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Ski lifts bob up the mountain into a soupy mid-winter fog. Below dangling skis, the snowpack is thin and icy. Despite the conditions, The Summit at Snoqualmie — just an hour from downtown Seattle — is packed with crowds of exuberant shredders and mogul maniacs eager to get on with the late-to-start season.
Just outside the main lodge, Mike Courts greets a small group of tightly bundled, eager-eyed first-time skiers. Most have their boots buckled up wrong. Two forgot their ski poles. A woman in a purple parka falls over just standing there.
Court is here to fix all this.
"I just want to make sure everyone is here for the swimming lessons," he says. The icebreaker draws a nervous chuckle.
It's hard to imagine that just a few years ago Court was a senior Army officer returning from his last tour downrange. Seeing him on the slopes, it's even harder to image that almost 11 years ago to the day, he blew out a chunk of his heart while squatting 400 pounds at the Army War College gym. It was the kind of massive heart attack cardiologists darkly dub a "widow maker."
At the time, Courts was an AH-64 Apache gunship pilot preparing to command an attack helicopter brigade bound for Iraq. After getting grounded because of the heart attack, he had to fight just to stay in the Army.
But he did stay, going on to do two tours in Iraq before retiring as a colonel in the summer of 2011 after 30 years of service.
"When I retired, I fully assumed I would get a regular job like everyone else does," he says. "I could be working in Abu Dhabi right now making a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year," he says, pausing as another instructor squeezes by to heat up some chili-mac in a dirty microwave crammed into the corner.
"But, you know," Courts continues, "after you've had a heart attack, you kind of go, 'Hmmm ... what do I really want to do with the rest of my life?' "
Try it, you'll like it
Courts' 24-year-old son had the answer to his dad's career-after-the-Army second-guessing.
"He was already out here working as a ski instructor," Courts says. "He convinced me to come give this a try instead. ...
"So, I spent the day skiing with an instructor and was hooked."
It wasn't exactly a surprise. Courts grew up skiing in these mountains.
And in the Army, Courts had long since discovered a love — and even a knack — for teaching.
He learned those skills first as an instructor pilot and more recently on the faculty of the War College.
Last season, like most new instructors, he spent nearly as much time learning as he did teaching.
"Every day after work I'd go spend two hours on the hill with a clinician — kind of like their version of an instructor pilot — to earn my Professional Ski Instructors of America Level I Certification," Courts says.
"If you're paying for that kind of teaching, it would cost you about $100 an hour, and you're getting that for free by working here," he says. Earning that first certification means passing two written exams as well as getting check-off through an entire day of skills testing out the slopes.
"You can just show up and take the test, if you think you're that good. But I can tell you, I wouldn't have passed it," says Courts, who nailed down his certification at the end of last season. The top-ranked Level III certification usually takes years of training.
No one gets rich
Now starting his second season as an instructor, Courts is setting his sights on a specialization in child coaching.
"No one gets rich here as an instructor, but you do start to creep up as you get more of these qualifications," he says.
Indeed, base pay for new, uncertified instructors starts at minimum wage. Pay bumps come as teaching chops progress. Meanwhile, by-name requests for private lessons tack on an extra $8 an hour.
Courts says his son, a full-time Level II instructor starting in management and working six days a week, earns about $14 an hour after taxes. Level III instructors can expect to make about $20 an hour.
"That still pretty tough," he says. But there are some fringe benefits, including deep discounts on pro gear and food at the resort.
"Personally, I'm just trying to pay for my habit," says Courts, who works two days a week, with a laugh. "I just don't want to lose any money."
Like birds migrating in the opposite direction, "endless winter" instructors follow the snow season south of the equator in May as the southern hemisphere begins ski season.
"If you really want to make a career out of this, you have to commit yourself to three to five years of hard work and getting those certifications. With a Level III certification, you're working as a clinician and your pay is going to be up above $20 an hour. And that's when you start working in places like Vail and Europe and doing the endless winter," Courts says.
"If you're stationed anywhere near a ski resort, you can come do this on the weekend working part time. So, by the time you get out, you're already a Level III instructor with several years of experience, and you'd be prepared to make that jump into the full-time work."
Out with his class on the mountainside, his latest group of students has made a remarkable transformation from unsure, wobbly, splay-legged neophytes to a crew of wide-smiling beginners exuding the kind of eager confidence that only comes with newly earned skills.
"You're doing it!" Courts shouts as the woman in the purple parka makes another successful run down the bunny slope. "You're skiing, there's no other word for it, you're a skier!"