A skier learns to Snowboard

Spring board: Shifting from skis to boards
The Sacramento Bee, February 27, 2004


Some compare it to surfing the waves at Waikiki. Others liken it to being sent down a hill with feet cast in concrete.

But a week ago, neither of those colorful descriptions fit a group of eight beginning snowboarders. We were just falling down a lot.

Whatever the beauties of an accomplished snowboarder carving a black- diamond run, one’s first day on a snowboard isn’t pretty. But learning to snowboard is not forbiddingly difficult, either – it’s just not something you learn in a day.

“We’ve seen lots of people try it one day and get frustrated,” says Bill Joplin, manager of the Learning Center at Sugar Bowl, off Interstate 80 near Norden.

“You’ve just got to stick with it.”

With as much as two months of ski season left, there’s still time to stick with it long enough to get decent on a snowboard. That way, come next winter, you’ll be shredding with the best of the … advanced beginners.

And with spring break coming up, perhaps it’s a good time to put a few days together on the bunny slopes, enough to get past that learning curve, variously described as “steep” or “long” but always implying immediate, intense difficulty at the start.

The learning curve is legendary. Our group’s instructor, Kevin Klein, says by way of a disarming introduction, “I almost quit my first day.” But he’s been teaching for 10 years now.

After the first hour, we know how he felt a decade ago. There’s something unnerving about being strapped to a board that’s extremely slippery on snow, a device that defies your innate sense of balance.

Instead of being able to brace oneself by throwing a leg forward or back, one ends up throwing one’s whole body. Usually, down.

“What’s the most common snowboarding injury?” Klein asks the group.

“Wrists?” offers someone.

“That’s second,” he says. “First is a bruised ego.”

It’s easy to feel utterly uncoordinated when learning snowboarding. That’s especially true for people who’ve already learned to ski.

“Once you’ve skied and you’ve been off the ground and cruising, it’s hard to go back to being on the ground a lot,” says Joplin.

Thus, Sugar Bowl has made efforts to court and retain new snowboarders and skiers. Opening their new Learning Center in December, Sugar Bowl’s instructors aim to, in Joplin’s phrase, “coddle” first-time visitors in the hopes that one pleasant, non-intimidating visit will turn into many happy returns.

At the Learning Center, Joplin and a staff of more than 100 instructors shepherd beginners through the entire experience, from a rental process that sees instructors “actually putting the boots on beginners’ feet” through lifts and gentle slopes restricted to beginners.

Sugar Bowl’s new center is an aggressive variation on a theme that many of the major resorts are exploring. Heavenly has a new learning area at the top of the gondola lift; Sierra-at-Tahoe has a very mellow beginners area; Kirkwood has a whole separate lodge for beginners as well as three dedicated lifts. Many other resorts offer beginner-friendly programs and terrain.

Teaching beginners has long been a staple of ski resorts, but the resorts are under new pressure to grow their markets, says Sugar Bowl’s director of marketing, Greg Murtha. He says visits to ski resorts have remained flat during the past 10 years, a time that saw tremendous growth in other outdoor activities.

The problem, says Murtha, is visitor retention – keeping ’em coming back for more, not an easy sell when egos or tailbones are bruised by a difficult first experience.

Murtha cites a study that says ski resorts retain only 15 percent of the rookies they had initially attracted. He blames that on a number of factors unique to alpine sports, some of them out of the control of the resorts themselves.

“It’s intimidating up here – people are out of their element,” he says. “They’re driving through snow, maybe needing to use chains, then they’re facing big mountains on equipment they’re not familiar with. … We’re trying to do what we can to make it less intimidating.”

That’s understandable, I thought as I hit the ground for the umpteenth time. Every time you fall, you can get up again, but knowing you’re liable to fall pretty soon can be, well, intimidating.

And falling can hurt. Wrists are vulnerable, but so are shoulders and tailbones. Without legs to brace against a fall, you fall hard on a snowboard. Snowboarding is one of the few sports in which you can injure yourself pretty seriously from a standing-still position.

So, Klein’s first instruction is about learning to fall properly.

Fall on your forearms, says Klein. A tendency to fall with palms out and fingers spread is a recipe for a broken wrist or fingers.

Still, even when you learn to fall, and you do it a lot, you can get hurt.

Bill Liberty, a tattoo artist in Sacramento, has been snowboarding for 12 years. But three weeks ago, he lost an edge and went down hard, tearing his Achilles tendon and other ligaments in his leg.

“I wasn’t doing anything crazy, I just fell the wrong way,” he says. “Generally, I ride with my hands in fists, just to protect them. I’ve got to protect my hands.”

Our group of beginners is falling like bowling pins, but no one is hurt – even the young egos seem unscathed. By the end of our first two-hour lesson, several in the group are feeling more confident.

Kae Saechao, 21, of Antelope says he tried learning once before and is back for his second lesson. He credits Klein’s approach. “This guy is explaining it better, so it’s more fun this time. The little tips he gives are better. I haven’t hurt himself at all.”

Likewise, Allison Dugaw, 21, a Chico State student on the slopes for a P.E. class in snowboarding, says she prefers boarding to skiing, which she’s only tried once.

“This is hard, but the board is a lot easier to control for me (than skis),” she says. “I don’t like the feelings of your legs being separate. I like them being attached to one board.”

And, she adds, she’s feeling confident already, and learning the first lesson of snowboarding well.

“The first hour, I was ready to give up,” she says. “But now I’m getting the hang of it. You’ve just got to stick with it.”

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