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Dude Awakening
A grown-up skier quits griping about the snowboarding crazies – and joins them. Now boarding...

By T. R. Reid
The Washington Post
Sunday, November 23, 1997; Page E01
   


There was a period in my life -- a period that ended at 1:48 p.m. on Feb. 19, 1997 -- when I thought of snowboarders as the pond scum of the ski slope.

Like most serious skiers of the adult persuasion, I had a clear mental stereotype of those crazed "riders" whipping past me on the hill. Your standard snowboarder was a loutish, loud-mouthed kid whose baggy pants and mud-brown parka draped a body covered with tattoos and pierced by silver rings on the nose, lip, eyebrow, elbow, and other bodily appendages too painful to imagine. He/she (for the genre spanned both genders) employed a vocabulary that consisted in its entirety of one finger and two words. Here in Colorado, where I live, we skiers had a joke about it:

"How many snowboarders does it take to change a light bulb?"

"200. One to screw in the bulb and 199 to stand around and go, like, `Yo, Dude.' "

Now, it was true that these brats on boards seemed to be having a wonderful time for themselves cavorting on crystalline snow beneath the brilliant alpine sun (which is one of the two main points of skiing). And they way they carved those graceful, sinuous sine curves down the mountainside, grabbing glorious air off the mildest bumps, made them look absolutely marvelous on the slope (which is the other).

But, hey, we skiers would tell ourselves, as we watched some boarder slam spectacularly through the bumps, riding a board is much easier than skiing. The snowboard learning curve is as steep as a double-black at Telluride. We had a joke about that one, too:

"What's the difference between a beginning snowboarder and her instructor?

"Three weeks."

Still, there was always an element of envy mixed in with my finely honed sense of resentment as I watched the boarding battalions encroach further and furtheronto my beloved ski hills. Those kids sure were having fun -- and they didn't even have to wear ski boots!

Not only that, but the ski areas, which had resisted at first, were opening their arms to this youthful invasion. A year ago, when Aspen and Keystone -- the last two Colorado ski areas to hold out against the board hordes -- opened their runs to "riders," I began moving toward a can't-lick-'em-join-'em state of mind.

The key moment came one day early last February, when my youthful friend Dave Blackburn (Generation X, awesome skier) told me that he had made the transition from skis to board. "It's, like, totally weird the first day, and the next morning you're carving," Dave said nonchalantly over the phone from New York. "Piece of cake."

Dave added that he would be in Beaver Creek, one of the great Colorado ski meccas, in March. And he would love to go boarding with me then, "unless you're, like, too old or something."

That settled it.

A bright winter's morning shortly thereafter found me signing up for the "Never, Ever" beginner lesson in snowboarding at Copper Mountain Resort. Since I am closer to my 100th birthday than my first one, I wasn't surprised to find myself the oldest student in the class. But it was somewhat daunting, when the instructor had us introduce ourselves, to learn that neither the teacher nor any other student came within 30 years of my age.

That generation gap made things difficult right from the start. As we headed over to the rental bin to get our equipment, the instructor asked about my stance. Unlike a skier, whose feet point straight ahead to the tips of the skis, a "rider" stands sideways on the board, with one foot ahead of the other.

So my young teacher wanted to know which foot I would put forward. I had no idea. "Well, I'll help you figure it out," he said, with a big friendly smile below his nose ring. "Which foot do you have in front when you're skateboarding?"

Eventually, someone closer to my age came along and made the problem slightly easier. "If you were wearing socks and sliding on a gym floor, which foot would you put in front?" My left foot, I answered, and was somewhat relieved to learn that the left-foot-forward stance is known as "Normal" in the snowboard world. (The other way around is called "Goofy," which is not as pejorative as it may sound, because some of the greatest stars of the Big Air half-pipe competitions are goofy-footed riders.) I was then set up with a board in the Normal configuration, and headed off to the slopes.

I remember a lot about that first lesson in snowboarding.

I remember how much my tailbone hurt, how much my knees hurt, how much my hands, my neck, the back of my head, and nearly every other part of my body hurt after an hour or so of smashing down onto concrete (okay, so it was powder snow -- it felt like concrete).

I remember falling. I fell every time I tried to turn, but that wasn't the half of it. I fell when I was going straight! I fell when I was standing still! I fell getting on the lift, and again getting off.

I remember, when the lunch break came, how I quit the lesson, turned in that cursed snowboard, and hobbled painfully toward the hot tub. I remember a sense of failure that hurt as much as my bruises, and the intense disappointment that came with the conviction that I would never get this sport.

Nursing my wounds -- none serious -- over the next week or so, I did some research on this snowboarding business. And I made crucial discovery: I was in demand.

As an adult who wanted to start snowboarding, I was the most-desired form of humanity at every ski resort.

The American ski industry has been battling fiscal meltdown for years now. The total number of skiers buying tickets at U.S. resorts was about 11 million a decade ago, and it is about the same today. That is to say, skiing is a no-growth industry, despite hundreds of millions of dollars invested in expansion and facilities at the ski areas.

The only up-market for America's alpine resorts has been in snowboarding -- that's been growing explosively, with ticket sales doubling in the past five years. That's why the ski areas are opening their slopes to boarders (Taos, N.M., is just about the last major holdout). That's why they are literally moving mountains for these new customers, creating special "Snowboard Parks," with signs that say "No Skiers Allowed."

But reaching out to riders is a double-edged sword. Because that brat-with-an-attitude stereotype of snowboarders is so strong, the resorts fear that bringing in youthful boarders will just drive away mature skiers. To counter that risk, the ski resorts are desperately seeking gray-flannel thirty-, forty-, or fiftysomethings who want to "ride." This not only provides paying customers, but helps reassure veteran skiers that the snowboarding community isn't so alien after all.

To attract the likes of me, the ski resorts have been searching for ways to make that infamous first day's lesson a friendlier and less painful experience, particularly for people of a certain age.

At Vail, America's most-visited ski resort, there's a snowboard session just for adults. Students are given poles to help stay up, and cushioned ski pants to soften the blow when they fall. At Keystone, the country's third-most-visited ski area, some instructors literally hold their students by the hands, so the beginner can wrack up a few turns without a fall. (A nice idea, I suppose, but ballroom dancing in six feet of snow with a slab strapped to my feet sounds a little too awkward for my tastes.)

Ski and snowboard shops now sell padded clothing; even L.L. Bean, the yuppie Wal-Mart, offers foam-padded briefs for boarders (catalogue #RT20395).

Many ski schools are pushing a transitional approach called "quick carve," designed for accomplished skiers who want to start snowboarding. In this method, you start out wearing regular ski boots in regular ski bindings attached to the board, and face straight forward, a stance more familiar to a skier than the sideways posture of true riders. Students who master this can either stick with "quick carving," which is fast and exciting, or move to the next step -- full-scale snowboarding.

After studying the possibilities, I eschewed these more exotic methods and headed to the snowboard school at Winter Park, which purported to specialize in teaching established skiers to shift to a snowboard. I was assigned to a teacher named Rob Hilken, who knew exactly what to say to me. He didn't shout at me, like the other teachers had, to line up my shoulder with my knee. He didn't compare "riding" to surfing or skateboarding.

Rather, Rob explained to me that the snowboard is a far less stable platform for standing on snow than it seems. A snowboard is not a flat slab; it has a slick, rounded bottom designed to be unstable. After all, when the board slides over the snow at high speed and rocks back and forth from one edge to the other, it's just doing its job.

The standard human response, in almost any situation when the footing becomes unstable, is to spread the legs, get a wider base. A skier can do that; in fact, beginning skiers are urged to do it -- spread out the skis to find a stable stance. But with a snowboard, both feet are clamped to the board; once you're hooked into the bindings, you can't spread your legs. When the board starts sliding and tipping on the snow, the intuitive response doesn't work. When the board starts to tip over backward -- and it is always tipping over -- the rider tends to tip right over with it, smashing down onto the same spot on the tailbone that already has been smashed a few dozen times.

To teach me how to handle this problem, Rob used language a skier can understand: edge. The same board that rocks and rolls all over the place when it is flat on the snow will run smooth and steady on its edge. "The only thing you have to do," Rob insisted, "is get up on the edge of your board. You curl way up on the toe-side edge to turn right, and you fall way back on the heel-side edge to go left. Once you're on the edge, your board does all the work, and you just ride along."

Any skier knows how to get up on the leading edge (that is, the downhill edge) of the skis. But I was flummoxed at the thought of shifting from the front edge to the back. To help me find that mysterious "heel edge," Rob told me just to fall backward into the left turn -- to flop back like a couch potato dropping into a Barcalounger. "If you trust your board to hold you up, it will," he said.

I did, and it did.

Eureka! All of a sudden something clicked, and I was staying up -- on a snowboard! I was making turns -- on a snowboard! Suddenly, that ungainly sideways stance felt normal -- even comfortable. Suddenly, that carefree dude carving swift, serpentine turns down the fall line was . . . it was me!

Not since Eliza Doolittle mastered "the rain in Spain" has any tired student felt a greater surge of accomplishment than I did. I could almost hear the swelling orchestra in the background, and my teacher singing: I think he's got it! By George, he's got it!

"Let's see," Rob said. "It's 1:48 p.m. on Feb. 19, 1997 -- and you're a snowboarder."

Well, sort of. As any skier knows, you need more than a good teacher to move ahead. You need a friend out there with you to pull you along to harder runs and bigger bumps than you would ever dare alone. My young friend Dave performed that service for me at Beaver Creek in March.

Rising early on a crisp, clear winter's day, just after one of Colorado's trademark foot-deep powder dumps, the two of us went snaking down, down, down the steepest slope we could find, laughing and shouting for the sheer joy of it, our boards sending rooster tails of snow high into the pine boughs. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive -- to be boarding was very heaven. (And we didn't even have to wear ski boots!)

As riding became more congenial, my fellow riders did, too. They weren't loutish kids anymore; they were just decent, down-to-earth folks who loved winter in the mountains as much as I did. One afternoon, when I stupidly steered onto a ridiculously steep mogul run in Vail's back bowls, I heard in the background the unmistakable mating call of the Baggy-Panted Teenage Snowboarder, an alpine species I had once avoided at all costs. "Yo, dude," the youthful voice was calling. "Yo, dude!"

Eventually I realized that this kid was calling to me. He was trying to help me. "Yo, dude," he shouted. "Ya gotta, like, get more bend on that forward knee!" I remembered that friendly youngster the other day as I was looking over the new season's snowboard gear at the local sports emporium. In addition to fun on the slopes, snowboarding provides fun in the shops as well, because the sport is so young that completely new technologies pop up all the time. The boards don't change much, but all sorts of innovation is evident in snowboard boots and bindings. This season, a couple of new bindings are designed specifically to make you, like, bend the forward knee.

I could tell in the shop, by the way, that the old paradigm, of snowboarders sitting down on the cold snow to strap on a complicated binding, is just about ancient history. The new style is the step-in binding (an idea that came to skiing about 1958).

What's interesting is that every maker of snowboard bindings has a different approach.

My favorite, I think, is the "Clicker," with a precision snap-in mechanism built by Shimano, the folks who perfected the snap-in bicycle pedal. But wait -- there's also a binding called the "Arcane," so easy to put on you can twist your foot into it while gliding off the lift.

And then there's a sleek little number called the Santa Cruz, which I tried the other day. The salesclerk gave it the ultimate compliment: "I'm totally, like, old-fashioned?" she said. "I've never used a step-in binding myself? But this dude? It's totally, like, cool."

Even if I hadn't heard that line, I would have known right away this young woman was a rider. I could tell from the baggy brown pants, the tattoo on her neck and the six silver rings arcing up her ear lobe.

She was, in short, the kind of person that some skiers look on as the pond scum of the ski slope. I'm glad I never felt that way myself.

Details : Snowboarding

As a Coloradan, I will of course argue that Colorado has the best snowboarding in the world. Fortun-ately, this is an easy argument to make, because it's absolutely true.

Three of the biggest ski areas in the United States are just south of I-70 in the Colorado Rockies -- and they have all come under common ownership this year. The owners of Vail have purchased Keystone and Breckenridge, and lift tickets are now interchangeable. Vail also owns Beaver Creek, another major-league area, and a vest-pocket resort called Arrowhead. All offer snowboard lessons, rentals and designated areas for riders. Informa-tion: 970-476-5601, http://www .snow.com/home.html.

Copper Mountain is a huge resort that extends for more than a mile along the southern shoulder of I-70. It has a less glitzy atmosphere than the various arms of the Vail empire, but the lift tickets are also less costly and the craggy mountain views are stupendous. You can watch youthful riders grabbing awesome air (or grab some yourself) in Copper's designated Snowboard Park. Information: 1-800-458-8386, http://www.ski-copper.com.

I first became a real rider during a lesson in the excellent snowboard school (formally known as the Rider Improvement Center) at Winter Park Resort, a large but charming ski area that is owned by the Denver Parks Department. Information: 970-726-5514, http://www.skiwinterpark.com.

For general information on snowboarding, you can browse around for hours at http//www.greatoutdoors .com or http://www.skimoguls.com/ resorts.

-- T.R. Reid

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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