There is nothing like learning a new and dangerous sport, all by yourself.
Couloirs. The word carries a certain element of mystery. The natural feature itself evokes fear, divides beautifully serrated cliffs into powdered columns of gut-wrenching fun and is certainly the backyard of mountain lovers.
I looked down and could only see a winding path coming out of nowhere. There must be a drop of about a hundred meters. I involuntarily started descending forward as if the path was calling out to me. It was no couloir but given my introduction to this sport materialized not more than two months ago, I was way in over my head.
Let us backtrack. Many people advise you to try a sport before you actually go ahead and pursue it. Snowboarding should be one of them. I beg to differ. It began with a movie called The Art of Flight that my friend Amulya introduced me to. It was also the age of maddening YouTube videos. What followed was an online crash course in snowboarding and cogs of dreams were set in motion.
Last winter I moved to Switzerland because flat was not enough. A year has passed and I can call myself an amateur, a snowboarder nonetheless. The first ten months were about waiting for snow and the next two, well, about doing what needed to be done. Before starting out I watched merely two hours of YouTube lessons, which were undeniably a great learning experience. I have always believed that a good theoretical foundation helps. Besides that, Forest advised me to embrace speed.
Forest has spent a decade growing up in Boulder, CO. The thing about Boulder is, or at least something I believe to be true, that it is home to the happiest population on the planet. These people are the world’s most fearless and best mountain athletes or just remarkable souls calling outdoors their home. I had no choice but to believe him.
Snowboarding has an eerie feeling to it. Not many pursue it and even fewer continue. If I had to guess right, the ratio of skiers to boarders must be about 70/30. The board restricts your freedom on one hand but gives you less to deal to with - if things go wrong - on the other. Figure out if you love such an unconventional sport. If you do, buy yourself everything. Commitment is the only way to ride these mountains. Also, the one thing standing between you and unforeseeable brain damage is a helmet. A black ear-padded helmet. Bicycle helmets are for, well, bicycles.
I have snowboarded through a season full of falls that probably resonated through mountains across the world; at least it felt like that to my numb ears after falling in ways I had never anticipated. The last one piggybacked on a humbling experience. I picked up speed on my toe edge racing towards a sunset with all the exuberance I could muster up. That ended with three side flips, none of which I recollect at this moment. I managed to stand up and mid-way through a proud cheer, dropped down again.
This is snowboarding for dummies, by a dummy. Every time I strapped my legs onto my board, I got better at it. The learning curve is beautiful. You get to a point where you actually believe that with couple of good winters you will be off becoming the next Jeremy Jones – who practically designed all the different paradigms of the sport through his sheer desire for exploring big mountains. Maybe, who knows?
With every unidirectional sport, one needs to know which side is the natural one. After trying out numerous techniques to decide how to proceed (as each one seemed more contrived than the last), I let my body do the math. I am a goofy snowboarder by the book, but a regular one in reality. The worst thing is to let yourself believe that you are a particular type in lieu of going with the natural flair of your body. Since I am not in the minority, I am envious of the goofy kind. That is just how my neurons fire up efficiently.
Snowboarding has its unconventional fun but also caters for odd falls: till you get used to them. There are generally two ways one can easily trip, flip or fly in any of the 244 degrees of freedom human body can long for. I have experienced both and loved the aftermath. The first one was during my initial perfect run down a long and winding blue slope (European norms dictate blue as the easiest slope). The thing about being a beginner is, when you have a good run you start thinking that you should stop because something must go wrong very soon. Conveniently enough, my back leg possessed this syndrome.
As I glided through some unevenly flat terrain and tried going on my toes, my front leg did a great job. My back leg acted stubbornly, perhaps, not believing its luck so far. The board deviated to the front without giving me a heads-up. Imagine, you are running really fast and suddenly trip right before the trail encounters a drop. I did that on the board, at over thirty kilometers per hour without being able to move my legs in any direction. My life did not flash in front of me. It was a horrible fall and I had to count to ten before moving any limb. I secretly patted myself on the back for having all the right insurances. Just then a little British girl glided past me bragging, “Mr. I think you need skiing poles”.
Limbs intact. Get some rest. Try again tomorrow.
In that moment though I had an honest realization. I came to terms with “shit happens” and figured out a sport all by myself. I did not sign up for lessons and it brought me back to the day I learnt how to drive. It was just by looking at my father drive all those years. That was one complete circle of understanding how I function in life.
The second time I tripped on a black slope (again, European norms mark blackfor experienced riders). You read it right. With Forest, you need to challenge yourself. This run was at the end of the day and I was already hurting from the semi-pro turning and some strange and uncontrolled flying-like powder experience. We reached a flat but winding narrow gully. A girl was being attended by a medic. It seemed serious and I drifted out of my focus on the slope. While cruising at a high speed, I looked back. Mistake number (insert personalized number here). I regained my senses and encountered a drop I was in no way ready for. Falling was the only option in comparison to flying off of a cliff without the right training and gear. So I tripped myself the best way I could. This time on my back. Now imagine running backwards, really fast, and tripping. I got up, moved my limbs to check for any damage and finished the slope down to the last bit. It was scary and I toppled all the way down with moments of anger and pride puppets fighting each other for space in my head.
I believed I was ready to take on new mountains and gave Abhishek a call. We booked tickets and flew out to the most convenient mountain range. Andorra is a great place to be in the mountains. It is cheap, high enough and full of small village resorts interlinked like a water park would be. Seeing him was a great start to the trip. Adventure sports have captivated Abhishek for long and I am glad he took this one up before I did. It was like reinventing our already strong friendship in ways I had never imagined.
Snowboarding for four days in a row, I recognized that turning is not as important as speed is. When we turn too much we destroy the piste for other skiers and boarders. Speed must be feared, but like any other fear it helps us control our emotions and lets us slide into the right frame of mind, most commonly associated with flow. I am sure you do not need me telling you about neurobiology and the sort of thing adventure sports athletes tap into.
So we learnt how to carve. Not only were we looking down an awfully long and vertical slope, we were startlingly stoic about the outcome. One. Two. Three. Drop. We literally dropped all the way down like a stone that has no brain of its own. We went up again and repeated our actions, each time getting more stoked about every carving sequence that we managed to muster up from our exhausted bodies and brains.
Carving gives us an infinite realm of possibilities. A fundamental thing about snowboarding, that nobody told me, is consistency. That comes from being able to carve, not turn. Red slopes are meant to test the courage and skill of a snowboarder. If we know how to carve, and have befriended speed, red would be the color of limitless fun, if nothing else. Before you move on to big mountains and white wilderness, at least go find yourself a black board with a golden monastery and a half moon that reflects hope and unimaginable fun.
Tears of Joy is a real thing.
(As published @ The Outdoor Journal)