“Strap in, lean forward, and go fast.”
These were the instructions I received from the first two people in Vail, Colo. when I asked for advice on my first snowboarding trip. I was hoping for something a little more nuanced, but the overwhelming sentiment I gained from talking to people was that I needed to try and let everything come to me as naturally as possible. This was going to be a problem.
Sports involving hand-eye coordination have always come pretty easy to me. I played baseball at a relatively high-level growing up before injuring my elbow, which led me to playing golf in high school and getting some very small college offers. I could always hold my own playing basketball or football in pick-up games. These are the things that come naturally to me.
Things that require standing balance have always been a problem, however. I was a terrible skateboarder and retired at age 11 when I crashed so hard attempting a jump I had no business trying that I got a massive hematoma near my hip and couldn’t walk without crutches for two weeks. I suffered many various injuries as a youth on Razor scooters, motorized scooters, and mountain boards, eventually realizing the only wheeled transportation options for me were cars and bicycles.
Spending my entire life in Georgia, snow sports weren’t anything I was particularly interested in either — my one prior experience involved breaking a rib sledding in California as a kid. Having learned my limits early, being generally averse to cold weather, and not having a ton of disposable income, I always passed when friends in college would invite me to go on ski and snowboarding trips. For 26 years I avoided snow sports, but when the opportunity arose in February to go to Vail for the Burton U.S. Open with Red Bull, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity.
So there I was, in one of the best ski towns in the country, with no clue what I was doing. I was handed gear, a top of the line Burton board, and a lift pass and told to go knock myself out (figuratively, although the literal was a definite possibility). I didn’t have any lessons from an instructor, just the kind souls from Red Bull that would give up an afternoon on the slopes enjoying themselves to teach an idiot from Georgia how not to kill himself (and record it on video for all of you to laugh at).
I spent my weekend on the small slope which just so happened to be adjacent to the Slopestyle and Halfpipe competition areas on the mountain, which makes for a humbling experience. I’d walk over after watching men and women launch massive airs doing flips and spins, grab my board, and proceed to fall on my ass 15 times down the smallest possible slope on the mountain.
However, I knew I’d be bad. I knew I would fall and fall a lot. Snowboarding is quite literally the opposite of my element, so I wasn’t expecting anything more than failure. I was going to give it a try and see if I could make some progress over the two days I had on the mountain, but I had no delusions of being immediately successful. As the weekend wore on, I realized that it wasn’t watching professionals that made me feel bad about myself. If anything, I gained an appreciation for how ridiculous what they can do is. It wasn’t the constant falling that frustrated me, because I had mentally prepared for that.
It was children that made me feel terrible about myself and, in turn, angry at them.
For example, here’s one of my first efforts at the top of the small slope. I fail to keep my weight on the back edge and fall forward on my face. Alright, whatever, this was supposed to happen.
However, watch the very end again, and notice the judgmental gaze of the small child skiing past me as I sit on the ground and try to regroup after traversing a whole three feet.
When you spend the entire weekend on the beginner’s slope, you feel a sort of camaraderie with your fellow adult learners, but you loathe the young children — some who can’t be more than 3 years old — fearlessly riding down the mountain, looking at you with their tiny, judging eyes as you fall over and over, and ruthlessly carving around you as you’re try to regain your breath and composure.
I quickly realized that there’s a reason the beginner hill is populated mostly by children. As an adult, you’re trying to process too much information and have so much more fear of what can go wrong that you can’t simply “strap in, lean forward, and go fast.” On the rare occasion that I did lean forward and start to go fast, I would shut it down, for fear that I’d never be able to stop. (Apologies for the long slow-mo video, they wanted slow-mo video of me falling and didn’t expect me to successfully go as far as I did.)
The moment I got parallel to the slope with my board I panicked and sat it down. I wasn’t even going fast, yet, and was doing what you’re supposed to on a snowboard, but the lack of faith I had in myself and my fear of a horrendous crash led me to eject and drop to the hard packed snow. Meanwhile, as I made a business decision on the slope, small children raced by me, gleefully pointing it down the mountain, unafraid (or blissfully ignorant) of the potential for disaster.
I eventually made it down, with one of my most successful continuous runs, getting to the base of the mountain. What gets cut off on the video is me not knowing how to stop and having to sit it down right before crashing into that poor lady in the background getting her skis on.
So, I spent the next day and a half riding the lift or the magic carpet up and trying to work my way down, growing exponentially more frustrated with every failed attempt at standing up on my board or fall after briefly sliding down the mountain. My legs ached, my neck tightened up, and I found myself out of breath regularly at altitude.
After two solid days of failing, I was about ready to call it quits, but with an hour in between the women’s and men’s halfpipe finals on Saturday, I decided to take a couple more runs by myself. My first run took about 20 minutes, as I felt like any progress I’d made in the morning had completely reset back to zero after watching women’s halfpipe. At one point, I crab-walked about 20 feet down the mountain because I struggled to simply stand up.
I sat down about midway down the slope, frustrated, and gazed up at the cloud-free, bluebird sky overhead and gorgeous panoramic view of the mountains off in the distance. For a moment, I was calm and happy. I was in a beautiful place and maybe it was silly to be frustrated about a thing I knew I was going to be terrible at.
And then, right as I was reaching a place of contentment, a line of 10 children skiing behind their instructor weaved around me, like I was a flag on a downhill course, all of them, taking a moment to look at the grown man that had become an impediment on their trek. My happiness quickly gave way to rage, and I forced myself down the mountain — with a few more falls — so I could make one more run.
I got to the top, strapped in, and on my third attempt got upright on the board — doing this, by myself, on just three tries was quite the achievement. From there, I made it the entire way down the slope, tacking back and forth from left to right on my heel edge, without falling once. It was as proud as I’d been in years about a personal accomplishment.
Here I was, doing something I had never done before at 26 years old and finding relative success when I had no expectations to. And yet, in my most triumphant moment, there were still children frustratingly flying by me as I methodically worked my way down.
I learned a lot on the mountain that weekend. I learned about confronting fear and pushing myself to try different and uncomfortable things. I learned, in the most basic form, how to snowboard. But mostly, I learned that we are all destined to be passed over by the next generation, with icy glares and mocking laughter.