Lake Tahoe skiing: What’s a snowboard lesson like for a first-time rider?
TRUCKEE, Calif. — You know the trust fall? Sure you do. One person closes his or her eyes and falls backwards, relying on another, presumably trustworthy person to safely catch.
Right now I feel like I’m playing some winterized version of the trust fall as I slide backwards on a snowboard at Sugar Bowl Resort on Donner Summit.
Why am I sliding backwards on a snowboard? This is part of my two-hour beginner’s lesson; the tactic teaches me how to maintain my balance and control my speed while riding on my toeside edge.
“You’ve got my hands in a vise-grip, man,” laughs Ahren Spielvogel, who’s serving as my snowboard instructor (I’m going to call him my “snowboard sensei” because that just sounds cooler).
He’s right. I look down and see I’m not just squeezing Ahren’s hands, it looks like I’m actively trying to crush them in my fists, not unlike an older brother trying to get their kid brother to spill the beans. (Note: I have two younger brothers.)
“Sorry about that,” I say sheepishly, loosening my grip. “Didn’t mean to.”
This is not completely true. Aside from gliding down hills on a rickety Kmart-brand board as a 12-year-old in my home state of Wisconsin a few times, I’ve never really ridden a real snowboard (like the Burton I’m manning now) over a groomed slope, and I’ve definitely never traveled on one backwards.
What can I say? My fight-or-flight response had an itchy trigger finger. Hence: the somewhat intentional vise-grips.
Now, Ahren is letting his hands drift entirely out of my mittens. I didn’t know this was part of the deal. Half of me wants to yell, “Wait; I promise I’ll chill out!” before the other half of me realizes the irony of screaming such a thing.
Instead, I get hyper focused; you know, to refrain from flipping myself backward to a starring role in a “snowboarding fail” Vine on social meda. I recollect what Ahren taught me at the base an hour earlier in rapid-fire fragments: point toes down; be on balls of my feet; bend knees; straighten chest; lock eyes on something in the distance; don’t swing arms.
I proverbially check off a mental list of Ahren’s tips. Well, almost. The last one — don’t swing my arms — gets me. My repeated arm-swings lead to the nose of my board shifting left until I find myself unintentionally in a riding stance.
I pick up speed — lots of it.
And up ahead of me, slowly making their way down the slope, is a fellow snowboard pupil with her own instructor. I’m hurtling straight toward them. I feel my sweat percolating. Suddenly I’m wondering if this whole take-a-snowboard-lesson-and-write-about-it thing was such a good idea.
Thankfully, though, I manage not to panic and start using the form Ahren taught me to curve slightly left, pushing back on my heels and lifting my toes up, until I speed past the two of them.
When I get to the base, as I let out a deep exhale, I hear Ahren — chuckling, of course (I wish someone would’ve been filming this amusing sequence) — making his way down to me.
Befuddled, I turned 90 degrees without trying. I ask Ahren, “how did that happen?”
Ahren explains to me why swinging my arms resulted in me unintentionally twisting out of my backwards slide.
“Your arms aren’t attached to the snowboard,” he says, his words hit me like a memory-jogging snowball. That’s right — he told me as much earlier in the lesson.
This was after practicing the proper stance; how to balance while tilting on the toeside and heelside edges; how to do a standing 180-degree spin (nailed it); how to “skate” as if you were moving to the chairlift line; and how to perform J-turns.
Ahren described how rapid arm movements while snowboarding trigger delayed motion in your legs and, before you know it, you’re riding in a direction you didn’t intend.
After picking up the basic skills mentioned above — “skating,” J-turns, standing 180 — fairly quickly, Ahren told me I was “crushing it.”
It’s clear that “crushing it” while practicing the skills on flat terrain doesn’t mean you’ll seamlessly apply those elements once you’re moving down the slope. It obviously takes repetitions until riding becomes second nature.
But, that’s why snowboard and ski instructors exist, right? To ease you into the process of skiing or riding, to instill in you the basics, to encourage you, guide you, and give you a hand — one bound to get squeezed too hard.
Quite simply, instructors like Ahren ensure you’re on the right path — rather, groomed run — as you undertake a potential lifelong activity.
Just remember, if you do take a snowboard/ski lesson, keep in mind these words of wisdom my snowboard sensei Ahren passed on to me after I commended his tutelage.
“I’m only as good,” Ahren said, “as my snowboarders are at listening.”
Kaleb M. Roedel is a reporter for the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza newspapers. Visit sugarbowl.com to learn more about Sugar Bowl Resort.