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Steven Helfenbein Wants to Elevate the Guest Experience at Sun Valley
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Sunday, November 19, 2023
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

Stephen Helfenbein, the new director at Sun Valley Resort’s Ski & Ride School, has never stopped trying to improve his skiing even after 40-plus years on skis.

That’s why you might see him skating around the parking lot, hopping over ski poles and edging back and forth as he would if he were carving turns on Baldy’s slopes. Helfenbein is the lead ambassador for Rollerblade’s Skate to Ski Program, which uses in-line skates to improve balance and maintain the muscles needed in alpine skiing

Helfenbein was selected to the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) Alpine National Team in 2016—the highest honor a ski pro can attain in the United States. He was selected for a second term in 2020, tasked with setting the standard for snow sports instruction and building enthusiasm for learning and having fun on the mountain. He secured a third term beginning in 2024, and two years ago he became one of 37 members on the PSIA-AASI national rollerblading team.

“Part of my pathway is continued improvement. To achieve that level, I have to think about anything that helps you get better,” he said. “I can only ski from November to May, so what do I do the rest of the year? Improving my skiing is about improving my quality of movement.  It would be so boring if I said I’m done. I’m never done.”

Helfenbein brings his personal quest for improvement to Sun Valley as the resort kicks off its 88th winter season. His personal mission is to help his 400 ski and snowboard instructors find ways to improve the experience of the locals and guests who ski Sun Valley.

He has been trying to elevate the guest experience since his first year of teaching when he bypassed “a ridiculously long line at the rope tow” by skating uphill towing his group of first-time skiers behind him.

“Instructors can make someone’s experience better by where they choose to ski, where they choose to stop to eat,” he said.

Helfenbein grew up in Aspen where he learned to ski at 5. The snow season was always the highlight of the year, he said, even though he also mountain biked and played baseball, soccer and basketball.

“I always had a sense there was an alternate reality there, as there was no strong local community that was visible. But I never felt like skiing was an exclusive thing just for the rich, growing up,” he said.

Helfenbein majored in political science and public policy at the University of Denver, thinking he would  put his analytical mind to work as a lawyer.

“But I met a lot of lawyers who said, ‘Don’t do it. You’ll hate it,’ ” he recounted. “So, I decided I wanted to base my life around skiing. It had a physical fitness component, a lifestyle component and, I would come to find out later, a professional component where you can always work at improving.”

After teaching skiing at Aspen during college, Helfenbein moved to Utah where he spent 25 years at Alta where he served as head coach of Alta’s Performance Ski Camps. Among those he coached was Andrew Pollard, Rookie of the Year on the Freeride World tour in 2019.

“While many of the freeride skiers were very successful, I found that even kids who were not as successful in competition were changed by their experience in freeriding,” he said. “They felt more confident, they felt like they were one of the cool kids. And a lot of them are coaches now.”

Helfenbein said he’s seen the same thing with adults who take multi-day camps: “They’re more confident, they have a better quality of life. They structure their life around skiing, training in the off season, traveling…”

Helfenbein said he focused on giving those he taught at Alta access to “the center of the universe” for skiing. Those who come to Alta are all about the skiing, he said.

Deer Valley, where he spent his last two years as ski school training manager, was the exact opposite, he said. It’s a place where people come not for the skiing but for a vacation that includes hanging out in luxury hotels, four-star dining and shopping. Skiing is an add-on there, he said.

Helfenbein doesn’t know yet what the vibe is at Sun Valley. But it was an easy decision to take the reins of the ski school in a place for which he has had a soft spot in his heart since first visiting the resort that was named North America’s No. 1 ski resort for three straight years.

“It’s less impacted, less crowded than Utah, or even where I grew up,” he said. “Bald Mountain is a great mountain with steep, fall line skiing and continuous vertical, which is hard to find. And it has a great history—an undeniable identity that you feel as soon as you come here. Only a few places have that.”

He paused, looking at the Life magazine cover promoting America’s first destination ski resort that hangs on the fireplace at River Run Lodge.

“You won’t find lodges like this any place else in North America—everything here is elevated to the senses,” said Helfenbein who has skied Sun Valley 15 times after first visiting it in 2009. “People who move here adapt to the place rather than trying to change it, and you don’t see that in most mountain communities.”

Helfenbein says Sun Valley is the perfect destination for those looking to learn how to ski and ride.

"Dollar Mountain is so unique--the best laboratory for learning to ski in the country,” he said. “The progression from the large and open flat learning area to intermediate terrain is unsurpassed."

Helfenbein is reinstating group lessons on both Dollar and Bald mountains this year for the first time since the pandemic forced the snow sports school to pair instructors and students  one-to-one. He also plans to offer multi-day camps for first-time skiers and riders.

“We do a lot of very popular multi-day options for locals,” he said, referring to Mountain Masters and Divas. “I want to offer the same opportunity to guests. We’ll start this year with beginners, starting them out on Dollar Mountain and hopefully getting them over to Bald Mountain in a few days time. Next year we’ll offer themed multi-day options for intermediate and advanced skiers, concentrating on things like moguls, carving and ski racing. Bald Mountain offers a great laboratory for learning to race.”

As a member of PSIA-AASI, Helfenbein travels around the world to snow sports conferences. The most recent—Interski 2023, which brought 1,500 attendees to Levi, Fiinland--focused on teacher-to-student connection and guest experiences.

“America has a head start on addressing the guest experience, as the rest of the world prioritized technique,” he said. “But it was great to see why the Austrian ski instructors, who figured into Sun Valley’s early history are so storied—they’re so precise and so aesthetically pleasing in their skiing. And it was interesting to see how South Koreans ski so completely different. They don’t have a lot of space to ski and they’re shorter—they hold their hands out from their body in a unique way.”

Helfenbein, his wife Abbey, their 8-year-old daughter Lydia and their 3-year-old daughter Vayda moved to the valley in early July. Already, Helfenbein has added gravel biking to his quiver, which already included kayaking and rafting, mountain biking and road biking

When he’s not enjoying the outdoors, he’s reading through a big stack of books. He’s been delving into the history of Sun Valley and says he is fascinated by the vision of flamboyant publicity director Steve Hannagan to get Americans excited about spending a week on the snow in middle-of-nowhere Idaho.

“He made skiing sexy and exciting, and it worked,” he said, referring to Hannagan’s schemes, which included an ad of a bare-chested man on skis sweating in the Sun Valley sun.

Helfenbein is also reading “Unreasonable Hospitality,” which he says will change how things are done at Sun Valley.

“It says you don’t change the game by being reasonable. It says you’ve got to be unreasonable to create a vision that will change things for the positive.”

Interest in skiing and snowboarding began building just before the pandemic and attendance broke records during the pandemic. And last year’s bumper snowfall in the West added to the excitement.

It also helps that there are so many choices now when it comes to skiing, as well as a wide variety of technologically stellar skis and boards, Helfenbein said.

“With the consolidation of Vail’s resorts and the advent of the Epic and Ikon passes, access has become more affordable,” he said. “I think interest in snow sports will continue to grow stronger, and I think the concept of snow sports will get broader. Tubing, for instance, is now considered part of snow sports, and many ski resorts are including tubing runs as part of their offerings.

The terrain and the people make Sun Valley special, combining to give visitors an unmistakable feeling, he added.

“My vision is to optimize that feeling and make sure our guests can access it,” he said. “I just hope that everyone can experience the same impact that skiing had on me.”

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