March 11, 1996
Why should an experienced skier, perfectly happy with the sport, want to take up snowboarding? To reclaim the vigor of youthful fancy? To prove that the roots of Generation X date to 1979? To dress like a rebellious college student again?
All these reasons, and plenty more, were enough to send this veteran skier to the rental shop (!) to take a board to the slopes. Be forewarned, however. Taking up snowboarding has its price. Ego, tailbones, wrists, elbows and knees are all casualties for the beginning snowboarder. Forget the fact you may have skied for many years. Snowboarding is a whole new beast and one has to pay their dues — the hard way.
In truth, it’s a little late in the evolution of snowboarding for boarders to cling to their rebel status. Sure, snowboarders for years have taken joy in terrorizing skiers. But as more and more boarders take to the slopes, snowboarding is quickly replacing skiing as the king of the hill. Like anything meaningful dubbed “alternative,” snowboarding has been embraced by the mainstream. Just a short time ago, snowboarders were considered hellions, scaring the ski pants off unsuspecting skiers by darting in and out of the trees like wild devils. Now it’s not unusual to see a graybeard on a snowboard.
Once wary of snowboarders, ski areas are doing their best to embrace them. Most resorts have built elaborate snowboard parks to cater to shredders. Snowboarding has given the whole industry a huge lift, just in the nick of time. According to National Sporting Goods Association stats published in Time magazine, the number of snowboarders jumped from 1.2 million in 1992 to 2.1 million in 1994. During the same period, the number of skiers declined slightly from 10.8 to 10.6 million.
While many friends have taken up snowboarding, I always found it difficult to commit a day to learning snowboarding when I could be skiing. Finally, this season, I took the plunge — and it hurt. The first day on a snowboard, especially for someone with no skateboard or surfing background, is brutal. This veteran of 15 winters on skis found himself bruised and battered, emotionally and physically, falling hard time after time. Instead of tree-bashing on skis, I was disgracing myself on the bunny hill.
Simple tasks for the beginning snowboarder, like simply getting off of the lift, are a challenge and an embarrassment. The first few times down the hill I found it difficult to get a good sense of the board underneath — the two edges and the flat middle portion of the board. Shifting weight too quickly to either the heel or toe edge of the board resulted in an immediate meeting of face or butt with snow. Alas, there’s only so many self-inflicted wounds one can take before the psychological damage deepens. My first day ended in despair, although I was determined to continue.
While my first snowboarding experience was with a patient, experienced snowboarder eager to introduce me to the sport, the second time I wisely decided to take a lesson. When you’re with a bunch of other buffoons, it doesn’t seem as bad (yes, misery likes company). A good instructor makes all the difference in the world. My particular instructor, an infamous Colorado skateboarder from Idaho Springs, Rob, imparted many wise suggestions to our group — weight on the forward foot and drop your lead shoulder to help accomplish this; eyes straight ahead, not at your feet; and perhaps most important, relax while on a board. People have a tendency to break things when they wipe out on a snowboard, so it’s natural to be a little tense when learning. But Rob’s advice, to relax, is important. Rob also hammered home the notion that the forward foot is the anchor or pivot while the back is the steering mechanism or rudder. The second day was much more encouraging as I actually put together several turns. I also brought along my skis this day and made a few screamer runs to end the day on a positive note.
The third time up, I also took a lesson and made some improvements, but the instructor wasn’t as good as Rob. I felt like I would have been better off just boarding and becoming more acquainted with the feel of the board. Still, I felt I was on my way to becoming a better boarder and was surprised that I picked up where I left off the second time. I enjoyed the feeling of having my hands and arms free of ski poles. In fact having just one piece of equipment instead of four, plus a pair of boots that serve a purpose off the ski hill, makes a lot of sense.
The upshot of learning to snowboard is that the learning curve is pretty steep. After the third time, things start to fall into place. No spins or massive air, mind you, but a respectable proficiency. With a long spring season ahead, I’ll continue the education, although I’ll also take along my skis to the hill. While a few friends have completely given up skiing in favor of snowboarding, I don’t think I’ll ever go that far. Skiing is too embedding in my brain’s pleasure zones. There’s nothing better than breaking fresh snow in the trees on a pair of skis.
However, snowboarding offers another way to have fun on a ski hill. Especially during an extended stay in the mountains, snowboarding is a good way to break up a week of skiing, particularly when conditions are less-than-perfect.
Photo courtesy of Descente and Ski Industries America.