Monday, March 31, 2008

Life: Where I didn't break anything

With a grand total of four hours of practice on a snowboard under my belt, I was a little nervous as we set off for the slopes on our first morning in Breckenridge, Colo.

The hills at Wilmot in Wisconsin are nothing compared to The Rocky Mountains. Plus, I'd never even made it off the bunny hill at Wilmot. I'd never even been on a chair lift with a snowboard. Did I even remember how to stand up on the thing?

Can you feel my sense of panic?

So, I took a deep breath, then walked over to one of the instructors and asked about beginner adult lessons for snowboarding. Just my luck, they were starting immediately and they had space for me. I didn't have time to think. I just ran over, paid my money and joined a class.

Day One and traversing on my toes

Since I was a little late, the manager of the snowboarding instructors met me in the corral where the classes meet.

After a basic interview about my experience, she asked: "Have you ever been on a ski lift?"


"Do you know how to stand on your board?"


We walked over to the beginner/beginner area.

"Show me."

"Right here?"

"Yes. Climb up to that spot on the hill. Strap your left foot into the binding. Rest your right foot on the board and glide down to me." (She was more nurturing than that, but you get the idea.)

Gulp. There was a steep drop-off to the parking lot behind her.


So, I strapped in, glided down to her and stumbled to a stop.

"Great. Do it again."

I repeated my glide, and managed not to fall.

"Great. Let's do the chair lift."


Trail map from day 1

She talked me through the chair lift. Helped me get on. Rode up the beginner hill (Dyersville) with me and we both exited without falling. Wow. Things were looking good.

Then, she introduced me to another instructor who had only one student. The student was in a similar situation to me. He took one day of lessons last year and hadn't been on a snowboard since. She left and I was now part of a two-person class.

Our goal was to learn to go down the hill on our heels. It's a basic "stop" position. Master this and you can get off any hill safely. Face away from the mountain, dig both heels into the snow and slide forward.

Except, for the life of me, I couldn't seem to stand up in that position, let alone get going. The new instructor took a different approach. Forget the heels with me. Let's try toes. Face the mountain, dig both sets of toes into the snow and slide backward down the slope.

For some reason, I could do that. Great. All I needed to do was add some directional leaning to that and I was traversing down the slope on my toeside. Of course, there was a lot of falling involved, but I made it down twice this way before we broke for lunch. At this point, I was exhausted and drenched in sweat. (And also thankful for having a helmet, wrist guards and a tail-bone guard!)

me on my rear endAfter lunch, we regrouped into another class. Now there were five of us of similar skill level. Except everyone else had mastered their heelslide and heelside-traverse, and I was the “freak” who'd mastered my toeslide and toeside-traverse. (Apparently, most normal people prefer going down heelside and resist toeside.)

The new instructor was determined that I learn heelside traversing, and after one run with the new instructor, I was going down the slope on my heel side.

The advantage was to me, as I was now comfortable on heelside and toeside.

The next two runs were with yet a new instructor, and he had us quickly trying J-turns. Straighten the board, then go heelside, straighten the board, then go heelside, repeat several times. Then straighten the board, then go toeside, straighten the board, then go toeside, repeat several times. It forms a "J" if you can visualize the movement.

We were just starting to link the heelside turn with the toeside turn, which is called a C-turn because of the shape of the movement, when the day ended.

I made it home on the shuttle bus, stumbled in the door, changed my clothes and discovered a light bruise forming on my knee.

Day two and the "double-diamond" green

At this point, I'd talked my husband into taking the class with me. He was a master of heelside traversing and "falling leaf", but he couldn’t do his toeside. (This was good enough to get him through several green runs the day before, but is an exhausting way to snowboard because the same muscles are engaged all the time.)

We signed up for an after-lunch class, and soon we were both doing heelside and toeside J-turns, and even linking them together into C-turns. If you string enough of them together, you start creating S's.

The class ended with about 20 minutes until the lifts closed. I was feeling brave, and agreed to try a new lift and new run. We were still planning to be on green (easy) runs, but were going to take a long series of runs from Peak 8 to the bottom of Peak 9.

Day 2 trail map -- green highlights our approximate path

We met Kly, Wilko and Elle at the top of Chairlift 5 and start with the 4 o'Clock run.

Since this was all new to me, I took it very cautiously and instead of doing a lot of turning, I mostly traversed from side to side down the slope.

And here's where a little reconnaissance would have helped. It turned out that to get from the Peak 8 slope to the Peak 9 slope the way we’d planned, you had to do a little bit of a trail called the Crosscut. It's still green, but it's really steep and there was an injured person in the middle of it waiting to be stretchered away. (Really, there was an injured skier.)

In retrospect, we like to call that part the "double-diamond" green. It was hideous for a beginner. Even Kly and my husband, who had been on various green slopes for two days thought it was a killer. (Wilko and Elle were experienced skiers and agreed that it was tough for a green.)

We made it and survived, but then found ourselves in a new kind of hell. A stretch of the hill that was virtually flat. Those people on skis could use their poles to propel themselves like going cross country, but if you were on a snowboard and didn't have momentum going into it, you had to detach a foot and skate. Me? I took off my board and walked.

By the time we got to the sloping part of the hill again, I was so exhausted I was constantly falling. At one point, after catching a toe edge and falling on my knees again for the umpteenth time, my husband had the temerity to say, "Don't do that." Since my bruised knee was really hurting every time I fell, it was all I could do to keep my reply to a polite "I know." (Or something like that.)

Day Three and the heavenly massage

my bruised kneeWith almost every muscle aching and a nice big bruise on my knee, I took the day off from snowboarding.

In fact, I moaned and groaned so much, my friends shuttled me off to a spa for a massage. When the woman saw my knee, I swear, she said, "Wow. You're crazy."

Day four and a lack of confidence

Day 4 trail map

Despite my new set of knee pads, for some reason I was really nervous today. I managed two runs down the beginner (Dyersville) slope, then two runs down the Springmeier (green) slope. Every run, it was a real feat to talk myself into getting going.

Kly brought his camera, and we got some fun photos. I’m even smiling in some of them.

But after four runs, when the guys suggested trying a new chairlift and new slope, I decided I was too tired for something new and agreed to meet them at the bar. There was a glass of wine waiting for me. Bonus: The bartender carded me and told me I look young. :)

Day six and the beginner blue slopes

Day 6 trail map -- green highlights our approximate path

After another day off we met Wilko and Elle at the VistaHaus for lunch. It was at the top of a new lift for me, but today I was feeling rather brave. Especially because the only way out of the VistaHaus required, at the very least, a blue (intermediate) run. Granted it was the easiest of the blue runs on the mountain, but it was still blue.

And I made it. Falling leaf the whole way, but I made it. Fortunately, the blue run turned into a green fairly soon, which was a relief.

The five of us stuck together for the afternoon, and took a different path to get to Peak 9. After our second blue run, though, I had to beg for a green run. The blues were just too challenging for my skill level, and therefore not as much fun.

For the final run of the day (and trip), my husband and I took a green run down Peak 9, while Kly went with Wilko and Elle to do a blue/black run (the easiest of the hard runs).

My triumph? I was actually linking my turns on that last run and starting to look like I knew how to snowboard. And I was having fun.

Unfortunately, by that time, the trip was over. And since the season is over here in the Chicago area, that means the end of snowboarding until next year.

As a handy-dandy reference for myself next year, here's my suggested packing list:
  • helmet
  • goggles
  • snowboarding pants
  • kneepads
  • wrist guards
  • tail-bone guard
  • Under Armour shirt
  • zip-up fleece
  • winter jacket
  • ski gloves
  • sun screen/moisturizer
  • sun screen/lip balm
  • athletic watch
  • bandana or hat to cover the “helmet hair” when finished
  • (and, obviously, snowboard and boots)

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