Out of My Comfort Zone, Off My High Horse...and Into Padded Pants

Out of My Comfort Zone, Off My High Horse...and Into Padded Pants

June 15, 2017

Back in 1990, I worked for a small San Francisco Bay Area ski shop. I was taking some time between high school and college, and this gig scored me free lift passes to several Sierra ski resorts, great deals on equipment, and new friends with whom to catch rides to the mountains. 

I'd been a downhill skiing fanatic for years, and I was good. Really good. And, I admit it, a bit of a snob by the time snowboarding broke into the mainstream. 

Snowboarding hadn't been allowed at most western U.S. ski resorts until just before that time. Even in 1990, we'd only see one or two 'boarders out on the slopes, and my kind would hoot at them from our chair lifts. "Knuckledraggers," we'd snort. "How hard can that be? What a joke."

I got my comeuppance when a set of complimentary lift passes required my colleagues and me to attend a half-day beginners' snowboarding class. It was a campaign between one of the two major snowboard companies and the resort, which was opening its slopes to the new sport. They wanted to familiarize regional ski shops with the equipment, and they decided that investing in the torture of the sales associates was the way to go. 

So at 9 am one Thursday, my co-workers and toed the line with about a dozen other ski shop pros and were shoved in the small of our backs to learn whether we were goofy-footed or not. We were force-fed the basics of board selection at the equipment rental shop and subjected to a brief oral history of the origins of the sport. Finally, we were off to the bunny slopes (!) for our first go at what I thought was a huge, fat waste of time. After all, snowboarding was a novelty. A fluke, and a fad.

Worse, the clothing made you look like the Michelin Man...all that padding! I'd refused the baggy-ass loaner pants offered to me by the concerned regional gear rep who'd run the show in the pro shop. Seriously, I worked hard to earn the right to wear my stretch pants. They, like my big hair, were a badge of honor. 

As the lesson rounded out its first half hour, I realized I had a new reason to hate snowboarding: It caused me to SUCK on the slopes for the first time since I was four years old. Ever see "Muddy Mudskipper" on The Ren and Stimpy Show? How about an elephant seal with its flippers nailed to plywood? Yeah? Well. That was me on a snowboard. 

Pure humiliation. In a class of fifteen, I was the absolute worst; my workmate and ski buddy Jeff wasn't much better. We flailed about, faceplanted, rolled like toddlers, got back up...and did it all over again. We were too crestfallen to even claim style points. 

Finally, as the rest of the class rolled their eyes at us, eager to make their first full runs, our instructor handed me a 20 dollar bill. "You two need a break. Go. Get a couple beers and lick your wounds. Most important, try and forget that you're skiers. Do that, and meet me at the top of the lift in an hour." 

Indeed. We obediently limped to the lodge, bought our pitcher, and sat on the deck. My left butt cheek hurt from too many hard landings. Jeff's wrist was killing him. We whined for a while, but after the second round each, we admitted to one another that we weren't going to give up too easily and that this whole snowboarding thing could be kind of fun. 

Our classmates were probably shredding double diamonds by the time we found our instructor again, so we had him all to ourselves. Something about those beers reset the switch within each of us. For one, the pain of our bruises wasn't as much of an issue anymore. Most important, I believe, is that we got over ourselves and how we identified as snowbound badasses. We stopped worrying about being the rookies. We stopped thinking of it as a waste of time, and we stopped measuring our progress—or lack thereof—against our success as downhill skiers.  

Before we knew it, we were getting it. We began nailing our turns, even at tortoise speed, and after two or three trips on the lift, we were staying vertical far more than we were hosting yard sales. When it began to look like we'd soon be able to graduate from the bunny slope to bonafide, green dot "easy" runs, we realized that we'd forgotten about the carrot—our free half day—and that we were having a blast as knuckle-dragging noobs. 

I'm not advocating alcoholism as a means of broadening one's horizons, but in our case, we just needed to chill. As the only woman in the class and one driven to compete on the same level as the guys, I'd put too much pressure on myself to make short work of the new skill. And each time I fell, I felt it was a slam against my worthiness as a skier and athlete. 

Jeff's problem? I don't know. To this day I suspect he threw his game to make me feel better. Or maybe he'd heard somewhere that the instructor was a mark for free beer. 

Our drive home was quiet. Four of us had made the trip from San Jose to Tahoe in my truck, and I had to give up the wheel for the ride home. I was in too much pain to drive.  

I never did as good a job as my work buddies at selling the sport of snowboarding. I'm a skier to my core. But for the next week or so, when girls like me would come into the shop and titter at the padded snowboarding pants, I'd pull them aside and drop trou. The bruise on my ass sold enough pairs of Burton pants to earn me a new set of skis on commissions alone, and in the end, I bought a pair of the baggiest, most padded snowboard pants for myself...just in case. 

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