I’m back from my trip to Jackson Hole, Wy., and I’m not in traction. No body cast, no gimpy limping, not even any (visible) bruising.
To remind, I last posted about my plan to try snowboarding at the (somewhat) advanced age of 52, thanks to my friends at Subaru (which encourages its owners to “earn their badge” in all kinds of outdoor activities) and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. I was hoping that my attempt to shape up for the sport in a mere couple of weeks would not only keep me injury-free, but allow me to actually gain some sort of proficiency in the sport, or at least not feel like a complete bumbling fool.
So, the big question: Did it work?
Before I get to that, let me catch you up on how the day went. When my lesson started at 10 a.m., it was a balmy 5 degrees at the base of the mountain—Jackson Hole has been subjected to some super-low temperatures this year. (In fact, I was told on arrival that it would be “warming up” that weekend, with temperatures hitting—no kidding—the mid teens.) Luckily, I was suited up properly and had already had a day on the mountain skiing, so I knew what to expect, at least weather-wise.
I ended up in a group lesson with Erin from Cincinnati, who looked to be in her early 30s, and Charles, a Houstonian, probably in his mid-30s. “Thank God—I thought I would be in the lesson with a four-year-old,” Erin said when I ambled up.
Ambling is, by the way, the best word I can find to describe the gait with which you’re forced to walk in snowboarding boots. Bulkier and more padded than ski boots, snowboarding boots are MUCH more comfortable, but even so, they position your ankle into a slight flex that makes you walk sort of like you’d expect the Michelin Man to.
Our instructor, Kevin, said he had spent more than a decade teaching at the National Outdoor Leadership School, and it showed. He was patient, encouraging and clear in his instruction. I LOVED him. He made me feel like taking snowboarding lessons was the most natural thing in the world for a 52-year-old woman who hadn’t even skied more than 10 times in her life.
Even so, I didn’t have high hopes for myself early on. I mean, just strapping one boot into the bindings and “skating” around with one free foot felt SO awkward. I kept wishing I was taller, as if longer legs would make it easy to maneuver this thing, which Kevin said to think of as an extra appendage. (I tried to ignore the 2 ft. toddlers who did just fine with their boards … so much for my height excuse.)
We spent the first part of the day getting used to balancing our weight on the board, one foot in the bindings and the other resting, unfettered just inside the other binding. It was amazing how scary even the slight, 10 ft.-or-so descent was; I tried not to think about how I would do on the 20 ft. rise we’d soon graduate to. But I remembered, and started to repeat in my head, the mantra I learned from my balance-board training: Bend knees. Relax. Breathe.
And, I added another: Don’t look down. If there’s one thing I learned from Kevin–and was impressed upon me the hard way–it was that where your eyes go, your body will follow. That little tip can not only help you turn in the direction in which you want to go, but it can also help you fight the natural tendency to look down at the snow and slope in front of you, and end up doing a nice little face plant.
After skating around, literally in circles, we were charged with figuring out which was our lead foot. We did this by running (as best we could) in our boots and sliding, “like you would if you were a kid playing around in your socks on wood floors,” as Kevin explained (see? so clear and simple). Erin and I ended up being “goofy-footed,” meaning we led with our right; Charles was “regular,” leading with his left.
This would prove to be important when we got down to the business of turning, which we did after getting ourselves up the larger hill. And AFTER we locked both feet (!) into the bindings. This was the part that scared me the most–I kept envisioning myself twisting a knee, tearing a meniscus, stretching my ACL past the point of no return.
But before I could even think about doing anything dangerous on the snowboard, I had to figure out how to get vertical. As in, stand up with the board strapped to my feet. Despite Kevin’s clear and simple instructions—and my pre-snowboarding shape-up efforts—this was the absolute hardest part of the whole morning. I’d focused, somewhat logically, on building up the muscles in my lower body and core, but I found that what really hurt me was my lack of upper-body strength. I simply didn’t get how important my arms and shoulders would be to snowboarding, and the triceps dips and pushups (which I skimped on, I have to admit) in my little conditioning program just weren’t enough.
So Kevin had to help me up when we began practicing what’s called the “heel-side sideslip,” where you slide down the slope face-first, your board perpendicular to the fall line (the natural line of descent, where, for instance, water would find a path downward). Standing in front of us, holding us by both hands, Kevin guided us down the slope one by one as we got used to flexing and then relaxing our ankles to control the board. Flexing, on the heel side, was like putting the brakes on as it dug your heel edge into the snow; relaxing would allow the board to lie flat for easier sliding. It’s sort of like learning how to use a clutch when you’re driving stick shift–and just as jerky until you get a feel for it.
This video gives you a good feel for what we were trying to do (although these guys are much better than I was at it!)
We were all pretty quick learners, though. After the first couple of tries, I (and Erin and Charles as well) needed less and less of Kevin’s guidance, until he encouraged us to try it solo. Which I did, and promptly fell–but not until getting all the way to the bottom in a fairly controlled descent. We then tried the toe-side descent, which involves (you may have guessed it) going backward down the slope, pointing your toes and then relaxing them to control your speed. Again, after a few tries with Kevin guiding us, we were on our own.
I was amazed at how quickly I went from a quivering mass of nerves to fairly competent (if not confident) on the board. Bend knees. Relax. Breathe. (Look up.) I guess my training program, as brief as it was, did help a bit.
But just a bit. In addition to the upper-body brawn I was missing (and which rendered me helpless every time I had to get up from a seated position), I had put little thought into just how physical everything about snowboarding is. Forget all the “gnarly” jumps and “sick” tricks you see riders pulling off on the half-pipe. Even simple things like getting back up the little bunny hill took a huge amount of effort. This required unhooking one foot, and sort of hopping/skipping up the hill, pulling your board along with you. Not to mention lugging the board itself around.
This unexpected exertion, I’m convinced, contributed greatly to the exhaustion and (especially) upper-body soreness I’m experiencing post-weekend. But that’s not to say that my little shape-up routine didn’t help. The balance board work especially—the motion required to keep the balance board steady and was very similar to what was required to maneuver a snowboard down the hill. If anything, it helped familiarize me with the fluid motion of snowboarding, with initiating movement from your lower body while keeping your upper body, as Kevin described it, “quiet.”
But next time, I’ll get more serious about training before I head out West to snowboard. Yes, there WILL be a next time, if I have anything to say about it (and my bank account allows). While my experience wasn’t exactly the adrenaline-fueled, X-Games adventure you might picture, I felt such a surge of accomplishment when I finally, unassisted (and after landing on my butt several times), glided to the base of the green slope off of which we’d been practicing all morning. I find myself more intrigued with snowboarding than skiing–there’s just something about the motion, the fluidity of it, that I find myself wanting to master (or at least attempt to). Blazin’ raisin? Maybe not. But maybe someday.