Morning sun warmed my face as I filled my lungs with cold mountain air and studied the hard-packed surface of the rolling ski slope before me. Attempting to soothe my bruised psyche, I exhaled a cleansing breath and with it released a plume of nervous energy into the March air.
For the first time in 15 years of nearly annual ski trips, during which I easily attacked all levels of resort terrain from Switzerland to Colorado, I understood what fear at the top of a bunny slope felt like.
“You can do it,” I said to myself as I rocked my rented Burton snowboard toward the fall line at the top of Home Run, a gentle run at Park City Mountain Resort in Utah.
“Don’t look down,” shouted Ray Stone, my jolly, bearded snowboarding instructor, who was positioned 30 yards below me. “Just point your board down the hill and relax.”
I shoved off in a surferlike stance, my right foot leading the nose of the board and my left foot controlling the back. As I shifted my weight forward and let gravity and guts take over, I feigned calmness and chanted to myself the fundamental movements demanded by the five-foot-long piece of fiberglass strapped to my 35-year-old feet.
“Front toes down. Back toes down. Hips forward. Stay on the edge.” I spoke each step in rhythm with my body, slowly pumping my toes and heels inside my boots as I made wide S-turns across the face of the mountain. “Front heel down. Shift weight back. Back heel down. Eyes up. Drive with the knee.”
Learning to make S-turns requires heel-toe coordination to connect toe-side turns, riding the board in one direction on your tiptoes, with heel-side turns, riding the board in the opposite direction with your heels pressed down.
One minute, I was carving a beautiful line in the snow. And the next, I felt as if an invisible pit bull had jumped up and chomped my backside, dragging me to the ground in one of dozens of crashes that would wreck my tailbone — and my mental strength — over the course of five days. Eager to prove that I wasn’t just another mom willing to let a collision upend my plans to become a snowboarder, I jumped up and resumed carving, my slimline red ski jacket and tight-fitting pants filled with snow.
I’d avoided snowboarding in the past because I was an advanced skier, and I’d never wanted to waste my one winter holiday bruising my butt learning a new sport. Last season, however, an unexpected craving for adventure sparked a burst of inner spontaneity. A few days before our trip, I had a hankering to ride.
I’m not a natural athlete, so I knew that I’d need lessons to make the transition from ski bunny to board babe. My husband, Brian, has snowboarded for years and was a big influence in my decision to finally try it. But I decided against asking him to teach me, especially considering that he rides by the mantra “Speed is your friend.” He also smartly encouraged me to call on the professionals.
During five days of snowboarding, I took two private half-day lessons and one group half-day lesson. Instruction isn’t cheap, but I considered the expense an investment in myself. Although Stone and my Day One instructor, Nick Blackwell, assured me that slowly snaking down green runs on my second morning of snowboarding was a respectable achievement, my previous mountain mojo remained elusive.
My mind knew what Stone and Blackwell had told me to do. But my feet failed to react quickly enough to avoid making the fatal mistake of “catching an edge.” In laymen’s terms, this means wiping-out — hard. In my experience, catching an edge usually resulted in slamming my tailbone into the ground followed by whiplash and a head-ringing bash of my helmet on the not-so-soft snow. Throughout my years as a skier, I’d heard that learning to snowboard was harder than learning to ski. And after two days on the mountain, I’d confirmed as much.
It’s all about mind-set, said Blackwell, who also sported a trimmed black beard and a goggle-imprinted tan line. As we rehydrated at an outdoor snack shack, he explained that people who want to “try snowboarding” quit the first time they catch an edge. But people who want to “learn how to snowboard” usually end up sticking with it.
What I had failed to factor into my decision to learn how to snowboard is that skiing offers beginners a valuable weapon against falling: the snowplow. Turning your ski tips inward decreases speed and increases stability. Snowboarding, on the other hand, offers no training wheels to coddle new riders. According to Blackwell, who also teaches instructors, learning to snowboard is the equivalent of learning to parallel-ski from the first lesson. There’s only one form, and you either ride properly or you fall.
Experienced skiers have a greater success rate learning to snowboard, but they’re more likely to quit after one or two times, Blackwell said. They get frustrated in the beginning when they realize, “Oh, I can’t do anything anymore.”
Later that afternoon, I marinated my own frustrations in the outdoor stone hot tub at the Marriott MountainSide and attempted to rid my body of negative thoughts and lactic acid.
“Are you going to keep it up for the rest of the week?” Brian asked, suggesting that I might want to return to skiing.
“It seems like a waste to give up now,” I said. “But I need a break.”
For a split second, I considered that I could still respectfully turn in my board, and no one would blame me. But deep down, this new adventure had hurt so good. It was tough, but I was doing it. Backing out after two days seemed like a failure. So instead of quitting, I revived my confidence with a little retail therapy at the shops on Park City’s twinkling Main Street.
I woke up on my third snowboarding day refreshed from my break and surprised by a few inches of fresh powder covering the resort. Brian and the other couple we had traveled with were giddy over the new conditions. It was my first time boarding without an instructor, but the three of them assured me that a cushion of fresh snow made for a kinder mountain.
“You literally can’t get hurt,” Brian said. “You’ll see. Snowboarding in powder is totally different. You won’t hear all that scraping of the board on the hard snow like you have all week.”
Our group cut some of the first tracks of the day as we sailed down Claimjumper, a wide, rolling expanse. A few minutes into the run, I expected a glass wall to appear out of nowhere to test Brian’s theory that you “can’t get hurt.” When I realized that I’d made it halfway down the piste without catching an edge, an unfamiliar feeling of control filled me with excitement.
I thought that maybe I’d begun to turn the corner. With my knees bent and hips pushed forward, I settled into my “little boy peeing over a log” position, a description of the toe-side turn that my instructor had coined. I followed that with a smooth heel-side turn, aptly described as “little girl peeing over a log.” Back and forth, I rocked all the way down Claimjumper — quiet, smooth, fluffy, like surfing on a field of down comforters. My coat and pants were still dry and free of snow, and I thought I had the hang of it.
My experience in the powder had pumped me up. I hit the mountain the following day with a renewed faith in my abilities. On the first few runs, my feet fell comfortably into rhythm. Floating down Home Run, I surveyed the vista and took in the beauty of the towering mountain peaks off in the distance.
Steadily, back and forth I wove. A gentle breeze created by my increasing speed chilled my cheeks. Then, wha-boom! As if I’d smacked into a crystal-clear wall of glass, I was thrown backward onto my tailbone with a force so strong that my neck whipped and my head hit the ground. First I grabbed my butt and screamed. Then the expletives flowed as I sat up and began to empty snow from my gloves, pants and jacket.
Just when I’d started to get comfortable again, the ghost of wipeouts past had ripped me off my feet with an invisible clothesline. Day Four ended shortly thereafter with another particularly bruising crash on Home Run. Tears burned my face as I sat defeated on the beginner slope and took my board off. For the first time that week, I walked the short distance down to the base of the resort. My head was pounding, and I wasn’t sure that I could take any more.
Park City Mountain Resort had trashed me, but when I woke up on our last day before returning to Florida, something inside me had changed. Yes, I had stopped chairlifts with botched exits, run into innocent people, busted my girdle-clad rear end, and even wept with frustration.
But riding up the chairlift that bright Saturday morning, my nerves had settled because I knew that this day would decide my fate as a snowboarder.
It turned out that five was my magic number. I got my mojo back my fifth day on the board. Run after beautiful run, I methodically put into action every point of basic technique that had been beaten into me throughout the week. I spent a good three hours sailing down the slopes without getting clotheslined and finally enjoying the ride, before turning in my board and hitting the hot tub for a celebratory soak.
As steam rose from the rolling waters, our foursome toasted me with plastic cups of beer — not for just trying to snowboard but for actually learning how to.
“So, will you do it again next year, babe?” Brian asked.
“It seems like a waste to quit now,” I said, eyeing him over the rim of my cup.
Rich is a freelance writer in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.