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One of the things I mentioned in my Good Things in 2013 post was learning to snowboard. This was really a terrific experience.

It all came about as a somewhat impulsive idea when Renee and I were shopping for a new winter jacket at the Bob Wards outlet store. And it seemed a little outlandish at first. After all, I was nearly 42 years old, and I had never learned how to downhill ski. And my cross-country skiing abilities were…well, not that good. I can mostly stay upright, but my stopping and turning skills are pretty poor. For cross-country skiing, I tend to be most successful on flat, straight stretches.

I can snowshoe pretty well, but that is pretty much just…walking through snow.

So learning to snowboard sounded impossible. Especially at 42.

But…on the other hand, I had lived in Montana for seven years at the time, and it just sort of seemed wrong to live within a short drive to multiple ski resorts and yet never once go to one of them.

So we went on a mini shopping spree and picked up some basic equipment. Snowboard, boots, bindings, warm snowboard pants, and goggles. As an aside, finding goggles that work well over glasses is a bit of a pain.

The Bunny Hill, Lessons, and an Evil Rope Tow

We drove down to Lost Trail Powder Mountain for my first lesson on December 20, 2012. The plan was to do their “1 2 3” program. You get three 1-hour lessons with a lift ticket for each of those days. After completing the three lessons (on any days in the season), you get a punch card for an additional 3 lift tickets for practicing.

It is really a great deal.

I remember being extremely nervous on the 2-hour drive to Lost Trail, and looking back, I’m not entirely sure why. It just felt like I was going into completely unknown territory.

Once we arrived, it didn’t take long to sign up for lessons (Renee was doing a similar program for people with some snowboarding experience – called “4 5 6”). I remember worrying that I might end up in a lesson with a bunch of athletic little kids, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my lesson would just be the instructor and myself.

Even though the instructor was probably in his 20s, he didn’t seem to think there was anything odd about me wanting to learn to snowboard.

I spent the first day on the bunny hill learning how to move around with the board strapped to only one foot. We progressed to learning how to stop and do basic turns; I ended nearly every attempt on my butt in the snow.

The good thing about just learning is that you go so slow that the falls don’t really hurt that much. That comes later, once you pick up a little speed.

I think the most memorable part of the first day was discovering that the rope tow is evil. It looked easy. I watched other skiers and boarders just grab on and glide smoothly to the top. Every time I grabbed on, I’d slide up a few feet before losing my balance and falling. I got good at scooting out of the way of the next person in line. I also burned quite a few calories hiking up the hill just to get to the top.

The rope tow at Lost Trail
The rope tow at Lost Trail

Overall, the first day was really not bad — although I had sore muscles the next day, and I had a hard time believing that I would ever make it off the bunny hill.

We went back two more times in late December for the next two lessons, and I slowly progressed, even with the evil rope tow.

Strapped into my board
Strapped into my board

My last lesson in the “1 2 3” program was on December 27. After the lesson, I recorded my bunny hill practice runs with my phone’s GPS; here they are shown on a satellite view. The little red marks are all the places I stopped.

Practicing on the bunny hill after my last lesson
Practicing on the bunny hill after my last lesson

Real Runs!

On New Years Day, 2013, we decided to go to try Discovery Mountain for a change. I started out on the bunny hill and the “easy chair,” which is a slower chair lift great for learning. No rope tow! Although I still fell every time I got off the chair. Again, I got good at scooting out of the way before the next skier or boarder dismounted the lift.

After lunch, Renee convinced me to try a real run — and a real chair lift. We took the chair up to Gold Bug, an “easy” green run.

Renee at the top of Gold Bug, my first real run
Renee at the top of Gold Bug, my first real run

It took me about an hour to make it down the run. It went sort of like this:

Ride a short distance. Fall in the deep snow off to the side. Thrash around for 10 minutes trying to get up. Finally get up, ride a few more feet and then fall again and start over. Repeat for an hour.

According to my phone’s GPS, it was about 20 minutes of actually moving down the hill, and 40 minutes thrashing or sitting in the snow. Not particularly encouraging. But it was also my first time off a bunny hill, and just a few weeks earlier, I was convinced I’d never get off the bunny hill and onto a real run. Progress!

GPS track of my first Gold Bug run…lots of stops again
GPS track of my first Gold Bug run…lots of stops again

About two weeks later, we went back to Discovery for my birthday weekend. This time, Gold Bug took almost no time at all!

Look at that! Hardly any stops this time!
Look at that! Hardly any stops this time!

Real progress!

We continued with several more trips that winter, both to Lost Trail and Discovery. I did a second round of three lessons (the “4 5 6” program) as well, just to have more professional advice and suggestions. I continued to dislike the rope tow, particularly the second tow at Lost Trail where I had to be oriented with my back to the rope. More hikes up the hill.

I continued to fight with dismounting the chair lift. By the very last day we went (in March), I managed to slide off the chair and down the ramp without crash landing. Progress! And I made it down a few “easy blue” runs at both Lost Trail and Discovery.

So Why Did I Do This Again?

Back before my very first lesson, when we were shopping around and buying gear, I remember the advice I got from just about every sports store sales guy once we mentioned that I was going to learn to snowboard. “Be sure to go at least three days before you give up. You’ll hate it the first day, you have to keep trying before you give up.”

I found this to be mostly true, although I didn’t hate it during my first day. Not until the next morning, when I woke up with sore muscles and my mind attempting to analyze just why this seemed so frustrating.

Then I figured it out. I was teaching my body an entirely alien physical skill. I tried to remember the last time I learned a new, purely physical skill. I couldn’t remember. Maybe when I learned to ride a bike? That was so long ago I had no clear memories of how hard it was. In my memory, I’ve just always known how to ride bike, just like those lucky toddlers out on the bunny hill who will never remember a time they couldn’t ski.

Once I realized that, the frustration faded a bit. It came back, frequently, especially on my first attempt with Gold Bug on New Year’s Day, but my best defense against the frustration was to remember that I was learning a new physical skill and it would just take time. And practice.

One thing I didn’t expect when I started this snowboarding journey was the amazing views of the mountains and forest from the ski mountains. When I thought about learning to snowboard, I thought about the technical difficulty of locking my feet to a board and teaching my body to guide it down the mountain while staying balanced and upright. Getting the chance to admire beautiful vistas of trees and snow and mountains didn’t even cross my mind. But even the view from the lowly bunny hill was gorgeous and inspiring.

Interestingly, this weekend I saw this article in the Missoulian making the exact point that everyone should ski at least once, just for the amazing views.

From a lift at Discovery
From a lift at Discovery
On our very last day, March 17, 2013, at Lost Trail
On our very last day, March 17, 2013, at Lost Trail

During some of our runs, Renee took some video of me with her phone and made this little video. This was mostly from the first few times we went in December and early January; hopefully by the end of the season I looked a little less stiff!

If the embedded video doesn’t work, click here

Now What?

This year, we had big plans for the 2013/2014 snowboarding season. Back in November, we had Christmas early and bought Go Pro cameras we could mount to our helmets to record our runs. We each had to have our own camera so we could record each other.

Life intervened with these plans when Renee became sick in early December and was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. She had surgery to remove it on December 20, 2013 (exactly one year after my first snowboarding lesson!) and obviously won’t be careening down the ski hill until her skull and brain are fully healed. I’m hoping that the snow will still be around in late February and early March and she’ll be up for some late-season snowboarding. But if not, there’s always next winter!