Monday, December 19, 2011

Learning to Snowboard at the Ripe Old Age of 37

By Diana Hsieh

Last Sunday afternoon, my husband Paul and I headed out to Breckenridge, Colorado for a few days of much-needed vacation. I decided to try to learn to snowboard on this trip. (I'm a pretty good skier, but I've not yet skied this season.) I wanted the challenge of learning a new sport, and snowboarding seemed like a good fit for me. Plus, I suspect that snowboarding might be easier on my increasingly painful Morton's neuroma. (That's an inflamed nerve in the ball of my right foot, acquired by wearing bicycle clip shoes.) So with three full days to play in the snow, I decided to take the plunge into snowboarding!

The first two days were pretty darn miserable. I'm not exaggerating. On the first day, I took a full-day lesson to learn the basics, and that was essential. (We had one instructor, plus an instructor-in-training, for four people. That was awesome.) The class worked on the bunny hill of Peak 9 for most of the day, but our final run was on a green slope. While I improved over the course of the day, I struggled to learn how to shift my weight properly in order to steer. Still, the green run was good... including the bit of real hill toward the bottom.

The second day -- my 37th birthday -- was the worst. I still struggled to steer, even just on my heel edge, and often I was sucked into the edges of the run by seemingly insignificant fall lines. Also, I had serious troubles "skating," i.e. moving with one foot detached. That's tricky to learn, and because I switched from regular-footed to goofy-footed after the first day, I had to relearn it. (I'm pretty sure that I could go either way in my stance, but my bad foot is always strapped in with a goofy stance, and that puts far less stress on my neuroma. So goofy I am!) Alas, I had lots of skating to do on this day because I was stupid enough to return to Peak 9, with its long stretch of flat with that strong fall line to the right. (I'd never even notice that skiing!) That was a mistake. However, the absolute worst was the platter-pull lift on the bunny slope: it was not merely ridiculously difficult to skate on a snowboard while being dragged uphill, but also extremely tiring. I was always more winded at the top of the slope than I was at the bottom. After switching to the green run later in the day, I got better at controlling my direction and speed, but I'd not even been able to think about turns yet.

On the third day, I dreaded returning to the slopes. Every muscle in my body ached, and after my first two days, I didn't see much hope for fun. However, I was determined not to permit all of my pain of the first two days go to waste by my giving up, so off to the slopes I went.

Happily, I had a blast! I went to Peak 8, and I stuck with an easy green run and an easy two-person lift. (I could only stay for three hours.) That was perfect. The hill posed enough of a challenge that I never got bored. I worked on my heed-side traversing, then my toe-side traversing, then my j-turns, then c-turns, then s-turns. If I tried to turn on a steeper portion of the hill, I'd crash in a most spectacular way, but I was able to do the turns pretty well on the flatter sections. Control over my speed and direction began to come naturally to me, meaning that I didn't have to think through every body motion. Also, I was able to practice my skating to get on and off the lift. I even managed to skate off the lift perfectly a few times. (Really, that was a feat!) Oh, and it was awesome to have an inch of powder on the slopes that day too!

I'm now eager to return to the slopes to continue learning the basic skills of snowboarding. Obviously, I have much to learn yet, but I think I've gotten over the painfully frustrating portion of the learning curve.

I've never fallen much in skiing, even while learning. I fell over and over again in my three days of snowboarding, often suddenly and hard. However, I didn't suffer any other aches or pains or bruises from that, apart from muscle soreness. (The only exception is a dark circular bruise, two inches wide, on the side of my thigh. I have no idea how I got that!) I stayed out of trouble because I wore a slew of protective equipment, including:

  • A helmet. I bonked my head slightly a few times, so I was very glad to have protected my beloved noggin. I plan to wear a helmet whenever I ski or snowboard from here on out.
  • Wrist guards. They weren't just useful for when I'd catch an edge, but also for helping to prop myself up when attempting to stand up. My instructor cautioned against relying on them for too long: to prevent broken bones, you want to learn to break your forward falls with your shoulder, rather than your arms.
  • Knee pads. I used some knee pads that we'd bought at Home Depot years ago, strapping them on over my ski pants. They definitely cushioned me on some very hard forward falls. I'll likely wear these heavy-duty knee pads for a few more outings, then look for some snowpants with built-in knee pads.
  • Butt pad. This was sheer brilliance on my part, even if the ideas were borrowed from others. I secured the perfect pad to my rear by taking an inch-thick "kneeling pad" for gardening, again from Home Depot, and securing it in the proper place with spandex shorts. (It worked best to put it on over my long underwear.) It was sheer brilliance, I tell you! It really worked: despite some bone-jarring falls, my butt was never sore. The set-up did require large ski pants, however.
My only equipment failure was my mittens. My usual skiing mittens, which are lovely and warm, weren't large enough to fit over my wrist guards, and the wrist guards weren't large enough to fit over my mittens. Doh! Since the wrist guards needed a layer of cushion underneath, I decided to wear my warmer-weather gloves. It wasn't too cold for that, but wowee, they got soaked. As a skier, my hands just aren't in the snow. As a snowboarder, my hands were digging into the snow every time I'd fall, sit down to rest, or get up -- meaning about once every three minutes. That meant soaking wet gloves. I was too cheap to buy new gloves in Breckenridge, but I found an excellent pair of large waterproof gloves and a pair of large mittens at Costco in Denver.

Now I just need to buy myself a used snowboard and boots... and get back out on the slopes!

So what are the lessons here for learning a new sport? I'd say (1) don't give up too soon, (2) pad yourself like crazy, and (3) keep working toward the fun!

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