Friday, March 7, 2014

Day 299 - Winter Park/Snowboarding

I have never been snowboarding. After finding a passion for skiing during the course of my teenage years, snowboarding has remained a curiosity to me that I intended to explore at some point in my life. That stated, the idea of being strapped to a plank and flying down the side of a snow covered hill has always left me with some reservations about giving snowboarding a try. Acknowledging the real risk of injury that comes with the sport, my hesitance surrounding the experience ultimately resulted in me sticking to a pair of skis anytime I found myself on a winter slope. In turn, I found myself at 30 years old having never acted on my desire to try snowboarding, and during the course of a year of new experiences that meant I had some planning to do.

As the winter months of my “I have never...” year set in, I quietly made plans to take my Brother, Abe, out to see a close friend of ours, Chad, in Denver as a Christmas gift. Eventually, this resulted in us planning on making the trip yesterday afternoon, and the first thing on our docket was hit the slopes when we kicked out of bed this morning. As a result, we geared up and hit the road for Winter Park, Colorado this morning; just in time for the onset of a late winter Rocky Mountain blizzard.

Despite warnings not to head into the mountains from nearly everyone we encountered on our way out of Denver, Chad, Abe, and I loaded up Chad’s car with plenty of supplies and winter gear to make what we knew would likely become a longer than expected journey into the mountains. Initially, the drive was uneventful, but conditions quickly changed with our rise in elevation, leaving us facing a snowfall as thick and intense as any I have seen in my life.

"Don't go into the mountains," They say.
"There's a blizzard and you'll get snowed in," They say

As we pressed on, cruising at a nominal speed through the switchback roads along the mountainsides, the prospect of having to turn back became more real with each passing mile, but our aspirations to make good on our plans kept us moving forward through the blanketing snow. Bound by nerves and excitement, we did our best to play off the conditions with humor as we slowly closed in on our destination. In time, our path took high into the mountains where we spotted our first sign of any real progress.

“Winter Park... Six miles,” Chad announced, reading a sign we had all taken note of as it crept past our car. Feeling relieved we were nearing the ski hill, we did our best to make light of the ridiculousness of our situation until the incline of the road gave way to a beautiful expanse of winding asphalt overlooking a sprawling mountain valley. With the snow clinging to every surface on the face of the mountains as it fell, the view left me speechless in the final leg of our trip. The sight was amazing, and it made me ready to tackle the powder waiting for us on the peaks of Winter Park.

Made it!
Geared up!

The three of us were quick to track down a rental outfit at the base of Winter Park in anticipation of hitting the mountain slopes. Fortunately, the process was simple and quick, which left us geared up and ready to hitch a ride on the bus to the ski resort. Some 10 minutes later we were approaching the base of the ski hill, snowboards in hand and eager to buy our passes to the lifts. After a little deliberation on the amount of time we had on the hills, the three of us promptly stepped up to snow pelted ticket booth and grabbed four hours passes to the hill, giving us plenty of time to snowboard before the evening sun faded to night. With that, it was time to snowboard, whether I was capable or not.

We probably need lift passes...

After some awkward finagling with my snowboard at the base of the lift, I found myself doing my best to maintain balance and move across the snow with the unfamiliar feeling of a snowboard dragging alongside my feet. As we approached the lift I felt a state of slight panic set in at the very real prospect I would be unable to move fast enough in my uncoordinated snowboard slide to catch the front of the lift chair; however, a little encouragement from Abe and Chad had me scurrying to the lift line without a second thought. Moments later I felt the front of the lift strike the back of my leg and force me into a sitting position. Despite my fears, I wasn’t flat on my face at the base of the hill, and we were en route to the top of the mountain.

Strapping in

Getting close
Through the heavy snow, Abe, Chad and I chatted about the forthcoming experience as we climbed slowly toward the mountain peak. The conversation carried us to our destination quickly, which left me facing the next task in my first snowboarding effort, getting off of the lift. My heart pounding as the lift closed in on the top of the hill, I asked Chad and Abe for some final pointers on balance and movement as I repositioned my body in preparation for my final departure.

That moment came quicker than I expected, which set my body into a series of flailing, panicked motions directed at getting me out of the path of the continually running lift. After a few kicks of my feet and a slight wobble, I found my momentum carrying me forward down the hill in a sort of balanced, graceful coast. That moment was my first taste of riding a snowboard, which was strange and exciting. It was a simple passing moment, but I know it is one I won’t forget; particularly on a day like today in a place like Winter Park.

A little lesson

Doing my best to get comfortable on my board, I made some final adjustments to my bindings and found my way to the top of the hill where Abe and Chad stood waiting. A bit hesitant, I looked down the hazy mountain side before us, wondering if I would find any success on my board. Some final chatter and encouragement from Abe and Chad made me realize the only way I could come to some point of conclusion in that thought process was to take on the hill, which gave me the push I needed to strap in my other foot and take to the hill.

Getting it... little by little

My pace of acceleration down the hill surprised me in my first few moments snowboarding. Doing my best to remember the direction provided by Abe and Chad on the ride up the lift, I shifted my weight as gravity carried me forward. In turn, my board began to turn and slow my pace, which gave me some relief as I struggled to gather my bearings. With a quickly approaching bank of trees requiring me to turn again, I dug in and shifted my weight to the opposite side. In response the board shifted my body on a pivot and started me toward the tree line on the opposite side of the ski run.

Goose duck face snow beard
Baumer shreddin' the gnar
Suddenly, I felt my speed accelerate rapidly and my balance fall into an odd sensation that seemed absent of control. Realizing the feeling likely meant an undesirable result was moments away, I braced for the worst as I felt the board slip out from under my feet. In a magnificent burst of snow, I tumbled to the hill and buried my face in a puff of fresh powder. The immediate stillness that followed the fall took me a moment to recognize, but a quick assessment of my position made me realize my momentum had stopped and my body was still intact. Reassured I had come out of my first snowboarding wipeout unharmed, I rolled to my back and sat up on the hill. A quick look down the hill revealed Abe and Chad hadn’t made it much farther before they had taken their first tumble, which gave me some motivation to climb back to my feet and continue down the hill.


This pattern continued for some time, with me finding slow progress between wipeouts on the ski hill. In little more than 20 minutes, the constant action of gliding down the hill, tumbling to the ground, and struggling to get back on my feet left me exhausted and gasping for breath in the high mountain air. It quickly became apparent snowboarding was more challenging than I ever expected, and the effort left me fatigued far faster than nearly every physical event I have had over the course of my “I have never...” year. In that moment I knew the experience would be difficult to describe. In turn, I decided I would let a video of me learning to snowboard tell the story on my behalf.

Made it down!

Over the course of the next three hours, I continued making incremental progress in my speed and distance down the hill. The blizzard continuing to pound the mountain, I found myself buried in mounds of powder dozens on more times during the length of my effort, but by the time we closed in on the end of our day on the mountain I found myself comfortable enough to stay on my feet for hundreds of yards at a time. With plenty of encouragement and advice from Abe and Chad, I had found a certain degree of control that I never would have expected from my first 30 minutes on the hill, which gave me an accomplished feeling by the time we decided to call it a day. Although we had only made it down the length of the mountain twice during our boarding excursion, all three of us were tired and weary when that time came, which left us ready to grab a beer and talk about the forthcoming ride home.

Comfortable enough to take photos while I board!

Tired... Sore and tired...

Dragging our feet into a nearby bar and restaurant, Abe, Chad, and I kicked our feet clean of the shin high snow that had fallen during our time on the mountain. We were quick to order a drink and check the weather as we got comfortable near the front of the bar, which spurred us into deliberation about the journey ahead of us. The discussion grabbed the interest of a passing bartender, who was quick to interject upon gathering the topic of conversation. “Oh, you guys aren’t going anywhere,” he said as matter of fact, “A snowslide took out highway 40 a few hours ago... It sounds big... Likely won’t be open until tomorrow morning.”
Time for a beer...

Shocked and a bit panicked by the information, Chad set to work confirming the news, which quickly resulted in us facing the reality of being snowed in at Winter Park for the night. Luckily, we were able to locate a hotel with vacancy after a little bit of effort, which left us with little more to do than enjoy a snowy night Colorado Rockies. It wasn’t what we expected when we left Denver today, but there was no doubt we were going to make the most of the turn of events. After all, it’s not often some boys from Wisconsin get avalanched in at 10,000 feet. With the snow continuing to fall around us, the night was ours and we had nothing to do but enjoy it.

Winter Park at night...

...and making the most of the experience

Today’s experience snowboarding offered me a multitude of new experiences in a new place that made for a story I will carry with me for a long time. In addition to learning a new skill, I was able to spend time with two of the best people in my life and be among the beauty of the Rocky Mountains in a whirlwind of winter. Although I walked away enervated from the effort it required, I gained something that is unlike any other experience I have had in my life. That lets me know every part of today was worth the time and effort; a perspective that is only reinforced by the view of the snow falling outside our hotel in this sleepy mountain town.

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