Snowboarding in the Northwest

Snowboarding in the Northwest

Mountain High

Where to Ride

Snow Business

Snow Job

Gearing Up

Malcom Smith

If you've gotten it into your head that you're pretty great, that you have excellent balance, that the world has this weird way of conforming to your wishes, and that you haven't been sick in years, learning to snowboard will humiliate you, knock you on your ass, laugh at you, yank the ground out from under you, pack you in ice like a food product, scramble your stomach, and field-goal kick you toward Canada. There is no way to describe the pain, but here's a shot: Someone punches you extremely hard in the face. Then again in the same spot. And then again. Then maybe one more time, not as hard.

You have to be willing to enjoy getting pulverized. You have to be athletically humble, because the mountain always wins, and since I can barely dribble a basketball—my hobbies are book-related—I'm nothing if not humble. And you have to be fearless. Classes help. Snoqualmie Pass offers what's called an EZ123 package: three days of equipment rental, three two-hour group lessons, and three days of lift tickets for $99—a steal. But I miss the noon class my first day because of the rigamarole involved in finding a rental place with big enough boots for me (I wear a 15 shoe), and by the time I have what I need, the day's almost gone. I take a 3:00 p.m. beginner's group class, where I learn how to set my snowboard on the snow without it sliding away (turn it upside down), the mechanics of turning, and what it feels like to fall. When the day's over, I still can't slide a few feet without landing on my tailbone. Or face.

A week later I get a ride to Snowquamie Pass with an actual snowboarding instructor who didn't learn how to do it in any class: "I taught myself in Japan by strapping on a snowboard and trying to get down the mountain." He says I should do the same thing. I agree, because I want to be tough about it. I think, Don't think about it. I skip the second class in the three I've already paid for and ride the Holiday lift, the easiest of the easy slopes. Getting off at the top, I lose my balance, knock over the person next to me, land on my wrists, and bring Holiday to a stop. I think, How am I going to get down this mountain if I can't even get off the ski lift?

My next thought is, Holy shit. Strapped to my board, I sit in the snow and consider my options. I could ask the lift operator whether anyone's ever ridden one of the chairs back to the bottom. I could unbuckle my snowboard and crawl down. Or I could just embrace my fate. I stand up and immediately fall. I stand up again and my snowboard slides slightly downward, the edge that's supporting my heels scraping against the side of the mountain. I'm not snowboarding, exactly—in skiing, what I'm doing is equivalent to the snowplow—but I'm staying upright. I fall a couple times. But I get all the way down.

Then I teach myself to do this with the opposite side of the board, my body facing the mountain and not the direction I'm traveling, which is harder because you have to look over your shoulder the whole time. But I can do this, too.

To actually snowboard, you have to transition between these two positions again and again, and according to my instructor friend the transition is the hardest thing to teach someone. The basics of turning that you learn in classes are helpful, but nothing prepares you for the moment itself. It is not EZ. You have to be going fast, your knees have to be bent, and you have to be totally confident, even though you don't know what you're doing. Even though you know you're going to wipe out a lot before you find your sweet spot. After a couple of hours punishing my wrists and tailbone, I find it. I pull off a transition. I'm facing away from the mountain and then I'm facing the mountain. Woohoo! I'm doing it. I'm fucking doing it! I cut against the mountain one way, change direction, and cut against the mountain the other way. Check me out, bitches! I can't believe I

I catch an edge, tip forward, overcorrect, and land—again—on my tailbone. Faaawk! I lie there a while, staring at the sky. I want to keep going, because it's unbelievably exhilarating and because I've finally gotten it, but the ice today is practically concrete and I'm numb with pain. It's good I stop when I do. The next day my tailbone and shoulders are angry and there's a bonfire inside my left arm. I can't even hold up a book.