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.