.
But, Merklinghaus said, it hasn’t necessarily improved the sport.
“I think it’s actually made some of the skiers up there, or most of the skiers up there, worse, not better, because it’s made it easy,” he said. “You don’t need much technique and skill [anymore]. You can turn where you want to turn and stop where you want to stop, but that doesn’t mean your technique is good. It’s good enough, but is it good?
“Well, when you live here in Sun Valley and you want to look like you live here … it’s very important to tune your technique into proper technique.”
Merklinghaus prides himself on being the slowest skier on Baldy, something he attributes to solid technique and years of fine-tuning the biomechanics that are involved in skiing. He brings that acquired skill to each of his clients, daily on the mountain.
“You ask any good skier, ‘What did it take to get that good?’ And they’ll say, ‘I skied with some good people and I just did a lot of observation,’” something that most people don’t have the patience for today, Merklinghaus said. With his clients, he leans on visual learning, filming how they come down the mountain, analyzing it and pointing out areas in which the client can improve their technique.
“I use a term called ‘monkey see, monkey do.’ We go out and ski together—it’s more important for my client to get in the mindset where they want to learn, watch, observe and then try to imitate,” he said. “That mindset, you accomplish that, the sky’s the limit. You are going to have that moment.”
Merklinghaus calls that moment “touching the magic dragon,” and said that with the right professional instruction, and a willingness to learn, each person new to skiing can experience that moment, and if they’re lucky, experience the moment that true skiers do.
“And this is the corniest part. Real skiers know this to be true—it’s life changing, emotionally, physically, spiritually. Seeing somebody touch that spot, touching the magic dragon a little bit, it’s really cool.”
Merklinghaus calls it passion over paycheck.
“The passion gets reignited through social interactions with people,” he said.
He said he instills that passion in each of the new hires that make their way into the Sun Valley Snowsports School.
“The very first thing I say to them is, ‘Congratulations, you’re part of the best snowsports school in the world. This is the big leagues, this is the big show.’”
Merklinghaus said Sun Valley prides itself on elevating a level of professionalism that isn’t found at other ski schools.