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Grays on Trays

By Doug Taylor - March 8th, 2004

"Grownup snowboarder." A contradiction in terms? Isn't snowboarding a sport for rebellious adolescents with died hair and pierced body parts, wearing tee shirts and elephant-sized pants, doing impossibly contorted tricks in a halfpipe? It may surprise some hard-core skiers and skeptics that the answer to both of these questions emphatically is "No."

It is true that the punk stereotype is what most outsiders of the sport consider to be the image of a "snowboarder." But while young people dominate in terms of numbers, they are not the whole picture and actually are relative newcomers to the sport. Before snowboarding became a popular fad, attracting this "new-school" from a skateboarding and street background, there were the "old-school" and "alpine" riders. The old-school pioneers have been snowboarding since as far back as the days when few, if any, ski areas allowed boards - 10 or 15 or more years ago. Some, but not all, have a skiing background. Generally, they don't confine themselves to the halfpipe as do most of the new-schoolers. They use the whole mountain, as do skiers, favoring powder, back country, steeps, chutes, and cliffs, while using free-riding boards with soft boots. And, as their name implies, they certainly aren't kids anymore.

Alpine riders are the smallest minority, and many of them are current or former skiers. They rarely, if ever, venture into the halfpipe, and are fond of traveling at high speed on groomed trails, slicing deep ruts into the snow. You won't find them skidding sideways or sitting in groups in the middle of the trail. With traditional ski-looking clothing, often a helmet, hard-shelled boots and stiff, narrow, directional carving boards, they occupy a misunderstood middle ground: disdained as "skiers" by the new-school, yet shunned as "snowboarders" by two plank die-hards. It is this group that attracts most of the "grownups" from the over 35, baby boomer generation.

Consider this profile. You are a boomer who has been skiing since you were a kid. You have the experience and skill to ski most anywhere on the mountain. But face it, your knees can't take the pounding of those moguls the way they used to; two or three runs in the bumps exhaust your energy for the rest of the day. And you are becoming cautious and maybe even a little tentative on those steep chutes you used to blow down with abandon. At your age, you quite prefer rapid cruising on Giant Slalom boards over groomed corduroy. Truth to tell, however, after 20 or 30 years on skis, much of the challenge and a healthy dose of the thrill is gone.

It is while on the groomed runs, or riding the lifts above them, that you have noticed the alpine snowboarders, linking graceful, surgically carved turns that, as a matter of physics, simply are not possible on skis. These riders don't just drag their knuckles; they are able, in the right conditions, to slide their hips, knees or entire body across the snow as they cleave crisp, perfect arcs. Much as you resist, they have piqued your curiosity. You may even have tried those "parabolic," "shaped" or "super-side cut" skis being marketed so heavily these days. But you find that while they may approximate a true carved turn better than your traditionally shaped skis, they are pale imitations of an alpine snowboard. The difference between them is analogous to water skiing: no matter how adept a skier is on two planks, he or she will be unable to change direction as quickly and precisely, or to achieve the edge and body angles, as with both feet mounted on a single surface, one behind the other.

Getting Started

So you are persuaded to try snowboarding, and you now understand that this doesn't mean that you have to pierce your ears, buy outlandish new clothing, and go through a mid-life crisis. How should you proceed?

Before purchasing equipment, I advise the beginning snowboarder to rent or demo both boots and boards. The snowboarding learning curve starts out slowly, then skyrockets; needs and tastes will change drastically over a short span of time. Renting a variety of different boots and boards during the learning process is educational as well as economical.

The first board should a symmetrical all-mountain "free-riding" board of between 135 and 160 cm., depending upon the size of the rider. Borrowing your friend's stiff, unforgiving racing board with the bindings mounted at a 60-degree angle, or your daughter's soft, tiny twin-tip freestyle board with the bindings mounted "duck stance" (both feet angled outward), is not recommended. Rely on the expertise of a knowledgeable shop tech to fit the proper boots, board and bindings, and to adjust stance width and angles, to suit your personal needs according to age, height, weight, strength and ability.

At the time boots and boards are chosen, a crucial decision must be made: which foot forward? Some new riders have participated in such similar sports as water skiing, surfing or skate boarding, and already know. If you are unsure, the following exercise usually works to ascertain the dominant leg: with a running start, slide across a linoleum floor in your stocking feet. Instinctively, one leg usually is thrust forward for balance, while the stronger leg remains behind for support. This should accurately determine your snowboard stance.

As with undertaking most new endeavors, lessons are highly recommended. Taking the lift to the top of the mountain cold turkey definitely is not. No matter how coordinated, strong, and balanced you may be, prepare for a humbling experience your first time out. Expect a few face and fanny plants; anticipate some bruises and sore muscles. Some beginners even wear protective padding on their wrists, knees, elbows, and posterior; in-line skating equipment works well. Competent, experienced instruction will minimize the struggle and maximize a swift progression from tumbling to turning. Snowboard lessons geared to adults increasingly are available at most resorts and help make the learning process successful and enjoyable for the mature set.

Generally, the baptism by fire that a new snowboarder experiences is short lived. In comparing the learning curves of skiing and snowboarding, it is said that "skiing is easy to learn and hard to master, while snowboarding is hard to learn and easy to master." In both sports, the initial task is the ability to turn in both directions in order to control the rate of descent. This usually is more quickly accomplished on skis, where balance is easier to maintain with two legs moving independently rather than being attached simultaneously to one surface. But once turning is assimilated, the progression from awkward novice to steady intermediate to confident expert is markedly faster on a snowboard. It is not unusual to advance from floundering on the mildest bunny hill to carving deep trenches on groomed black diamond terrain in a single season.

I'm Scared of Getting Injured

Finally, some comments about injuries. Beginner snowboarders typically sustain more injuries to their upper body, such as thumbs, wrists, elbows, and shoulders, which absorb much of the forces in falls. Ankle and foot injuries also are prevalent for riders in soft boots. Caution and common sense during the learning phase, as well as using protective guards and pads, should help to minimize their occurrence. Once the beginner stage is passed, the rate of snowboarding injuries drops significantly, and likelihood of knee injuries is much less than for skiers. Having both feet attached to one board with bindings specifically designed not to release prevents the independent twisting of the legs and torsional stress associated with injuries to knee ligaments common in skiing.

So, to all of you grownups, adults, and over-the-hill oldsters: be adventurous, be bold, be outrageous. On your next visit to your favorite resort, follow your kids on a snowboard. You won't be disappointed.


Doug Taylor is a 49-year-old snowboarder and skier from Syracuse, New York. He skied for 35 years before getting hooked on snowboarding 8 years ago. He is a PSIA Certified Level II Snowboard and Level III Alpine instructor, recently retired.


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