Planks vs. Boards


Took a weekend to play in the snow. Shirtsleeve weather at Kirkwood, perfect blue skies, ten feet of spring sugar on the ground, not too crowded. Except for the fact that I was alone, an almost perfect weekend. Decided to find out for once and for all whether I’m a skier or a snowboarder at heart.

I grew up surfing and skateboarding, but when family went to the snow for vacations, I always skied, since snowboards weren’t invented yet (actually, I brought a sandboard up one winter to try it in the snow — an infamously failed experiment). Anyway, I skied from around age 8-14. When I moved to Boston in the 1990s, took up snowboarding and got hooked – went almost every weekend some seasons.

These days, snowboarders make up about half the people you see on the slopes, but there’s still a huge number who continue to ski. I’ve been wondering lately if I’m missing something. Am I really the pleistocene knuckle dragger they say I am? Is snowboarding really less “sophisticated” than skiing? Am I not acting my age by continuing to snowboard? Decided to do an experiment and finally get to the bottom of the skiing vs. snowboarding question. So I snowboarded all day Saturday, then rented skis on Sunday, so I could experience them back-to-back.

I think the most striking difference can be summed up in one word: “encumberment.” When you’re skiing, you’ve got apparatus attached to each hand and each foot. All limbs occupied by gear. Feet working independently of one another – the road to good skiing style is to get two feet to work as one.

On the plus side, skiing is a much more symmetrical activity – your body faces down hill evenly, and your body gets an even workout as a result. It’s also much easier to traverse flat areas on skis.

Snowboarding is bodily asymmetrical, which takes getting used to, but the activity is much less encumbered, much freer. No poles, and just one board. Less gear to distract and control. The sport stripped down to its essentials. You don’t have to work to keep your two feet parallel – they always are. You work the lines of the mountain by controlling a single edge. This is hard to put into words, but the experience of snowboarding – to me – is much more zen-like than skiing. It feels more pure, and more enjoyable as a result.

Because you only have one edge to work with, it’s harder to learn to snowboard, but the rewards are greater in terms of pure pleasure. Skis and snowboards maneuver so differently – which is why you see fewer skiers in the gullies and in the terrain parks. Skis do have the advantage that they have better control in icy conditions, since they offer two edges to work with. On the other hand, it’s much easier to ride powder on a snowboard.

Still, there’s something very attractive about skiing – it’s a bit faster, and you don’t end up with one buttock stronger than the other at the end of the season. I’m sure there’s a zen thing going on in skiing too, though it’s hard for me to see where – to me it feels much more mechanical, and always on the verge of being out of control. In contrast, snowboarding, in part because of its relative simplicity – feels much more controlled, planted, somehow more organic.

In the last hour of the day, I gave up. I was getting better on the skis with every run, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something important – I wasn’t feeling the mountain move beneath me like I do on a snowboard. No doubt this is in large part because surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding have been a continuum in my life, while skiing has been a side thing. I admit that I probably like snowboarding better because I’m better at it, but screw it. I returned the rental gear, went back to the car, and finished the day on my board.

In that last hour, I had more fun on a snowboard than I had had all day on skis. On the chair lift, talked with a couple of other former skiers who said they had gone through a similar transformation, and would also never go back.

To each his own, but I’m really glad I did this experiment. In a way, I’m bummed because Sunday wasn’t as fun as it could have been, but I’m also glad I won’t have to wonder anymore. You couldn’t pay me to strap planks to my feet again.

The day ended gloriously. Timed one last bomber run down Buckboard gulley (my favorite run at Kirkwood) so that I ended up the last person on the lift to “The Wall,” which takes you to a summit with an endless 360 degree vista of snowcapped mountains. At the top, turned off the headphones and just stood for 10 minutes, absorbing the silence and the scenery. Then I dedicated one last run to world peace and plunged down that first cliff. 100 yards down, stopped, caught my breath, realized I was the last person on the mountain. Pulled snow out of crevices and glided slowly back to base, sun at my back. It was religious.

16 Replies to “Planks vs. Boards”

  1. I made the same experience. I was the first time skiing three years ago, on rented skis; and just for fun I tried snowboarding the following weekend – and never went back to skis.

    Partly it’s because snowboarding is more challenging as it requires more body control from me; but on the flipside it feels much more organic once you get the movements right.

    And of course the board boots are more comfortable :-)

  2. I was never able to find the Zen you speak of when boarding, while when Skiing it comes to me almost automatically… The first few runs of the day do have that mechanical, oiling the gears, feel, but once I get in the groove all things mechanical become automatic and I just glide down the mountain.

    Personal Preference aside, I dislike snowboarders on my mountain because bad snowboarders can so-ruin the snow conditions… Ass-draggers that don’t know what they are doing push most of the (New England Factory) powder to the sides and leave the makings of a big ice slick in their wake… There are probably a similar number of idiot skiiers, but they seem to do less damage to my snow.

  3. Very enlightening read, Scot! Having grown up in New England doing nordic and picking up ‘boarding a few years ago, I’ve always wondered if I missed out on something with alpine. My guys has always told me “no”, and your own experience makes a great supporting argument…

  4. Erm, not sure how/why I mistyped, but I meant to write “my gut has always…”. I’m not in possession of any male audience that favors skiing over snowboarding.

  5. Sean, I don’t buy the argument that snowboarders are harsher on the terrain. Both skis and snowboards are the same length, both push snow aside, exposing the hard pack underneath. Especially on the east coast, conditions get icier as the day goes on, but I don’t that’s related to snowboarders. The spread patterns are different, but I can’t see that a snowboard digs any more deeply into the surface than skis — the overall surface area of one board or two skis is roughly equivalent (if anything, the board has more surface area).

  6. We need to do a snow weekend, you and I.

    I grew up on skis. First put them on at age 4 and didn’t really take them off until about 21. Haven’t skied in a long time, but it’s in my blood.

    I was also a skateboarder. And not those fatty planks today’s kids use. The thin boards, which are far more difficult to control. And I owned a “Snurfer,” the same toy Jake Burton got one Christmas that started him down the path to the snowboard revolution. I’ve never strapped into a snowboard, and I need to.

    Let’s go to Mount Bachelor or something. :)

  7. Interesting experiment. (BTW, liked the “Comparing Snowboarding and Skiing is TOTALLY EXTREEEEEEEM!!!” photo) I have to say though, that I think that achieving that Zen-like quality on skis is easy when you are good enough. I’ve been skiing since I was 3, I don’t remember NOT being able to do it. My feet just know what to do and I’m not thinking about edging or where my hands are. The equimpent just sort of fuses to my body and lets me fly down the hill as fast as I want. But I’m definitely one of those boring former racing types that only likes to do a few wide arcing giant slalom turns down the hill going as fast as I can, but that’s the only kind of skiing my fancy racing skis will let me do. I can’t ski with them in the bumps, they’re too stiff and heavy, and I definitely can’t ski with them in powder, they sink like a stone. (I have to rent different skis on powder days.) I don’t think of myself as particularly coordinated or graceful on land, but when I ski I just feel totally free and swooping and exilarated and giddy. It sounds like you feel similarly on a snowboard.

    One interesting personal observation: since I haven’t been able to afford new skiing gear as nice as what I raced in in high school, I still just pile it on—-the helmet with the austrian national team emblem in front with full-face chin guard, jacket with florescent yellow epaulets on the shoulder, bent GS poles, and, the piece de resistance, screaming fire engine red Descente racing tights. (They were REALLY COOL in ’88! I swear!!) In lift lines the ‘boarders just look at me and shake their heads, laughing, going: “Um, yeah, whatever……ya Herman Maier wannabe eighties relic! Go find some snazzy Gstaad lodge in which to parade your techowear.” Which would seem warranted, except all my gear is threadbare and literally held together by duct tape in places. Somewhere in the mid nineties all boarders seemed to all want to dress like Kurt Cobain on snow.

    Anyway, being a fashion-conscious gal, it’s an interesting “Fashion (Or Anti-Fashion, as the case may be) war” taking place on the slopes.


  8. Amy!

    I think you’re spot-on about the level of zen rising with the level of comfort. I am of course only revealing my own biases and experience – generalizations will not hold, nor should they.

    I’ve *got* to see a picture of you in all this psychoactive techno gear. Sounds too outrageous to be true. Better yet, we should have a multi-family snow trip.

    As for all the wee Kurt Cobains out there, they may hold the high visibility slots, but a lot of them are getting older, and there are more snowboarding dads with every passing year. Give it another 5-10 years and there will be equal number of grey-beareded boarders.

    When the boarders start wearing primary colors, we’ll know it’s true mainstream.

  9. Hey man i think snowboarding is so much better. Ive been skinng for 3 years and then this year i swithced to snow boarding and it was great i learned real quick and it was always a rush going down the mountain.

  10. I’ve been skiing since im about five and now im 22, last year i tried snowboarding just to see what it is, and after a very painfull day for my behind decided not to pursue it any further but to enjoy the sunny days doing downhill just take pleasure of feeling the ground fly by me under the vibrating skis.

  11. Hi, I’m Emily. I’m 15 years old. I have been skiing for quite a while and now I have the opportunity to do snowboarding. Do you think I should do it? Also is it hard gettin on a chairlift for the first time because im kinda scared about that

  12. Emily – What have you got to lose by trying it? You might spend part of the first day on your knees and on your bootie, but get past that and you’ll have more fun than you’ve ever had on skis!

    It’s a bit harder to get on a chairlift, but not by much.

  13. I have skied on the two trips I have taken to Colorado….I picked it up quick and was skiing down intermediate courses my first day. I am just wondering if I should try snowboarding on the next trip I take during the winter season. I thought I might be able to pick it up easy because I am athletic and I skateboard alot. So, should I?
    Thanks, Chris

  14. I’ve never skied nor snowboarded in my life until this weekend… first night I tried skiing, hated it, there was not run that I didn’t go down.. the next day I thought I tried snowboard.. I caught up pretty good and never looked back.

  15. By far, boarding is better than skiing. Nothing beats the shear joy one gets when screaming down a hill. The pure delight of creating perfect arcs down an open slope is exhilarating — definitely more fluid and graceful than skiing.. Lastly, snowboarding is cooler :)

  16. Hi Mike!

    I don’t think snowboarding is cooler, but I admit, they have cooler outfits :).

    Ok, I’m TOO OLD to learn snowboard (and I haven’t got the time), but from what I’m seeing on the mountain, I can do everything a snowboarder can. The only problem is, I need my twintips for the park and the fatties for the powder, while snowboarder doesn’t have to change gear :(((. Don’t get me wrong: I ski offpiste on my “regular” skis, but on a big powder day I definitely need fat freeride skis for that “zen feeling” and effortless style (I hate shortswing)!

    I like boarders for their fluid style and radical lines in powder. I don’t like when they are sitting on a slope blocking it. But ok, I learned that they don’t have poles and must sit…

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