Some Falls Are Better Than Others

A Treatise: On Learning to Snowboard

1.

Falling I was flying.

Sort of. The baby lift at Brian Head was moving like a snail headed to bed, and was just about as high off the ground.

Of course, you want it this way if you are learning to ski. You want things to be small and slow and friendly and gentle and easy. For the first day, at least, you want to stay away from the terrain parks, the mogul runs, the aspen glades, the untracked powder.

Right: if you are learning to ski. I wasn't learning to ski. I can ski just fine. I was here, at the spectacular southern Utah ski resort of Brian Head, to learn ... to learn ... ahggh, just say it. To learn to snowboard.

2.

I learned to ski on a similar trail to the one beneath this lift. Actually, it was called Fanny Hill and was at the base of a ski area in a certain rectangular state to the east where it rarely snows. Twenty-six years ago (I was 4) I pushed off, poleless, on very short skis bought at a ski barn in Taos. I still remember the barn, and I remember that first few days on skis, too: I fell, got frustrated, suffered through brief snow, and kept getting caught on a piece of wood buried just below the surface that my parents did not believe existed even after I told them it was there.

I have skied all but one winter since them, and these days average about 50 days a year on the mountain, having now taken up something called backcountry skiing where I wake up very early to climb tall mountains far from resorts and ski lifts, then ski down them.

And now, in a sort of retro-humiliation, I am back on the baby hill. Actually, this run is called First Time, and the one next to it, on the other side of the baby lift, is called You're Ready. More like: You're Ready, Big Boy! It taunted me like that.

Don't get fresh with me. I know the routine.

3.

Self-Explanatory Let's be honest about one thing: I fell a lot that Sunday morning, and at the end of the day when I headed to the changing room I found that my pant bottoms and just-underneath pile vest were caked with snow from those falls. And one other thing: though it took about 18 hours to set in, I got bruised in a serious way. Like: an elbow that creaked when it bent, two purple bumps on each cheek of my arse, a respectable limp, a backfull of knots and kinks, and a dull headache.

But let's be honest about something else: snowboarding is so easy it should be a crime. It is barely a sport. It's like learning to whistle, or play Go-Fish.

So there, First Time. So there, You're Ready. Take that!

4.

OK, so maybe it's not exactly that easy. For the record, I took one run each on First Time and ... that other run ... then graduated to the Navajo lift, which took me to much longer runs like Paradise, Fremont, Maryland Parkway and Navajo, runs long enough that once I was up I could get a groove going, could really begin to understand the forces working against me, and those working in my favor. Incoming!I got to know my board, you could say, and came to understand why it was important to always be on one edge or another, or what to do when I felt myself falling, or why it was really not a good idea to ski crouched down and better to stand tall.

One other thing that helped was that I had a kind and caring teacher, my good friend Laura, who has been riding a board for several years. (She wouldn't want me mentioning this, but she learned to ski in North Carolina. Like, where?)

Many say that snowboarding is like skate boarding or surfing. Though I grew up in south Texas, I was really never involved in those two sports. Though those may be the roots of the sport, snowboarding is grounded in balance and dexterity.

But like learning any new endeavor, there is also a wee bit of attitude. I spent that first run on my rump. By the second I could go further without falling, but I was just snowplowing. What I needed was vertical - and less kids - so Laura and I went over to the long beginner lift. On run three I could, for brief spells, link one good turn with one wide, wobbly turn (I turned to the left without problem, but because my left foot was the downhill one I had considerable more difficulty turning to the right) before nixing all my success with one spectacular fall that would jolt my back and neck. By the fourth run I could link turns and link them tighter and toward the end of the run followed Laura into deep powder (which was a royal catastrophe). By run five, it was like butter.

5.

Finally! Do you know how when you go to college for the first time you invariably take a class that demands a different way of thinking, a different point of view, one that lets you look at the world and see its underpinnings, or shades of gray where you once thought there was only black and white? Kind of that is what snowboarding is like for a mountain. On skis you seek, perhaps, open slopes to carve or doilies that lead through the trees or mogul runs that bump and grind beneath the lift. On a board you find different rhythms to the mountain, terrain features, lips and jumps and noodles.

There is still the occasional ski area in this country that does not allow boards. Looking at their operation and philosophy, I can understand why. While I would never suggest a boards-only mountain, I do understand why boarders seem to stick to their own, why some resorts are favored over others by snowboarders, and why they probably don't like it when skiers invade the terrain park.

While I'm not ready to dump the tele skis just yet, I have to admit that I liked my day on a snowboard. Laura and I had to leave before the full day ended to make it back to Salt Lake City at a reasonable time of night, and I wish that didn't have to happen. I want to snowboard again.

On our final run I achieved that sort of end-of-day synchronicity when I had stopped falling, when I could take a loop through the trees and not end up mired in waist-deep snow, unable to move. If I stood up and relaxed I could link those turns nearly the whole way down the mountain. I could change directions and turn in the last moment and even, just barely, catch a few inches of air on the occasional bump.

I was flying.

For more information, go to www.brianhead.com.

For a nice place to stay in Cedar City, check out the Best Western Town & Country. Right downtown, this hotel is about 45 miles from the lifts and within walking distance to restaurants.

Dear Readers:

Dan Nailen over at The Salt Lake Tribune wrote a great story last Sunday about Articles. Check it out here.

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