Sun Valley SnowSports ski instructor Shawn Phillips has worked a variety of careers, from book publishing in New York City to design for local photographer David Stoecklein.
After working for a tech startup in the San Francisco Bay area, he found his way back to Ketchum, where he’s made his home now for the past 25 years.
What’s been constant for Phillips, though, is his practice of modern “asana”--Sanskrit for “well seated,” the physical part of yoga—and applying its core principles to skiing, a passion he first picked up as a student at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Since joining SnowSports as an instructor, Phillips has found joy in helping ski students—young and old, local and non-local—find their center of balance.
“I personally see asana as a way to practice breathing, and there’s a big crossover in skiing,” Phillips says. “Getting into that flow on Baldy—you’re just there, cruising, and life is moving fast around you, but time is beautifully still. That literally describes the state of yoga: ‘Chitta-vritti-nirodha.’ You’re not chasing anything. You’re not disturbed by what’s going on.”
Phillips recently sat down with the Express at River Run to offer up a few tips for beginner adult skiers hoping to chase some powder this season.
Start at Dollar
At 630 vertical feet, Dollar Mountain undeniably stands in the shadow of its taller sister to the west. But it’s not just a bunny slope with a magic carpet, Phillips says—terrain is teachable and progressive, from the bread-and-butter-beginner slopes of Poverty Flats and Quarter Dollar to the formidable black diamond Dragon’s Back.
“Some people will insist on skiing on Baldy for the first time and that they’re totally ready, when they’re obviously not—which is scary for not only them, but for other people within 100 yards,” Phillips said with a laugh. “One thing to keep in mind is the green runs in Sun Valley are blue runs everywhere else. My personal rule is you need to be comfy on blue runs on Dollar before you tackle the green runs at Seattle Ridge.”
If you must get up on Baldy as a beginner, Phillips recommends taking the gondola up, heading down Gun Tower Lane to Lower Broadway and utilizing the new Broadway lift.
“Lower Broadway is a beautiful place to learn. It’s a bit of a transit, but it’s wide, flat, and you can really find your space,” he said. “Still, Baldy’s steep—maybe not expert-skier, Jackson-Hole steep—but until you’re an expert skier and fairly advanced, it’s steep.
“It’s also a mental game for new skiers. You put a beginner at the top of Baldy and town is way far below, and often you’ll see them freeze up.”
Take a real lesson
Phillips said that as adults, it’s tempting to think we can teach ourselves the fundamentals from internet sources or tag along with friends and family members.
But putting theory into practice requires a lot, he said, and it’s easy for beginners to pick up bad habits—regular mistakes that become much harder to undo later on—and become stuck in the “pizza wedge,” or believe that they can only ski the same runs.
“If you’re spending energy holding yourself upright, that’s not getting translated to your feet, and you’re locked up in the hips, you’re going to have to spend a lot of energy correcting that,” Phillips said. “Without a proper foundation, you can’t adjust to the pitch. Then you’re forcing it, and usually if you’re forcing it, you aren’t skiing as effectively.”
By taking a SnowSports lesson, he said, you’ll not only instill proper technique from the beginning but will learn how to avoid crashes and navigate adverse conditions in a safe, controlled manner.
“I’ll see new skiers come with siblings or spouses who have been skiing for a few years off and on. Technically, some may be able to get down a steeper pitch. But if you look at their turns, I think my students are better,” Phillips joked. “The beautiful thing about skiing is we try to teach the same skills and drills to a day-one beginner as an expert skier.
“You don’t learn to ski as a beginner, then as an intermediate, then an expert; you learn to find your edge, and constantly return to that base foundation to improve.”
Phillips’ suggestion: take a mid-week afternoon lesson at Dollar.
“Teaching at Dollar is nice in the morning, because usually it’s a bit slower to get started. There’s more of a crush up on at Baldy in the morning from people who want to ski the groomers at 9 a.m.,” he said.
One hint: Sun Valley Resort gift cards—which range from $25 to $1,500, suitable for most budgets—are redeemable at nearly every resort location, from Sun Valley Village restaurants and on-mountain lodges to gift and sport shops. They’re also redeemable at the SnowSports school, at Pete Lane’s and at the lift ticket window. A $500 gift card will cover one private SnowSports lesson ($425) and a novice one-day ski rental package at the Dollar Mountain Pete Lane’s ($40).
Know the “Skier’s Responsibility Code”
Every time you click into your skis, Phillips says the skier’s responsibility code should be taken to heart.
“The skier’s responsibility code is not just a set or rules—it protects you and other people,” he said.
The first rule: People ahead of you have the right of way, and you should always be aware if someone’s coming from behind you. That means looking uphill and yielding before starting down or merging.
The second rule: Stop in a safe place for you and others.
“Whether it’s early season or the holiday, runs get very crowded with skiers barreling down. The number one thing to remember is to not stop where you can’t be seen, such as just over a roller or on other side of a cat track. And be aware of snowboarders sitting down just on the other side,” Phillips said.
“In Sun Valley especially, be extra alert on cat tracks. I-80 is not a beginner cat track! And spread out if you’re with a group of people. Families often get bunched up, which scares me.”
Rule three: Constantly assess where you’re at ability-wise. This means checking your tracks, whenever possible.
“A good test for yourself is if you can safely pull over and stop, look uphill and make sure you’re seeing neat railroad tracks. If you’re pretty much going across the hill but it’s not a knife edge, but more like spreading some butter, that means you are perhaps nearing the edge of your ability,” Phillips said. “If you have a hard time holding a line, you are definitely way over your head.”
Rule four: In flat light or low visibility conditions, slow down.
“Adverse conditions are a good time to slow down, change your mindset and see it as a growth opportunity,” Phillips said. “Your eyes don’t work as well as your feet—your feet need to be nice and flat. Just focus on one turn to the next, and things will fall into place. Feel the snow the whole time.”
As far as warm-ups go, Phillips recommends stretching—but not too much—and getting your joints loosened up on a stationary bike.
“You want to be limber,” he said. “Get on a bike with very low resistance and high RPM, which will lubricate your joints. Jumping jacks also help.”
Phillips continued: “Most importantly, hydrate. And if you get overwhelmed, smile and breathe! It really changes your experience up there. You’re not going to learn a spectacular new technique in a stressed, fight-or-flight mode. You’re going to rely on what you already have, your most basic skillset.
“Having something to put in your mind before you go downhill is an excellent practice, whether it’s ‘Chitta-vritti-nirodha’—don’t be disturbed—or something more specific to what you’re working on. Skiing is a state of being; the technique will come with time.” ￼