There was already a bunch of snow on Mount Rose when I stepped into my ski boots for the first time this season.
But I wasn’t anywhere near the mountain. I was at Sierra Strength & Speed, a small gym on Barron Way, just south of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport near Huffaker Park.
My boots were clipped to a pair of 90-centimeter training skis while a treadmill-style track covered with carpet whirred beneath them.
Ski coach and racer Kris Buttenberg stood on the floor in front of the track, observing my form and offering suggestions. Within a few minutes, Buttenberg was able to point out flaws in my technique, ones exposed by the machine.
A good ski coach could have spotted any of the same flaws by watching me on a mountain. But it likely would have taken a lot longer than a partial training session.
That’s because on a mountain, it would probably require three runs to get 10 minutes of actual skiing sandwiched between 10 minutes, at a minimum, for each run in line and on the lift.
I’d also be wearing a ski jacket and snow pants, making it more difficult to see my precise body position, and the slippery nature of the snow would obscure some of the cause-and-effect relationship between my position flaws and the behavior of my skis.
Removing the variables
None of that matters on the deck, which Buttenberg designed himself and markets through the name Snow Biste.
“It’s not easy to cheat your turns,” Buttenberg says, describing how the track surface forces skiers to use good technique. “It is requiring all of these fine motor skills you have but don’t always use consistently on snow.”
The idea is that over the course of a dozen or so sessions on the deck, skiers will build proper muscle memory that could take years to accomplish on snow.
“When you are on snow, there are so many outside distractions,” says Petra Plajbes, an under-16 coach for the Diamond Peak ski team. “Here, you can really think about what is going on in your boots.”
Few and far between
Plajbes was coaching alongside Konrad Rickenbach, the former United States Ski and Snowboard Association FIS National Training Group Coach who now is head coach and director of the Diamond Peak program.
Given the benefits of training to form and the ability to train without snow or bad weather, it’s surprising there aren’t more ski decks, or simulators, available to the public.
A quick Google search turns up one company, Proleski, based in Ukraine with dealers in China, Czech Republic, Turkey and Iran.
Others appear to be in operation in Canada and elsewhere, but they are few and far between.
Buttenberg, a former software designer who also coached skiing at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe and Galena and Reno high schools, says he was introduced to the concept of ski deck training in 2002 through his friend Bob Howard, a three-time freestyle ski ballet world champion.
It happened, Buttenberg says, on a hot, autumn day when Howard invited him to try skiing on the deck in Reno. It didn’t take Buttenberg much time to see the benefits and realize he could construct a curriculum around it.
But the notion didn’t gain much traction with local coaches and resorts and faded while Buttenberg moved on to other things.
San Francisco skiing
In 2009, Buttenberg ran into a friend from his high school days in New Jersey who had moved to San Francisco and was using a ski deck to train clients who would otherwise have to drive several hours to the Sierra Nevada for snow time.
The coincidence led to Buttenberg reviving his ideas for deck-based curriculum and implementing them for Bay Area clients.
It also prompted him to design and build a modern version of a deck, which became his first Snow Biste trainer.
Later, Buttenberg designed a second machine for Reno and started using it during the winter of 2015-16.
“It’s not like you can just go into Costco and order one,” Buttenberg says.
The second machine not only helped him improve his own race results, but it also helped him get support for his methods from people like Richenbach and Tamara McKinney, a four-time World Cup season title holder.
Less time and money
Buttenberg still is working to get out the word about simulator training with his shape ski methods to ski resorts and race teams.
He’s hopeful it can be a tool that will help experienced skiers fine tune their form, but perhaps more important, help people who have never skied learn proper form and technique in less time and for less money than it costs to go to the mountain.
“It actually takes less time in my experience for a never-ever to learn to ski,” he says.
It also omits the distractions and equipment demands of going to a mountain. For example, for Snow Biste training, Buttenberg includes boots and training skis in the session price. There are four-, eight- and 12-session packages and season passes with discounts for families.
And first-time skiers can start without the anxiety of going on to a mountain in a group setting with uncertain weather conditio
Seth Padovan, 42, of Sparks, signed his son, Quinn, 12, up for sessions so he could improve his strength and form well enough to go backcountry skiing.
Padovan says Quinn had a good experience being coached by Buttenberg at Mt. Rose, so they jumped at the chance for more productive training on the simulator.
Padovan says better form and endurance is critical for backcountry skiing because skiers need to hike themselves to the top of mountains and still have the stamina and muscle memory to ski back down.
They’re also skiing around rocks and other obstacles that would likely be marked in a resort environment.
“You just have to really be in control, you have to be a really strong, controlled skier,” Padovan says of backcountry skiing.
After four sessions Padovan was excited to see Quinn making big improvements to his form.
“I can’t wait to see it on the snow,” Padovan says.