A New Language
Embracing the Struggle of Learning New Skills and Finding a New Love
There’s a reason why the motto of skiers and snowboarders in the northeast is “Born from ice.” As I bootpacked up Notch Road, a seasonal mountain pass in Vermont, I remember wondering what all the hype about ‘powder’ was; it was snowing, but the ground below my boots was hard, slippery, and hostile; was this “powder?”
This was two winters ago. Jon, the brave soul (and a good friend of mine) who took on the task of teaching me to snowboard, laughed as I slid around on the layer of ice beneath the snow. He led me up to the steepest part of the road, where I’d be able to get some speed on the downhill, and before anything even happened … I fell. And I was convinced that I could NOT get up.
For almost the entire rest of the season, I convinced myself that I could not get up from those snowboard wipeouts—literally and proverbially. It turned out that my falls, my tears, my fits, and, every once in awhile, my small triumphs (learning how to get up from the ground, getting off the lift without crashing into Jon, heel-side braking and turning) didn’t equal a “successful” winter of snowboarding for me. Despite Jon’s efforts, when he moved out of state that year, I did not spend the following months snowboarding. I went not even once.
Learning to have a bit of fun with skinning …
When I met Adam, I knew we’d be a sort of cinematic, rom-com cliché; we had similar interests, completely opposite (but complementary) personalities, and we were both at a place in our lives where we didn’t want to let ourselves be held back from anything. I had spent the last two years squeezing in all of the hiking, mountain biking and camping I could, and he was eager to join me on any adventure I could plan. For the first several months of our relationship, that meant going on cross-country road trips, weekly camping trips, spending early mornings fishing on the river, post-work evenings rock climbing, lunch breaks mountain biking … doing all of the things that we could possibly fit into our days, pre-sunrise and post-sunset. Alongside of us was always Bear, my German Shepherd—we structured our lives in such a way that everything we loved to do, he could experience with us.
Eventually, winter came.
I still had my old snowboard, that had been sitting, discarded, in the corner of my apartment, unappreciated since the day Jon moved. While Adam had been snowboarding since he was young, I grew up in a relatively strict household, playing no sports and participating in no after-school activities. For me, snowboarding was like learning a new language. While I had developed a strong passion for most outdoor sports and hobbies during college, snowboarding never stuck. Understanding (and implementing) the subtle body movements to turn, stop, or simply balance on my board was like trying to understand how to adjust your tongue to roll your ‘r’s in Spanish, or how to pronounce those barely audible ‘click’ sounds in the Inuit language … it took a good deal of adjusting, and a greater amount of grit.
I knew, though, that I could learn how to snowboard—it just didn’t seem to take priority over the other things I loved to do outside. When it came time to choose an activity for our time off, I wanted to be in the woods, getting a workout, and spending time with Bear. Resort riding couldn’t really offer me any of those things, so I rarely snowboarded.
We learned that our boards could double as backcountry picnic tables, too.
Sliding, Slipping, Flying
The few days we did commit to snowboarding, I spent [slowly, and only on my heel edge] riding down the slopes at our local ski mountain, picturing Bear doing what he loves—sprinting alongside of mountain bike, taking care to stay to the left and not cross in front of me; tongue flapping out the side of his mouth, panting, full speed, happy. I couldn’t help but feel like he needed to be there with me, chasing snow and taking advantage of all of the seasons, like I had resolved to do.
There was a compromise, that I hadn’t considered for myself; I could get the workout of hiking, the serenity of the woods, and the companionship of Bear while developing my snowboarding skills.
Even with a splitboard…sometimes you’ve gotta boot pack!
You can imagine that if I hadn’t truly learned how to snowboard on groomed resort trails yet, I was certainly not a professional in deep, waist-high powder, attempting to weave through trees without even knowing how to toe-edge turn or brake. Yet, learning how to splitboard absolutely engulfed me; I traded in my Sunday hiking trips for Sunday skinning; traded in being sure-footed and agile for clumsiness and unprofiency; traded in comfort for struggle. And it felt SO good.
Over the course of several weeks, Adam, Bear and I sought out the most remote, enticing backcountry trails we could find. When we did run into other people, which was rare, they’d often say, “A beginner? In the backcountry? That’s not smart”, but I can’t say that I would have wanted to learn any other way.
My very first toe edge turn happened in a couple feet of powder; I was flying down a backcountry trail that switchbacked down the mountain, and was too narrow for me to continuously rely on my heel edge. I was just flowing … for the first time ever on a snowboard, I was feeling and connecting with the snow beneath me as though my board was floating on top of it, like a surfboard on the surface of the ocean. Eventually, I realized that the trail had been winding the whole time I was riding it, and I had turned my board without even trying. I didn’t use any jerky, forced body movements to force my board into toe-edge submission; I just turned, intuitively. The rest—the human-powered rides up to the tops of mountains, the frustrating and painstaking removal of skins, the choosing of lines, the dodging of trees, the breaking of poles (and then learning how to use them properly)—was all easy. The best part though?
Picture this: Bear, a big, goofy German Shepherd, smiling as big as he can as he chases Adam and I down a mountain, us on splitboards and him on four sliding, slipping, flying legs. We’ve just hiked about 2000 feet in elevation, and I imagine he’s thinking that this will be like any other hike—after we walk up, we’ll walk down. Instead though, we transition from skins to boards, and off we go… down, down, faster, faster … and by now, I can actually ride, and turn, without falling right away. And Bear? He can run, he can chase, he can be there with us, outside, where he belongs … where we all belong.
The hardest part about skinning? Putting on and taking off the skins!
Maybe I was most motivated by Bear, or maybe by my friend Jon’s initial attempts at teaching me to snowboard, or maybe by Adam’s love for the sport, or maybe to impress my lifelong best friend (who was a semi-pro snowboarder in elementary school), or maybe by the ex-boyfriend who never had the patience to help me learn new things, or maybe by my own determination to do a thing I wanted to do (not just the things that I could easily do). Maybe motivation is a funny thing, and we never really get to know why we take on some of our hardest challenges, head-first (or, in my case, backcountry-first).
My secret to efficient skinning? Frequent Bear hug breaks.
Some people have asked about the whole safety aspect. In total honesty, I didn’t think I’d be riding anything this season that would put me in any sort of avalanche danger; we stuck mostly to low-angle slopes in the trees. That said, Adam and I have plans to take an AIARE course before next riding season is in full swing. What we did do this year, though, was make sure that we were checking local avalanche reports, only riding where there was no perceived risk, and then taking standard precautions like never riding alone (but always riding spread out).
I don’t think that I’ll be landing 540s any time soon, or even competing with Adam for the fastest downhill. What I do know is that whenever I have a bit of free time, I’ll be skinning up my favorite mountains, with my dog at my side; there probably won’t be much powder (I know what that is now), because after all—we New Engladers are born from ice … and rain, and wind, and cold, and sporadic heat, and fog … and we’ll be getting out there through all of it.