My wife and I have skied for about a dozen years and have always wanted to try board-riding. But we never got around to it. So when my sixteen year old, skateboarding nephew said he wanted to come for a visit and try snowboarding, we finally ran out of excuses. My nephew, Alex, is from Florida and had never even seen snow. On a beautiful sunny, warm day, we all signed up for the beginner’s snowboarding package at Whitetail. My wife, Karen, thought that Alex would be amazed at his first site of snow as we drove up into Pennsylvania. But he shrugged his shoulders. He just wanted to get on a board and fly down the mountain.
It wouldn’t be that simple.
After picking up our rental boards, we met up at the ski school area and were placed into the absolute beginners group with a total of 13 students of all ages: 5 year old kids, teenagers, 20-somethings and the 40+ year old geezers (Karen and I). I didn’t even have an idea as to how to attach the board to my boots or which side was the front of the board. Ken the instructor led us over to the base of the bunny hill and showed us how to clip our boots to the board. He noted that he never mastered this procedure and he used a type of mounting with ratcheted straps to affix boot to board. We only clipped in our front feet as instructed and then formed a big circle. Our first task was to just go round and round dragging the board in a circle. Karen said that it felt like being attached to a ball and chain. I don’t know how she knows what it’s like to wear a ball and chain. But after 18 years of marriage, I no longer ask. After a few rotations, we turned around and shuffled along in the other direction. So far snowboarding was not living up to its reputation as an extreme sport.
We shuffled up the side of a shallow embankment (a very shallow embankment) and then practiced riding the board with the front foot attached and the back foot simply standing on the board. Everyone survived their first attempt without falling. We repeated this exercise a few times and then moved onto making a turn with this one-footed arrangement. Ken mentioned that you simply tilt the board with your toes to turn one way (toe turn) and lean back on your heels to turn the other way (heel turn) - that snowboarding was that easy. This is when people started to fall. My nephew fell onto his hands once and Karen plopped onto her butt. The snowboarding gods smiled my way as I somehow kept my balance.
After everyone took two attempts at turning in each direction, it was time to clip in the rear foot. Snowboards come in two arrangements. Having your left foot forward is called regular while riding with the right foot forward is known as goofy. Karen and I were regular while Alex was goofy… my nephew the goofy teenager!
The next trick was to learn to stand up from a sitting position with both feet clipped in. Ken showed us how to do a backwards half-somersault with a half-twist to stand up. But I just didn’t “get it” and kept doing complete somersaults. I’d end up on my feet, but facing the wrong direction. My goofy nephew had to show me how to do it right.
All geared up like real snowboarders, we repeated the tasks of riding a straight line several times and then performing turns in each direction. One unfortunate 20-something year old woman wiped out nearly every time and then couldn’t get back up. So Ken would race down to help her out and offer words of encouragement. Karen remarked that Ken was doing a really great job as a teacher. And eventually the woman was able to make the turns without falling. The two five year olds, however, didn’t seem to be having any problems.
So with everyone having completed the basics, it was time to board the lift. I was surprised that nearly half the class had never even been on a ski lift. This should be exciting, I thought. Ken pulled everyone aside by the base of the lift and carefully described the procedures for entering and exiting the chairlift. The reason we had spent so much time riding with only one foot attached was because this was how we would get onto and off of the chair. Both Karen and I were used to seeing novice snowboarders wiping out when getting off the lift. We were sure that this fate would befall us. Karen and I rode up together and Alex was paired up with another goofy student. I braced myself for the embarrassment of making the lift stop as we neared the top. But Karen and I managed come off of the chair without any problem. Alex also glided right off as did most of the students.
We then gathered around Ken in what must be one of the most fun parts of snowboarding as seen from a skier’s perspective, sitting on the slope for no reason and getting in everyone’s way. We plunked down like a bunch of land mines. Ken said that snowboarding, like skiing, was all about turning. You should be turning all of the time and speed was controlled via turning. He gently carved a big arc down the slope and stopped. Calling out our names individually, we each attempted to follow his path and stop behind him. About half of the class, including Alex and I, succeeded without falling. (The bunny hill felt extremely steep compared to our initial practice area. And the board picked up speed very quickly.) Ken continued down the slope and we all tried turning the other way. Karen was much better at the heel turn than the toe turn. Ken explained that she was trying to turn the board before it attained sufficient velocity.
After this exercise, Ken continued down the trail and told me that I was ready to try three turns. Well, that sure didn’t work out. I got up after my somersault, made a heel turn, made a toe turn and then caught my back edge, which again sent me head over heels. So much for favors from the snowboarding gods! I crawled over to Ken and asked what I was doing wrong. He told me to flatten the board out more before switching from one turn to the other. Both Karen and Alex followed and successfully completed this last exercise. Ken smiled and informed us that the lesson was over. We just had to keep practicing our turns. So we ventured down the last bit of the slope and we all wiped out spectacularly. I actually had the breath knocked out of me, which hasn’t happened in over a dozen years.
But we remained undaunted and took the lift back up for another go. Each of us worked in a turn or two before falling. But still we fell and fell hard. When you fall on skis, you spin out or roll or one leg goes this way and the other leg that way. But on a snowboard, you just slam over hard like a ton of bricks. I came down on my butt so hard that I thought I cracked my tailbone. Karen crashed onto her knees and Alex managed to land on his head. By the time we reached the bottom of the trail we were all somewhat discouraged and Alex was feeling queasy from landing head first. He was especially disappointed because he thought his skateboarding prowess would translate to snowboarding.
Thus defeated, we turned in our snowboards and moved onto another snow sport. After a quick bite, it was time for skiboarding, AKA Snowblading. Alex wore the same size shoe as me and I had an old pair of ski boots. So Karen lent Alex her Snowblades and she donned her skis. The Snowblades have bindings that adjust with the twist of a knob and Alex was up on them in no time. He was still a bit hesitant after our final snowboarding run. But we assured him that Snowblading was just as easy is in-line skating. After a couple of trips down the bunny hill without any problem, we moved onto the beginner trail accessed by the Easy Rider quad lift. Alex kept going too fast and spinning out. So we played follow the leader with him mimicking me. I took nice long turns to keep from accelerating and Alex matched me move for move. On the next run, I asked him if he was ready to pick up the speed. We veered off onto the intermediate slope Stalker. Alex lost control on an icy spot but caught right back up. At the bottom of the slope, Karen pointed up to the top of the mountain and asked Alex if was ready for one of the big trails. He shook his head no and said he was having fun where we were. I told him about the great view from the top. But he still seemed a little unsure of his abilities.
So we piled onto the Easy Rider lift again and cruised once more down Stalker. This time Alex made it down without falling. When we caught up to Karen he said, “Let’s go to the top!” Alex was a bit confused by the slow moving chairs on the high speed quad lift but liked the quick acceleration as the chair re-attached to the cable and zoomed out of the loading station. We reached the top just as the sun dipped below the horizon. The sky glowed behind silhouetted mountains as though on fire. After watching the sky fade to a pink hue we decided on the Snowdancer slope because it didn’t look as moguled up as Angel Drop or Limelight. Karen led the way and Alex took off behind her. He, of course, picked up too much speed on the much steeper trail and wiped out. I told him that we’ll play follow the leader again and that if he felt as though he was going too fast to dig in and perform a hockey stop. I took my time and the trail seemed to last forever. Usually I’m down this slope on skis in less than a minute. Alex spun out on a couple icy spots but bounced right back up. And when we got close to the bottom, I told him to point his blades forward and just tuck and go. We flew down the last part of the trail and slid to a stop right in front of Karen. Alex grinned from ear to ear.
I asked him if he wanted to go again. But he was too tired. Thus we ended the day on a high note. I’d like to try snowboarding again. Now that it seems all of the slopes are turning to slush, falling shouldn’t hurt as much. But I think I might just stick a big piece of foam rubber down the back of my snow pants. It’ll look goofy. But I’ll still know that I’m regular.
Matthew Graham is a skier as well as a hang glider and paraglider pilot, SCUBA diver, cavern diver, equestrian, polo player, sailor, hiker, biker, rock climber, paddler, and skater. He's also yoga teacher and certified personal trainer and has dabbled in just about every other sport, even stunt car driving and bull riding! He has written for the Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine, USA Weekend Magazine, Hooked on the Outdoors, Richmond Magazine, Chesapeake Life Magazine, Metro Sports, American Fitness, Blue Ridge Outdoors, Recreation News and numerous other outdoor and travel publications.