Two planks good, one plank bad: from snowboarder to skier
By SnowSphere sub editor Jon Mitchell
Published August 2007
The skier turned snowboarder who "never looked back" is a familiar story, but SnowSphere sub editor Jon Mitchell pulls a 180, ditches his Italian "Bastard" board, picks up some poles and heads to the hills to make some parallel turns.
It is - for once - a crisp, sunny March morning. The monsoon season is in its last spluttery fits and starts, and the more defiantly optimistic Vancouverites are already breaking out the shorts and sandals, despite the still-tepid temperatures.
This is not something I fully appreciate at the time. It's 6am, I'm frantically trying to compress a weekend's worth of snow gear and evening clothes into a worryingly small backpack, and at this point I can only muster a baleful, sleep-encrusted glare at the sunlight glinting prettily off the North Shore mountains.
I am not a morning person. More accurately, in the mornings I'm not a person at all; more a collection of limbs in an apparently independent search for coffee, which goes some way towards explaining how I manage to trip on my snowboard boots and painfully stub my bare toes on the edge of my board.
"Bastard!" I exclaim, helpfully. Coincidentally, my board is actually a Bastard - a Bastard Custom, bought in Italy, and a frequent source of confusion for anyone asking my board's make when I take it to be re-edged and waxed, which it needs suspiciously often. It bears the legend "Proudly Made By Those Lazy Italians", though to be honest, "Badly Made" might be nearer the mark, it being the only board I've ever encountered which started de-laminating on its day of purchase. *
I am no mood to carry the Bastard after what it's done to me, so in a fit of pique and fiscal irresponsibility I decide to rent at Whistler, and rush off to take the transit to work with only my miniscule, neutron-star-dense backpack for company.
One SkyTrain ride and a large latte later, I am feeling pretty well disposed towards Vancouver again, which, shorn of the Pacific pall which has been shrouding the skyscrapers for the last few months, is busy being brazenly spectacular. I start regretting not bringing my board, or at the very least my boots, and wonder if I have time to get home and back before I leave for Whistler at 5.
I do not. Work is frantic, with barely a spare minute to grab a cereal bar for lunch. Still, I come up with an idea which at least gets round the laziness of renting something I already own: I will rent, but I will rent....skis!
It's not a completely new thing for me - I spent at least 3 weeks in my early teens taking lessons with my family on holidays in Europe, before I spent one shockingly painful afternoon trying to ride a stiff, square-ended carving board in Isola 2000.
Despite my bruises, I was instantly hooked on snowboarding, not to mention that it was, to my teenage mind, just obviously much, much cooler. So I switched, my brother and I snowboarded for every holiday after that and we never looked back.
That afternoon is close to 15 years ago now, and I haven't skied since. Still - if the skis I rent tomorrow have improved as much as boards have in that time, I should be in for an interesting experience.
The following (early) morning finds me in a rental shop at Blackcomb Base, clutching at something from Starbucks, and trying to form sentences that are coherent enough to convince the sarcastic Ozzie shop assistant I should be allowed intermediate level skis.
"Have you skied before, mate?"
"Er...yes. For 3 or 4 weeks. That was about 15 years ago. I've snowboarded for the last 15, though."
"I'll put you down as a beginner then, eh?"
"I'm pretty sure I'm still an intermediate."
"You are, are you?"
"Really. You think so?"
"Almost positive, actually."
"Fair enough, bud. They're your legs. Sign this waiver."
I am given a short, squat pair of bright red Salomon Scramblers, a pair of boots which look not entirely dissimilar to the lower half of Optimus Prime, and...poles. I had forgotten about poles. Why are there poles?
I clamp myself into the robot boots and clomp stiffly out of the shop to meet James, Steph, Lauren and Woody. We're all British expats working in Vancouver's booming videogames industry, drawn by the promise of clean air, stunning scenery and a compact, cosmopolitan city just a stone's throw from any outdoor activity you can think of. Thankfully, everything we'd heard about the city turned out to be true.
Lauren and Steph are skiers, Woody is a snowboarder, and James, despite giving both boarding and skiing a shot, recently decided he just "doesn't like sliding down hills on bits of fibreglass, really", and has taken to snow-shoeing, instead.
We say goodbye to James for the day and head up the Whistler Gondola. The weather is freak show sunny and the views from the lift up are genuinely, spine-tinglingly awesome; the light coming through is so crisp and sharp there's nothing but the curve of the earth stopping us from seeing forever.
I step into the skis and hook on the poles with some trepidation. It feels distantly familiar, but not entirely pleasant. The bindings and boots feel clunkily mechanical and rigid compared to the relatively soft and forgiving snowboard setups I'm used to and the skis themselves are surprisingly weighty.
"Keep your weight forward, bend your knees", Steph shouts as I set off, channelling every ski instructor I've ever heard. 90 percent of my ski lessons were actually just endless exhortations of "Bend Ze Knees! Bend Ze Knees!" from weather beaten and crankily avuncular Frenchmen, usually while they were skiing backwards on one leg, smoking.
I bend ze knees, but still feel like Bambi on ice and I've re-acquired the maddeningly unpredictable turns of a beginner, criss-crossing the slopes at nearly 90 degrees to the fall line. The poles are helping me to steady myself, but it still seems silly and cluttered compared to the simplicity of a snowboard.
After I've reached the bottom of the green run I'm pleasantly surprised. There's no unstrapping in the lift queue, no one footed scooting along and best of all, no tension or pressure on your feet at all when sitting on the lifts. I'd forgotten that lifts just aren't really made for snowboarders, and no matter how adept you become at navigating the lift process, it is simply a great deal more comfortable and rapid on a pair of skis.
Within an hour or so, the unfamiliarity has melted away, the muscle memory has really kicked in and these shorter, sharper skis are so forgiving that even my rusty technique is letting me slice through the snow with close to the same precision as ever.
My confidence grows with every run. Within a few hours, I'm enjoying myself enormously. I'm schussing easily down slopes at speeds that would leave me dangerously unstable on a board and I'm revelling in the simple joy of a fluidly executed series of neat, symmetrical parallel turns.
"Well, you seem to be getting back into the swing of things", Woody remarks.
"Thanks! It's the skis, mainly..."
(It is not the skis. I am incredible!)
OK, a lot of it is the skis. They have improved as much as boards have, maybe more, and these ones seem to turn almost by themselves. It's almost like having power steering.
The run down to Whistler village is not quite as inspiring. On a board, choppy, packed-sugar snow is a soggy playground, what we sometimes call "poor man's powder". On skis, the rapidly changing camber and texture of the slopes becomes hazardous and I'm having to constantly fight the skis to stop them from zipping off in different directions. Still, it's challenging, much like riding moguls on a board and it's interesting to feel the contrast of how skis and snowboards handle in different snow conditions.
We spend our second day in Blackcomb's 7th Heaven. There's a relentlessly long, flat traverse to the area which usually leaves me with calves of fire, but on skis you can just sit back, relax and enjoy the view. The only view today is of a blizzard unfortunately, but it's still surprisingly warm and it's a small price to pay for the generous coating of bone dry, light powder the area received overnight.
The experience of gliding through fresh powder is one most boarders live for. The slightest changes of pressure on your feet turn into gentle, sweeping, frictionless arcs, and the noisy scrape of your board becomes a muffled, snow-damped lullaby.
It's just as good on skis. The afternoon passes with the blurry, egoless bliss of a really good powder day.
By the time we get back to Whistler Village, I am suffused with the bone-deep combination of tiredness and dizzy satisfaction I usually associate only with boarding. I clomp slowly back to the rental shop feeling a little like I'm saying goodbye to an old friend, one I haven't seen in years. But I'm not sad. I know we'll see each other soon.
* Although my Bastard Snowboard did start delaminating, the guys at the shop put it in a press overnight and it's been excellent ever since. I actually love my Bastard board - after four years of loyal service, I replaced it this year with a Burton Custom, and already I've found the Burton to be nowhere as hard-wearing as the Bastard, and the ride is not as good, either.
So if you want a hard bastard snowboard, check them out: www.bastard.it