Like a boiling political topic at a party where I don’t know many people, I don’t always mention that I snowboard. The skiing versus snowboarding debate isn’t as vocal as it once was, but it remains plenty palpable. You can feel it in the lift lines, a shared eye-roll or pause in conversation from the skiing couple with whom I slide through the lift gates. It’s ridiculous, but I play the game.
When I can, I serve as an impromptu ambassador for snowboarding. If the debate surfaces, I approach it calmly and with humor; I posit an indifferent stance with comments like, “Whatever gets you down the mountain,” and “Whoever is having the most fun wins.” I bought Flow bindings so I never sit in front of the exit ramp and I strike up lift conversations to ensure my seat-mates know I’m not a monosyllabic dope addict—anything to show that I’m a relatively decent, functioning member of what makes the world go ’round.
Moreover, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve provided a stable edge or shell-clad shoulder for a yard-sold skier to re-assemble themselves along a steep slope.
“When I can, I serve as an impromptu ambassador for snowboarding.”
That being said, as many friends will attest to, I’m a pretty argumentative guy when pressed; and I have a full bandolier of pointed retorts on the issue should I encounter an overt antagonist.
All my stewardship aside, on a recent day at The Canyons, I did snowboarders a serious disservice. Even though it wasn’t any one thing I did, I feel pretty rotten about it. It was a mutual near-miss, but I caught the brunt of it because of the type of recreational equipment I choose to attach to my feet.
The last run of the day found our mixed group cruising through a connected boulevard of beginner and moderate runs to make it to the village. I picked up my speed before approaching a relatively flat trail connector, buoyed by days of guy-trip testosterone and pointless competitiveness to be the first down.
So far, so good.
With speed increasing, I noticed a young girl in some slope-side muck struggling to get upright. For a moment I thought to help, but another skier was side stepping back up to her, so I veered center, not noticing a ski instructor and three of her young charges, all on skis, and not one more than six-years-old.
I impulsively bailed, scraping and skipping along the patchy groomer right at one of children. His cute, neon-orange ski school jersey rushed at me like the end of a tunnel in front of my bullet train.
“… in times of stress, it’s best to let the flames of panic constrict to a simmer before executing a response to the situation.”
The staccato of metal snowboard edge on hard snow slowed its repetition just enough for me to lift my board nose up and around his little goggled head, and I rolled to a cold cloudy stop next to him. Everyone was intact.
In the midst of the crash, I could make out only the words “Slow down!” in the instructor’s very public admonishment. But I heard enough to know she was unwaveringly apoplectic.
I consider myself relatively calm in the midst of sudden stress. Whether it’s an unclear off-trail intersection 20 miles deep into the backcountry or standing on a stage in front of a few hundred strangers, I know that in times of stress, it’s best to let the flames of panic constrict to a simmer before executing a response to the situation.
The instructor shuffled over to the girl who I spotted initially, helped her up and sent her on her way. I sat silent still as she corralled the kids to the edge of the run, even when a soft voice peeped out from behind a tiny facemask, reminding me that I “Should look where I’m going.”
That hurt, and I had no response. The little tyke was right.
Even though I wasn’t completely at fault.
Truth is, it doesn’t matter how it happened. I had no right to even attempt to verbalize my stance on the incident to a child who was a stroke of luck away from being hospitalized. He was standing just in front of the instructor, so odds are she too might have ended up on crutches.
With all the kids in line and ready, I skated slowly up to the instructor and offered a very honest, self-effacing apology. She would hear none of it, still seething and demanding I get away from her. I pleaded. “Get out of here!”
And that was that.
I finished the run, my speed hampered by an anchor of guilt. I reminded myself that it didn’t really matter that she stopped three small children in the middle of a busy run. That she didn’t see me bank and initially slow to help the girl struggling to lift herself back on to the run. That I wasn’t out of control or a beginner in over his helmet. That people obeying the speed limit get in car accidents every day. That sometimes things just happen.
However, when “things happen” that involve a snowboarder and three minute skiers in the middle of a crowded lift-served slope, the events leading up to those things have no real place in the explanation.
“I finished the run, my speed hampered by an anchor of guilt.”
Most of the guys on the trip have small kids. I know a couple of them quite well, and they’ll be in ski school when we go back up there in a few weeks. It hurt(s) to think about one of them being crushed and broken by an errant snowboarder.
I would hate to have robbed a child of the winter experience, force-feed them a fear of cold speed and light powder. His little face is still straight in my eye line.
I have no problem taking the blame for something that didn’t happen. Nothing did, after all. No one was hurt; and maybe I want a little credit for being aware enough to avoid injuring anyone. Or maybe I don’t deserve any. I’m not sure where I come out on the whole thing.
What I didn’t avoid—and take all accountability for—is imprinting on that kid’s mind the idea that snowboarders are reckless, inconsiderate speed freaks. He’ll probably forever and incorrectly believe that skiing is somehow a more “pure” way to enjoy snow. Maybe he’ll even bully a little buddy of his who wants to try snowboarding. I just hope he still likes to ski, that he came away from his time in ski school unscathed, and with his wind-red cheeks peeled open by an ever-widening grin of stoke when his parents load him into the gondola to get french fries and sit by the fire.
I’m indifferent about what the instructor thinks. Her mind was made up before I got off the lift that afternoon. That much was clear.
And I was the last one down the mountain.