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.