New snowboarders gain from pain

Posted: Thursday, March 07, 2002

David McMaster knows how hard it can be to start snowboarding.

"After my first lesson I spent about an hour and a half in the tub and slept about 12 hours," said the Eaglecrest Ski and Snowboard School instructor. "That first week can be a little painful."

But there's a quick gain after the pain, said McMaster and fellow snowboard instructor Dave Harju.

"The progression for snowboarding is much quicker than it is for skiing," Harju said. "Skiing is a lifetime achievement, while you become a competent snowboarder with two really good seasons under your belt."

McMaster and Harju are two of the instructors at Eaglecrest who teach lessons for beginning, intermediate and advanced snowboarders. Some, such as Harju, also teach downhill and telemark skiing.

Most young students at the city-owned ski area want to learn quickly, while older students often are crossing over from skiing.

"A lot of them just want to have a new experience," McMaster said.

Group lessons of up to about eight students begin on the nearly level area to the right of the Platter Pull lift known as "The Beach."

Harju said he starts out by determining whether students have backgrounds in skiing, surfing or skateboarding that could bring skills relevant to boarding. He also finds out whether students ride "regular" or "goofy."

"If you ride regular, you ride with the left foot in front. If you ride goofy, you ride with your right foot in front," he said.

Beginners start off easy, just getting a sense of the board and how it slides on the snow.

"We don't even let them put their back foot in the snowboard," McMaster said. "They just walk around in circles to see how awkward it is."

Straight runs on a gentle slope usually come next.

"What we are looking for there is a nice, functional, athletic, balanced stand," Harju said. "Ultimately you want the student to go down the hill as a pillar of calmness in the upper body."

Turns and stops come next. Once students can safely turn both ways - heelside and toeside - and stop - by turning or controlled falling - it's time for most to try the lift.

The Platter Pull, where the pulling mechanism is held between the user's legs, is designed for skiers. It can be particularly daunting for beginning boarders, who have to stick the pull's "basket" under their arm or shoulder, said Harju.

"It's by far a beginning snowboarder's nightmare," he said.

If boarders can't make it up, they're allowed to walk up the gently sloping hill.

Beginning snowboarders fall a lot, but that's just part of the learning process.

"There's a lot of what we call slams going on," McMaster said. "It's just about learning how to use your muscles properly."

A lot of beginners try to control their movements with upper body twists and arm motions, but that usually doesn't work.

"A lot of it has to do with the enormous use of toes and calf muscles," McMaster said.

If students don't get it right, he said, "Gravity's going to take over from there and you're going to fall down."

McMaster suggests students take a day or afternoon between lessons to try out what they've learned.

"After each lesson I say, 'Go get some mileage. Go practice this stuff.' "

Harju recommends three consecutive days of lessons and practice before moving from the Platter Pull "bunny" hill to steeper runs off the Hooter chair lift.

"When somebody is ready to go up Hooter is when somebody is able to go down both sides of Platter with toeside and heelside turns with good stance," he said. "It takes a body a long time to memorize and perfect these moves."

McMaster said the transition to Hooter is best done with help from an instructor. Once boarders have the basic skills down, they can take intermediate and advanced lessons.

"In upper-level lessons, there's less teaching and more coaching," Harju said. "As your riding progresses, you teach less and less and work on refining a few things."

Boarders can learn how to better handle bumps, powder and the new terrain park if they are interested.

"You don't have to be just this absolutely incredible rider to be on this terrain park," he said. "As the park becomes a little more developed, we definitely will cater our lesson content."

Some instructors can teach airborne spins, but flips are not allowed because they're so unsafe, Harju said.

Safety elements are a big part of boarding lessons. Students learn to control speed, fall safely, watch for traffic when sliding down the hill and find a clear spot when stopping to take a break or adjust equipment.

Eaglecrest's boarding instructors have seen their share of falls and grimaces. The reward comes when students get up and figure it out.

On Monday, for example, McMaster had an elementary school student who was so frustrated he just lay on the snow in tears, asking when lunch break would come.

"I just took him under my wing," said, 'Hey, let's try this,' " McMaster said. "As the two-hour lesson progressed, he just seemed to get happier. You could see the lights come on.

"At the end of the lesson, I said, 'It's lunch.' He said, 'No way, man. I'm going back up there.' "

Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at eschoenfeld@juneauempire.com.



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