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A safer way to learn
Story by Haven Livingston
Each and every year, my mood darkens with the arrival of the first snowflakes. It’s not that I’m against winter as a season—it’s more that I miss my favorite outdoor pursuits, which all involve fair weather. And truth be told, I have a bad relationship with particular winter activities, namely skiing and snowboarding. Winter’s arrival has traditionally resulted in a seasonal downward spiral of my life’s overall fun factor, but that may be changing, sooner than later.
While the outdoorsy folks around me seem to revel in the season, its arrival sends me into a panic, searching for the nearest exit door that leads south. Friends proudly strut their new snow gear while I hold a death grip on my bikini and sandals, ready for any chance to bail to a warmer clime. I would like to think there is nothing wrong with this reaction. After all, millions of birds migrating south every winter couldn’t be wrong. But after so many years of bemoaning and running from winter, I am beginning to realize that I could be missing out on some thrilling, snowy fun.
Snowboarding and skiing have an obvious appeal to most outdoor enthusiasts: bending the body into sweeping, graceful turns, the rush of speed, the quiet beauty of a winter landscape. Being a surfer, and a climber who occasionally looks for a quicker way off the mountain, I have to admit I am intrigued. However, my problem isn’t just that I don’t like winter. I am actually afraid of snow, or more precisely, steep snowy slopes.
The fear began with a traumatic childhood experience. I was frozen—a deer in headlights–at the top of my first bunny hill and forced to go down it against my will. My run (and the rest of my day) ended abruptly when I careened off course and crash-landed into a small stream. My fear was reinforced with a one-day snowboarding adventure in graduate school that left me with a debilitating back injury. I hadn’t made any effort to befriend the snow for eight years until last winter. A no pressure, three-day introduction to downhill skiing sparked a desire as I connected my first few turns. Thus, I am now determined to give winter a chance, and to even learn to love the “pow”.
Learning a new sport as an adult is not only a physical challenge, it also can be a humbling mental exercise. This is especially true when five-year-old “rippers” zoom past you, or when you have a fearful memory to overcome.
Teaching yourself can be a painful waste of time. Unfortunately, learning from friends can also be a lost cause if your friends are long time skiers. They tend to give you ridiculous instructions like, “just follow me and do what I do–you’ll be fine.” This might reflect a foggy memory they have from taking lessons at age seven, but this technique certainly doesn’t reflect the realities of physical learning. As adults, we have busy lives and want the most efficient learning process possible so we can start following our friends on the slopes. Yes, finding professional help was the only way I would get back on a snowboard.
Much to my relief, I learned that I didn’t have to buy a lift ticket, gear, or warm clothing to begin my journey into snowboarding. I also didn’t have to wait in line or fear getting creamed by people flying down the mountain at light speed. I simply drove to the Potrero Hill area of San Francisco, and hopped on the Endless Slope.
Endless Slope in San Francisco is owned by Adventurous Sports, a business dedicated to helping people find their way to fit and happy lives. Brightly lit and colorfully painted, the Endless Slope studio houses little more than the equipment itself: a giant treadmill for skiers and snowboarders. The sloped, six by six-foot deck is covered in carpet, and bordered in front and back by safety bars. The instructor has full control over the speed of the treadmill, and the boarder is harnessed to the back bar as an extra precaution. Boots and skis or boards are provided.
When I arrived for my introductory session, my anxiety immediately fell away. The atmosphere is completely non-threatening (there was no snow or five year old rippers). My lesson was one-on-one with professional instructor Ian-Michael Hébert. Hailing from Alaska, Hébert is at home in the snow and on the slopes. With a resume full of experience in coaching, teaching, training and a level two certification from the American Association of Snowboard Instructors, he provides expert instruction for all levels and ages. He’s one of five instructors for Endless Slope, all with equally impressive backgrounds.
Hébert kept things light and simple and got right to the point. After an overview of snowboarding on the ground, I was gliding down the carpet, finding my balance and being instructed on the key points of snowboarding success. We covered the basics of how to slide, stop, turn from front to back, and the beginning motions of carving turns.
The endless slope is the perfect learning tool for skiers and boarders. The focus is to develop the muscle memory needed to react quickly to situations without having to think first. Lessons are tailored to suit the individual from beginner to expert. A beginner’s advantage is that instructors will catch inefficient movements before they become bad habits and guide the student to develop their own riding sense naturally. Intermediate and expert riders can focus on specific technical skills they want to develop.
Along the way, you also get a great workout. The number of turns made in a half-hour session on the treadmill is roughly the same to an entire day on the slopes, but the number of falls on the Endless Slope is usually zero.
During my time on the slope, Hébert was patient and thoughtful with his instruction. By the end of my second session I felt myself becoming more secure in my balance, and was feeling the rhythm of carving. I wasn’t comfortable enough to completely abandon the railing, but I was close. Two or three more sessions and I’m certain I would be ready to hit the slopes with enough confidence and endurance to enjoy a full weekend on the snow. It’s an exciting prospect to think about finding joy in something that I have been afraid of for so long.
On my way out the door I passed a family of four on their way in. With kids ages four and five they explained that they came every weekend as a family event because it was easier than driving to the snow. The kids tore around the room, excited to get their gear on, while the parents chilled out and watched them learn. “When they’re old enough to last a whole day on the mountain, then we’ll take them,” the parents explained, “but for now, they love this!”
This method of learning is smart and efficient for both the body and pocket book. Using the Endless Slope as a beginner’s classroom saves time and money that would have been spent on long drives, rentals, lift tickets and group lessons with many distractions. I also saved myself from all the falls and bruises, cold lift rides, and potentially embarrassing moments on resort slopes. Clearly the Endless Slope was the perfect way for me to ease my way back onto the snow. I also highly recommend it as an excellent way to get warmed up for the upcoming season of riding or skiing, regardless of your ability level.