School ski program sends students to the slopes
Photo by: 
Will Shoemaker

It’s no secret that teachers today take on a lot of responsibilities. When children step foot in school, educators are responsible for everything from snacks to teaching calculation of slope angle. Yet, in the Gunnison Valley educators take learning one step further — by taking students to ski the slopes.

It’s a tradition that’s lasted decades — and provides an opportunity for students to fulfill physical education requirements by skiing at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR).

It was Barbara Haas — who has since retired from teaching fifth grade — who initially inspired the idea to get students on the slopes more than 30 years ago, said Gunnison Elementary School (GES) teacher Sandra Merrifield. It started when Haas took her class to Cranor Hill for a field trip. It was such a hit among students, she knew it had potential to grow into something special.

“Barbara Haas was crucial in getting the program up and started,” explained Merrifield, who herself got involved with the program during her time as a fourth grade teacher.

Merrifield worked with Haas to encourage the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students at GES and Gunnison Middle School to get involved with the blessing of the administration. Since that time, Merrifield has been at the helm of the program to ensure its continued success.


‘A great opportunity for kids’

The program is made possible in part through the Crested Butte Snowsports Foundation, the mission of which is providing financial support for youth in Crested Butte and Gunnison in their pursuit of sportsmanship, passion, excellence and discipline through snow sport experiences.

For several years, the foundation has provided grants of up to $5,000 which in turn covers transportation costs and scholarships for students. The cost for students to participate is $150 for four days on the mountain. For students who may not be able to afford to participate in the program, the scholarships help cover the cost. CBMR additionally provides rentals and lift tickets for students.

“Alpine skiing is really an expensive sport and very few families get to enjoy the benefits of that sport,” said Merrifield.

According to physical education teachers Matt Harris and Laura Schliesman — who will take over the program within GES after Merrifield's retirement this year — approximately 180 fourth and fifth graders participated in the program this year. Harris estimated nearly half of those students are beginners who had never skied prior to the program.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for kids to be exposed to natural resources that we have in the valley,” said Harris.

Crested Butte Community School has a similar program called Ski for P.E. in which students ski at CBMR over the course of six weeks. In recent years, however, the program has not requested help with funding from the Snowsports Foundation.

Gunnison student Talon Kibler is in his final year of the program as a sixth grader. For Kibler, the chance to get out of class on a powder day — with permission — is a pretty sweet deal.

Talon’s mother Shandy also appreciates the opportunity — in part because a portion of the day is educational.

“It’s nice because they give classes and they (cater to) each level,” she said. “I think it’s a good program that gets them out and enjoying the outdoors.”


Recreation, and camaraderie

Especially for kids who don't get the opportunity to go skiing, it gives them the chance to try a different sport, added Shandy. Still, kids enjoy the program for other reasons.

“I like being on the mountain and not in school,” joked Talon.

His favorite part about the Alpine Ski Program is learning new tricks in the park on the mountain. He has been skiing since first grade, and has participated in the ski program each year. This year, however, he started taking things to the next level.

“We learned 180s,” said Talon, whose next goal is to learn how to do a full 360 on skis. “It’s all about keeping your shoulders in line with your feet, and for a 360 you have to use your hips a lot more.”

Snowsports Foundation Executive Director Zach Vaughter said the grants provided for the Alpine Ski Program exemplify the mission of the organization.

“At the heart of our mission, we’re trying to get as many Gunnison Valley youth on snow, whether it’s Nordic or alpine skiing, whatever their interest might be,” said Vaughter. “We’re always striving for more access for youth in the valley.”

Vaughter further spoke to the need for those at the south end of the valley where resources and access may be more difficult to achieve.

“They learn not only the technical skills through the lessons with CBMR instructors, but they also get to recreate and have camaraderie with friends,” he added.

But in the end, it comes down to a passion for the outdoors held by many in this winter wonderland.

“Ultimately, we want people to gain a love for recreation and a love for sliding on snow,” added Vaughter.


(Kate Gienapp can be reached at 970.641.1414 or