One Man’s Snowboarding Adventure
John R. LaPlante
Season 1 : For Someone Your Age
When pressed to explain why I started snowboarding in my 40s, the first
answer that comes to mind is that I am making up for lost time.
had learned to ski by visiting Colorado, but not until my mid-30s. Then I
moved to Minnesota, which lacks the terrain. The thirty-second runs at the
closest ski area left me wanting something else. So to make the most of the
mini-hills, I took up snowboarding.
also wanted to improve my skiing. Everyone says that snowboarding and skiing
are very different, and in some ways, they are. But both rely on edging and
trusting one’s balance, for example. So even if you can not easily move from
one to the other, getting better at one can help you get better at the
Are You Goofy Or Regular?
When I learned to ski, I took lessons. I highly recommend that you do the
same for snowboarding.
bought a “Guaranteed to Ride” package (three lessons, three days of
equipment) from my local ski hill. They had separate shops for snowboarding
and skiing. I had never been inside the snowboarding shop. Behind the
counter, naturally enough, was an employee who was not yet of legal drinking
age. That was one clue that I was entering the youth market.
you ride regular or goofy?”, she asked. I knew what the question meant,
though I was unsure of my answer. “Regular,” I guessed, drawing on my meager
knowledge of the sport.
offered to show me how the bindings worked, in case I wanted to fiddle with
them before the class started. Not knowing anything about snowboard
bindings, I declined the offer (a mistake), and headed outdoors with the
all the ways that snowboarding differs from skiing, the most pleasant is
this: one can wear snowboard boots and still walk about without pain or even
awkwardness. “Hey,” I thought, “maybe this snowboarding isn’t so bad after
walked around the base a little bit, and noticed some “older” folks who
looked like they were waiting to take classes, too. Perhaps I would not be
the adult in class.
Students started to gather outside the school door. Eventually, instructors
started coming around, picking off a few students at a time. All this time,
I pondered my board, trying to figure out how I was supposed to attach my
boots to the board. As is often the case with rental gear, these were
step-ins, but the stepping was not working for me. I looked at the board,
examined the hardware such as I could (it was hard to look at the soles of
my boots), and was as puzzled as ever. Mechanical reasoning has never been
one of my strong points. So I just waited for someone to show me.
When the class assembled, I was by far the oldest person around. I could
have been the father of most of them. Our instructor a young woman who did
not appear to be much older than 16. Once again, a would-be older rider must
swallow his pride.
teenaged instructor showed me how to use the step-in bindings. Then we
started skating on nearly flat land. With one foot in the binding, we used
the free foot to propel ourselves. It was surprisingly difficult. We then
moved to skating up the hill, about 15 feet. That was even harder. I then
took to dragging my new five foot object with one front, while hopping on
the other. No wonder that beginning lessons are exhausting.
Our 15 foot trek completed, we took turns riding down
straight, and then turning either toeside or heelside. The goal was to ride
a little bit, and then come to a stop by turning the board perpendicular to
the fall line. Riding, like skiing, relies on turns for speed control.
fell several times (that’s almost a given) during these initial trips. I
fell on my knee once (get padding!), and on my backside once (get padding!),
but usually I fell on my hands (get padding!) Sometimes I tried to stop
myself by sticking the free leg into the ground to get some traction. That
was not a smart idea, either. It takes lot of energy, and (as with the
snowplow for the skier), eventually you get to a speed where it isn’t going
then moved to having both feet in the bindings. For the beginning
snowboarding student (especially one who skis), having both feet stuck on
the same board, locked into position, is awkward and unsettling. How would I
stop if I couldn't put out a foot? Learn to turn. But how could I turn on
something that felt so awkward?
No Go on the Rope Tow
After a while we took the rope tow to the top of the bunny slope. Actually,
everyone in the class made it up there, except me. I was stuck at mid-level
(or lower) throughout the lesson.
had never used a rope tow, even as a skier. Try as I might, I could not
balance on the board with only one foot in of the binding (a local rule),
hold onto the rope, adjust to the speed of the tow, and keep my balance all
at the same time. I crashed. And crashed. And crashed again. In front of
kids. Did I mention that you must abandon pride?
Sometimes I crashed right after grabbing the rope. Sometimes I actually road
for 10 feet before splaying onto the snow, causing the whole operation to
momentarily stop. Though my spirit was willing to fall, my body said “this
isn’t worth it. Try later.”
while my class was a few hundred feet further up the hill, I took my trips
down from a much lower elevation. After each mini-trip, I walked up, with
one foot attached to the board, and slid again.
it turns out, the trouble with the tow wasn’t necessarily my fault. Some
experts suggest that beginners never try to take the rope tow. It combines
too many demands in one situation.
it turns out, I would have done well to carry my board to the top of the
bunny hill, and slide from there. Trying to ride on the near-flats close to
the base was very difficult. I knew, from skiing, that you’ve got to have
certain amount of speed to turn. I couldn’t get that speed with the very
short “runs” I was making.
of a sudden, my tomboy teacher came by and told me that class was over for
the week. Good thing; I had learned all I could absorb that night. I was
getting confused, too. Let’s see … if you want a toeside turn, you do WHAT?
For Someone Your Age
Lesson done, and worn out, I went back to the rental shop. As I took off my
boots, I announced to the rental clerk, “There’s one advantage to
snowboarding. Taking off ski boots is the end of torture. With snowboard
boots, there is no torture.”
was then that one of the older fellows from the class noticed me.
“That’s pretty cool,” he told me.
gave him a puzzled look, wondering what he meant.
“You know, for someone your age.”
Wanting to defuse my “freak quotient,” I resorted to bigger freaks.
“You know,” I said. “I go skiing in Colorado. Black diamonds. With people
old enough to be my grandparents.”
That got to him. He was impressed.
“And some of them, when they’re in Michigan or Minnesota, they snowboard.”
With that, I got my street shoes on, and left, mildly discouraged. I wasn’t
injured. That was good. And I didn’t suffer too many hard slams during the
night But it also felt like I should have made more progress. Was I actually
going to “get” this?
matter. I had paid for two more lessons, and was going to use both of them.
few days later, I went back to the hill, and tried riding on my own. I went
to a small, “steep” section of the hill, and tried sliding straight
downhill, which was fine. I got rather tired skating uphill to each launch
point, even though it was a very short walk. But I stuck with the cycle of
sliding, falling, resting, and walking back up the hill, boot in binding.
The motions were all awkward, and took a substantial amount of energy. I
started to think that this idea of learning to snowboard was not going to
Somehow, I rode over to the beginning of the rope tow. I started my second
attempt to conquer the rope tow.
Line up board. Get ready to put back foot on stomp pad. Grab the rope. Step
on the pad. Let the rope carry me. Crash. Repeat.
After one fall, I sat on the ground for a few minutes, catching my breath,
resting, and wondering when I was going to conquer something this basic.
I was plotting my next attempt, a fellow in skis stopped by. He was a ski
instructor. “Don’t give up,” he told me.
“It’s a long road,” I said. “Sometimes I wish I was back on those things
again,” pointing at his skis.
“Once you figure that out, you won’t want to come back to these.”
some reason this did not seem like the stereotypical snowboarder boast, but
a simple statement of opinion. I only wished that I could know whether it
was true or not.
got back in line and grabbed the rope. I moved a few feet, and … crashed. I
slid the 15 feet down to the start of the line, grabbed the rope, moved the
few feet, and … crashed again.
repeated this for a third and maybe even fourth attempt. But at some point,
for some unknown reason, it worked. Ten feet. Twenty feet. I was going up
the hill! I hung on for dear life, huffing and puffing as I was pulled to
the “summit.” of the bunny hill.
this point I immediately sat down. Wheh! I had long ago learned why
snowboarders, even reasonably good ones, spend a lot of time sitting on the
ground. They need to rest.
An Unexpected Helper
Eventually I gained more confidence on the rope, and even started to make a
few turns, thanks in part to an unexpected helper. Randy, a 15 year-old,
tinseled-mouth teenager, started talking to me as we were lining up at the
bottom of the rope. He pointed to a friend of his who had started going up
“He’s probably going to fall.”
“That’s nothing,” I told him. “I took this thing 10 times so far, and have
fallen 9 times.”
Randy offered some advice on the various ways of gripping the rope, and to
my surprise, my next ride up was much easier.
Once we were at the top of the bunny hill, Randy offered some suggestions
for getting used to the board. Try side slipping down the hill while facing
down the fall line, he suggested. I did. Repeatedly. Eventually I did some
falling leaf exercises, and even (timidly) rode switch at times. Randy would
stop at various times and give me tips, all of which seemed rather good.
took the rope tow 6 or 7 more times, and was actually sad to leave the hill.
I never did make it completely from top to bottom without stopping. I
usually had a mini-crash, but I was learning, thanks to my unexpected
the second class session started up, we went to the near-flats again.
Fortunately, we did not linger long on this difficult part of the terrain,
and instead went to the rope tow. I relied on a water-skiing style to get
myself up the hill. It was unorthodox, but for some reason it worked.
didn’t take Jenni long to remember my previous, horrible time with the rope.
What enabled me to successfully navigate the lift? Oddly enough, I couldn’t
tell her. I did not remember. “Determination,” I finally said.
Not Quite Getting It
class played follow-the-leader down the slope. Or at least most of us did.
Jenni would make a turn to one side of the trail, and I would … make a turn
to the other side. The class would stop partway down the run, and I would
stop 30 feet below. And so it went throughout the night.
tried linking turns. I thought that we were taking things too quickly. But
we were going to try. Jenni gave us some points, which I didn’t totally
understand, but I figured “Hey, I’ve read about this and thought this
through. It’s time to try it, even if I’m scared.” So off we went, and I
rode a heelside traverse across the slope before making a turn to my toeside.
It worked just fine, and then I rode on my toes. Progress!
Sooner than I had expected, it was time to graduate to the chair lift.
Finally! I was surprised at how easy it was to load. Skating to the launch
spot, propelling myself with a free back foot, and riding the front foot
inside the binding, was easy enough. I even skated in a straight line off
the lift, and didn’t flail around from side to side.
equipment difference between skiing and riding became apparent on the lift.
The board, which dangled from my front foot, was surprisingly light compared
with my skis.
next test of the lift came a short time later when I had to unload. My
riding partner, James, and I, set off in separate directions. “No
collisions” was our motto. We were successful.
Once at the top of this larger hill, we tried linking turns on our way down.
I was partially successful. I got down the hill several times, but I always
had to stop at least once. Too much work to do otherwise, it turns out. And
sometimes I didn’t make a genuine edge change. But I was just beginning to
Pride Before A Fall
About an hour into the lesson, one of the students was getting cold feet
(literally). We decided to take a warm-up break indoors. I did not need it.
“The old man knows how to dress for cold weather,” I thought. Still, I took
advantage of the rest.
During our break, I saw just how young my classmates were. Three of them
were certainly no older than 12. One huddled over a small Styrofoam cup of
hot chocolate. Another classmate told me that he was taking this class so
that he would be skilled enough to snowboard with his wife. His wife! At
least he was old enough to be married.
I was finishing up one of the runs after the break, I felt like I was going
too fast. I tried to turn from toeside to heelside. It didn’t go well. I am
still not sure what happened. Perhaps I was leaning back too far as I was
completing the turn.
fell to the ground, and I fell hard. My hat, goggles (previously perched
over my forehead) and eyeglasses went flying. The slope was too flat for me
to slide any further. I ached all over: butt, wrist, and head. I feared I
had a concussion. I was conscious, though, and was grateful for that. "Thank
you, God," I said. "I will get a helmet before I do this again." (Sure
enough, I bought one a few days later.)
it turns out, this was the end of my riding for the first season, and I was
not able to use my final lesson ticket. The next day, my uncle suffered a
stroke, and I traveled 1,000 miles to be with him and the family. He died
within days. With a lame right hand, I had to serve as a pallbearer with my
weaker, left hand.
that fall at the end of the lesson, I had suffered a sprain. I ended up
buying a wrist brace, which was my companion for weeks to come.
Surprisingly, I did not get too much grief from anyone I met. In fact, one
of my cousin told her young children, with some pride, “Cousin John went
Season 2: An Adults-Only Class.
When the new season came around, I decided to take
lessons at one local area known for offering adult lessons. The week before
class, I drove over there to ski on the area, to get a feel for the terrain.
As I took the lift up to the top, I discovered yet another reason why I
wanted to ride: it can be graceful. The riders I saw from the lift were
quietly moving down the (short) fall line, moving slightly this way, and
then that, but usually in a near-straight line. They used the most subtle of
movements. There were no "knuckle draggers" here, just riders smoothly and
easily sliding down the hill.
Who's Who and Who's New
the actual day of the class, I arrived over an hour early. They had a
different kind of boot from what I was used to, and I had some difficulty
getting into it. I even had to ask for help. (Leave that pride behind,
again.) But as I walked out of the shop with board in hand, I remembered
another advantage of riding: it is easier to carry one snowboard than two
prepared for the class by falling. On purpose. Without even getting on the
board, I fell forward several times, to make sure that I could fall without
landing on my wrists.
Once the class was gathered, we had five students and two or three
instructors. Gary, whom I judged to be in his mid 50s, was crossover skier.
He had lived in Utah for five years, where he could choose from a number of
outstanding resorts. After moving to the Midwest, Gary took up snowboarding
to make the winters more interesting and challenging. "It's a bigger
challenge than skiing," he said. "You can do more on a snowboard, unless, of
course, you do tricks on skis."
Before we stepped into our boards, Gary asked everyone "How many of you have
ever been on a snowboard?" All but two of us raised a hand. It made me
wonder: if snowboarding is so easy, why is a majority of this beginning
class composed of repeat students?
instructors divided us up, and I went with Gary and John (another student)
on the "advanced" track. I was glad that I did not have to relive the basics
of standing on the board with one foot, skating with the board, and the
walked a short ways up the bunny slope, and did some J-turns. I did this
routine unsteadily, usually but not always falling at the end.
did heelside turns at first, which I had always found more unnatural than
toeside turns. But I worked on those for a while, and then tried a few
toeside turns. All the while, John was making two or even three J-turn runs
for each one I was able to do.
Gary then asked if we wanted to take the chair lift. I thought of
hesitating, but decided not to. I was not as comfortable as I wanted to be
on this little incline, but I certainly did not want to advance to the tow
rope. Better to take the lift chair, which was much easier.
Gary and John skated over to the lift. Skating is deceptively tiring. I’m
not sure why. To this day, I usually get out of the bindings and walk to the
Once we got to the top, I looked at what seemed to be very challenging
terrain. First, we would have to navigate a turn in a tight area that was
crowded with snowboarders sitting on the ground, getting their bindings in
goal was to get to the bottom of the trail by staying on the heelside (or
toeside) of the board, and point it first this way, and then that. I did
fine, but had to stop fairly often. At first, it was because I fell after
not doing something correctly. At other times, I simply had too much speed,
and forgetting what to do (look in another direction and shift your
weight), I simply made an abrupt, deliberate fall.
took a long time to get down each of the two runs that I made with Gary and
John. Eventually John left to ride with another instructor, and I spent
about half of the lesson with Gary: a private lesson at a group rate. We
made some more runs on our own, but then wanted a break. Gary rounded up
everyone else for another run, while I waited.
When he finally came down, he started talking with me, and we walked to the
lift line. And we kept on going. I don’t know if he changed his mind about a
final run, or simply forgot that we were supposed to do one more before
calling it a day.
“thrifty” genes clicked in. I wanted decided to get a little more out of my
current rental. So I turned around (Gary had since left me) and walked back
to the lift. "Just one more," I thought. "I want to know that I can do
So I got on the lift with a young guy, and warned him
to watch out for me up at the top. "I'm still new to this," I said. We
dismounted without incident, though, and I skidded my way down the hill,
without a single stop.
Naturally, this was intoxicating, and I decided to go "just one more time."
To my surprise, there was no line—none—at the lift. So I tried again.
once I got up to the top, it took me at least five minutes to get my back
boot in the binding. I took that evidence that I was too tired to do
anything other than make my way to the car.
The Fellowship of Old Guys
After my first lesson in the new season, I decided to get in a day of
practice on my own. After all, I hadn't spent much time riding toeside in
the lesson, and I also hadn't completed any turns.
on a Saturday, I returned, season pass in hand, to my regular mini-hill. I
had my doubts. The sky was overcast, giving "flat light," so it would be
difficult to read the terrain. This was also going to be my first time on a
board (at this hill) since the big fall.
I had to go that day, regardless. It was my last chance to take in some runs
on my own before the second class, and I had to overcome any fear of the
Once I got to the area, I decided to get in the right frame of mind by
reading one of my snowboarding books in the day lodge It helped.
headed out to the more civilized "baby lift," and rode down four times
before lunch. Each trip was more like a marathon—a marathon of 300 yards. I
would go a ways, and then fall to the ground. I had only so-so success. I
still fell a lot, sometimes from bad technique, and sometimes simply because
I was too tired to continue. Riding toeside all the time was too tiresome,
so I spent a lot of time riding heelside. One attempt at a turn ended in a
butt plant, another, in a face plant.
Five Old Guys
got a big boost when I realized that there were three other "old guys" on
the hill with me that day. The first fellow I met was Eric. The kids don’t
like to ride the lift with old guys, so we became chair partners. Talking
with him gave me a great deal of encouragement. During one ride up, he asked
"Do you have a problem getting off the lift?" I did not, but he often fell
down. "What's your secret?"
""Stay over the front of the board, and expect to ride it out, and not
fall," I told him. He then successfully rode out the lift, as did I. We
repeated the routine the next time out.
This simple exchange made me think "Hey, I am learning something after all.
This is good." Our discussions became even more helpful once I asked "have
you done any turns yet?"
few," he replied.
knew that he hadn't been riding any longer than I had. So I thought "If he
can do it, then so can I." From that point, I dedicated myself to making
turns. At first, I was slow and hesitant—purposefully slowing down before
making a turn. (Yes, this only makes things more difficult, but it is more
comforting, too.) After some effort, I started to link several turns on a
single run. Not graceful, not terribly fast, and probably not efficient, but
I was linking and turning. I was riding.
Being able to make turns—however infrequent and slow,
on mild terrain-was addictive. I thought of going over to the "big" hill
(300 feet vertical). After all, the only difference was that the trip would
take longer. But I had already pushed myself quite far that day, and decided
it was time to go home.
Not all boots are the same
next day, I went to my second lesson of the season. I was aching and stiff
from falling the day before. But it was a scheduled lesson, and I was
looking forward to linking turns for the second day in a row.
got to the class almost as it was ready to start. I then missed the first 15
minutes due to super-tight boots. The shop had received a shipment of new
boots, and it took me quite a while to work myself into a pair.
Once outside, I ended up working with Britt, a young woman who I thought was
23. As it turns out, she was 16, showing that there’s no escaping youth. We
were on a more advanced part of the hill, and I had a hard time of it. She
helped me improve my turns by working with me to alternate between bending
my knees and standing tall as I went through turns. It gave me much more
the end of this day, I was sore, and felt like I needed a few days of rest.
My triceps were stiff from a few NFL wide receiver-like dives I took the day
before. My torso was stiff from making a few rotations on the board while on
the flats during the lesson. I had a bruise on one thigh (probably from a
fall), and my calves were sore from the tight socks. Advil, please!
Because of all this work (and soreness), though, I could say "yes, I've
ridden a snowboard." There's more to learn, but I was on my way.
Taking on a Real Mountain
From there I took a lesson out in Colorado, during an annual family ski
trip. I had to adjust to yet a different set of boots (back home, size 12 or
13; there, 11) I also had to get used to using a strap binding, and not
step-ins. Was one easier than the other? Not that I could tell; each imposed
a set of demands simply to get going.
class consisted of four people, all, thankfully, adults, though even then, I
was on the older side of the student body. Our instructor was “Charlie,” a
50s-ish woman from Pennsylvania. She took up riding at age 40. “So there’s
hope for you,” she said. “There’s still time for you to be an instructor.” I
enjoyed the pump-up-the-confidence talk.
this point I was able to learn from watching the mistakes of the other two
students, and I’m sure that they learned from watching me. “Don’t do that!”
I also learned the value of riding switch. Near the
top of each lift, a bench was there for riders to sit on. It’s useful for
securing the strap-in bindings. But the placement of the bench was usually
such that my board was pointing in one direction, while I wanted to head the
other way. The solution? Get up off the bench and ride switch a short ways,
until you get to a position where you can shift weight and go in the “right”
direction. I also found that riding switch is useful for checking speed, if
I was not going too fast. I even progressed, on a relatively mild run, to
doing some 180 and 360 turns (not in the air, though).
After lunch we went up to the summit, for a 2,000 foot ride down. I don’t
know if it was overwork during the morning lesson, the mountain air, or
what, but that afternoon wiped me out. The problem may have been my
afternoon instructor, whose preferred pace was “let’s run this entire trail
all at once.”
Even after two sets of lessons back home, and three prior days of skiing on
the mountain, I couldn’t keep up with the pace. I got so tired at one point
I had to ask my instructor to tie my laces for me. My skiing companions just
happened to get off the lift then, to watch the “Daddy tying shoes” scene.
Did I mention that you’ve got to swallow your pride if you want to learn to
ride? I finished out the day by riding a 2 or 3 mile run from the top of one
mountain to the base of another. On skis, it would take perhaps 10 minutes,
with generous stops supplied by my father-in-law. But on the board, when it
was my last ride of the day, it took me 45. I had gone Rocky Mountain
riding. It wasn’t graceful, but it was a breakthrough.
Mashed Potato Runs, Top to Bottom
Three weeks passed
before I was on a snowboard again. Sensing that the number of suitable days
in the season was fast coming to a close, I went back to my midwestern
mini-hill for one last time. It was a bluebird day and warm as well. The
snow was mash potato slushy.
The slush, while not
great for skiing, suited my snowboarding just fine. It was soft enough that
when I fell, it wasn’t onto hard ice.
I thought of going
straight to the lift for the 300 foot “drop,” but decided to take it easy
and start with the 200 foot one instead. Sure, it was ridiculously gentle
compared with the mountains, but I usually get into trouble when I don’t
start any snow session with easier terrain. Back on gentle ground, I tried
doing some 180s and 360s. That was one thing I had picked up out west.
I did 5 runs on the
easier area. I spent most of my time trying to make big, sweeping turns.
Eventually I decided to head over to the steeper slope. I had made it down
the “big” slope a few times before on a previous trip, but it had been so
tentative, so ugly, and so tiring. I had to stop several times during a
This day was better.
For one thing, I didn’t have to stop. Oh, I did slow down now and again. But
I never had to stop, sit down, and catch my breath. And I didn’t have to
stop in response to cries of pain or fatigue from my legs. Perhaps all that
time on the stair-stepper over the last few months had paid off.
This isn’t to say that
riding had become second nature, or easy, or anything like that. I still had
to remember the basics. Look in the direction where you want to go. Compress
and extend your legs as required. Don’t lean back. And remember that proper
technique goes a ways to limiting fatigue.
In all, I made 8
good-quality trips down the “steep” 300 feet, which features both a more
modest and a more difficult area. I was aiming for 10 trips, but decided to
stop. Why? I met up with someone on the ski patrol near the top of the hill.
I asked him what the most difficult time of the season was. His answer? The
3 o’clock hour on Saturday. “We call it the death hour,” he said. “People
I thought about his
words on my way down, and decided that I didn’t have anything to prove. Time
to pack it in, claim victory, and go home.
As I write this, we
are still waiting for the weather to be cold enough for snow-making. When
the hill does open, I’ll have my own gear this time. I bought a complete set
of board, binding, and boots for about $200 at a ski and board swap. Is it
any good? I think it is ok, but it may be too stiff for the small terrain I
ride on. But at least I will know I’ve got the same board every time I go
out. I’m looking forward to it.
Now get out there and
© John R. LaPlante, 2004. Further reproduction
prohibited without the permission of the copyright owner.
John R. LaPlante is the publisher of Grays on Trays (www.graysontrays.com).