My story about snowboarding

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. My second answer is that it makes good use of the terrain I have at hand.

A few years after picking up skiing at age 35, I moved to Minnesota, which is cold enough to have November-through-March skiing.

There’s one problem with Midwest skiing, though: there’s not much terrain. The area closest to my house, for example, can easily be skied out in an hour or two.

So while I enjoyed having some outdoor activity to do in the winter, skiing wasn’t going to be entirely satisfying. Time for something else. And that something else was snowboarding.

Take Lessons

Many resorts offer a “Guaranteed to Ride” program that includes lessons, a lift ticket, and one or more classes. I signed up for this kind of lesson, which I highly recommend.

As a skier, I found the transition to a board awkward. First of all, there was the equipment. In modern ski bindings, you (laboriously) put on your boots. Then you put your toes in the binding, followed by the heel, and you’re done. Easy enough.

But snowboard bindings? Being the mechanical klutz that I am, I did not know how a step-in binding was supposed to work, and straps are simply annoying. If you’re unfamiliar with how the bindings work, ask. (I learned this the hard way.)

If you’re old enough to buy yourself a beer in the lodge after the lesson, see if you can get group lessons just for adults. I did not have that for my first set of lessons, and I could have passed for the instructor’s father. Not that you can’t learn in a class of kids, but it’s a different atmosphere that you may wish to avoid.

As a skier, I found the hardest part of learning to ride was the sense of powerlessness that comes from having both legs in the binding.

Obviously I did not know how to use edge control, and the last-resort snowplow technique, familiar to beginning skiers, was not available. The only thing I can say now is “deal with it.” Though the two sports differ in several important ways, both require edge control. You might as well focus on how to use that on a board, right from the beginning.

During my first lesson, I fell down a lot. Expect that. Some people recommend buying a lot of padding. You may hesitate to do that for a sport you are just learning about. That’s fine; I didn’t buy impact shorts until just recently. Do make sure you buy and use a helmet, however.

My first lessons involved using a rope tow. If you think using one on skis is difficult for a beginner, try it on a board. I wasted a lot of energy simply trying to stay up on the board. See if you can just walk up the hill. It’s going to be tiresome as well, but at least you won’t fall on your face as you try to do it.

For Someone Your Age

After my first lesson, I went back to the rental shop, and sat down next to another student.

“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 impressed him.

“And some of them, when they’re in Michigan or Minnesota, they snowboard.”

That conversation may have been the origin of a web site, Grays on Trays, devoted to encouraging adults who want to learn about snowboarding.

An Unexpected Helper

While young riders may not know what to do with you, you may find one or two unexpected helpers. Between my first and second lessons, I took to the hill on my own. A 15-year old boy struck up a conversation with me in the rope line, and gave me some useful suggestions. Perhaps buoyed by his helpfulness, I even found a way to keep control on the rope tow.

During my second class, we tried follow-the-leader. I never quite got it, always stopping 30 feet above or below the class. But at least I was making progress. For some reason, I found heelside traverse an easier task than toeside ones.

Without too much delay, the second lesson progressed to taking the chair lift to a slightly bigger hill. Since I had easily learned how to use a lift during my earliest ski lessons, I had only mild concerns about riding off properly. My own tip: lean towards the tip of the board and you’ll have a lot better chance of a successful landing.

My second class did not turn out all that well, sadly. I took a hard fall towards the end of the evening, and sprained a wrist. That was the end of my riding season, though it was a way to impress my young cousins. “Cousin John sprained his wrist while snowboarding,” somebody said.

During my fall, I was not wearing wrist guards, and perhaps they would not have saved me. Buy wrist guards. They’re relatively cheap, and they may help. And more importantly, spend some time learning how to fall without stopping yourself with your hands. That will go a ways to promoting safe riding.

An Adults-Only Class

At the start of the second season, I found an adults-only class offered at another local hill. A good adult instructor can set a different tone, which can be very useful.

A few days before the first lesson I explored the area on skis. As I took the lift up to the top, I saw riders 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. I could do that on skis, and the sight fueled my desire to learn how to ride.

When I got my rental gear, I had to deal with yet another configuration. Though this shop used step-ins as well as the last one, they were oriented a different direction, and harder to use.

The five or six adult students had a 16-year old instructor (whom I had first mistaken for a college student), and a guy in his mid 50s, a 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, he 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.”

I went with him and to the “advanced” track. I was happy to not have to relive the very early lessons of snowboarding, which including the difficult task (for me, at least) of “skating” on the board.

We worked on J-turns, and then side-slipping, then the falling leaf and some garlands (two exercises you may learn during a lesson), and finally making complete turns. One important point the instructor had to keep telling me was that you will go where you look. Look down, and you will fall down. Look to the left, shift your weight to the left, and go left.

The Fellowship of Old Guys

Before the next lesson, I returned to my usual mini-hill. I had my doubts. I headed out to the more civilized “baby lift,” and rode down four times before lunch. Each trip was more like a marathon–though a marathon of only 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.

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 told him no. “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 for long. 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. (This only makes things more difficult, but it is more comforting, too.) After some effort, I started to link turns during a run. Not graceful, not terribly fast, and probably not efficient, but I was linking and turning. was riding.

Being able to make turns, even infrequent and slow ones on mild terrain, was addictive. I thought of going over to the “big” hill (300 feet vertical). But I had already pushed myself quite far that day, and decided it was time to go home.

The next day brought my second lesson, where I learned how flexing knees into and out of turns made for a better ride. It gave me much more confidence. I still fell, though, and by the end of the lesson, I had fallen enough times (NFL-receive style) that my arms ached a day or so afterwards. But at this point I felt that I could say “Yes, I’ve ridden a snowboard.”

The Real Mountain

From there I took a lesson in Colorado (Buttermilk) during an annual family ski trip. My skiing companions were surprisingly unconcerned when I announced that I was going to take a day off from skiing to take a snowboarding lesson.

My instructor was a 50s-ish woman who 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. We started out on the bunny slope (roughly as high as my hill back home) and then made our way to the top, over 9,000 feet.

I’d like to say that I made a great breakthrough on this day. I did learn how to do 180 and 360 turns (on the ground!). Does that count?

Riding on a molehill had not prepared me well for the much-longer runs in the high mountain air. To this day, riding demands more energy of me than skiing does. But I did make it through several long runs, and ended up the day with a 2-mile trip. Progress!

My Own Gear

Before the 2004 season started, I decided that it was time to get my own gear. I had gotten tired of putting down a $300 deposit every time I wanted to rent a board. And besides, I was not going to improve if I didn’t ride more often–and I wasn’t going to ride more often if I always had to rent.

In this age of widespread information, it’s easy to drown in a sea of data and recommendations. And it’s also possible to spend a lot of money on new gear. I took approach of “cheap and ignorant.”

I went to a ski swap and bought a board that looked like it had the right length, and which still had some camber (bounce) in it.

In exchange for a relatively cheap price (under $200), I got a snowboard setup of my own. No, it isn’t ideal, but there’s always eBay for selling t he board when the time comes, and there are plenty of others to choose from once I get more demanding tastes.

Work (and lousy weather) have kept me from riding as often as I would like this season, but so far, the journey into learning how to ride has been a good one, both mentally and physically. Riding has given me a way to enjoy the long winter, a reason to keep in shape, and plenty of opportunities to live by learning.

May you find even better experiences. Join the phenomenon of adult snowboarders, and you’ll now that riding isn’t just for kids anymore.

2 Responses to My story about snowboarding

  1. James Zueger says:

    I greatly enjoyed reading your story. I can definitely relate to most all that you said especially the falling down part and the “sense of powerlessness”. I started trying to learn in my 50s. If you are the gentleman in the picture, I know I have seen you at 7 Springs. I will have to keep my eye out and introduce myself next time. Jim Zueger (perhaps we have already met – I forget a lot these days) Like your website. I know some grays ( better boarders than I) who might contribute to your site. I’ll talk around.

  2. John LaPlante says:

    Thanks, James. I think the sense of powerlessness is compounded by a fear of being humiliated. Adults like to be competent. When we approach snowboarding for the first time, whether we come from skiing or not, we feel incompetent. It takes a lot of humility to start over again. It’s almost like learning how to walk for the first time–though fully aware that you’re struggling to do so!

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