I Ditched Skis for a Snowboard This Winter and Lived to Tell the Tale
This is what happens when a longtime skier gets schooled on snowboarding for the first time
When the latest winter season seemed poised to have the best snow conditions we’ve seen in years (thank you, abundant rain and snowfall!), my coworkers dared me get off skis and try something new: snowboarding. I’ve been a skier for years and the thought of trading in two skis and two poles for one snowboard felt intimidating, burdensome, and awkward. Give up swooshing down the mountain and the resulting adrenaline rush for a minefield of falls, black-and-blue marks, and feelings of failure likely to occur on new-to-me apparatus? No thanks!
However, the longer I sat with the idea of snowboarding, the more I was haunted by the feeling of having given up before I even started—and admittedly, part of that was not wanting to let down my coworkers, even if they had only half-jokingly dared me to begin with. As with any new craft, the thought of the initial learning curve was daunting, but the imagined rewards of learning something new felt pretty darn exciting.
And so, with the assistance of a very patient instructor from the Burton Academy at Northstar California resort in Lake Tahoe, CA, I (literally) got on board. After numerous trial and error runs and one bruised bum later, here are my takeaways from my first crack at snowboarding.
Snowboarding is one of the most extreme winter sports there is, so attempting to teach yourself will likely lead to a day of unnecessary frustration and physical pain. This is why taking at least one class to learn the basics is so important. You’ll be able to get a feel for the movements in a safe, productive environment and have a lot of fun, too! My instructor, Case, literally and figuratively picked me up when I fell down, held my hand down the bunny slope for the first half of the day, and gave me numerous pep talks. What else could you ask for in a coach?
Before I even set out on the snow, I had to assemble all the necessary gear and get properly fitted. My coach, Case, chose the Burton Lip-Stick snowboard for me because it is a Flat Top board, which means it is primarily flat underfoot with a rocker bend on the nose and tail. These factors are great for stability, balance, and edge control. Next up were boots, which needed to be carefully selected for the best fit since one ounce of discomfort could make someone want to call it quits after an hour on the powder. Lastly, I tried on the bindings (which connect boot to board). I learned the easiest technique for strapping into the bindings: sitting down facing the bottom of the mountain, bending your knees and attaching one boot at a time.
Going Through the Motions
Before heading out on the snow, Case had me practice balancing on the board. He taught me to balance my body weight over the center of my foot’s arch with my head and hips centered as well. He also emphasized the need to both look toward and stretch my arms out in the direction I was headed, both of which felt easy while simply balancing on flat ground but would be sure to get tricky maneuvering on the snow!
Case instructed me on proper boarding movements next. Since I’m a visual learner, he offered to demonstrate the movements for me first. Our first task was sliding on the heel edge of the foot, which helps control speed. With heel sliding, the more you lift your toes away from the snow, the more your heel edge will dig in, slow you down, and keep you controlled.
As I watched Case effortlessly float down the bunny slope like a swan gliding on a lake, I thought to myself, That looks so easy! Oh, the naiveté. Before Case even reached the bottom, my impatience got the better of me and I took off, only to make it a few feet before earning my first tumble of the day, a rough but humbling snafu to say the least.
Next, I practiced toe sliding, a movement involving sliding (obvi) while lifting onto your toes and simultaneously putting pressure on your shins against the boots. To gain speed, you push your knees forward towards the snow to dig your toes in more. Toe sliding felt totally unnatural and I was hesitant to lean forward as to avoid another shameful fall on my face. However, after several unsuccessful attempts, I dared to lean into it more. As I did this, I gained momentum and was able to keep my balance. This was a small yet significant victory!
Going on Trial Runs
After grasping the heel side, toe side concept, it was time for my first straight run, yet even the bunny hill seemed daunting. Nevertheless, I pointed my board downhill and started putting weight over my front foot. After the initial awkwardness, I took the pressure off the board’s edge and let the snowboard run flat—and down I went. (Full disclosure: I was still grasping Case’s hand tightly, a bit fearful of letting go.) I reached the bottom without incident and it was time for a few more practice runs. Luckily, there is something called the “magic carpet,” which is basically an escalator for the slope that pulls skiers and boarders up the surface to the top of the hill. This “magic” ride was a time-saver and also gave me time to quell my nerves between runs.
The next couple runs consisted of Case holding my hand and then just onto my jacket hood as I rode down the hill. On our last run before taking a lunch break, he didn’t tell me of his plan to have me ride down on my own. Unknowingly, I kept my eyes straight ahead and started down the hill (thinking I was still safely in the grasp of my instructor). I reached the bottom and looked back to see Case still at the top. I threw my arms up in the air and we celebrated with a collective “Woo-hoo!”
Turning, Turning, Turning
Picking up the basics of turning takes a lot of practice. You want to focus on controlling your speed and just like with heel and toe sliding, your board needs to be on edge. For the toe turn, you face the top of the slope and apply pressure to your toe edge. For the heel turn, you face the bottom of the slope with pressure on your heel edge to turn the board and control your speed. The mechanics take some getting used to.
Again, I watched Case coast down the mountain. Having learned from my past fall, I decided to be patient and wait for his helping hand. The first turn felt brutally awkward. As I tried to simultaneously keep my hips balanced over the board, Case instructed me to push into his hands while also keeping my head up. It seemed like I was doing a lot of thinking rather than just feeling out the motions. Nonetheless, the magic carpet continued to be a saving grace in conserving my energy instead of having to trudge up on foot.
For my next turn trial, we decided to try something different. Case said he’d follow me down but would resist assisting me so I could sort out on my own what felt natural and balanced. I thought this was a terrible idea, but pushed my fear aside to give it a go. After all, if I fell, at least it would be into a pile of fluffy snow—not the end of the world. I started down and completed my first turn, but not without coming dangerously close to riding straight into the barrier. Keeping my cool, my second turn was slow but without fault! I gained new confidence going into the final turn and with that, I conquered the mountain for the first time.
Learning to Trust Myself
Voila! I had officially become a snowboarder. Even though I wasn’t barreling super fast down the slopes or doing tricks, I got comfortable enough to consider trying it again on my own. I learned that the key to the process was being patient with myself. Starting with the basics took time, but thanks to my instructor I now better understand how my body syncs with the snowboard. Keeping my head and chin up, looking at where I want to go, and trusting in my core for balance—these are the key movements for snowboarding success but also valuable life lessons for conquering any challenge.