Saturday, January 16, 2010

In defense of passion lost

I still remember the date of my first time snowboarding: Oct. 28, 1996. It was the first day of the first season in which Park City Mountain Resort allowed snowboarders onto its slopes. After a long history as a ski-only resort, Park City landed the privilege to host the 2002 Olympic snowboarding events, probably in no small part because it finally relented to letting non-Olympic snowboarders on its lifts.

The season opened early that year, and my knuckle-dragging friends wanted to be among the first to defile Park City’s pristine slopes with their boards. And even though I had no board-riding abilities of any sort, I loved the idea of horrifying rich ski snobs and witnessing Utah snow sports history in the process, and I wanted to be part of it.

I wanted it so badly that I took $300 I had amassed slowly and painfully while working for $4.25 an hour as an Albertson’s grocery bagger and cart dragger, and purchased an Airwalk snowboard and bindings. I stashed the set-up in the bushes in front of my parents' house and worked up an elaborate lie about why I needed my college-age friends to drive me to school the next morning (I was a senior in high school at the time, and Oct. 28 was a school day.) We stuffed five people and five boards into a Honda Civic and took off for Park City.

I still remember the exhilarating freedom of that autumn morning - the bright sunlight, the seltzer-flavored air, the giddy conversation, the stereo blasting AFI full volume into a day full of promise. As we stood at the bottom of the lift, one of my friends helped me determine which foot to strap into the bindings by pushing me forward without telling me exactly what he meant to do. As I panicked and caught myself, he determined I was “regular.” (I’m actually a goofy-oriented rider.) He helped me cinch up my bindings and we were off.

The lift ride was long. “Shouldn’t I be on the bunny lift or something?” I asked. They assured me I would be fine. We disembarked and I immediately fell flat on my face. When I looked up, every single one of my friends was gone.

And thus I was abandoned at the top of Park City with no clue how to get myself down. What followed still remains one of the more frustrating experiences of my life, a mixture of terror and pain amid long minutes of hovering on the horizon lines of steep slopes, inching down on my butt, standing, sliding, falling, tumbling, standing, and falling again. Eventually, a benevolent stranger taught me how to ride my toe edge and zig-zag down. When I finally reached the bottom, I got right back that same lift, battered but determined.

I came home so bruised and stiff that I had no choice but to admit to my parents that I had lied to them and skipped out of school to go snowboarding. I couldn’t sit down without excruciating pain for nearly a week. But inexplicably, I was hooked. I went snowboarding as often as I could afford with what little time and money I had in 1997 and 1998. I was always a timid, conservative rider, but I did eventually learn to carve powder turns through the trees and even tried a few small jumps.

In subsequent years, college and work and other demands took over. I started doing most of my riding at night, where it was cheap and convenient on the lit slopes of Brighton. There, in the tunnel vision of pale yellow groomers, the freedom and exhilaration I found in snowboarding started to wane. On the occasion I could get up there during the day, I found myself more interested in lingering on the ridge with its sweeping views of the Heber valley than I was in conquering the Snake Creek moguls. At night, I was more intrigued by the minus-20-degree stillness of an extreme cold snap than I was in blasting over the slick surface of the snow. And slowly, I started to realize that I was more interested in being in the mountains than I was in sliding down them.

The last winter I snowboarded more than once or twice in a season was 2001-2002. The following summer, I took $300 I had amassed a little less slowly and painfully while working for $11 an hour as the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin’s community news editor, and bought my first bicycle.

Sometimes I wonder how my snowboarding passion slipped away. I lent out my beloved Airwalk only to have it left behind at the resort, lost forever. I purchased another board from a friend, only to leave it out all summer long until the white surface had yellowed and the edges had rusted. I became rusty myself, increasingly more timid and subsequently worse. The winter of 2008-2009 was the first since 1996 that I didn't strap on a snowboard, even once.

On Thursday, I set out for my first long bike ride since I came down with the flu, basically my first long bike ride of the new year. In heavy snow followed by heavy rain, I spent the afternoon pedaling through four-inch-deep slush atop slick ice. The ride was grinding and tentative and cold, and I only managed a little over 60 miles in five hours. But I came home feeling satisfied, pleasantly tired and wholly alive.

On Friday, I decided to go snowboarding with my friends. We showed up early for "first chair." There was fresh powder on the slopes but the falling snow was quickly turning to sleet, and the fog had descended so thick that the white-out vertigo made me nostalgic for the tunnel vision of my night skiing days. Five skiers and I followed each other's turns in a coordinated posse that reminded me of my high school days of yore. After two years of abstinence, it was tough to get my "snow legs" back, but eventually we ventured off the groomers and tore through narrow corridors full of chop as the sleet glazed a deep layer of "Juneau powder" with hard ice. I enjoyed it for the same reasons I would enjoy an evening of bowling with a large group of friends. It was fun, definitely. Challenging, certainly. But passion? Satisfaction? All these rewards I can glean from a 60-mile slush ride that for all practical purposes should be miserable, are for some reason missing from my more recent snowboarding experiences - even the times I hiked it up the mountain myself before riding down.

I do think I could develop a lasting passion for snowboarding through backcountry excursions, but my skill set is a long way from allowing me to embark on the deeper backcountry I crave. Developing these skills would require many more days of lift-served boarding, honing my turns, gaining more confidence on the steeps, and practicing in deep powder. I'm just not sure I have the passion to develop the skills I need.

I'm also dubious about how much learning to ski will change my mind, although I would like to learn to ski. Skiing is a more versatile mode of travel, good for long traverses of places I'd really like to explore, like the Juneau Icefield. But I sincerely doubt that simply changing the hardware is going to suddenly turn me into a powder hound. Especially if I have no desire to let lifts cart me up to places where I can learn it.

Still, I have no intention of giving up snowboarding, just as I would never dream of swearing off bowling. It's a fun diversion, and a good way to spend time with friends. I just feel more certain now that passions my 17-year-old self cherished have changed.


  1. Skiing came first when I was a wee grommet. It wasn't until I had returned from a few years of living and surfing in Hawaii that I discovered snowboarding. Stuck in Ohio, it seemed to be the closest thing to the soul-surfing I'd done on longboards and mini-tankers on the shores of Oahu. But I was violently surprised to find that snowboarding is not as easy to learn as skiing. Or surfing.

    So if you ever decide to switch to skis, I'm offering the thought that it should be a smooth transition.

    Ten years later, I still love to snowboard and have never returned to skis. Just finished a 5000 mile road trip that included stops at Snowbasin and SkiBowl. My old Ride is still serving me well, but is probably due for updating (the foam is coming loose from the boots in thick chunks).

    But my priorities, like yours, have changed. When out west, I found myself spending nearly as much time sitting on the slopes versus riding, enjoying the stillness and the view:

    And your comments about the lift-dependent nature of snowboarding and skiing are noteworthy. To state the obvious, I hate having to depend on a big mechanical monster like that.

    Now a Pugsley is in the works. Should be ready in a couple of weeks. Funding for it includes selling my previously prized possession: the Heckler dualie. My goals now are more about deliberate, peaceful movement through isolated pockets of creation and less about banging off of every ledge at mach speed.

  2. I love snowboarding too but its more of a friendship thing. That being said I haven't been in years. I should really go again.

  3. I love skiing for the same reasons that you love your sports - getting up into the mountains. I have traveled frozen trails I would never have been able to access in the warmer months, and stood atop peaks in the winter thanks to my own two legs, ski gear, and a pair of climbing skins. I've camped in -40F conditions in the Yukon on a wilderness ski tour, and ski traversed icefields and glaciers in SE Alaska, Canada, Glacier Bay, and the Alaska range. I've also ridden my share of ski lifts with "rich snobs" and dirtbag ski bums and every other imaginable type of person. I always encourage people to try skiing because it has brought me so much adventure, fun, and a sense of belonging in the mountains, but - if it ain't in you, then it ain't in you. Don't apologize. You can't do it all.

  4. More of a cross country skier meself, but both are wonderful passions. I find that I too get caught up in some things for a little while and then forget about them while I return to my "real passions." But, one must be well rounded, I feel, and a bit capricious.

  5. I am with niceskier -- if you want more than flat-flat-flat machine-groomed trails or getting dragged uphill by a lift and then bombing down the hill, touring is for you. A pair of moderately short skis, sealskins (yeah, I know, today one uses synthetic materials), and a pack with a picnic and fould-weather gear -- and you can leave all those fakers behind.

    To make it more interesting for you: Ski touring is a heavy workout. Especially when the terrain gets steep enough that you strap the skis to the pack and switch to the snowshoes. Hey, one tour, twice the fun!


    CAPTCHA: entingl -- the warm fuzzy feeling when you are falling into your touring rhythm.

  6. One word: splitboard.

  7. Downhill skiing is my guilty pleasure. I don't feel like I earned the ride down since I took an automated ride up. I suppose the price of the lift ticket makes the ride down feel a bit more justifiable, however.

  8. What a beautiful winter shot, that first photo. I can almost hear the silence.

  9. I went from cross-country (last ride 1996) to snowboard+snowshoes when the climb is not frozen enough for just the boots (2007-...) and it's got nothing to do with groomed and lifts... Now that the weight of the board (or splitboard, or skis+skins) is so low, you just strap whatever it is you don't use at the moment onto your backpack and forget about it for a while. Then when you're tired of walking uphill, you slowly and almost silently glide through the glistening powder downhill... It doesn't have to be about speed on groomed pistes, and there's nothing wrong with having just one ride down in a day.


Feedback is always appreciated!