From Why Not to Storm Peak: Attaining Unconscious Competence on a Snowboard in Ten Days

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, CO- One of the goals I set for myself coming into this winter season was to learn how to snowboard. The idea of it has always appealed to me, but I started my snow-sports career on skis and I've always been hesitant to spend 3 out of 3 vacation days sitting on my ass in the snow, attempting to snowboard. I figured that living near a mountain would afford me the chance to learn how to ride.

As every snowboarder knows, the worst thing you can do is find yourself flat-footed, because that’s how you catch an edge. My very first time on a snowboard was a freezing, icy evening in January, and I was riding solo. Cruising down the bunny hill, standing up straight, I was thinking, hm, this isn’t too bad at all...I can do this. This rocks. Suddenly, I caught my back edge in the ice and found myself in an uncontrolled fall to the ground...right on my ass. On the solid ice. Ouch, OUch, OUCH! As everyone who's ever learned to snowboard knows, this is the WORST part of the learning curve.




I sensibly deduced that these weren’t the best conditions in which to learn to snowboard, and gingerly made my way down the rest of the bunny hill, swearing I’d be back again when the snow was fluffier. If I knew I was going to be up and down all day, there was no sense doing it when I was going to fall on the ice.


At this point, I was at the unconscious incompetence point on the learning-to-snowboard-curve. I didn’t even know that what I was trying to do was wrong, dreadfully wrong.  Fortunately, my darling companion, Kelly, is a snowboard instructor, and quickly set the record straight that I should NOT be trying to ride flat-footed. I should always be riding toeside or heelside; the best way to avoid catching an edge is to already be on one.  Cue conscious incompetence, the next phase in learning a new skill—knowing that what you are doing is wrong. I was now aware that my barrier to learning to snowboard was the fact that I was trying to ride flat-footed, and that to improve, I had to learn to ride on my edges.


It was time to try and learn the right way, to strive for the conscious competence phase. I think this is truly the hardest leap to make when learning something new. It’s very easy to know that what you’re doing is wrong, but very difficult to simply start doing it right. It’s the transition from incompetence at a skill to competence, and it’s much easier said than done. It's one thing to know that you should be mastering your toeside turns, it's another thing to just go out there and do it.




After a few fruitless attempts at competency and a brutal fall leaving me exceedingly thankful I was wearing a helmet, I was about ready to throw in the towel on snowboarding. I found myself a competent heelside rider, mostly because as a skier I’ve been used to facing my body plane down the mountain, but as anyone who snowboards knows, that’s not a particularly valuable skill. It’s essential to become competent at toeside riding, and then, most importantly of all, to master the art of switching between the two. That’s how you actually snowboard.


One day, I took my board out and resolved to just buck up and learn to snowboard. I needed to ride heelside, ride flat-footed, and then swing my back foot out and ride toeside. Down the mountain. There was more than a little bit of trepidation at this point—this toeside drag was exactly how I had ended up in ski patrol getting checked out for a a concussion, so needless to say it was a bit of a leap of faith. But do or do not, there is no try….hundreds of people snowboard every single day, and I had to be one of them. Cruising down a long, winding green run aptly named Why Not, I gingerly brought my right foot behind my left, onto my toe as I was slowly gaining speed. I didn’t fall. In fact, I felt myself slow down, and even out, the same way I did when riding heelside. Switching back, I found myself riding heelside, then toeside again. Somehow, some way, something just clicked in my mind and I found myself riding a snowboard, albeit slowly.




For a few days, I cruised Why Not, ensuring that I really knew what I was doing with my toe drag. I wanted to completely master this skill, and be comfortable with what I was doing before moving up to a more advanced run. I wanted to find myself cruising down the run, in complete control, and not just slowing to a stop using alternating heels and toes. Sure enough, practice makes perfect. Conscious competence had arrived…I was snowboarding.


Sometimes, the best way to get better at something is do put yourself in a situation where you aren’t comfortable and force yourself to master it. It’s something that can really make you feel alive, make you feel at home in your surroundings because you can’t focus on anything else. It’s a conscious attempt at getting better; it’s something you need to do to progress.  I quickly found myself in these situations, taking on runs that were more and more difficult, requiring all of my concentration to ride. With snowboarding, I’ve found something that simply clicks at each level. You just need to put yourself in situations where it’s going to click at a more and more advanced level; once it does, it becomes a cinch.


One of my favorite things to do while skiing is a top-to-bottom cruiser run—making your way to the summit of the mountain, and riding allllll the way down. Usually this comes as your last run of the day, and is a great way to cap off a good time, usually twenty minutes of riding, not having to worry about lift lines, just a chance to enjoy the whipping of the wind in your face. The problem is, it takes competent riding and circuitous routes for a top-to-bottom run, skills that I certainly possess on skis, but not on a snowboard. I was with Kelly and said that I wanted to do a top to bottom run. She didn’t even think twice that this meant tackling Storm Peak, a fairly steep and too-often-icy black diamond run right on the peak of the mountain. We nodded at each other and started off to make a run we had done tens of times before—this time, with me on a snowboard.




Heelside is my comfortable edge, and I found myself relying on it heavily as I crossed over the small lip from Traverse to Storm Peak, offering a stunning view of the valley below me. Gingerly but confidently making my way down, I forced myself to make toeside turns down the steepest parts in an effort to actually snowboard. Nearing the end of this particular run, I was able to cruise straight, alternating heel to toe and back again with a focus on forward progress—not just slowing myself down to maintain control. A feeling of true elation began bubbling—I had just gone down a black diamond on a snowboard, ten days after I began the sport in earnest. It was a feat of conscious competence, but from that point forwards, I was able to tackle the rest of the mountain with unconscious competence. Knowing that I had successfully completed one of the more difficult groomed runs gave me the confidence to say that I can snowboard, ride with my friends, and start appreciating the beauty around me without having to focus all of my efforts on how I was turning.


Learning to snowboard was a fairly significant milestone for me. It's not often that adults engage in the full-scale pursuit of something they simply can't do. For the most part, tackling those tasks is left behind in childhood. Sure, you might try rock-climbing for a day, but whether you are good at it or not isn't as clear-cut as it is when you're snowboarding. Snowboarding is a very defined skill: you can either do it, or you can't. And becoming someone that can snowboard has given me increased confidence to tackle other challenges in my life, not all of which are as clear-cut as having the ability to ride down a mountain.