For five months, I made money as a professional Terrain Park tester at Northstar California, in the beautiful Sierra Nevadas by Lake Tahoe. For those of you who are new to or know nothing about the world of winter sports and ski resort operations, let me explain what a terrain park tester is.
At a ski resort, a “Park” is not simply a place with grass, swings, and benches, where people may take a stroll through of a Sunday afternoon. (Although some ski resort parks do have benches, and um, grass). I once heard someone referring to the terrain park as full of “death machines”, and I’ve heard mothers trying to convince their small children on skis to dare not venture in there. What it really is, is a place where the resort builds jumps, halfpipes, rails, and other creative features that skiers and snowboarders ride on. If you watched the Olympics, think of the halfpipe and slopestyle events. That’s a terrain park. I test them.
O.K, so maybe I wasn’t a “terrain park tester”, but it sounds cool… and dangerous. Park Crew was my official job title, although some may refer to us as “the groomers”, “park staff”, or “the boys” (even if, by some miracle, there are actually girls on park crew, like me). Park Crew actually does a lot more than ride around all day and smoke pot (the latter, by the way, I personally do not partake in).
I knew this job would be a good fit for me, mainly because I love to ride the park. During my job interview, they didn’t have enough chairs in the office, so my boss pulled up an empty paint bucket and flipped it upside down and sat on it. There were also puppies running around the office. It was then that I felt I could loosen up and be myself, even interviewing for a job at a world-class resort. I got to talk about my ideal terrain park, even using words like “de-gape-ify”, and all the words they tell you not to use at job interviews like “super cool” and “gnarly”. A few hours later, they told me I got the job. I hesitated to take it at first, because I had just graduated college with a business degree, and people have this idea that park crew isn’t for people with degrees. But then I was like, what the heck, I’ve always wanted to be park crew for a season. Now’s my time.
So, like I said, we don’t just ride around and test features all day, as much as I wish that were my job. We do so much of the nitty-gritty work that needs to get done, like putting up the fences at the exit, and tightening rope lines that mark the boundaries of the resort. It’s crazy the stuff I never noticed even after years of riding at ski resorts. Like, someone has to put up all those signs and fences and take them down every day for the grooming machines to get through.
Think ski patrol is always the first one on the hill? Think again. at Northstar, park crew is up there even before ski patrol, and we’re off the hill after them. We see the sunrise and the sunset in the same shift, and not just at the end of December either. We are 20 guys and 2 girls out there in the freezing-your-butt-off cold, making sure Northstar’s terrain park is nothing short of perfect. We are out there with our “sporks” which are like a shovel and a rake in one, shaping each takeoff to make the features ride smoothly for the skiers and snowboarders to come.
When it snows, we shovel all the snow off the 100+ rails and boxes, only to go back out in an hour and shovel again like a never-ending cycle. When it doesn’t snow, we shovel snow back on to the rails and boxes so they don’t fall over. At the end of every day, we use those trusty sporks to hand-shape every takeoff, beaten up by thousands of skis and snowboards. We’re out there on those really hot spring days, riding down the run with our big buckets full of salt to spread on takeoffs so they ice over rather than melt. 60 degrees feels like 90 when you’re in the sun, raking slush off a jump takeoff and melting snow on your head to cool the heat. Shoveling in the winter is tiring, but spring is a whole different tiring.
Despite all this hard work, people still look at the terrain park department differently. We’re the misfits. At a ski resort, the departments like ski school, marketing, real estate, and ski racing teams, are looked up to as the “ritzy”, classy departments that make the ski resort what it is. Skiing and snowboarding have become less of an extreme sport and more of something rich people do on vacation. Kind of like yachting or eating caviar (I don’t know what they do, I mean, I’m not rich people.) Over here in the terrain parks world, guests and upper management do think of us as, like I said before, riding around all day and smoking pot. We are, as people in my department have said, “the red-headed step child” of the resort.
Some guests though, do treat us like heroes. They will see us out there making the park look good, and say things like “Thank you for your service!”, “You rock”, or “now there’s the real MVP!”. I’ve heard parents ski by and tell their kids, “OK, little Johnny, now make sure you say thank you to the park groomer!”. We get fist bumps, high fives, and the occasional person taking time out of their ski run to tell us how fun the park is.
On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve had people yell expletives at us after closing the halfpipe. I’ve even been mooned on the job. People spray us, pee on our rails, call us “gay”, and complain to us because their favorite rail to side-jump is closed for 5 minutes. Some days, people go out of their way to mess with us, taking all the flags off the jumps and throwing them into the woods just to see us have to put them back every 10 minutes.
So you do lots of hard work, and most people don’t even see it, and sure you might get a little recognition, but you also get people mooning you and swearing at you just for doing your job. So why do it?
Every day, tons of people come through our terrain park, the product of our hard work, our pride and joy, and its obvious they’re having the time of their life. From the kid with the edgie-wedgie side jumping every rail takeoff on presidents’ day, to the guy in a unicorn onsie doing 1.5 backflips off the big jump, the park has to be the funnest place on the hill. People laugh and smile and take videos of each other. They fly through the air and glide over rails. People of all ages are out there in the park having fun, and seeing that makes park crew’s day.
And yes, when we’re not raking, drilling, shoveling snow off features, shoveling snow back on features, getting flipped off, loading the chair with 50 pounds of salt, yelling at little kids in landings, putting back jump flags, untangling ropes, driving big machines, lifting fallen-over rails, or setting our alarms for 5am…
We’re testing the park. ;D
The huge, steep cliff faces. The wide-open powder fields. Caples lake, which freezes over in the winter and turns royal, turquoise blue in the spring. The narrow chutes create a ski run so steep, you can be standing up straight on your snowboard facing the hill, reach up, and touch the mountain face. Although not the first place I ever set foot on a snowboard, Kirkwood Mountain, CA is where I spent most of my time snowboarding for about four years. It is where I tried my first backflip and where I spent my 15th through 18th birthdays. The term ski “resort” doesn’t do the place justice; the people who go there go for the extreme terrain and the feeling of remoteness in nature. It’s both a Christmas wonderland and a place where Mother Winter can let out her wrath.
Kirkwood is one of the more remote ski resorts in the Tahoe area, located off highway 88. You’re driving down this winding, narrow path with tall snow banks on both sides, the road often snow-dusted or icy, breezing past sandals-and-shorts-clad people from the Bay Area looking at tire chain manuals and scratching their heads. You might even pass an upside-down car in a ditch. Suddenly there’s the sign — Kirkwood Mountain Resort. As you turn into Kirkwood Meadows drive, the ten-thousand-foot sheer cliff peaks of the mountain stare down at you. Because of the location and altitude, Kirkwood receives more snow than most places in the area. For storms to get to Tahoe, they must first pass over Kirkwood and let out their glory on the mountains there.
It’s December 21st and I’m out in the Palisades bowl building a jump into a soft, open, powdery landing to learn backflips. Palisades is a place in Kirkwood only accessible by hiking. There is no chairlift that goes up to this place — it must be earned. You get off Cornice Chair, the lift to the top, and traverse right for about half an hour. When you’re out there, you don’t feel like you’re at a resort. You can be out there all day and not see another soul. That’s what it was like for the four of us — my coach, teammate, brother, and I.
Riding or skiing alone in the backcountry is not an option. Tree wells, avalanches, cliffs, and rocks are only some of the dangers you may face. A tree well is where it snows a couple feet and the tree covers the ground around it, leaving a deathly sink hole waiting for people to fall into. It is one of the leading causes of death from skiing or snowboarding.
There was, in fact, a moment when riding with my friend at Kirkwood probably saved my life. It was the last run of the day and my friend and I decided we would head to a place called “Shamwah,” which is a chute just past the “caution cliff zone” sign. Because it was early in the season, we ended being “cliffed out,” which is when you reach a point in the run where there is no other option other than to fall down the sheer, rock face. I remember taking my snowboard off, trying to climb down the rocks, and realizing I was completely screwed. I felt like I couldn’t safely climb down or up, and I was stuck in the middle. My phone was dead and I didn’t have ski patrol’s number anyway, but luckily, my friend had her phone and she called for help. He came to where we were and helped us climb down the cliff. Crisis averted.
In-bounds, avalanches are not a serious problem because of the bombing. I live for the days when I go to bed with snow falling outside and wake up to the sound of avalanche bombs. The dull thud off in the distance is a beautiful sound because you know it is going to be an epic day. On those days when Mother Winter feels like showing off, the resort operators need to be 100% sure their guests are safe, so they trigger avalanches in advance so the mountain is safe to ride on. That is somebody’s job — to be the first one out on the hill, play with guide dogs, make explosions, and ski fresh powder. That white, fluffy, stuff is a euphoria unique to Kirkwood. While all resorts have powder days, Kirkwood’s are the best. The perfect conditions can last for days in some hidden spots. The slopes are steep enough so you are less likely to get stuck in the deep snow. The crowds are much less and the back bowl stretches out forever.
Lift Ten, otherwise known as The Wall, is the most iconic chairlift in Kirkwood. At both the top and bottom of the chair is a skull-and-cross-bones sign with the words “experts only.” Of course, some hot-heads who think they’re better than the sign and have only been snowboarding a few times decide to test the validity of this statement. However, once you’re about halfway up the chair, you begin to see just how treacherous Chair Ten is. Unlike most expert chairlifts in other resorts, there is no “easy way down”. Ski resorts rate their ski runs from green squares to black diamonds, with green being the easiest, blue in the middle, and black as the most advanced. If one black diamond doesn’t do the run justice, more diamonds are added to the rating. There are only double black diamonds off Lift Ten. We call the people who decide to ride down the chairlift “downloaders.” Their shame and embarrassment while sitting on that downward facing chair is tangible sometimes.
While still a dangerous, menacing mountain that deserves respect, there is a certain kind of peace that can be found in these places. Picture a blank white canvas as the sky. Huge, light flakes of snow whisper their way down from the heavens and drift slowly towards you. Picture the trees all around, caked with millions of these snowflakes. If you’re still, you hear nothing. If you’re moving on your skis or board, the sound is like when nylon rubs against nylon. If you look close enough at your jacket or gloves, you can see the individual flakes. You wonder how nature could have possibly created each one, although I’ve heard it is just a myth that every single one is unique. You think about the amount of effort and intricacy it would take to make just one — so delicate and fragile. What is more beautiful — the individual flake, or the collection of flakes that blanket a vast mountain landscape? These are some of the moments when I see God.
Working with hundreds of kids at an action sports camp has made me realize what the word “fearless” means. With some kids, if they want to try something new, they just do it. Double backflip off the trampoline? Can’t be too hard. Send the megaramp on a skateboard? Easy. They don’t need someone to make them try something new. They just get out there and do it. They seem to lack that part of the brain that gets them thinking about the worst-case scenario. They can shut off their brain and just go for it.
All that is just because they’re kids, right? Well, not all children are the same. Meet 8-year-old me. She didn’t wand to go on Disneyland’s Splash Mountain. She stayed far away from diving boards and the deep end. She never picked up a snowboard until she was 14. She never went through this phase of recklessness.
Despite this, for some inexplicable reason, I have since then found my love and passion in freestyle snowboarding. I absolutely love it, even though it goes against everything my overthinking brain tells me. You know, the sport that was considered being taken out of the Olympics because it was “too dangerous”. The one where the sign looks like this?
I like my brain. It’s smart. It got me through high school in three years. It got me through calculus at the top of my class. It remembers things really well, sometimes with the craziest, most unnecessary detail. There’s no way I can say I hate my brain. It just thinks a lot. Always working, always finding ways to make life easier. However, there are moments when I wish I had a different brain. Those moments when I have the perfect speed for a jump but I throw in a few too many speed checks and case it. Those moments when I totally mean to do a backflip but I end up bailing and doing yet another straight air.
So there’s something I tell myself in those moments. As much as I’d like to deny it, I’ve got to face the facts. I’m just not born “fearless”. But here’s the catch: I’ve become really good at pretending. Instead of trying to shut off my brain, I get it to override the default system of self-preservation built into my body and subconscious mind.
For this split second it takes to jump onto this rail, let’s just pretend. Just pretend you’re fearless. As I approach the lip of the ramp at the point where you can either send it or ride around it, I pretend. Just pretend you forgot about that time you dislocated your shoulder last time you tried this trick. Pretend you never broke your tailbone on this same jump. When I wonder how on earth I even got myself into a situation standing at the top of a cliff over Lake Tahoe, I pretend. I act like I was born to do backflips off ramps. I’m an actress, an impersonator, a performer. I’m playing a character: Fearless Hanalei, the daredevil.
I almost feel it was not me who did the backflip off that ramp. It wasn’t me who jumped on that rail and balanced all the way to the end, or hit the big ramp with perfect speed. But somehow, I snap into character and do it again.
In an attempt to understand why someone like me was drawn to freestyle snowboarding, I think I’ve got an idea. It’s the satisfaction you get when you stomp that new trick. It’s the adrenaline jitters you get after doing something epic. It’s that horrible gut-feeling you get at the top of the jumps. It’s that floaty feeling you get in the air. Snowboarding is my medium for pushing my comfort zone. I rebel against how my “default mode” wants to act. I exercise authority over animal instinct.
That is why I ride.
Dropping – a poem
I’ve said the word
I’ve pulled the trigger
Passed the point of no return
The huge mounds of snow stare at me
Cold, steel rails wait for me
Drawing in, enticing, luring
Ready to launch me into the air
The word is out
I am committed
No turning back.
The choice is Adrenaline or comfort
Excitement or ease
Progression or plateau
Send it or stay
You go too slow, you miss the landing
It’s all or nothing
Fear exists in the mind
I am not a slave
My love is an addiction
I am at peace, confident
Pictures in my head
Perfect landings, hi fives, good vibes
Ready to take on the world
Palms sweating inside my gloves
Every cell fights against the brain
Why do I do it?
I have one life to live
Is this what I’m supposed to do?
It’s only snow and gravity
The choice is one hundred percent up to me
I open my mouth, I say the word:
Ever since I first started snowboarding, I have had the dream of living in a place where the mountains were accessible on a daily basis. Finally, after 5 years of driving up from the Bay, I moved to Tahoe. When the first snows started falling in November, it was like a dream come true. I even arranged my school schedule to I could snowboard 5 full days a week. I got a job next to my favorite ski resort. I didn’t think I would be on my college team, but after walking in on a meeting and asking if I could train with them, I found out I actually could be a part of the team. Everything was so great! I enthusiastically went to every single fall conditioning, thinking about all the pow I would be riding. I thought of all the friends I would make.
My season started early, on November 6, riding the park at Boreal. It seemed like the season was off to a great start! I remember on “dead day” during finals in December, I went out to Northstar instead of studying. I landed 3 or 4 new tricks that day, which I was very happy with so early on in the season. After finals, I moved to Truckee for Winter break, five minutes from the slopes. And then, on day one of break, Injury number one hit. My doctor told me I was out for the season. Suddenly all the promise of the season melted away like the terrain park on a sunny, April day.
I kept my hopes up. Between Christmas and New Years, I was able to snowboard in a sling with my family. It was fun and I was glad to be back. School started up again in mid-January, and I was competing with the college team and individually through USASA. I was back to training 5 days a week, and by the end of January, I felt I had fully recovered. In fact, on January 31, I said “I think I’m finally recovered from my injury! Time to start pushing it again!” So I tried a backflip.
I was so close, but backflips should be done in whole numbers. 0.8 backflips just didn’t cut it, and what-used-to-be-my-good-arm was now my bad arm. That same day, my car broke for the 4th time since it caught on fire in November.
This time, my determination was even greater, and I was back on snow within 4 days. I kept to a rigorous physical therapy routine, and knew that the season still had promise. I felt like I loved snowboarding even more than I did before my injuries. Two weeks after my second injury, I was off to regionals for the Collegiate competition league in Mammoth, where I would compete against the colleges from California and Nevada.
First of all, Mammoth is the BOMB! And I felt like I was truly part of the team on that weekend road trip. Out of complete surprise, I ended up earning 3rd place in the Slopestyle event and 4th in snowboard cross. I attributed it entirely to good luck. A month later was Spring break and I skipped the tropical vacation and got to ride every day, including my birthday, on which I received several feet of snow and blue skies. A week later, I was in Colorado, competing in the USASA national championships. It's now the end of the season, and I can happily say I’ve had no more injuries
I didn’t plan on having 2 injuries. I didn’t plan on spending so many of those 89 days by myself. I didn’t plan on having my car catch on fire. Despite all this though, I am extremely grateful for how my season went. Considering my doctor told me I was out for the season with my first injury in December, my season has been phenomenal in comparison. My goal was 100 days. I got 90, and I had to take about 20 days off snow between both injuries. I got so many sunny park laps. Although I feel I did not improve as much as I would have liked, I can say I did my best with the circumstances. I am way more stoked that I tried a backflip than I would be if I had stayed safe and un-injured.
My season is actually not over. A week ago, I found out I would be working at a summer snowboarding camp starting in June. I am extremely stoked to have this opportunity, and to continue progressing in what is usually the off-season. My luck may have turned in December, but it has turned back around. I come out of this season stronger and with more confidence in my own determination. Without my setbacks, I would not have this.
When I was in Elementary and Middle School, summer was my favorite season, simply because we didn’t have to go to school. However, after my first time snowboarding in 8th grade, summer became my least favorite season. I remember in those first few seasons snowboarding, I would get “seasonitis”, a disease I made up which was basically extreme boredom from not being able to snowboard. I dreaded the summer.
In the past year or two, I have been opening my mind more and changing my attitude in general, including my attitude to things I do not like, such as summer. I have realized that things (like summer) are as fun as you want them to be. This past summer, my first in Tahoe, was a complete and total blast! In addition, I took away two important lessons:
And I don’t have a single regret. I remember when I signed up for the Flume trail mountain biking, I contemplated not doing it. I had only been mountain biking once in my life and apparently this was a sketchy trail. They told me about the steep, long uphill and the narrow part with the 1,000 foot drop. In the end, I decided “why not?” and went for it. It was intense, but when I was finished it was well worth it!
Another moment from this past summer I’ll never forget is when I jumped off a rock in Emerald Bay. I’m ok with heights but I hate cold water. In the end, after watching some other people jump off the cliff, I went for it, and it was awesome! I climbed right back up and jumped again!
2. Who cares if you suck?
I remember in middle school, I cared so much about what other people thought of me. I started skateboarding in 7th grade, but I never got good at it because I was always worried about other people judging me. I never set foot in the skate park unless no one was there, and I hid if I saw someone.
After joining the snowboard team last fall, I started going to their fall conditioning. Because of the lack of snow in the summer, we often had practice in the skate park. I jumped at the opportunity. Where else could I have actual instruction in skateboarding?
I remember the first skate park practice I went to. It was all guys, except for my roommate and I. It was intimidating because they were all so good! I watched in awe as they did kick flips, jumped over huge gaps, and sped all around the skate bowl. I finally got into the mini halfpipe and started going back and forth between the walls. I started off going really slow, but each time I got higher and higher until I was almost at the top!
The biggest lesson I took away that day was that it was much more fun to be the worst person in the skate park than to not go to the skate park at all. For the next month or two until the snow came I went to every skate park practice I could go to. I am still nowhere near the level of any of the guys, but I had a lot of fun, and in the end, that is all that mattered to me.
“Dropping!” It’s the word that means I am committed - the signal word a skier or snowboarder uses that says they are going into the freestyle park. I hop and point my snowboard down the hill. There are rails and jumps ahead of me, waiting to be hit. I pop up onto the first rail and hear that satisfying “clink” as my board contacts the metal handrail. I glide to the end of the rail and slide off, ready to go for the jump. In my mind, everything quiets as I focus on nothing but the trick I am going to do. Freestyle snowboarding is more than a sport to me. It has changed my outlook on life and I have learned innumerable lessons from it. The way I see the world is like a slopestyle course because of the endless possibilities, the obstacles to overcome, and the need for positive thoughts and beliefs, and by seeing my life this way, I feel it has given me a more open mind.
Like a freestyle park, my life is about creative expression, and I like to see how there are limitless possibilities. Just like they way I believe that there is no one perfect career and path for my life, there is no one correct way to go through a park, and an open mind is important. In a freestyle park, there are often rails and jumps next to each other. I have to decide what my “line” is going to be. That means I have to decide which features I will hit, and what trick I will do on each feature. I always love to see people try new things or hit features in ways I have not seen before. A way I embrace this idea in life is I continually question convention, and I like to let my creativity flow. Convention says that I cannot make money and be happy if I follow my passion. Coming from a highly academically competitive environment in the California Bay Area, the culture says I need to memorize and stress my way to good grades, get a sensible degree at a prestigious college, and get a steady job in a fortune 500 company. Then I can work for most of my life, retire, and then follow my passion. I am not saying there is anything wrong with this way of life if that is what someone truly wants to do. Some people’s goals and dreams require them to be highly academicacally focused. Some people want to work at a prestigious company because that is truly their dream. Like there is no “right way” to ride through a freestyle park, there is no “right way” to do life. I believe that my passion should be used as a guide for how I will make a living, and I have embraced this way of living by choosing a college and major that will allow me to do what I love.
An open mind is important in life because I learned that failure is not a bad thing. In a freestyle park, I have to plan out what I am going to do on each rail, jump, or other feature. However, as important as this plan is, it does not mean that it will go exactly as planned. I could fall. I have learned that it is better to have ambitious goals not yet met, than to play it safe by not setting the goals. I remember one of my proudest moments is when I attempted my first backflip. I did not land it at all, but the snow was soft and I was okay. I was estatic even though I had failed. To me, the biggest failure is not trying, and I have learned this through my snowboarding. In my life, I tend to try many new things even if I might look like a fool. I used to be paranoid about what other people thought of me when I failed, but through freestyle snowboarding, I have learned to take opportunities that come my way. For example, since I came to Sierra Nevada College, I have tried paddleboarding, rock climbing, white water rafting, mountain biking, cliff jumping, a high ropes course, backpacking, singing at an open mic night, and I have met all sorts of people. I am happy that I gave all these activities a try for the first time, and that I was not afraid to “go for it.”, or as snowboarders and skiers like to say, “send it!”
I believe that in my life, I have to take risks and overcome obstacles if I want to achieve my full potential. I could see a freestyle park as a perfectly good ski slope, ruined by obstacles in the way, however it is these obstacles that make spectacular tricks possible for many skiers and snowboarders. In training for freestyle snowboarding, I have had to overcome many fears and take risks. I have learned that courage is just a by-product of caring enough about something. I used to be the most cautious child, but when I discovered snowboarding, the passion and love for the sport pulled me from my comfort zone. The same little girl that chickened out on Disneyland’s Splash Mountain is now aspiring to be in the X Games. People think I am fearless for hitting jumps and flying through the air, but the fear is there. I just like to pretend I am fearless.
Finally, I look at my life with a positive outlook, and I know that I have to commit and believe in myself to get the most out of my life. If a snowboarder wants to hit a jump, they need to commit to it fully or they will injure themselves. There is a certain spot on a jump that is the landing zone. If someone approaches the jump too slowly or timidly, they can miss the landing and seriously injure themselves. I have learned that in order to hit a jump properly, I have to fully believe in my own ability, and know in my heart that I will land it. Without this commitment and belief, I hesitate, and I can guarantee that I will not land the jump. I see my life in a similar way. If I am taking a test in a class, I have the same mindset as hitting a jump while snowboarding. Far too many times, I hear others talking about how they will fail a test before even taking it. To me, a positive mindset in any situation is imperative. It helps me reduce stress, and I believe it has tremendously helped my grades, as well as other areas of my life up to this point.
To say that freestyle snowboarding is the sport that I do is a huge understatement. Snowboarding has shaped the very essence of my life for the past five years. Not only has it given me direction in terms of where I go to college and what career I choose, but it has brought me joy, and innumerable life lessons every day I train. It has helped me develop an open mind, realize that failure is not a bad thing, overcome my fears, and develop confidence in myself. In essence, freestyle snowboarding has shaped how I read and see the world. My life is my freestyle terrain park, and I just have to “Send it!”
To the TL;DR people: Much snowboarding. Wow 5 years. Many feels.
for the people who have an extra 5 minutes to kill over Thanksgiving break:
To say I’ve been practicing “my sport” for exactly 5 years today is a huge understatement. It’s almost as much of an understatement as: yeah, I saw the Grand Canyon, it was kinda sorta big. It’s interesting to think about how one day can change someone’s life so much. Before, I never really saw myself as a passionate, dedicated individual. I never saw myself as courageous, or persevering. I used to be self conscious and afraid of failure (See what I have to say about failure here).
I didn’t just discover my passion on November 25, 2010. It was the day that decided where I went to college, what kind of place I would live in, how I would spend my time, what major I would choose, what jobs I could never do, the people I would meet, and the dreams I would pursue. Don’t even get me started on the things I had to give up that day. I gave up every single weekend during my Junior and senior year. I gave up every afternoon during the week to work for money to go snowboarding. I gave up my comfort zone. I’ve given up the option of physically getting out of shape. I gave up every winter break and spring break vacation (but I’m not saying I didn’t have tons of fun anyway). I DID NOT give up my education. In fact, I gave up the option of failing in school, since I had my heart set on my dream college in Tahoe. (Darn, I guess you did get me started). I don’t know if I knew what I was getting myself into that day, but all I knew was that I HAD to snowboard again. I was no prodigy on my first day. Like many who have tried, it was a difficult day of falling on my behind and acquiring many, many bruises. It took me three days just to learn how to turn, but I stuck with it because something in me knew I had to do this more.
No one is immune to the gaper phase (Yes, that’s me in 2012)
After a year of being a gaper, and a couple years just having fun with family and friends on the mountain, I met a friend who convinced me to start competing in the 2013-14 season. I thought competition would take the fun out of it. I thought I wouldn’t measure up because I only started snowboarding at 13, and had never joined a team before. I thought I wouldn’t have the money. However, we found a way, and I participated in my first competitions. Contrary to my belief, it did not take the fun out of it and I enjoyed it a lot!
And it was during that season that I watched the 2014 Olympics and saw Jenny Jones, from team Great Britain, win the bronze medal in slopestyle. What was inspiring about this story was that she had only started snowboarding at 17 and had worked hard to support herself to pursue her passion. Like me, she had chosen this sport herself later in life. She was the oldest in the competition but still pulled through. At that moment, I knew that I too could achieve what I put my mind to (sorry for the corniness, just getting the truth out there).
I joke around and say that I caused the Tahoe drought when I started snowboarding. Despite the said “crappiness” of the past 4 years (“crappiness" in quotes because I have nothing to compare it with), I have learned to make the best out of any situation. I have honestly had A BLAST! In addition, snowboarding has made me a gratitudinal person (Gratitudinal is a word I just invented. It means full of gratitude). In the spirit of thanksgiving, I’d like to say that I am thankful for snowboarding. I’m thankful that it gave me some direction when choosing a college. I’m thankful I’ve been able to overcome some of my fears. I’m thankful for my health and safety doing one of the most dangerous sports out there. I’m thankful for my family’s support. They also had to give up every weekend and break and come up to Tahoe. Skiing was always a family event and always will be for me. I’m thankful they were willing to go down the double black diamond runs and through the terrain park with me. I’m thankful they didn’t freak out when I said I’d rather go to a snow college than Stanford. I’m thankful they let me study ski business instead of insisting on something “more sensible”.
So here’s to 5 years. It is only the beginning. This season might be my first normal snowfall season so it would be awesome to see what it is like. Snow or no snow, I know it will be a blast. My goal for the season is to rack up at least 120 days. Some people call me crazy, but to me, not following my passion is the craziest thing I can do.
“Oh look there’s Hanalei, she’s a snowboarder”. It’s one of the first things anyone will probably know after first meeting me. That’s unusual in a small town with no seasons and at a staggering elevation of –gasp- 300 feet above sea level. A town where I have to explain the meaning of terms like “powder day” and “30 foot kicker”.
“But isn’t Tahoe like, 6 hours away?”(3.5 to be precise)
“So you go up there EVERY weekend?!?! Are you crazy?”(why, yes I am in fact.)
“So how has it been with NO SNOW at all in 2015”(which is not true by the way.)
“Do you do tricks?”(Yeah sure.)
But there’s one question I get from almost everyone who finds out I’m a snowboarder living in a non-ski town in the Bay area. The frequency of this question has got me thinking about why people would ask a question that seems so obvious to me. And I’m also interested in what they think the answer would be. In fact it is not just at home where I get this question, and one day, I was able to help someone out by answering it.
I had qualified for the USA national snowboarding competition in Colorado. I had a few minutes to spare between competitions, so “I took a lap”. I saw a young boy and his dad, and it looked like his dad was teaching him to ride for the first time. He looked very frustrated and it looked like he had given up. I could tell his dad really wanted him to experience the amazing feeling that is snowboarding. On a sunny, perfect day in Colorado no less. Seeing that I had my competitors’ bib that clearly read “national championships 2015”, the dad said,
“Excuse me, you look like a pretty good snowboarder may I ask you something?”
I said yes.
“When you first started riding, did you fall?”
When I first started riding? Are you kidding me? I mean who doesn’t? I was no prodigy. He wanted his son to hear my answer and hopefully be inspired. I answered,
“When I first started? Why, I fell just 10 minutes ago. And yesterday, and the day before. Of course I fell when I first began. In fact, I spend almost the whole day on my behind.”
“see, even good people fall!”
I gave one last piece of advice,
“When you fall, it means you are progressing, and that’s what snowboarding is all about!”
The little boy seemed a little annoyed that he couldn’t just give up because he was tired or hurting, but his dad seemed happy that I had confirmed what he had probably been teaching his kid all day. I left feeling good.
So the question I get all the time is: “So do you fall?” or sometimes, “So do you still fall?”. And I always answer with a decisive “Oh yeah.” Or “You bet I do”, or “Every day man!” And sometimes, the follow up will be, “and does it hurt?” To which I will give another “Oh yeah”.
After you reach a certain level, do you just stop falling? Is staying on your feet a sign you are becoming a better snowboarder?
How do I feel after a day of not falling? I feel like I’ve failed by not failing. How do I feel after an epic fall trying something new that was not bad enough for ski patrol? I feel RAD. In snowboarding, the more epic the fail, the cooler it is. As long as the Gopro is on!
My proudest moment as of now is when I did my first backflip. I didn’t land it. Not at all. In fact, all I really remember is hitting my head really hard and having to ask people watching if I had just done a backflip. The video confirmed. I popped off our hand built backcountry kicker, did 9/10ths of a backflip, caught my toe edge, and faceplanted into the slushy snow. I didn’t land it. And I didn’t give a damn. It was messy and un-stylish. Who cares? Had that been at a competition, my score would have been 0 out of 100. Maybe 1, depending on if the judges felt sorry for me.
One of my most disappointing moments I can remember is the national championships for Slopestyle, where I landed every jump on my feet, doing perfect grabs. But here’s the thing. It was sort of an off day for me, and I had to humble myself and hit the small side of the jumps and do strait airs to avoid being critically injured, like I had seen 4 girls already do. I wanted to take a risk. I wanted to do something crazy, but for my safety that particular day, I backed out. And I remember feeling like the ultimate failure as I exited the course having landed everything. I watched 7 year olds land better lines than me.
I’m no downer. In fact, I consider myself what some would call a glass-half-full sort of person. I believe that people should follow their passions and, excuse my corniness, but “shoot for the stars”. But my life advice would be:
“Never stop failing”
Never. Stop. Failing.
Hanalei Sian Souza
Snowboarder. Writer. Chef. Singer. Disciple of Jesus.