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PUBLISHED: 11:05 AM on Wednesday, February 2, 2005
Snowboarding for dummies or "You're never too old to learn new tricks"

Photo by August McAllister
  Snowboarding looks like so much fun - but can an almost 40-year-old mother of three really learn how to work this strange-looking piece of equipment? We sent a willing volunteer to Eaglecrest to find out, in the interest of science.
When snowboarding instructor David McMasters told me, "you are about to embark on an adventure that has the potential to change the entire course of your life," I mentally rolled my eyes. When he continued to tell me snowboarding changed his life, turning him from an accountant into an avid snowboarder and later snowboarding instructor, I thought "surely, it must have been the boredom with numbers that did it."

But at the end of my first snowboarding lesson, I found it had changed my life a bit. Not as dramatically as it did for McMasters, but in a somewhat significant way.

As an almost 40-year-old mom who hasn't been on any kind of downhill gear for 15 years, I've long looked at snowboarding as something kids do: You switch your skateboard for one without wheels and voila, you're a snowboarder. Surely, a middle-aged woman on a snowboard would look silly? Kind of like my dad would if he went to a Green Day concert? But then again, it did look like a lot of fun. And the advantage of getting older is that you sort of stop caring if you look silly. And after Jeffra Clough, ski school director at Eaglecrest, told me about how she once gave a couple in their 80s their first downhill skiing lesson, I just knew I had to at least give that kid-thing a shot. Looking silly or not.

Getting the right gear would be the first challenge, I thought. But the staff at the ski rental shop didn't fall over laughing when I walked in - on the contrary, they were very helpful and encouraging, and didn't seem at all surprised to see an old fart like me come in and ask for a snowboard.

"I have a friend who's in her 50s," said the young guy in the ski shop, "and she just started snowboarding last year. She was pretty good by the time we closed."

Once I got the boots on, they made me feel like a slightly forward-leaning Elmo: They were big, fat, wide boots, that felt very warm and fuzzy inside; nothing like the toe-freezing leather boots I remember learning to downhill ski in. The board looked - well... intimidating. But not wanting to show my 10-year-old son (who's still under the impression his mom is cool) that I was hesitant, I grabbed it and headed up to the ski school meeting point.

It turned out I had only one classmate in the beginner's snowboarding class for adults. She was younger, skinnier, prettier, and looked like she was in better shape than I was - but she was too inspiring to be intimidated by.

"I'm not doing anything boring or putting up with dead-end jobs or friends who drag me down anymore," she said. "Not after being diagnosed with cancer at age 33." Learning to snowboard, for her, was part of celebrating that she's still alive - and wanting to make the most out of every minute of her life.

Tiger Hollow was our first challenge. As a former downhill skier (and a fair one), I looked at the wee slope with some skepticism. And then I got one foot attached to the snowboard and immediately changed my mind. All of a sudden it didn't look so ridiculous after all.

David walked us through basic terminology, and basic body posture for snowboarding. "I know I'm throwing a lot at you," he said, "but trust me, if you only stick with it through the first three lessons, you'll really get it."

"First three lessons," I thought to myself. "I'm lucky if I get through the next ten minutes the way my legs feel right now!"

"Don't worry," David said. "Snowboarding uses muscles you don't use in any other sport. They'll feel tight in the morning, but it'll get better in a hurry." And as soon as my calf muscles warmed up, they settled down and agreed to cooperate.

Our first mission was to walk up the wee hill with one foot attached to the snowboard. The "wee" hill felt quite large until I got the hang of it. Meanwhile, my co-student was galloping up the hill with ease (it seemed), saying something about having eaten too much banana bread and needing to burn the calories off. (I told her to call me next time and I'd help her eat the banana bread.)

Once up, we practiced shifting our weight on the board to turn it uphill - "making smiley-faces on the hill" - with one foot attached, one foot loose and just standing on the board. I fell a couple of times. My co-student didn't. She looked like she was born to snowboard. I was really grateful I hadn't brought a photographer. But David kept encouraging us both, telling us what we did correctly, and what he saw in our posture and in our tracks that showed a point where we could improve.

I still wasn't quite convinced, but I had a lot of fun rolling around in the snow trying to figure out how to work the snowboard. Still, I kept reaching for the familiar, thinking "I should have gotten skis instead of a snowboard!" but no way I was going to admit that to anybody. I was so not going to give up.

Getting the hang of things with one foot on the board was easy and not very intimidating. But then came the point when both feet were supposed to be attached. I got the bindings on OK, but then I felt like a bug that had ended up on my back. As agile and fit as I like to think I am, I couldn't for the life of me get up on my own. "Oh well," I thought, "if I were worried about my dignity, I probably wouldn't even be here." David pulled me up, and I kept going.

We slowly learned to make turns facing uphill, then proceeded to turning with our backs uphill. Contrary to the majority of beginning snowboarders, I found the second to be much easier than the first. "Most people find turning toward their toe-side easier than their heel side," David said. But even he had to admit I did better with my rear toward the mountain. Maybe it was because that's where I know I've got padding to land comfortably on?

Traversing the little hill back and forth, we started to get a feel for how the snowboards reacted to our shifting of our body weight. I kept falling down, but it started feeling more like skiing (which I know) and less like bungy jumping (which is the sheer embodiment of fear for me) as we went. So when David told us we were ready to head up to the Bunny Hill, I was game. And my calves, which had been protesting the new challenge loudly for the first 45 minutes, were warmed up, happy, and ready for new excitement.

Apparently, my biggest achievement of the day (judging by the reactions of David and assistant ski school director Tom Brayton) was getting up the Platter Pole ski lift on a snowboard on my first try without falling off.

"Only one in about, oh, I'd say 2,000 beginners manage that," said Tom. I have to confess it made me feel good that there was something I was good at. Maybe I wasn't a star, but hey, I got up the ski lift! I'll take it.

On the first run down the Bunny Hill my revelation came. I was finding my groove. Yeah. I'm actually starting to get this. Funny enough, the comparison I made in my head wasn't to skiing - it was to sailing. You turn your rudder this way - you go that way. It all makes sense now. I'm actually doing it. I think she's got it! And when I -- with help from David's suggestions -- figured out how to get up from sitting to standing on the board, I was giddy. Yay! I can do this! I may be an old dog, but I can still learn new tricks!

The second run down, I did my first turns. Turns from facing the hillside, through - gasp - having the board facing straight down the hill - to having my back toward the hillside. Compared to what I was able to do when I walked in the ski rental the same morning, I had improved about 800 percent. At least!

And then it was over. Two hours, of which the first 30 minutes felt like a challenge I wasn't sure I was up to, had ended way too soon. I felt as upset as my teary-eyed 10-year-old that the fun was over - but I also realized that two hours of that was probably as much as my legs were up for on a first encounter with a snowboard.

As we got our boards and boots off, I was wondering silently what that feeling was that I was experiencing. Then, I realized: It was the same feeling I had after waterskiing for the first time, or rock climbing for the first time, or any of all those things I used to do when I was younger: I had put my body through a new challenge, and it had once again proved it could stand up to it.

I strutted down to return my gear a little taller and quite a bit cockier than I had walked in there.

Middle age, schmiddle age. I ain't dead yet. And since I'm not, I intend to have me some serious fun. The connections are working, challenges can be overcome, and I'm just kicking myself for not getting a discount annual pass before the season started. This snowboarding thing is way too fun to let the teenagers have it to themselves!


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