The first time I realised I was in love with snowboarding, I wasn’t snowboarding. I was flat on my face, with snow up my nose and down my jacket, with my beanie skew on my head and my goggles lying halfway down the slope and some French guy swearing loudly at me as he ski’d past. I’d just done a truly spectacular cartwheel after catching an edge while trying to link a turn for the first time, and I’d slammed shoulder-first into the slope, skidding for fifty metres before coming to a gentle stop with my face and upper body buried in a snowdrift.
And I was laughing. The kind of delighted, almost hysterical guffaws a toddler makes when one of his relatives does something silly. It was just this wonderful, joyous outburst of pleasure, because I’d found a sport that I had totally and completely fallen in love with. I had just smashed myself into the slope at a million miles an hour, I hurt everywhere, and I couldn’t be happier, because I was about to get to my feet and do it all over again.
People are often puzzled by how I and other snowboarders talk about snowboarding. We do it like we’re describing a fine wine, rhapsodising about tight turns, ninja stops and fresh powder like we were comparing oakiness and tannins. Except, it’s a bit more than that. This isn’t the snobbish, academic lecturing of a sommelier. This is the kind of stuff discussed in the tones of someone telling his buddies about his outrageously hot new girlfriend: wide-eyed, passionate, almost incoherent with how lucky he’s gotten. It’s actually slightly disgusting, unless you snowboard, in which case you understand completely.
I think it’s like this because every snowboarder has to go through a right of passage, known among the inner circles as The First Three Days. This is when you learn how to strap in, how to get on and off lifts, how bindings work, how to link turns. The First Three Days are agony. You fall. You fall hard. You fall on your ass, your face, your elbows. You always seem to fall on the hardest part of the baby slope. You get snow everywhere. All around you, more competent snowboarders half your age are whooshing past. You trudge off the mountain feeling like you just got worked over by The Rock, and you wake up the next morning not even sure if you have a body or just a big lump of OW below the neck.
But you persevere. Of course you do. You are, remember, paying for this. You go back up that mountain and you keep falling and you keep getting overtaken by far more skilled riders and you keep waking up thinking you’ve died, only to be horrified that you haven’t.
And then on day three, something…clicks.
There really is no other way to describe it. Every single snowboarder on the planet has had that Day Three moment, where suddenly you’re not falling, you’re linking turn after turn after turn, and the slope stops being a place for you to smash your head into and starts becoming the greatest thing that has ever happened to you.
After that, you can’t get enough. You hunt out new runs like an addict cruising for a re-up. You scan the weather forecast with narrowed eyes and muttered epithets. You react to news of fresh snow like a cat hearing the sound of a distant can opener. You start obsessing over the different policies of airlines regarding snowboard baggage fees. You go out on days when there is zero visibility and the wind is so cold that ice sheets start to form on your goggles (My friend Chris and I have done this – not once, but twice, on two different trips). If it ever comes to pass that the slopes are closed, or that no snow has fallen, you sit in the lodge in a black fog of gloom, snapping at your partner and drinking mechanically. You consider moving to somewhere closer to the mountains. My wife and I actually did.
(That’s my friend Chris, by the way – and yes, we went out when it was that cold. We regret nothing.)
There are very few things that I find indescribable. There are very few times when words fail me – hardly surprising, given that it’s my job to put them in a pleasing order for people to enjoy. But in the case of carving out of a tight turn, on a wide slope, at top speed, at the very edge of control, with your mates in front and behind you, and the sun high in the sky, and the snow hissing under your board, it really can’t be done. It’s like multiple orgasms or going to space or seeing Michael Jordan play. It’s something you can only understand once you’ve done it.
And then there’s powder.
Powder is describable. It’s the closest human beings have come to zero gravity. See, a fresh field of powder is a place where the laws of physics are suspended. It’s where humans can fly.
(It’s also a place you can spend twenty sweaty, sweary minutes digging yourself out of if you fall, but let’s not ruin the mood, shall we?)
And we – my friends and I – aren’t even that good at snowboarding. I thought I was, but then I moved to Canada and realised that there are people here who have been snowboarding since the age of three and who treat their boards like extensions of their body. I am never going to be that good. Doesn’t matter. I might have smacked head-first into that snow bank after bailing spectacularly, but I came up laughing, because I’m a snowboarder. I’m a snowboarder, and I know what it’s like to chase perfection. I’m a snowboarder, and at the end of the day, when I’ve peeled off my sodden inner layers and hobbled down to the pub and am sitting around with my mates, all we’ll be talking about is what we just did, and what we’re going to do tomorrow, and when our next trip is.
I’m a snowboarder. And snowboarding means that every day, the universe shares some of its secrets with me.