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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.

I 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.

I 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 other.

Are You Goofy Or Regular?

When I learned to ski, I took lessons. I highly recommend that you do the same for snowboarding.

I 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.

“Do 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.

She 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 board.

Of 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 all.”


I 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.

My 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.

I 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 to help.

We 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.

I 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.”

So 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.

As 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.

As 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.

All 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.”

It was then that one of the older fellows from the class noticed me.

 “That’s pretty cool,” he told me.

I 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?

No matter. I had paid for two more lessons, and was going to use both of them.

No Boast

A 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 pan out.

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.

As 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.”

For 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.

I 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.

I 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.

At 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 the hill.

“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.

I 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 helper.


As 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.

It 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

The 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.

We 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.

The 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.

The 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 “get it.”

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.

As 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.

I 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.)

As 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.

In 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 snowboarding!.”

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

On 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 skis.

I 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?

The 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 like.

We 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.

I 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 lift.

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 place.

Our 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.

I 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.

My “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 this."

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.

But 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.

So 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.

But 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 terrain.

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.

I 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

I 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?"

"A few," he replied.

I 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

The 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.

I 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 confidence.

At 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.

My 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.

At 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 trip.

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 get tired.”

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.

Season Three

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 ride!

© John R. LaPlante, 2004. Further reproduction prohibited without the permission of the copyright owner.

John R. LaPlante is the publisher of Grays on Trays (


"Let's Ride!"






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