Get on board

The Baltimore Sun

It's a new year, and with it comes a certain sense of adventure and possibility.

So why not try something slightly fresh and maybe even daring - say, snowboarding? Several area ski resorts offer snowboarding classes for children and adults, including beginners.

"A lot of people think it's harder than it really is," said Tanner Starz, a 19-year-old snowboarding instructor at Ski Roundtop in Lewisberry, Pa.

"Don't be so worried about it. It will just come to you. People think too much when they try and do it."

Late last month, I went to Ski Roundtop for a beginner's snowboarding lesson with Starz. I was determined to make it down the mountain at least once. Little did I know how long it would take and how often I would eat snow. I discovered that learning how to snowboard requires a certain reckless disregard for the laws of physics and a slight penchant for self-punishment. But if you have the stomach for it, it can also be one heck of a thrill ride.

Skiers (myself included) tend to have a few common misconceptions about snowboarding, according to Starz. For the uninitiated, snowboarding seems much more challenging than skiing. And some people believe you can go down the hill quicker on skis than on a snowboard.

"I think in general, skiing might be a bit easier to pick up," said Starz.

"You might learn it faster. But when it comes to speed, you can be just as fast on a snowboard as you can on a set of skis."

Unlike ski boots, which fasten with plastic clasps, snowboarding boots have laces. That makes putting them on much less of an ordeal. The boots should be snug enough so your heel doesn't slide, but not so tight you cut off blood flow to your feet, Starz said. Once you have the boots on, you can strap them onto the board with three plastic clasps. Don't worry if your arches get sore - it's one of the common aches and pains for first-time snowboarders.

When not on the hill, the best way to get around is to have one foot strapped onto the board and the other free. This way, you can push off with the free foot, much like you would on a skateboard.

Once you build up some speed, you can place the free foot on the board and coast. To slow down, you drag the free foot on the side of the board. This is one of the first things Starz shows his classes.

The best way to balance yourself on a snowboard is to stand like a dueling cowboy in an old Western movie: knees bent, back straight, arms by your sides. If you move your arms in front or back at the wrong time, it's easy to lose your balance.

"People underestimate how important it is to have good posture," Starz said.

One easy way for beginners to stay upright is to point with one outstretched arm in the direction you want to go. That shifts your body weight enough to get the board going and helps steer. Once the board is moving, roll out your front knee so it faces more forward while keeping your back knee straight.

After demonstrating the proper way to stand on the board, Starz showed how to make turns by signaling with your arm in the direction you want to go.

Considering how you coast, snowboarding is strikingly similar to skateboarding, Starz said. The more experience you have skateboarding, the easier it will be to pick up snowboarding. When I was on the slope, I had a few flashbacks to middle school, when my parents bought me a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles skateboard.

Snowboarding doesn't just appeal to former skateboarders, though. While Andrea Gough was growing up in Edgewater, she spent a couple of years in elementary school learning how to figure skate. At first, she was a skier, but she switched to snowboarding a few years later and hasn't looked back. Snowboarding is more challenging than skiing, she said, and uses skills she learned as a figure skater.

"I have to think about how I'm going to move my body," said Gough, a 25-year-old who now lives in Arlington, Va. "I grew up as a figure skater, and that was always about the edge of your skate. I see that more with snowboarding - using the edges of the board to carve through the snow - and I enjoy that."

The day of my lesson, I had only one classmate. Once we learned how to make rudimentary right- and left-handed turns at the bottom of the hill, Starz took us to the ski lift. It was showtime. As you board the ski lift, it's imperative to keep your free foot in front of the snowboard, Starz said. Getting on the ski lift was a cinch. Hopping off was much more thrilling.

As we neared the top of the slope, Starz told us to put our free foot on the board and slide off the lift onto the snow. I nailed that part. But after snowboarding a few feet, I realized I couldn't stop. My only recourse was to heave myself sideways and tumble into the snow. That was just a taste of what was to come.

Depending on how you fall, you can end up with your legs pointing in a weird direction. The best way to get back on your feet after a nasty spill is to lift your legs up and do a backward somersault, bringing your board up and over your right shoulder. Then you finish flipping your body over and stand up. I got plenty of practice doing this particular exercise.

Starz had us zigzag down the mountain facing different directions. It was easier for me to snowboard with my right foot first, because that was the way I skateboarded. But the more time you spend on the slope, the less this matters.

"Once you ride enough, you don't even notice it anymore," Starz said.

Needless to say, I wasn't quite there yet. I spent more time falling and trying to get up then I did snowboarding. I was tallying how many times I face-planted but lost count after eight or nine. Better to focus on boarding than falling, I thought.

It took Starz, my classmate and me about 30 minutes to get down the slope. This was a bunny slope, too: a short green circle. Lord knows how long it would have taken us on a more difficult slope, say, a blue square - I would have left the mountain on a stretcher. But, apparently, I did all right for a beginner.

"I thought you got the hang of it," Starz said. "You guys were both using your edges and working across the hill. I thought you guys accomplished that pretty well."

As we neared the bottom of the slope, Starz told us the lesson was over, and we could go it alone from then on. I tried to catch my classmate, who was zipping right on down toward the ski lift, to ask him some questions and fell face first onto the snow. Thwap! I got up, tried again and fell again.

Then I tried unclasping my back boot, pushing off and hopping on the board. I built up so much speed that when I tried to stop, I clumsily pirouetted before collapsing. That's it, I thought. I'm going to walk the rest of the way down. So, I unstrapped my left foot. In doing so, I lost hold of the board and ended up chasing it down the hill.

By the time I'd caught up to my board, my classmate was long gone and I was finished for the day. But I won't rule snowboarding out the next time I hit the slopes, and neither should you.

"The most important thing is to have fun and keep an open mind," Starz said.

if you go

Ski Roundtop is at 925 Roundtop Road in Lewisberry, Pa. A beginner's skiing or snowboarding lesson, which includes equipment rental and lift pass, is $54 at night and $68 from open to close. Call 717-432-9631 or go to skiroundtop.com.

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