Covered in mud up to our knees as the rain poured down, Zach and I struggled to push his car off the road, really just a dirt trail that had turned to mud. In an attempt to beat the main highway traffic, our GPS had lead us astray. My trip up to Tahoe with youth ski coach Zach Tull had barely began. After ten minutes of pushing we finally got out and back on track for the long journey. These trips up north are tiresome, and often frustrating, but Zach never complains.
After years of skiing on Squaw Valley’s youth ski teams, Zach never wanted to leave his beloved program behind, so he joined the coaching staff of Squaw’s Mighty-Mites. He now teaches a group of talented elementary schoolers how to master the mountain, challenge their bodies and properly put on their gloves.
I followed Zach and his squad of rippers during two weekend snowstorms to take notes on the diligence, endurance and responsibility it takes to be a ski coach.
The first morning was painful because our drive up to Tahoe took seven hours (four hours longer than a typical Tahoe trek) so we did not arrive until 2 a.m. Just five hours later we were up for his team’s morning meeting. The team congregated around a massive tree between the village and chairlifts waiting for their day to officially begin. At 8 a.m. sharp we loaded onto the chairlift KT-22, as the kids constantly fought over who would get to go on the lift with Zach.
“[A great] part of being a coach is the early access to chairlifts on powder days,” Zach said.
While sitting on the chair, I noticed Zach kept an eye on all the kids to make sure they could jump on properly because none of them were tall enough to simply sit down.
After reaching the top, the team members moved down the mountain as a single entity. Making sure to regularly stop and count heads, Zach led his squad down a powder field with coach Raif Anderson taking up the rear. Due to California law, Zach is not allowed to coach a team alone until he turns 18, but he wants to have his own group next year.
Zach’s team is made up of some of the top skiers on the mountain who ride some of the best chairs in the world—and they haven’t even hit double digits yet.
“I’ll watch these kids ski a double black diamond, some really steep terrain for a seven to eight year old; we will get to the bottom no problem and they’ll need help putting on their mittens,” Zach said. “They can ski basically anything, but they have trouble with something like zipping up their own jacket.”
The group decided to hike up a cliff area called Eagle’s Nest. Draping his skis over his back, Zach moved his way up the trail and helped his team do the same.
Just like these kids, Zach was once a tiny skier like his kids on Squaw’s Mighty-Mite team. He moved up to the race team for several years, but could not continue because it involved trips across the country to race in competitive matches.
However, the community was too important to him to leave completely, so he decided to become a ski coach for the same program.
“I wanted to be a coach instead of just freeskiing because I love the people and I felt like I wanted to give back to the program that inspired me to start one of the biggest things of my life,” Zach said. “The program made me into the skier and person I am today, so I wanted to help them out in exchange by making other little kids passionate about skiing.”
At the top of the cliff we could feel the powerful wind constantly blowing; it was surprising that none of the kids fell over. Zach helped a third of them put on their gear at the rocky edge. One by one the team made their way down the treacherous shoot in between two massive cliffs. Their form was far from perfect, but Zach made sure to point out the flaws once each one reached the bottom.
Zach does not believe that a lecture-based teaching method is the most beneficial way of getting these kids trained and ready to shred. He thinks skiing technique is best grasped when the kids ski down and receive corrections on their form. However, Zach is never too strict with his corrections because getting the kids into the sport is what allows them to continue improving.
“At this young age, a lot can be ingrained into these kids’ heads, but I think the most important job is just to keep the kids passionate about skiing,” Zach said. “Sure, I teach them how to pole plant and hockey stop, but if they are going to get better and continue having fun, [then] they have to be passionate.”
After a few more runs and many more crashes it was time for the team to go in for lunch. However, half the kids had no interest in food because they felt lunch was unnecessary on such a valuable powder day, so Zach stayed out to ski with them. Coach Anderson, a middle-aged Tahoe City resident, took the rest of the kids in, which gave me a chance to talk with him about Zach.
“Zach and the kids just feed off each other’s energy in a very righteous way. We are just this magical pod zooming around the mountain trying to push each other to these extremes,” Anderson said.
Zach and Anderson have been coaching together since Zach started three years ago. Anderson said that Zach started off thinking he would only help during the holidays, but as each week went by he grew to love the program even more and he now comes every weekend.
“Zach showed up on our first day and the kids instantly loved him as much as they would love anybody. He’s always a breath of fresh air to have on the team,” Anderson said.
Throughout the two weekends, I watched Zach go off massive jumps, something he loves to do even if he knows he will not land them, as another way to inspire the kids.
“Zach’s a very accomplished skier and on top of that he’s young, so he’s not afraid to abuse his body especially for the enjoyment of the kids,” Anderson said. “They are almost as excited as he is when they watch him go off jumps.”
By the end of a weekend spent watching the team operate with Zach at the helm, it seemed impossible for the group to be able to function without his constant energy and guidance.
“Next year is going to be my last year as a full-time coach. Depending on where I go to college, I want to come back for holidays and just try to help out, but my plans are still up in the air, so I want to enjoy every moment I still have with the little ones,” Zach said.
While Zach was out skiing with the kids who skipped lunch, I jokingly asked Anderson how he feels about Zach getting to ski while he eats lunch with the rest of the kids.
“I’ll tell you, Andrew, there’s nothing I’d like more than to have Zach out here again with me and the team next year to shred up the mountain,” Anderson said. “I’d trade a powder day for that guarantee anytime.”