Welcome Snowboarding Noobs (pronounced newbies).
Exciting time this week, as I finally began to take advantage of Europe’s second favorite commodity outside beer, …snow! Rachel and I had just arrived during our first winter in Germany, so we had our hands full with getting settled down into our new jobs, house, and lives. Sure, offers for ski trips had come across a few times, but as Rachel and I were fairly inexperienced, and didn’t want to slow any groups down, we passed.
Now, both Rachel and I went to college in a town pretty close to several ski slopes (yeah, Harrisonburg), so we each had a few dozen ski trips each under our belts. But hey, that was 10 plus years ago, and even that still counts for beginner in these parts. As it was, we spent our first winter here doing all we could to avoid snow, as learning to drive on the autobahn was a challenge enough without it.
But this year, I promised, would be different. Of course, a solemn commitment is not the only thing you need to get good at winter sports, you also need …snow! And snow has been in short supply this year. In fact, as of mid-January we’ve only had 1 day of snow so far. Crazyness I tell you!
This isn’t to say that snow couldn’t be found around us, we’d just to have to drive farther, and higher up, to find it. Looking at the snow reports, looks like the closest real snow was about 3.5 hours east of us. Of course 5 hours south of us is the Austria Alps. Chances are pretty good they’ll have snow. Despite it being mid-January, it wasn’t till just this last week that people really considered the snow season in full effect even in those parts. Global warming is a bitch, I tell ya.
So with some snow finally on the ground here in Europe, getaway ski trips have quickly become the go to conversations around the water coolers (not as if anyone really has water coolers anymore, right?). Still, though, it had been quite some time since I had found myself teetering over the edge of a black diamond slope with any resemblance of self confidence I wouldn’t soon be a Wiley E. Coyote off the mountain. Yes, I needed to get some training runs in before I could even think of hanging with the locals. And I needed to get it quickly. Note to self: “Become world class skier by weekend.”
Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one in this boat. Our buddy Todd was also green, or a “Gaper” in ski terms. Hell, the first time he’d ever even *seen* snow was last winter (spending your whole life in FL will do that). I figured I’d have to be better than him, right? And, turns out, Todd was also looking to hit the slopes, but not with skis. His poison of choice was to be snowboarding. And, asking around it seemed that many of my work colleagues preferred it as well. Wow, a lot can change in 10 years.
Back in the day, I had seen guys trying it while I skied, but it looked pretty difficult. Plus, snowboarders always seemed to be falling over, flopping around trying to right themselves (aka “snow whales”). They were all either falling over or were about to fall over. Still, if I was going to have to basically start over on a snow sport anyway, I might as well jump ship and try something that is a bit edgier and hip.
Plus, apparently you’re not allowed to mix skiing and snowboarding trips. No, this isn’t a Bloods/Crypts thing, it’s a question of average speed. Skiers basically fly straight down the mountain, while Snowboarders cut paths across the mountain the whole way. So, if you had a mixed group who wanted to stay together, you’d have skiers spending half their time waiting at the bottom of the slopes for the rest of the group.
OK, so time to pick up snowboarding. It looked like there would be a small group of our friends heading down to Austria to hit the slopes for a long weekend in February, and both Todd and I had been invited. We had to make sure we could at *least* traverse some of the slope runs (many of which can be over 30 minutes long), else we’d be an inconvenience to the group. But, hey, at least I wouldn’t be the worst one. Todd’s still getting used to what snow actually looks like.
So, now with a new mission (“Become Shaun White by next weekend.”), and a new sport to learn, I decided to hit Todd up about us trying to find somewhere to get some snowboarding lessons together.
Well, turns out Todd had already made it to the indoor ski range right over the boarder in France and gotten some lessons. They fill the place with fake snow, so it’s been busy there for 2 months now (however, lessons are only in French). Great, the guy who saw his first snowflake less than a year ago already knows how to snowboard better than me. That’s encouraging.
Well, undaunted, Todd and I set up a trip over to Feldberg, Germany to get a day full of snowboarding in. And, fortunately, a colleague of ours, Bob, was willing to come with us and take some time and show us the ropes, or slopes rather. Arriving at the ski lodge, I must admit I felt a lot cooler walking out of the rental shop with “wicked” snowboard in hand, and “killer” red tinted goggles. Of course that went right out the window, when two steps later I did this. Yep, a Noob. That’s me.
So, …snowboarding. What’s up with it? Well, surprisingly this brand *new* sport is over 30 years old now. And thanks to things like the Winter X-Games, has quickly exploded across the world as *the* cool winter sport. It is an interesting concept when looked at objectively. Snowboarding takes the fun and indie vibe of popular, counter culture sports like skating and surfing and makes then winter friendly. Pretty smart thinking. Now, there is something *cool* about winter sports too (Brian Boitano not withstanding, of course). A brilliant marketing niche.
But make no mistake. There is nothing indie about snowboarding anymore. It is a billion dollar market, and one of the few things keeping many ski slopes still in the black this year. While this used to be just your “younger brother’s sport,” keep in mind that was twenty years ago. Younger brother has grown up, and has kids now too.
Still, while ESPN has made snowboarding the *it* winter sport for the last ten years, you’d think the slopes would be overrunning with boards, even more than they are. The reason for this, as I was soon to find out, is that snowboarding is rough. And learning to snowboard is rougher. You can fully expect to banged up your first several times out on the slope. The learning curve is much steeper than skiing, and the falls are much more frequent and awkward. After all, your feet are both strapped to a shiny smooth board with no quick-release, no breaks, and you are on top of a mountain.
And then there’s the other thing. Hardly any of the skiing skillsets you have developed can be applied to snowboarding. Sure, maybe how to ride a lift chair, or rent equipment, but after that it’s a whole new world. Truth be told, having spent, now two solid days this week trying to get any sort of baring on this, I’d say the closest connection to snowboarding is surfing.
In skiing its all about keeping your skis flat and parallel and using poles for balance. However in snowboarding, like surfing, its all about the contact that back edge of the board makes with the mountain (or wave). That determines your path, and speed. And your balance has to be properly distributed across the board or it will skate out from under you just like, well, a skateboard.
The average person can be up and about moving around on skis (even on a bunny slope) in less than an hour. However, for snowboarding its often 2 to 3 full days before someone can really say that have a basic package of skills; i.e. can make it through an entire run down a slope. That sounds crazy, I know, but it really is true.
Firstly, just trying to stand up on a snowboard is a challenge. And then the thing starts sliding downhill and you’re like “Eek, how do I stop!” Then you start going fast, and fall down. Luckily you fall back onto the mountain (a low side). Unlucky and you flip over top of your board and land on your face (a high side face plant). This process repeats for …a ….very ….long …time.
Trying to sort out how to lean and flex the board with your feet to speed up or slow down is no obvious task. Your first several hours are filled trying to follow clear instructions (“lean back, bend your knees, stop crying), but the real goal is for you to begin to get a feel for the board. Its like riding a bike. Trying to explain to someone the awkward dance of applying your body weight to alternating pedals while staying somehow balanced in the middle is bizarre to put into words. But once you get it, you get it.
Still, while getting a feel for how a snowboard moves is a big step, it’s not the only thing necessary to attaining snowboarding nirvana. You still have to figure out …turning.
And there’s a catch 22 here. To get good moving back and forth down a mountain effectively takes confidence. Confidence to make the foot and weight adjustments quickly and spontaneous enough, that they don’t derail you. However, in order to make those type of changes on the board, when every instinct you have is to stay as still and balanced as a tightrope walker, you have to have some experience of that working, …ever. You need confidence to gain confidence. Therin lies the rub.
Sure lifting up my back foot and swinging the tail of the board around to make a 180 turn sounds reasonable, but when your cruising along at 60 mph (OK, …10 mph) towards the edge of the ski trail, just falling back and sliding off the course seems like a much better idea than trying to do some Macarena move and face planting. After all, at some point when trying to move the snowboard from facing right to facing left, the tip of the board will have to aim straight down the hill. And this, children, is how human missiles are made.
Speed combined with poor instincts makes for sore body parts. However, there’s yet another thing about snowboarding that makes it a challenge to the uninitiated. It takes speed to make the physics behind snowboarding work. And speed is not a friend of the Noob.
Kind of, again, like a bicycle. You can’t stand still on a bike with both feet up. You have to be moving to get balance. Same with a snowboard. And, as it happens the faster you are going the easier thing like turns and standing in a relaxed upright stance occur. Again, see aforementioned chicken or the egg analogy. This is why, unlike in skiing, bunny slopes are of little use to a snowboarder. Unless you are moving forward at any decent speed, nothing falls into place. Or rather, everything falls out of place, and your left digging snow out of your bicuspids.
And that, friends, is the right of passage of a snowboarder. You just have to jump into it with both feet (strapped to a deathstick), and give it a go. You will get banged up. You will stand up just to fall again over and over. Your thighs will feel like you’ve down a thousand squats, and your knees and forearms will be red and swollen. If you’re lucky, your head will be fine (don’t care what you look like, renting a helmet it a *must*). But soon, run by run (and often, day by day), you will start to get this process down, and you start to let the physics of the snowboard take over. Instructions give way to understanding, and feel.
And soon, you do get some sort of sense for how the back edge of the snowboard is connecting to the ground, and how your balance of weight on that side of the board does have a barring on how the rest of the board is moving. And then somewhere in the pit of your adrenal gland, you start to feel that warm, tingling sensation of confidence begin to form. And then, …you’re hooked.
I had learned enough my first outing that both Todd and were back on the slopes (an 8 hour round trip drive I might add) only 4 days later. We even roped in another experienced snowboarding friend (this time Steve) to “join” us; i.e. give up any chance of snowboarding on his own and chaperon. And on my second day, it actually started to spark for both Todd and I. Our speed picked up and we began to get more aggressive on the turns and lines we took across the slope.
At the end of day 2 (my 10th full hour of attempts), I was able to “pop” my turns from going one way to heading the reverse direction. That, with my ability to stand up on a board and traverse leaning on both edges of my board as necessary, is what you call a package. The minimum skillset required to make it through an entire run unhindered. And, as they say, confidence begets confidence, and it actually started coming together.
Interestingly, they say the mountain is never the same twice, and boy was the case for me. On day 1 we had blue skies and compacted snow, and on the return trip we had near white-out conditions and fresh powder everywhere. I could hear the difference my snowboard made when it went across the different types of terrain, …baddass!
Check out my combined photo album from both trips, as well as our group shot from our first and second visits over to Feldberg. In both photos my buddy Todd is on left, and our kind instructors, Bob and Steve, respectively, are center.
Now, I say all of this after having only spent two full days giving snowboarding my all. But that was 1.85 days longer than it took me to learn to start skiing, so put that level of effort in context. I could see easily why someone would give up quickly, and why, even after 30 years of being a sport the slopes are not overflowing with snowboarders.
We are an instant gratification kind of people, and snowboarding is not that. You have to earn that kind of gratification. Which in and of itself, is probably part of the snowboarding culture. Its not for Aunt Sally and Uncle Biff, who ski in the Aspens every winter. It’s for the skater and surfer who eat gravel and sand daily, smile and still get back on their board.
I’ve got a few work trips scheduled the next few weeks, but in 3 weeks I plan on being back on the slopes, this time in Austria, trying to get some real snowboarding conditioning down. I’m even trolling snow reports, how non-Noob of me! My goal is true muscle memory, the point at which my body knows what to do, I just steer. After that, I think I can really begin to explore what the snowboarding culture is about. I wonder if snowboarders talk about slopes and runs they way surfers back home in Virginia Beach talk about waves? I don’t know, but it’ll be neat to find out.
After all these years, I’m glad to finally be back applying myself to picking up a winter hobby. And I’m glad to have folks in my life like Bob and Steve who took their own snowboarding time to carry Todd and I through the learning curve.
I tell ya, it is *no* fun teaching beginners. How could it be? We looked like baby dear trying to walk for the first time …on roller skates. But they gave their time to us, like someone in their life had done for them. I hope that I do continue to develop as a snowboarder, and that one day I can pay it foreword, and be there to teach someone else about the world of snowboarding. After all, that’s how the cycle of mentoring and teaching works, …in any culture.