The Board Report: Outta My Flight Path, Peewee!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1995

The Board Report: Outta My Flight Path, Peewee!

Bend those knees, square those shoulders, and kiss your ghost date good-bye. The 48-hour path to postadolescent snowboarding.
By Hampton Sides

I was unaware that they made ibuprofen bottles this big, industrial-size 1,000-count jugs, sitting out along with assortments of power vitamins and packets of "post-exercise recovery formula" on the tables of an acridly lit conference room inside the Inn at Aspen. As I clatter in with my rental board, I'm asked to sign a waiver of Talmudic complexity, and then one of my fellow campers urges me to start downing the ibuprofen to head off the wincing pains that will soon be coming my way.

"Might as well get ahead of it!" he reasons, a bit too cheerfully. "Gotta think proactively!"

On this early March morning, the weather at the base of Aspen's Buttermilk Ski Area is in a state of creative ferment, all bothered and confused but nursing big ambitions for the day. Glittery snow devils dance in the thin air, with occasional sun streaks spearing across the Roaring Fork valley. Inside the inn, just downslope from Buttermilk's main quad lift, the Delaney Adult Snowboarding Camp, perhaps the nation's preeminent snowboarding school for grown-ups, is just getting under way. Tamed-down grunge tunes emanate from a boom box next to the sign-in desk, an agreeable beat that sounds like an older person's idea of younger people's music.

Once the class is assembled, we're told to strap on the protective butt pads, knee pads, elbow pads, and wrist guards that the camp provides to buffer the blows. Liz, one of several impossibly perky, cinnamon-hued snowboarding adepts on the Delaney staff, roams about the room dispensing "proactive" massages. After we're safely wrapped in our ridiculous-looking exoskeletons, Liz asks us to stand up, one by one, and introduce ourselves. Among the crowd of 15 campers is Sid, a likable old gentleman rancher with an Oklahoma drawl, who confesses that he's really not too sure about this whole snowboarding business and that he wouldn't be here at all, frankly, had his daughter not put him up to it. There's also a big hoss named Jim, a straight-arrow farm boy turned playboyish Chicago banker, who says he enrolled in the camp because he's grown "bored of skiing"; a nanny from Lake Placid, New York, who's here because she's "just plain bored"; and Nancy, a cheerful housewife from Oahu who often skis in Aspen. "I'm just here to get ahead of my two boys," Nancy explains. "When they're old enough for the slopes, I doubt they'll even bother with skis."

Getting ahead--I can relate to that. I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which, like every other mountain town in America, has been overtaken by boardheads, ravening armies of little acrobatic beetles skittering over the nearby ski area as if fleeing a can of Raid. I've been faintly curious for quite a while, but I've always had trouble seeing myself on a snowboard. At 33, I'm old enough to be set in my ways and still quite happy with my standard-issue skis. I've heard all the din about snowboarding, and I've instinctively wanted to resist it, in the same way that I've always resisted things that people tell me are momentous and inevitable.

On the other hand, I can't deny snowboarding's allure. I'm still young enough to be drawn to its energy, its playfulness, its buccaneer style. It's not that I want to dial back the clock and start posing as a weekend teenager. I'm not going to adopt thrasher slang, thrift-shop fashion, or any of the other hallmarks of the tribe. But I can't ignore the juice that these kids are getting from this thing, and that, in the end, is the main reason I'm here: to steal a little of that juice for myself.

Like Nancy, I'm also the parent of two young boys who no doubt will become boardheads themselves one day. I, too, imagine that the camp will give me a leg up on them. Maybe one day they'll give me a little credit for experimenting with their sport before they did. But I could be deceiving myself on this point. Far more likely, all they'll give me is an insouciant snicker as they go vaulting over the moguls, their laughter punctuated, perhaps, by an effortless fakie-to-fakie 360 or some other feat of aerial jujitsu that has yet to be named or invented.

"See ya, Dad."

With a blinding burst of personal kilowattage, Kevin Delaney bounds into the room. A world champion rider who's been in the vanguard of the sport since the early 1980s, Kevin is a little spark plug of a fellow with a stentorian voice and a crust of hacksawed hair, bleached platinum blond, that makes him look vaguely like a character out of Waterworld. The hair thing is a remnant of a TV commercial that Delaney recently made for Molson Ice, a high-energy spot that features him shredding the backcountry near Telluride with a sail affixed to his board. A self-described native of Boulder, "Coloradical," who has fulfilled his lifelong mission of "getting paid to play," Kevin has a disposition so bright he should hand out shades and sunblock. "Welcome to the Delaney Camp," he announces, "where adults learn to ride!"

Kevin is our head coach and morale czar, a tireless evangelist of the sport, which he vows can cure all manner of personal crises, sharpen problem-solving skills, and even keep families from splitting apart. "Hey," he says, digging into his trove of motivational-therapy maxims, "families that play together stay together."

Kevin and his brother Brian, himself a national champion, are the proud architects of the Delaney Method, an advanced system of adult instruction that relies on videotape analysis to isolate technique flaws and makes liberal use of the Quick-Stick, a nine-foot fiberglass rod that functions alternately as a balancing pole to keep you from falling, a cane to break your falls, and a lever to pry yourself back up after the inevitable fall happens. Kevin and Brian were among the first to augur the adult snowboarding trend. Not only were older folk going to take up the sport, the Delaneys surmised, but they were going to reinvent it in their own image. Adults were going to prefer learning in a more comfortable environment and without packs of little acne-faced White Zombie fans showing them up on the slopes.

Not surprisingly, the formula has worked. More than 1,000 students have graduated from the Delaney camps since their 1992 debut, and other adult-oriented outfits have begun to hang out shingles at resorts across the West. According to some estimates, nearly a quarter of all newcomers to snowboarding are now 40 and over. And though it's hardly a new phenomenon, the continued expansion of the sport's adult niche means that there are still fortunes to be made--a point not lost on the grunts here in camp. As we pull our gear together and shamble outside, I overhear so much frank business speculation that I feel like I've stumbled into a Peter Lynch seminar. Kevin wants us to know that he's taking the company public in the next year or two, just in case any of us are hunting for "good investment opportunities." Michael, an enthusiastic Breckenridge restaurant owner who has what seem to be dazzlingly large dollar signs in his eyes, says he's already launched a new snowboarding fashion line for grown-ups. "Adults want cleaner lines," he says. "They want muted colors--you know, earth tones, autumnal hues. The hip-hop, baggy pants thing, man, that's history."

It's sad, in a way, to see how quickly adults can turn child's play into business, like a bunch of burghers from the East India Company speculating on the next new continent.

Michael, who has snowboarded before, will be heading up the mountain with the intermediates. Today I'll be paired with two other never-evers: Jim, the young Chicago banker, and Sid, the Sooner rancher, who is already looking a bit shell-shocked, as if the plains of Oklahoma have suddenly gone vertical on him. If his daughter hadn't dared him to enroll in the camp, Sid would now be over on Aspen Mountain, schussing down the slopes on a pair of skis as he's done for decades, leaving that glorious double-calligraphy in the snow. Instead, here he is, an old basset hound dumped on a stranger's doorstep.

Backing out, however, is unthinkable. Sid is a proud, stubborn 50-year-old Sisyphus who throughout life has always tried his hand at hard and painful pursuits. A couple of years back, starting entirely from scratch, he decided to take up ice hockey. He recently made up his mind to become an artist, and he is now a devoted chainsaw sculptor, Michelangelo with a Homelite. "Let's bring it on," Sid says gamely as he peers up the hill. Then I hear him mutter, "Good Lord."

Big Jim, on the other hand, is figuring that he'll pick this thing up in a day, no sweat, and that a little later on in the week he'll have something to show his buddies from the condo, who all happen to be snowboarding fiends. Jim will be right there alongside them on the black-diamond runs, having bagged a new sport in record time.

After a few stretches and a quick primer on how to coast, we're ready for the bunny hill. The lift operator is blasting Lou Reed's "Dirty Boulevard" from big speakers attached to the kiosk. I ride up with Kevin, who settles into a motivational-therapy groove before I can flash him the vampire's cross. "Once snowboarding clicks for you, you're hooked," he says. "But that takes a while. Teaching your body something new is completely foreign to most adults. The thing with kids is, most of their life has been spent falling down and getting back up. Falling down is, like, their job."

I nod in agreement, thinking for a moment about the dervish that is my three-year-old son. But I'm watching the approaching bale-out point with deepening dread: KEEP TIPS UP.

"Keep your eyes forward," Kevin advises. "Whatever you do, don't look down."

"OK," I say, promptly looking down, and with a sudden whiplash I'm hurled face-first into the snow.

"Give me your tired, your poor, I'll piss on 'em," I hear Lou sneering as I roll off the platform and turn back to behold a slope littered with snowboarding casualties. "Let's get it over with and just dump 'em on the dirty boulevard."

People who write about mountain sports have always tended toward the grandiloquent metaphor, and snowboarding writers have been no exception, comparing their pastime to everything from improvisational jazz to Dada to beat poetry. I look forward to discovering, someday, whether any of this is even remotely true. But for the beginner, I soon learn, these analogies completely fail to resonate.

The lesson starts out smoothly enough. We spend the first hour learning how to sideslip, a cautious little scoot down the hill that's basically just a survival technique. Then we master the falling leaf traverse, a long, lazy droop across the slope that drifts us back to the lift as gently as possible with minimum change of direction.

So far, so good. But now we're ready to start turning, which means that for the first time we'll experience the momentary terror of pointing our boards down the fall line--without yet knowing whether our bodies can find the proper signals to rescue us. On paper, at least, turning sounds kindergartenishly simple. With the board nosing straight toward hell, you shift slightly forward to unweight the uphill end of the board and then gently cant the board on edge by rotating your body in the direction you want to travel. In practice, however, this is maddeningly complex, because all these things should happen in a single mellifluous motion that resists attempts to parse and analyze.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that so many different body parts want to make the turn happen on their own. Arms try to jerk the damn thing around, chins want to jut out, necks swivel. But the board prefers to answer signals from what Kevin calls the control center, an imaginary point somewhere between your tailbone and your belly button. You want to keep your center of gravity low, your back straight, and your knees bent, steadily shifting your weight from the control center downward.

Jim starts out strong and fast, with a jaunty first voyage down the hill that's broken by only a few negligible spills. Sid and I are far more tentative and already seem to be making all the classic mistakes. "You're leading with your chin," Kevin tells me just as I crash into a little tyke from the ski school who's innocently practicing her snowplow. "Make your signals loud and clear! Look where you want to go, and only take orders from your control center!"

Sid is experiencing another little problem that Delaney calls the ghost date. This is the common tendency to leave an arm draping out in space during a turn, as if cuddling an imaginary girlfriend. "Say, Sid--who's your little friend there, huh?" Kevin chides.

With so many things that can go wrong, turns are now only a working hypothesis. You're presented with ample evidence that they can happen, but they don't happen to you. What happens is that you fall.

Snowboard spills, I quickly learn, aren't impressive agony-of-defeat wipeouts, with skis and poles clattering off in all directions. They're just clean, emphatic hurls into the snow, as if Mike Tyson were melted down and extruded into a five-foot fiberglass lozenge. Wham. Get back up. Wham. Get back up. Wham. It's a demoralizing rhythm that gets jackhammered into your soul, and after a while it's hard to decide which is more taxing, the falling or the getting back up.

Every so often I look far up the mountain, through the diaphanous winter mists, and spot a little colony of snowboarders swarming on the upper ridge, erratic dots dropping fast and then winging down the final stretches in their monster black pants and harlequin hats. It's inspiring, watching them, but also depressing, because it's obvious how far I have to go. Here I am on the wussiest of bunny hills, a slope about as tame as your average car hood, and yet I'm trembling with fear and rage and exhaustion. I look like a dork, stuffed into a padded black diaper and holding on for dear life to a nine-foot crutch in the company of booger-smeared three-year-olds and postadolescent spaz cases. Why have I reduced myself to this?

The only consolation is that my colleagues are having the same agonizing experience. Misery loves company, which is one of the reasons we have these camps in the first place. Jim, who'd started out so strong, is quickly turning into putty. Kevin says Jim is "fighting the mountain." His body is rigid, his big legs locked straight as stovepipes, and he's trying to manhandle each turn through sheer brawn instead of taking the natural cues of the slope. "Any time you fight the mountain," Kevin tells me somewhat obviously, "you can be sure that the mountain's going to win."

Consequently, Jim finds himself spending more and more time parked on his butt, duking it out with the snow, trash-talking at it, trying to beat it into submission. Before long we take to calling him The Fist.

And poor Gentleman Sid is in even worse shape. Sid's problem is the opposite of Jim's: He's too loose. The mountain is completely in control of him, and after two trillion falls his legs have turned to linguine. He just can't bring the thing around.

"Damnation!" he exclaims at one point, and I see him squinting down the valley toward his beloved Aspen Mountain.

The afternoon is waning, and it's a good thing, because my body is seriously failing me now. When I get back to the hotel, I shuffle blankly over the mildewed carpet. I can't eat. I can't talk. There's a shrill ringing in my ears, and black motes are dancing before my eyes. The main thing, however, is my throbbing skull. Every precinct of my body is urgently reporting PAIN DOWN HERE, and my brain can't process it all. I gulp down more ibuprofen and draw a hot bath. I stare vacantly up at the showerhead, listen to the drone of the fan, try to find meaning in the tile patterns.

When I collapse into bed, the Academy Awards are on the tube, the screen full of stars who'd probably otherwise be here in Aspen, nibbling in the sushi bars, mingling with the mink-coated throngs. But in my dull-witted state, I'm having a hard time with the plot: treacly music, familiar-looking people in questionable getups congratulating themselves profusely, much discussion of a man named Gump.

The amazing, almost epiphanic thing about learning to snowboard is how quickly The Reversal comes. For me, it's on the very first run of the second day. I coast off the lift in the fresh morning light, give myself a firm shove from the brow of the hill, and it happens: ten flawless turns in a row, a long, smooth eel-wriggle down the slope. No spills. No lurches. No ghost dates. Just nice, businesslike scallops in the snow. And somewhere about the fourth or fifth turn, I realize that another unexpected thing is happening to me: I'm smiling.

The secret, I believe, was in the sleep. Eight hours of solid rack not only took the edge off my bludgeonings but allowed me to sift and clarify the lessons of the first day, dissolving the barrier between my brain and the rest of my body. Luscious, golden turns flickered in my head like a Hollywood blockbuster, and there I was, down by the bunny lift, hoisting my Oscar before all the lacquered celebrities of Aspen. "I'd like to thank Kevin Delaney and, most of all, my mom."

It was also during the night that I began to grasp one of the Zenish inner mysteries of snowboarding, an intuitive lesson that can't be taught but has to sink in on its own: Success lies in understanding the tension between your will and the mountain's, between trying hard and hardly trying at all. You can only do so much to make the turns happen, and then you have to trust gravity to do the rest.

"Your control center!" I hear Kevin say over my shoulder, and I look around, momentarily flummoxed.

"Yeah, what about it?"

"You found it, man! You found it!"

Later in the morning I notice that Jim, too, has loosened up, with results that are close to miraculous. Pretty soon we've both jettisoned our Quick-Sticks and are buzzing down the bunny slope, crutchless and free. Sid, on the other hand, is going nowhere. It's just not clicking for him. All he's got now is that billy goat's tenacity and a heart of gold. The man won't give up.

"C'mon Sid!" we yell, but we all know it's hopeless. He politely waves at us and then hauls himself back up.

At last comes the moment Big Jim and I have been waiting for. Kevin declares us fit for action and sends us up-mountain. Sid, as suspected, does not make the cut, and we're feeling slightly guilty about leaving him behind. Turning back for a moment, we spot him sprawled once again on the bunny slope.

The quad briskly hums us into the gray gauze of the summit, where it's meat-locker cold and blizzardy. The plan is to stay on the easy green runs all the way down, but once I'm locked into my board and staring downhill, green looks suspiciously like black, and I'm wondering whether anything I've learned down below actually applies to authentic slopes.

Free-falling down a mountain is probably one of man's most powerful terrors. Certainly it's one of mine. One summer, when I was eight, I rode my brand-new bicycle straight down the steepest hill on my grandfather's farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Forgetting how to turn, forgetting how to brake, I was seduced by the speed and sailed all the way to the wooded valley below, where I hurtled 15 yards over the handlebars and landed face-first in a steaming green cow pie. I remember my big brother sitting there on his minibike, laughing as I spat out the dung and studied the warm blood coursing down my shins: the day little brother learned to ride.

It's both the white-knuckled panic and the strange exhilaration of that day that I'm reliving now as I stand contemplating the slope. I hear myself yell, "Geronimo!"

My trepidations, it turns out, are groundless. One of the pleasant surprises of my first run is that going faster is actually easier. The momentum carries me through the occasional messy turn that might have tripped me up on the bunny slope. In fact, the few spills that I do have are on the flat stretches, the catwalks and lift lines, where I don't have the kinetic energy to drive myself through momentary lapses of skill.

Jim and I are now both experiencing the astonishingly steep learning curve for which snowboarding is famous. Every run yields quantum improvements, and our confidence is skyrocketing, even in the midst of a blinding snowstorm. For the first time I'm feeling the satisfying, metronomic rhythm that comes from seamlessly linking a succession of turns. Compared with skis, I find the board far more responsive, answering the faintest twitch of muscle and bone.

Halfway down the mountain, we are overtaken by a posse of boardheads, teenage ruffians all, pulling off weird cartoonish maneuvers that I won't even pretend to know the names of. But I don't pay them any mind. Theirs is a party that I'm not invited to, but also one I'd never want to crash. They've got their own gig going, and now I've got mine. My cat's grin has graduated to an irrepressible giggle, and it stays with me all the way to the bottom.

Jim and I make several more triumphal sojourns to the top and then, late in the afternoon, slide toward the lodge. I glance over my shoulder at the bunny hill, now deserted except for one lone figure threading down the slope, teetering a bit but standing tall, turn after turn after turn.

It's Sid, the unflappable Sid, and he seems to have found his control center. He removes his goggles, jams the Quick-Stick into the snow, and in his understated drawl says, "Well, I think I 'bout got this thing licked."

Hampton Sides is a senior editor of Outside.

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