My first attempt at riding a snowboard was in Jan 1994, in a small town in the Vallis canton, Switzerland. We have some good friends who have a house near Crans-Montana. My second attempt at riding a snowboard was at the Eldora ski resort in Colorado, eleven years later. By then, I was riding with my son, Benji, who was surprised at my skill.
I’m getting ahead of myself. First things first, as my dad used to say. The first part of this article was written after my first experience on a snowboard. I was reading a lot of Dave Barry at the time. I follow up with a short report on my second and last attempt.
I just came back from a short trip to the Vallis. I wanted to get away from “it” all. Clear my mind and body. That sort of thing. I stayed in a small town near Crans-Montana, the famous ski resort. As a part of this mind-clearing experience, I decided I should try something new, something wild, something crazy, something incredibly stupid, so I rented a snowboard.
My rather weak reasoning went as follows. I hadn’t downhill-skied in six years and so ordinary skiing would be as difficult as something totally new. I’d heard that snowboarding was fun and much like skateboarding. I used to skate a bit–FIFTEEN years ago–so I figured I could handle it.
The night of my arrival in the Vallis, David (my host) and I had dinner. Naturally, the subject got around to: What are you gonna do? I mentioned that I wanted to try snowboarding. He smiled and said, “Es ist lustig.” (Literally: “Others will find it funny.”) When I pressed him for details, he was vague. He agreed that it is like skateboarding. (I forgot to ask him if he had ever skateboarded.)
I was on vacation, so I didn’t get up at the crack of dawn. After a leisurely breakfast, I headed up to Montana. I entered the sports shop around noon and asked, “Je voudrais louer un snowboard.” (Literally: “I want to kill myself.”) The salesman smiled and, I am not making this up, he said, “I think I have just the thing for you.” All smiles, we headed over to the torture chamber, I mean, snowboard room.
The conversation proceeded as follows:
Him: This is the largest I have. (Placing it in front of me, it was just below my shoulders.)
Me: Looks good.
Him: Too short!
Me: But isn’t short better for learning? I mean, you go slower.
Him: It’s just not good. Here, I found something better. (This one touches my nose.)
Me: Are you SURE this won’t be too hard for me?
Him: No problem.
He went on to extol the virtues of snowboarding. I asked if I should take a lesson. “Maybe it’s better. It can be dangerous.”
The first thing you notice about a snowboard is that it is big. Being wider than a pair of skis means that it is more stable–on a flat surface, but who skis on a flat surface? Your weight is distributed over a larger area, which means you go MUCH faster than on skis.
Another nice point about snowboards is that there is only one. No tips to cross! Yes, that’s right, no more face plants. Of course, this also means you can’t snowplow.
TECHNICAL NOTE: For those non-skiers, snowplowing is like learning to drive in a parking lot. You can go as slow as you want. It’s a critical step that makes skiing EASY to learn. Learning to snowboard is like learning to drive on the Indianapolis Speedway.
Yet another nice feature of snowboards is that you don’t need ski poles. This seemed like a big plus considering I have hand problems.
IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: Don’t snowboard without gloves, and bring an extra pair, because the first pair will be soaking wet within an hour.
I proceeded to the top of the hill. I was excited. Ready to hang ten in the snow. At the top, I met Bernard, the sadist, I mean, snowboard instructor.
The first thing you do with a snowboard is watch the instructor struggle to get your boots into the bindings. Well, this may have just been the fact that my feet are too large.
BTW, if you are tall, you aren’t likely to be a good snowboarder. It’s like surfing and skateboarding: low, compact, well-coordinated people do better. I don’t fall into any of these categories, especially the last.
The first thing you do after learning to skate is to skate out to a safe area. Definition: no people within 100 m radius. This was good. I was glad I paid this guy. He obviously had taught people before. Note that this “skating” was the only part I found similar to skateboarding.
Once safely out of the way of trees and small children, Bernard bound my other foot into the board, balance became a lot trickier. You are either on your knees or on your butt. Standing up was only achieved with Bernie’s helping hands. Nevertheless, I persevered and perspired.
The next part was like a dancing lesson. Bernie held my hands while I fell all over the place. Eventually, we worked it out so I wouldn’t fall so often. We got some forward motion. I was starting to feel like it wasn’t so bad. I removed my scarf. It was getting quite toasty even though it was below freezing outside.
Turning. This is the part where I noticed a unique feature of snowboards. there are exactly two speeds: Mach 1 and sitting. I must say that I mastered the latter. To go Mach 1, you swivel your hips and point your hands downhill. It doesn’t seem to matter if you point a little or a lot; you always attain Mach 1 instantaneously.
My stomach muscles were killing me at this point. Most of the stomach work goes into making “half-turns”, as Bernie called them, which you make at sitting speed, so you are pointing in the right direction before you change gears to Mach 1.
To make a half-turn, you lift the board in the air. The board must already be facing downhill. This goes against the law of gravity. You are heavier than the snowboard. So to make a half-turn, you usually have to tip the board over your head first. This acrobatic process requires muscles that a typical computer programmer doesn’t even know he has.
Turning at Mach 1 is the tricky part. With skis, you have TWO edges to turn on, a snowboard only has ONE.
David later told me that in powder snow, it’s really like surfing because the whole board grabs on the turn. I don’t think I’ll be trying this out soon, because David also said he once got caught in a snowboard-induced avalanche and he was under the snow with the board BOUND to his feet. “Es war nicht lustig.”
Mach 1 turning on a snowboard requires a LEAP OF FAITH. Bernie said, “Just look uphill and you’ll turn eventually.” This is the theory, anyway. In practice, you either lean incorrectly and crash, or you reach Mach 1 and run over whatever is in your way.
CULTURAL NOTE: Snowboarding is quite popular these days. The slopes are just littered with snowboards, bodies attached. At any given moment, there are exactly three snowboarders going Mach 1. At the same moment, there are 500 snowboarders sitting on the slope. The distinguishing feature between the Mach 1 and sitting speeds must be the clothes. To maintain your balance at Mach 1, the following attire seems to be required: a flannel shirt, a pair of “big” pants, and a baseball cap turned backwards. Being 16 years old may also help.
Bernie was thrilled when I actually turned. I was too, but the problem is that you make this big curve and when you reach the top of the other side, gravity takes over again and you are going Mach 1, BACKWARDS. I call this the human pendulum maneuver.
Every fall was getting harder and harder. Bernie was farther and farther away. It was ever more difficult to get up. My throat was parched. My head was soaking with sweat. I was thinking, “Are we having fun yet?”
We finally made it down the first run (30 minutes, but it seemed like 30 years). It was time to get to the ski-lift. Somehow, I made a wrong turn and ended up lower than the lift. This was when I learned the graceful “monkey walk.”
With skis, you walk like a duck to get back uphill. It’s hard, but do-able. With a snowboard, you have no poles, and only one edge, so you kneel down (on incredibly sore knees) and hop uphill using your hands. It’s sort of like a bent-over sack race. Even Bernie couldn’t make it look good. What it lacks in grace, it makes up for in muscular wear and tear.
Getting on the lift was relatively easy. You take your back foot out and skate. Getting the board on the lift footrest was another story. After getting hit on the head with the “safety” bar, Bernie said, “Lift your board onto the footrest.” I couldn’t. The board was heavy and there was only one centimeter clearance between my knee and the bar. As I said, this isn’t a sport for people with long limbs.
We made one more run. I was brimming with confidence. I actually made a couple of turns without falling. Bernie was shouting tip-top, soup-air, etc. I even stopped without falling. I was hanging ten!
Bernie took his 50 francs and said good-bye.
ATTENTION SHOPPERS: Snowboarding is great value for the money. I spent a total of 130 francs which included the lift ticket, snowboard, boots and torture session, I mean, one-hour lesson. This may seem like a lot, but in comparison to, say, bungee jumping, you get much more terror for the money.
I was thirsty and there was nothing to drink at the top, so I decided to go down to the gondola middle station. No sweat. “Je suis un profi.”
After falling down the slope I already knew, I turned right past the lift station–this time on purpose–and fell right into a mogul field. Definition: a mogul is a small mountain that springs up in the middle of a nice smooth slope. I think moguls are the Ski God’s idea of a joke.
The first mogul was the launching pad, the second was the landing pad. My hands were the brakes. After a few spectacular launch-landings, I was sitting on a mogul contemplating my next launch when a nice man came up to me and said, “C’est le sport, non?” (Literally: I think you are very funny.)
I bounced down to a flat part, a ski road. I worked out a method of skating up the side of the hill to stop. Eventually, I landed near the beginning of a new slope.
I pointed my hips and hands in the downward direction. Voila, I was off again. This time, I actually managed to stop without falling. However, I ended up at the top of another minefield. This one steeper than the first.
Bernie said if I just point my hands in the direction I want to go, I’ll go that way. He didn’t account for “fall slippage.” Each fall brought me farther into the steepest part of the gradient. (Gravity wins again.) Eventually, I just “went for it” and headed straight for the bottom. “Pardonez moooooi!”
At the bottom, I landed with the back of my board completely stuck in the snow. All reason had left me. It had taken me 10 minutes to close the bindings at the top of the lift. In the soft snow, I figured I’d never get them on again, so I wiggled and wriggled until the board came loose. This probably took 10 minutes. My muscles were not very happy with me.
Keep in mind that your feet are locked into this thing at a 45 degree angle. Your knees end up absorbing most of the angular difference between the board and your body. My knees couldn’t believe I was doing this to them. Neither could I!
I finally arrived near the landing strip at the restaurant. The surface was extremely slippery, so it was like trying to stand up on ice with your feet tied together. I threw in the towel. I took the board off and walked in.
Walking wasn’t easy after three hours of muscle wrenching, but I only fell once–sprawling across one of the lunch tables. “Having a hard day?”, the person, whose table I landed on, asked. “Not any more”, I replied. I kept the snowboard well away from my feet until I could return it safely back to its rightful owners.
A few days have passed since my little adventure. I can almost walk without limping. My bruises are fading. I think I have gained some insight into the art of snowboarding. I’m pretty sure I just had a bad day. In fact, I heartily recommend you try out snowboarding for yourself. I mean, after all, es ist lustig.
Benji and Aidan being small, compact, and particularly well-coordinated took to snowboards like fish to water. When they swooshed down the mountain, it looked so easy. The equipment was a lot better: soft boots, lighter bindings, etc. I thought to myself: Self, you could do this? Not!
Despite my previous experience, and being extremely height, coordination, and balance-challenged, I had a go. Benji was off on a Friday so we headed up to Eldora after renting a board.
Needless to say that I thought lessons would be silly. I’m an intermediate skier, and I was wearing lots of protective gear: wrist guards, helmet, and knee pads. What more protection did I need? A Kevlar vest.
I tried out the board on the base of Little Hawk. It was easy to do, and I could skate well enough so we went up the E-Z lift and headed down Bunnyfair. What fun! It was brilliant. Swish, swoosh, stop. Total control. I’m a Snowboard God.
Wham! Unimaginable pain. I caught an edge and flipped in the air. I landed on my hand and my elbow was able to separate my ribs from the muscles which hold them together. This was probably the most painful injury in my life.
I was lying in the snow, screaming in pain, thinking I was going to die. I remember looking up at people on the lifts, and someone said help was coming. I started to calm down, but still couldn’t move.
Benji was down the hill a ways. He thought it was me doing an awesome trick. He finally realized I was in pain so hopped up the hill.
A broken rib or, rather, a rearranged rib is one of those injuries that is untreatable. I was starting to feel a tad better after the ski patrol guy asked me who the first President of the U.S. was and how many quarters in a dollar. At some point during the conversation when it became apparent I was fine, and there was nothing that could be done, Benji politely said he wouldn’t mind riding alone while I waited in the car. We all laughed, and my ribs seared with pain.
The ski patrol guy had me sign something that said I was refusing further treatment. I walked down the hill. I felt pretty bad that this was the first run of the day so I decided to walk around a bit to let Benji get in a few more runs. I think I was in shock, because I seriously thought about riding again.
We went back to the car at lunch. I took some naproxen sodium. Benji and I ate. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to let him do a few more runs. He was only nine, and I’m quite proud of the way he handled himself. Eldora is one of those resorts you can drive right up to the lifts so I could see him come down at the end of each run. He would wave to me at the bottom of each run before going up the lift again.
The plan was to ride all day and go home so I didn’t bring anything for entertainment. Benji had brought an Artemis Fowl book, which turned out to be a surprisingly good read. Still, after an hour or so, I started to feel the pain coming on. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to drive down the hill. Benji agreed to leave.
I got home and laid in bed for a day or so. Any time I breathed, it hurt. Sneezing was the worst, and laughing not much better.
A week later I was pretty much ok, but it still hurt to sneeze. Joanne and I decided to go out for the evening that Saturday. I brilliantly suggested going to a comedy club. After a few rounds of drinks, my ribs didn’t seem to hurt so much when I laughed. The next day, I was back in bed for 24 hours. Fortunately, the comedians weren’t that funny, or I would have probably had a total relapse.
Life is good
One of the fun things about having kids is that I never stop trying to do the things they do. I’ve learned how to ice skate and even sort of play hockey. We go to water parks, and I’ve even ridden a few rollercoasters, which really isn’t my cup of tea. The other day they got some Ripstiks from their aunt.
A Ripstik is a two wheeled, articulated skateboard. Hard to imagine, really, until you try it. The kids can ripstik quite well. Joanne and I tried, and I’m happy to say that I didn’t fall once. Perhaps after a few more tries at the Ripstik, I’ll be good enough to try out a snowboard, again!