Earning your Turns…an ill-prepared rookie’s experience

Four years ago if you told me I would be snowboarding, I would have thought you were crazy.  But alas, three years ago I learned to snowboard.  Having logged approximately 100 days so far, most of them have been in New England.  However, there have also been excursions to Colorado, Utah, and Whistler.  I am continually looking for ways to branch out and new things to try…my riding still has a long way to go, but no park…I don’t want to die.

If you told me two weeks ago that I would be earning my turns, hiking my lines, etc.  I would have thought you were crazy. Fast forward to this past weekend.  Mark and I made a New Year’s weekend excursion to Vermont with my pre-purchased lift tickets. Mark had his splitboard all packed up and was super stoked to earn some turns for himself.

There really wasn’t a plan B so when we arrived at the mountain and the lifts were down for the day, I decided to hang out and read a book.  Mark headed out to splitboard his way to fresh pow. It was a real bummer sitting in the car not snowboarding on our snowboarding trip.  My iPad wasn’t working right, my book wasn’t downloaded on it, my phone battery was quickly running out and I was generally feeling pretty sorry for myself (real constructive, eh?)  So out came the trusty notebook to start working on a blog post.

The ideas weren’t exactly flowing in my grouchy state. Before coming up with anything constructive Mark got back from his first trek up to see I wanted to do.  That was a tough one…our season passes were blacked out because of the holiday and we didn’t want to pay a small fortune to snowboard with a TON of other people on vacation. Plus we had already paid for tickets there that weren’t getting refunded (we were given a voucher for a future day). Part of the reason we picked Magic Mountain was that, not only do they allow people to hike their trails, they encourage it and Mark has been chomping at the bit to get back out on his splitboard.  He suggested that I hike up with him.  Lacking the proper gear to hike, and having the expectation I wouldn’t be able to make it very far, I decided to stay in the car with my failing electronic devices.  Then he said, “You could at least try.”  That’s tough to dispute…I could at least try.

He loaded up my board and gave me his poles and we started hiking.  Without the burden of a board and bindings to carry, my journey was easier than expected even though I didn’t make it to the top that day.  It was only about 2/3 of the way up, but it was still further than I expected to get.

There were a number of things for a rookie to take away from the adventure.  There were some things that I would definitely do differently if we were heading out into the backcountry, but for those reasons, it is probably ideal to test things out in the safety of a ski area that allows you to “earn your turns”

Many of the considerations are the same any time you find yourself in the mountains.

Probably the most important thing is don’t go alone.  Ideally, when you are putting yourself in a risky situation like out in the backcountry, you want to have at least two people.  No one should be out there by him or herself.  That’s just asking for trouble.  If you get injured and cannot get off the mountain under your own power, you will need someone to help you or go get help for you. You should also have a plan of where you are going and a meetup spot should you get separated.

When you are on the east coast there is not a huge avalanche danger in most places…but if you are out west where the good stuff is, avalanche terrain is everywhere.  You should make taking avalanche training a top priority. Be sure to take avy training and get (and know how to use) all the appropriate avalanche gear. 

Bring water, high energy snacks, and extra supplies in the event you need to make a repair or re-route your line.  Keep in mind that you want to keep the weight of what you are carrying minimized, so don’t pack extraneous stuff.  Staying hydrated is of the highest priority at all times.  It is what fends off hypothermia and allows you to keep a steady pace throughout your journey.  Bring an extra amount of high energy snacks along with extra waterIf something goes wrong, like an equipment failure, injury or getting lost, then you will need those supplies. In areas you are not familiar with, definitely bring a map and compass- and know how to use them!  Other important items include a headlamp and a reliable communication device.

Also hugely important is to layer well.  You will get very hot on the hike up and sweat is your enemy.  You need to be able to shed layers to keep yourself dry.  When you stop and start cooling down, you will need to put those layers back on to stay warm.  On wilderness trips bring extra socks in case your feet get soaked crossing a stream or from sweat.  Bring an extra base layer and an insulated thermal in addition to your waterproof/windproof shell

Another, not hugely important, but hugely convenient thing would be to take a pair of thin gloves in addition to your snowboarding gloves.  Snowboarding gloves are too hot and can make your hands sweat…take them off and your hands are sweaty and then they freeze.

Also, most definitely let people know where you are going and when you expect to be back.  Most USFS (United States Forest Service) trailhead offices have sign-in sheets.  Sign in before hitting the trail.

While there were some things that I took for granted because we were at an operational ski area, I did not take for granted that the same things would be ok in the untamed backcountry.  We had snowmobiles going by and other hikers, skiers, snowshoers and snowboarders on the mountain and everyone that we encountered was very nice.  I know that had there been trouble, there would have been help.  But I also know that when you are earning your turns out in the middle of nowhere…you cannot count on anyone coming to save your butt if you get into trouble.

Whenever you hike somewhere you need to make sure you have enough energy to get back down.  Snowboarding down  (barring any unforeseen circumstances) is a pretty quick way to get down, but you want to enjoy the ride and if you are too tired, that’s not so easy.  When you are tired tends to be when you get hurt, so be careful and don’t take unnecessary risks.

We were hiking up groomed runs so there wasn’t a whole lot of post-holing going on…but in spots where you sunk in a foot or so, you could definitely appreciate how tiring it would be to posthole up the whole way.  I know people have been doing it for years, and that’s great…but I don’t have that kind of stamina (not yet anyway).  This is where you could really appreciate the usefulness of a splitboard.

The second day the lift was down we tossed around the idea of paying a lot of money to ride at a crowded nearby resort and then we decided that idea sucked.  So we roughed it again.  Day one I didn’t get to the top, but day two I refused to not get there.  Mark splitboarded the second day (still carried my board though) and I could see how much easier it was for him to stay up on the snow in areas where I was falling through.  It wasn’t a big mountain.  I did not take some epic run down.  But I got it done.  Now I am obsessed with the idea of getting a splitboard of my own.  Thankfully with the growing popularity of splitboarding, many companies are making splitboards for women. Next time I will even carry my own stuff.

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