Ditching the Planks: Switching From Skiing to Riding

If you are like me, after ten years of skiing, you realized you simply weren’t going to get much better. It was time to try something new. My friends had all switched from skis to snowboards one or two years earlier, and I was the only holdout left. I saw the lumps they took on their first few days and I wasn’t looking forward to following in their black and blue footsteps. That all changed one rainy day in December about five years ago, when we were headed to Okemo. It was time to give snowboarding a shot and since that one-day experiment I’ve never looked back.

Making the decision to try snowboarding is half the battle. Once you commit yourself to giving it a try, you’ll be glad you did. If you give it two full days, I’d be willing to bet you’ll stick with it as I did. I was a decent skier who could handle just about any trail. I liked deep powder, cruisers and explored the glades. Technically, I was pretty sound. I understood the relationship between the edge, the snow, and how it made the ski actually turn. This was certainly a big help in making the transition to snowboarding. Understanding how the edge directs you and knowing how to stop is the key. I also had the benefit of an ex-instructor on my first day which didn’t hurt. (Thanks Shane)

After I rented my board, I nervously got back in the car to head up the access road. I could feel the butterflies in my stomach starting to swirl. It was the first time in a long time that I was a little shaky about hitting the hill. The beginner slope at Okemo is ideal for learning. It’s long and doesn’t have much pitch. In fact sometimes it feels like it isn’t steep enough, even for beginners.

My first effort at getting off the lift was rather lame and I ended up on my butt. No surprise there I guess. Once I clicked in I somehow thought that I should ride with the base flat against the snow. When I tried to turn I would slide the tail right out from underneath me. I think I ended up twice on my face and twice on my ass. I was an equal opportunity idiot. I had quickly forgotten what I already knew about edging from my skiing experience. Shane stood by and kept barking, “Hold that edge, and bend those knees”. After a couple hundred yards of riding up on a toe-side edge, it all started to come back to me. I figured if I stayed up on the edges, I wouldn’t possibly slam my body into the mushy snow. Surely that would be more fun than making like Pete Rose or Evil Kneivel. I started to listen and trusted what I was being told. I was working so hard that I didn’t even notice it was raining any more. After about three runs on the lower hill, it was time for the Northstar Express Quad to the top. At least that’s what my friends kept telling me. I tried to convince them that it probably wasn’t a good idea at this point but before I knew it I was boarding the express to the summit. Now I’m really starting to soil my bloomers. As we head up the lift, it occurs to me that this mountain is far steeper than I would like for my first day on a board. Oh well, by that time I knew it was already too late.

Once I safely got out of the way of the lift, I clicked in and quickly found myself overmatched. The added pitch made me paranoid causing me to revert back to the foolish ways of my first run. I found myself going far too fast for someone at my sub-par skill level. The next thing I knew I was staring at a heel-side edge, which resulted in an ass to head crusher against the mountain. With no helmet, I immediately started questioning those bastard friends of mine who forced me to go to the top against my will. Who was I kidding, I was right where I wanted to be, but I was just too damn stupid to do what I was told. “Ride that edge!” is what they kept telling me. “Good, now turn and ride that edge to the other side of the trail” came next. After a couple more spills I started to get the hang of it. I was stoked. I was actually somewhat snowboarding! I found myself hooked before I even took off the proverbial training wheels on my first day.

“If it’s steep, you won’t have to work as hard to turn”my friends argued. Hmmm, I’m not sure how they got me to buy into that one, but looking back on it they were right. The flats actually make it more difficult to learn. Turning is impossible when you don’t have enough momentum to actually keep moving forward. It’s hard to understand until you try it, but you need to keep moving forward at a decent pace if you are going to learn how to turn. I’ve spoken to a couple of instructors and they have all said the same thing, “I wish I could take my students up onto some blue trails so I could teach them how to ride”. Unfortunately with liability insurance being what it is, the mountains pretty much limit them to riding down the bunny slopes. I suppose this is also a way for them to ensure more lesson revenue.

By lunch I was actually starting to hang with my friends on the intermediate trails. They were cranking along and every so often they would stop as I slowly came tooling up behind them. I did take one or two more serious spills that afternoon where I rang my bell pretty hard. One time I was grooving pretty nicely and feeling pretty good about myself. The next thing I knew, I caught a heelside edge and took a direct blow to my melon that was so hard I actually saw stars. That was one I won’t soon forget. I learned a valuable lesson from that fall though. Protect your body when learning how to snowboard. From that point forward I knew if I was going to do it right, I had better protect myself.

I realized I was making the whole learning process a lot more painful than it had to be. There are plenty of protective gear options out there. If you use them to your advantage, you won’t need to go through some of the pain that many first timers suffer. I looked into what was available and picked up some of the basics. Helmet, wrist guards and what turned out to be a great purchase, a pair of skateboard shorts that had really good padding in the hips and tailbone. Some of my friends also wear kneepads. I didn’t really fall on my knees so I didn’t feel the need to use them. Since one of the more common injuries for snowboarders is the broken wrist, picking up a pair of wrist guards is a must. If you rollerblade, your rollerblading wrist guards will do just fine. The less talked about injury, the broken ass, or tailbone as some like to call it, is no less painful. In fact, I would argue that the broken ass is the worst injury. It seems to stick around for days and since you never go to a doctor to find out just why your ass hurts so much, it is usually a real lingerer. Fortunately, the skateboard shorts will take much, if not the entire sting out of this injury.

Now that I had the proper protection, I felt I could try anything. Big mistake. One thing the helmet did was provide me with a false sense of security. I was cruising down an intermediate run a few weeks later on either my second or third day on a board, and I wiped hard ass to head. I knew I suffered a concussion because of the flash of light that accompanied my head butt of the mountain. Note to self, do not head butt mountains. When you do, you always get the short end of the stick. The crash must have looked pretty horrid because a skier actually stopped and asked with half a smile, “Dude, are you OK?” Even though my response to him was, “Yeah I’m OK” I felt like Mike Tyson just stepped into me with a hard right to the chin. I had to sit there a good five minutes to shake off the cobwebs. After I picked myself up and started down the hill, caution was the word of the day. I rode out the rest of the day without incident and vowed to be back again soon.

After my first three full days on the mountain I was able to cruise with confidence down most intermediate trails. I could manage down the diamonds but it wasn’t much fun because I was really just turning for my life on the steeps. It didn’t take too long before I was there though. At least I was able to ride and I convinced myself that I had already won the toughest half of the battle. From that point forward I felt I would just be getting better.

Snowboarding is such a different trip from skiing. You don’t necessarily go as fast as you might on skis, but the experience is just completely different. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t tried it. It’s almost a Zen-like experience. It is such an awesome feeling to be ripping carves through eight inches of powder on a board. Everything is so compact and feels so smooth. Learning how to snowboard took me back to the feeling I had when I was learning how to play baseball in little league as a five year old. It was something totally new and cool, and I could see myself improving every time I did it. It was the surfing I never was able to do, and it was also a chance to get outdoors where I find I am most at peace.

For those of you who are thinking of giving it a shot, I say go for it. Just don’t go for half a day, fall down a few times and get back on your skis. Stick with it for two full days and you might join the ranks of one of the most exhilarating and creative sports out there today. Snowboard packages are somewhat less expensive than ski packages but you can still drop a thousand bucks on boots, board and bindings pretty easily. If you’re a skier, wait until you try on the boots. You will wonder how you could have ever put your feet into those rock hard torture chambers for so long.

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