Click the link for six-minutes of music and unabashed, shameless senior showing-off.
Look for upcoming “It Gets Better” public service spots in which Pop -Pop consoles struggling beginner snowboarders.
What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been
Click the link for six-minutes of music and unabashed, shameless senior showing-off.
Look for upcoming “It Gets Better” public service spots in which Pop -Pop consoles struggling beginner snowboarders.
On the second Tuesday of March, my 2009-2010 season of snowboarding went into its finale. In the company of my ever resilient and innovative snow sports buddy, an aging Bode Miller wannabe, I set out for glory in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Up early after over-nighting in Littleton, New Hampshire, and barely fortified by the hotel’s skimpy continental breakfast, we headed east through the splendor of the White Mountains National Forest to the Bretton Woods Ski Area. Just across the road lay the dowager Mount Washington Hotel, site of 1944 Bretton Woods Economic Conference. One of the old guys working in the ski area parking lot engaged us in conversation. When we expressed our preferences, cruising the easier runs, he recognized fellow geezers and said with a grin, “you’ve come to the right place, welcome to Mount Medicare.”
A perfect day with perfect weather, perfect conditions and no crowd. We chose a three-mile Blue intermediate trail from the top to start our day, a beautiful woodsy trail with pines, white birches and awesome views of snow-covered Mount Washington. I rode like a god. For over four hours, I charged the long, rolling novice and intermediate runs, putting on what I felt was a spectacle of performance art, of balletic grace and of adrenaline-fueled speed. There were several incursions onto the more challenging Black Diamond or “expert” runs where I now found myself handling this type of formerly anxiety-producing terrain with a new-found aplomb. I was atop my game and I kept going back out until I could hardly stand on my board. My partner and I, he’s a hot skier, got separated early, but periodically he would come rocketing past me at his signature mach-plus speeds. Not bad for a guy closer to sixty than fifty. When we finally quit for the day, both of us confessed to having nothing left in the tank. It had been one for the memory banks.
I still am having trouble processing the reality of just what it is I am actually doing on a snowboard. I am in my early seventies and sad to say, I have never truly felt accomplished in any of the things I’ve set myself to do. Where I had some measure of success, professionally and academically, I’d always felt myself the imposter. Worse yet in my attempts at art and music, areas in which I earnestly sought self-definition, I had been forced after years of disciplined application to admit defeat. Only with writing have I come to feel a sense of a journeyman’s level of competence, but even there I remain plagued with doubts.
I began skiing forty-six years ago, and despite showing no discernible facility for it, I found enough pleasure in it to persist at it for decades, finally reaching a skill level that might be generously rated “intermediate.” In my mind however, I knew perfectly well the tenuousness of that designation. I never skied with the confidence and certainty that is the hallmark of competence. My switch to snowboarding was marked by an even worse learning curve than the painful process I’d encountered in learning to ski, and I remain to a some degree genuinely clueless as to what accounted for my doggedness, despite the painful evidence of my unsuitability for riding a snowboard.
In my twelfth season of snowboarding, the season before this one, I’d reached a skill level comparable to the peak levels of my years of skiing, but my riding continued to leave me far from satisfied. There were still too many white-knuckled descents of slopes I should have been able to competently and comfortably negotiate. But on a sunny morning in January a year ago, early enough that the lifts had just begun to run, at a smallish ski area in Pennsylvania’s Pocono region, I sensed that something different was happening, that I had begun to break through the invisible barrier separating me from my snowboarding dreams and ambitions.
The snow that morning was crisp and groomed, a perfect corduroy-like surface, one as yet untracked by anyone’s skis or board. As I cut my third or fourth turn on the sunlit surface of the fresh snow, I experienced for what seemed the first time in my life, a sense of unflawed mastery in what it was I was doing, a feeling of seamlessness motion, a continuity of form, the perfect ecstasy that had eluded me in my over four decades of skiing and riding. The morning passed in dream of giddy self-awareness. I couldn’t believe that it was finally happening. And, I was alone with nobody to tell. Even when I began to tire, the level of my riding continued to peak, each run marking a new personal best. I didn’t stop for water, coffee or to take a leak. I continued to push out my own edge with every run until my body rebelled and I knew I had to stop or risk serious injury. Two days later I was back, a two-hundred-and-seventy-five-mile round trip drive, just to authenticate the near-miraculous experience of the previous outing. The first set of turns on my first run told me the transcendent joys of two days before had been no pipe dream.
The rest of that season and all of this season have been an orgasmic continuum of new peak experiences. I kept pushing out my envelope, if only by the smallest of increments, I keep going faster, I keep staying closer into the fall line and I feel like my mind and body, my entire being, is instantaneously computing the dynamics of my descents in real-time at what seem to me to be astonishing rates of speeds. And I know that I am doing it with an elegance and grace I’ve never before known in anything I’ve ever done in my more than seventy-two years of being alive. There is a constant accompanying whisper in my head, rooted in an awareness of the utter improbability of what I am doing. It’s a voice of long, sad experience, one that keeps warning me that at any instant this could all come to a very bad end. I acknowledge the validity of the warning. I make note of it. But in the end I pay it no heed. How could I?
Crashing for the night at a friend’s house just over the border between New Hampshire and Maine, we were up at first light to be back in New Hampshire, this time at Wildcat Mountain. In its New England purity, Wildcat Mountain can be a bit intimidating. I feel most comfortable on the Blue trails, the intermediate runs, which on many mountains can be less than advertised. Too many Blues can be ego runs, challenging in spots but largely made up of terrain more appropriate to advanced beginners than for truly intermediate skiing or riding. At Wildcat the intermediate runs are true New England Blues, not exactly the pulse-raising difficulty found on the Black Diamond or “expert” slopes, but challenging enough in their demands and intensity that you relax or take them lightly at your own peril. If you are not a reliably intermediate skier or rider, these babies will put some manners on you.
Feeling somewhat debilitated from my over-exertions of the previous day at Bretton Woods, I planned my Wildcat outing with energy conservation in mind. It would not do to go flat-out on my first few runs and have nothing left in the tank for the rest of what was probably to be my last riding day of the season. I thought, take it easy, Greens and Blues with frequent rest stops on each descent, moderation, a program of good sense befitting my advanced years.
During our ascent on a quick quad chair, a twenty-one-hundred-foot vertical rise to the summit, my enthusiasm began to overcome my pledges of self-control. What a day, dead calm, bright, warm sunlight and what looked to be absolutely perfect snow conditions. Oh boy! Oh boy! With my rising euphoria rapidly undermining all good intentions of restraint, I followed my wildman skiing pal onto a long, twisty utterly gorgeous intermediate run, forested, exciting and unbroken from top-to-bottom. The instant rush of exhilaration that came with the first toe-side turn of my board, gripping the crunchy, sparkling surface of pristine, freshly-groomed snow, sealed the agenda for the day. For as long as I could sustain it, it was going to be flat-out, balls-to-the-wall, screaming, non-stop, adrenaline-pumping fun from summit to base.
Gathering my wits I realized that I had to tone this thing down if I were not going to burn myself out in the early hours of the day. On my buddy’s advice, he’s an old Wildcat veteran, I chose “Polecat”, a full twenty-one-hundred-foot vertical, top-to-bottom Green run, a run in three distinct segments, Upper, Middle and lower Polecat. My friend briefed me that while Polecat was rated “novice,” I should not be too complacent in running it. Polecat he asserted, had an “intensity” to it, and I would be wise to spend a few runs just trying to get a good read on it. Sound advice.
What I discovered was that Polecat was filled with little surprises, all of them fun. Each of the three segments contained interesting variations of drop, of terrain and of difficulty. Nothing extreme, but always enough to keep me alert and focused. After three runs, I was ready to show Polecat some of my newfound performance art, some figures, arcs, rhythms all executed within a context of reconciling the antithetical concepts of speed and control into a harmonious synthesis of form and grace, a creative act, a work of art if you will, all kinesthetic connectivity at brain-melting speed. Each turn became a small jewel of excitement and pleasure. With my heel edge engaged to control my downhill slide, I look to my left and pivot my upper body, turning the board across the fall line while transitioning to my toe-side and engaging that edge to better control my speed as I traverse across the face of the downward slope. The physical movements are an unbroken stream, sinuously fluid and effortless. Accelerating rapidly, I turn back across the hill, the time between turns shortens to eye-blinks as I go faster and faster. I am still in control of my descent, but just barely. I’ve entered a zone of personal transformation and transcendence. My grown son, no mean snowboarder himself, noted that when I start going on like this, getting all cosmic about snowboarding, I sound like one of those glassy-eyed old surfer dudes. The day ends too quickly and with it, my season.
I feel much like an old golfer, a duffer, who after a lifetime of dragging his clubs around the course, suddenly finds that he’s consistently hitting that sweet spot on the ball. That old golfer knows he’s never going to make the tour, and I know that I’ll never ride an X-Games half-pipe. But that’s of no matter at all. While my snowboarding, like all such things worth doing, will continue to be a work in progress, I do have difficulty believing it can get any better than it is now. Again, no matter. If I just keep can snowboarding, if I can get in just one more season, or even a part of one more season of riding, I go out a champion, smiling and without a complaint.
Suited up and carrying my board, I walk toward the gate where a bundled-up attendant aims his electronic zapper at my lift ticket. We exchange “how you doings,” And I continue walking out to the edge of the slope while skiers already mounted into their bindings zip on past me.
There’s a bench at the cusp of the downgrade, but several snowboarders have claimed it to buckle in. My new rig includes the latest in step-in bindings, so dropping the board with a resounding “thwack” onto the crisp and freshly groomed surface of the snow, I step my front foot into the maw of the binding, raise the back riser and engage the locking clamp. A safety strap to keep the board from getting away unattached is snapped to the top of my boot. One foot in, one to go. The back foot is a repeat of the first, minus the runaway strap. If the board is not on nearly perfectly level ground, it will begin to move downhill the instant the rear boot is clamped into the binding. But I am ready to go, and with a slight jump, I position the board into the grade and begin to slide into the slope, slowly at first. I find it difficult to believe that I am seventy-one years old.
The laws of gravity, friction, adhesion and a host of other dynamics I barely understand all come into play, and I am quickly accelerating down a wide swath of sunlit snow. Around me others on snowboards and skis are doing the same. This is a “Green Circle” run, a Novice or Beginner’s access run that leads to a cornucopia of ski trail options. Near the bottom of the run, a turn to the left will open to an extended easy run of gentle switchback turns all the way to the bottom of the mountain. A turn to the right, however offers a choice of several Black Diamond or advanced runs. It’s my first run of the day and my inherent conservatism usually dictates an easy start. But what the hell, I am already carving effortless arcs on the green, so let’s go for it, right from the start.
Cutting away from the pack of snowplowing skiers and nervous looking beginning boarders, I let my board run flat and zoom toward the sign marked with a large black diamond and the words “Midway, Advanced Skiers Only.” The surface of snow ahead of me seems to come to an abrupt end. As I approach the edge, I check my speed, sliding laterally across the slope to the point of the drop-off that begins the Black Diamond or “expert” run. Pivoting on the edge of the slope, I turn the nose of the board directly into the line of least gravitational resistance, the “fall line.”
I am looking down a white wall, and the sense of acceleration is immediate. A rush of adrenaline hits me as I turn my right shoulder to my left, my hips automatically follow my shoulder, and with my knees flexed and my toes pushing on the edge of the board, the entire organic mechanism that is me and the snowboard begins to turn across the face of the hill. It all takes place in a fraction of a second, and as the sharp, steel edge of the board cuts and digs into the surface of the snow, my acceleration is arrested. But because of the severity of the grade, the slowdown is not much noticed. I am fucking flying.
Immediately leaning forward, I throw my shoulder back into the direction from whence I came. This time I’m turning back across the slope, but now it’s my heel edge that biting the surface, and in a counter-weight to my forward velocity, I’ve dropped into a crouch with my butt hanging back into the grade of the hill and out over the snow. This is all taking place in real time, at high speed and with no time to actually think about what has to be done. My interior landscape is a precarious balance of intense concentration and near complete relaxation. The air is rushing past my ears and the sound of the edges of the board fighting for a grip on the surface rises like the screaming of fast freight on a curving track. One bad move, a single lapse of focus, one misjudgment in a nearly infinite mix of factors and there are consequences that can approach the life threatening. You do not want to make any mistakes.
The degree of the descent eases and the run opens out into a wide bowl, allowing me to aim myself up and around the rim of this saucer-like indentation in the side of the hill. The turn up into the bowl immediately has a dampening effect upon my speed, and at very top edge of the cup, I execute a sharp cutting turn back into the fall line, down and out of the bowl and into the next drop in terrain.
It’s at this point that the trail merges into a wider and steeper run from the top of the mountain. It’s a little like a mixing bowl of lanes on the Jersey Turnpike near the George Washington Bridge. On a weekend, there can be throngs of skiers and boarders all flying downhill and all seeking ways to share the space. There are no lane markers, but theoretically, the uphill person is responsible for the safety of those below. That theory always seems to get wobbly in the heads of too many of the hormone-charged adolescent males whose only mode of riding is flat out down the fall line. I am very careful on merging trails, more so on those rated “Advanced.”
The rest of the run is just variation on all of the above, and too quickly it seems, I find myself at the bottom queuing up in line for the chair lift or gondola that will take me back up to the top where I can choose another of the always interesting and exciting ways to work my way back again to the bottom. Standing in line reflecting upon the preceding moments of riding, I realize that riding a snowboard is akin to entering a closed system, one that combines in varying measures, pure bliss, borderline terror and an ever-present possibility of experiencing a sense of kinetic grace otherwise granted only to the Barishnikovs and Nureyevs of this world.
And now it’s over once again for another nine months.
Attends the start of each new winter season
I really can’t be doing this
Seventy-one years old and bundled against the arctic cold,
I am once again atop a mountain, on a snowboard like some stoner kid
I flinch, almost botching my first turn
Tensed against the profound improbability of all this, I am getting in my own way
Dropping down, bending my knees, I rotate my upper body into the next turn
That’s it, that’s it
I begin to fly, carving the sunlit snow
The board sliding and edging under my shifting weight
Lost in a rush of adrenaline and joyous terror, I enter a state of pure kinetic form.
The ecstasy of being alive is again my own
Hey I was snowboarding and cool snowboarders don’t do anything that looks dorky or gorpy. I had consciously chosen to ride that day sans helmet No big deal. The next day with a helmet on, I, switched over to skis, the day’s highlight being a non-stop, high speed descent of a Black Diamond slope under the gondola.
Back on the board the following day, I reluctantly, at my wife’s urgings, went back to wearing my helmet. On my third run of the day, a snowboarding repeat of my skiing the expert run from the top, I lost a heel edge on a particularly steep drop-off and went down hard, very hard, striking the back of my head on the hard pack ice beneath the inch of so of new powder.
Even with the protection of the helmet, the impact from the fall left me momentarily dazed. I got back up, shook off the slight mental fog, finished that run and the rest of the day. Mid-afternoon of the next day, the muscles, tendons and all the stuff in my neck and in my abdomen began to seize up. By evening I could barely move my body without pain and audible wincing.
For almost two weeks following my Stratton spill, I suffered what people rear-ended in an auto collision would call whiplash, nothing disabling, but uncomfortable enough and lasting long enough to put some manners on me.
What was learned from this? Never again will I go out on a mountain to ski or snowboard without a helmet. I joked with friends that without my padded plastic lid, I might have been talking concussion a la the Flyers Simon Gagne. Not so, one friend said, “you might not be talking at all, a la Sonny Bono.
There is nothing remotely like standing atop a snowboard and steering down a snow-covered mountainside at a high rate of speed. The word exhilaration probably comes closest, but even given that, it fails to convey anything like the experience itself. Let me try.
Getting off the Stratton gondola at the summit of the mountain, I walk the forty or so yards out onto the snow-covered surface carrying my board. A weak sun lights the scene and the cold bites on my exposed face. I find a spot and drop my board to the snow. All around me skiers and boarders are getting themselves ready for their descent. First my right boot, the front foot is locked into the binding, the runaway strap attached to my bootlace. Then the back foot is snapped in and the board jumped around or pivoted into the fall line and I am moving. A short run, maybe thirty or forty feet in a straight line and then a reflexed right turn and I am running.
Crouched and swinging the board beneath me from edge to edge, I am in charge, picking the spots on the downside faces of the surfaces rushing toward me. My speed picks up and I begin making more pronounced turns, moving across the fall line and engaging my edges to brake my acceleration. Continue reading ‘Snowboarding’
Home after four days at Stratton. I started off well enough, spending the first day boarding. It was on the second day that I fell into sin. I hadn’t skied in years, and this year for my seventieth birthday, my son presented me with a set of Head Liquid Metal, short, 163cm. parabolic skis. So it really wasn’t my fault.
Subjecting myself once again to the torture of hard-shell ski boots, I snapped into the new skis, riding a quad to the top of a Blue cruiser. A shaky start. these buggers are fast, very fast. As advertised, the new, shaped skis turn without effort, but the reduced edge length puts less metal on the snow surface. When you edge to control your speed coming out of a turn, it’s as if nothing really happens. I found myself zooming at frightening speeds before regaining control. My last outing on skis had been on straight, 185cm. The new skis were rather like moving from a Buick Regal to a Honda CBR 600.
My second day on skis was at Okemo, again staying on the Blues. However, with temperatures in the low teens and howling winds scouring the snow off the exposed surfaces, I was skiing on hard-pack boilerplate. To my surprise, the new skis performed better than I remember any in my over forty years of doing this stuff.
After two days on the skis, I snuck back to the cool side, to boarding. Whether it was the change of pace or what, my riding on after two days of skiing was about the best I’ve ever experienced. I felt on top of my game, pulling out the stops and going until something like adrenaline depletion forced me to call it a day. Can’t wait to get back out. It will be a tough decision; ski, board, ski, board? Stay tuned.