At this SoCal resort, kids as young as 5 learn to ski in after-school program
Nine-year-old Avery Norbryhn can ski backward, which is no small feat. The fourth grader has also mastered jumps at her local hill, Snow Valley Mountain Resort, in the San Bernardino Mountains about 90 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. One day in the not-too-distant future, she says she’s going to be able to keep up with, and maybe even out-ski, her 40-year-old dad, Robert.
Both learned how to ski at Snow Valley’s Rim Youth ski and snowboard program, which aims to teach very young kids their way around the slopes.
“I started learning in the program when I was 6, way back when I was a kindergartner,” said Robert Norbryhn, now a ski instructor. He grew up in Running Springs, moved to Idaho for a while, but returned to the area seven years ago. He and his wife have four children, three of whom will participate in the program this winter. Norbryhn also helps out as a chaperone, sometimes helping the youngest children get on and off the lifts.
“I skied as many as three times a week with friends and family growing up, often with my dad,” he said. “It was my life during winters. And for lots of my friends too. I recall sitting in the back of my parents’ old [Chevrolet] Suburban and changing on the way up to the resort. Most of the instructors back then were parents and other volunteers. One was a pastor at a local church.”
Avery, who will turn 10 in February and attends Charles Hoffman Elementary School in Running Springs, said this will mark her fifth year in the Rim Youth Program. Though she’s skiing backward and can do jumps, she has yet to navigate metal rails, boxes and other terrain park features. “I don’t go on those yet, but I probably will soon when I get better,” she said.
Initially aimed at mountain kids in the Running Springs area, the program has expanded to those who live farther afield. Some come from as far away as Manhattan Beach, 100 miles to the west; others from the flat lands of Redlands at the base of the mountains. Thousands of wannabe skiers and snowboarders in the Youth Rim program have learned to safely navigate the resort’s 30-plus slopes and 1,000-foot descents thanks to solid teaching efforts and the relatively low-priced program.
The back story
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The youth program got started a little more than half a century ago by volunteer parents, right around the time interest in skiing exploded. Americans Billy Kidd and Jimmie Heuga medaled in ski events at the 1964 Winter Olympics, and Frenchman Jean-Claude Killy snapped up three alpine racing Olympic gold medals four years later. The 1969 film “Downhill Racer” starring Robert Redford lent the sport a cool factor.
Snow Valley instructors took over the Rim Youth program in 1987. It has been run by longtime manager Dixi Willemse ever since, attracting 250 to 300 kids each winter (including six of Willemse’s grandchildren) and is so popular that it can be hard to find enough teachers.
Most students in the program are 6 to 8 years old, though some in junior high school have enrolled. “Once they learn the basics, they often go off on their own,” Willemse said. “But some come back year after year after year. The majority ski, though we have a number of snowboarders too, though it’s not as popular as it was 10 years ago.”
Willemse said she does her best to keep the classes relatively small, with just seven or eight students per instructor, particularly for the little ones. “And the first session of the year … though parents have told us what level they think their kids are, we still have to sort them out to get them in the appropriate group,” she said.
It costs $165 for six weeks of 90-minute lessons and lift tickets, with classes held each Friday at 3 and 5 p.m. Kids who don’t have their own gear may rent ski boots and poles for $75, good for the entire program. Also, students can ski until the resort closes at 8 p.m. on Fridays. If a session is washed out because of weather, another one will be added at the end of the season.
The program started Friday, but Willemse said she takes late sign-ups if there’s room. While 3 p.m. classes frequently fill up, 5 p.m. classes almost always have spaces.
Emily Wisman, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Lake Arrowhead Elementary School, has been in the Rim Youth program for five years and hopes to one day become a ski instructor herself. Her younger brother, 5-year-old Matthew, will join the program next year, she said.
“I’ve learned a lot and made a good friend, Mira, from Redlands, who is in the program,” said Emily, who lives in Lake Arrowhead. “I like getting out of school early on Fridays, and I really like going to the top of the mountain and skiing down with my friends.”
Emily has since skied with her family at Mammoth Mountain in Mammoth Lakes as well as at Brian Head and Eagle Point ski resorts in southern Utah. She even raced her mom, Amy, to the bottom of a slope. “And I won!” Emily said with a giggle. “It was really funny, because she’s usually way better than me.”
Willemse said she and her husband learned to ski at Snow Valley when their kids took up the sport. Three of her four offspring are still skiing and daughter Traci — a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who now teaches Marines how to fly Cobra attack helicopters in San Diego — became a ski instructor.
For true novices, instructors begin by teaching them how to put on skis before advancing to the Magic Carpet lift (something like a moving sidewalk) to try out an easy run. Students might not get to ride a chair lift until the second if not the third week, she said.
“You can take any kid to the top of a hill,” she said. “They’ll probably get down, but if they can’t control their speed, or turn or know how to stop, you’ve got a problem — and it may not be pretty. They may get hurt or never want to ski again. So lessons are really the way to go.”
Kevin Somes, general manager of the resort, grew up in Orange County and learned to ski at Snow Valley when he was 11. “I fell in love with this place, and now I’ve been running it for going on 17 years,” he said.
Snow Valley has received abundant snowfall so far this year. Even in lean times, the Rim Youth classes go on because the resort can make snow for the teaching terrain. The higher Slide Peak section does not have man-made snow, but this season there’s enough snow now to keep it open.
“I’ve talked to locals and school administrators, and they’ve told me the Rim Youth program really is a revered thing around here because it’s a low-cost way for kids to get into the sport,” he said. “It’s certainly not a moneymaker for the resort.”
But, he pointed out, the program is building the next generation of skiers and snowboarders, “and that’s certainly a worthwhile investment for us and the community.”
Info: Snow Valley’s Rim Youth Program, snow-valley.com/programs
Best way to learn the basics
National Learn to Ski/Snowboard Month falls in January at ski resorts across the country. It’s a good time to find special prices on lessons for first-timers or anyone who wants to improve. Mountain High near Wrightwood, for example, offers a lesson, ski or snowboard rental and lower-mountain lift ticket for $129 — and a free second package for a friend or relative. It’s good on selected midweek days through Jan. 31 for skiers 13 and older.