Editor's note: This is the third installment of a four-part series for January's Learn to Ski and Ride Month.
Driving up to Center Village at Copper Mountain, I watched people making their way down the slopes. Plumes of snowy spray unfurled behind each tiny figure as they made traversing the mountain slope look thrilling and effortless.
It seemed great from afar. But as I got closer to my destination - a snowboarding lesson on one of those very slopes - it started to seem less simple and more daunting.
"Mind over matter," I muttered to myself as I got out of the car.
Fortunately, I was in good hands. My lesson partner, Steph, was another snowboarding newbie and we were paired up with instructor Bill Cooney, who's been at the job for nearly 10 years. From the perspective of someone who is strapping into a lot of unfamiliar gear and mentally preparing to fling themselves down a mountain, an instructor's demeanor is incredibly important. If they appear bored or noncommittal, you're afraid they're not going to pay enough attention to your needs. If they seem hyper or high-strung, you worry they'll take you too far too fast. They key is to strike the right balance between enthusiastic, confident and easy-going. That's Cooney in a nutshell.
As we gathered our gear and made our way to the slope, Cooney kept the conversation light and full of promises of what we were going to be able to do by the end of the day. One of these was the "Falling Leaf," which sounds more like a tai chi move than a snowboarding one. He said we would drift gently back and forth down the slope, imitating the movement of a leaf in the wind.
The first thing we needed to learn was to glide. We strapped one foot into our boards, stood at the top of a small slope, then stepped on and let the board do all the work. I was surprised to learn that the key to snowboarding is alignment and weight distribution. If I turned my shoulders out of line with the snowboard or moved my head to look somewhere else, that smooth gliding effect was lost.
Cooney kept us sliding, yelling out advice and encouragement and playful jokes. He taught us how to turn on the heel edge of the board and then brought us to the chairlift. There he really took his time to thoroughly explain the entire process, how it was safe and slow and easy. It was a great talk, but it didn't keep me from falling down the second I got off the chair.
Once I regained my balance and a few shreds of dignity, we practiced balancing with the heel edge dug firmly into the snow, sliding slowly down with the snowboard perpendicular to the hill. Never have I thought so hard about my toenails and whether they were pointed up enough. Cooney was very patient and didn't seem to mind when I crashed against his board a couple times.
In the final descent, I followed his instructions, turning and leaning left, then right. As I relaxed, the board and the hill seemed to take over, not in the terrifying headlong rush I'd worried about earlier, but in the smooth, casual manner of a drifting leaf. There was a Zen-like moment where it all clicked together - and then we were at the bottom.
Cooney said that if I come back, he'll take me on a taller slope, with more distance to really get the hang of it. I can learn new tricks and immerse myself even further into "the fountain of youth" of snowboarding, as he calls it. So far, I've only gotten my toes wet, but it's a good start. Pretty soon I'll be ready to dive right in.