Remember The First Time? | We Went To The French Alps To Learn To Snowboard In A Week
After a decade of surfing, Lou Boyd decided to finally visit the mountains and find out if it's possible to leave the sea and fall in love with the snow....
Words And Photos by Lou Boyd
It’s an hour and half since I left Geneva airport and I’ve just woken up in the back of a taxi to find a wintery wonderland on the other side of my window. This might not seem at all remarkable to anyone accustomed to snow holidays, but it’s my first visit to the mountains and the most snow I’ve ever seen. I’m dumbstruck.
Looking across the back of the car to my travel companion Philly, we meet eyes and I see she’s feeling something similar. The light is fading and the mountains around us are becoming less visible by the second, but it’s still clear this is a part of our natural planet we’ve never come into contact with before. It’s left me feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and giddy to start exploring and experiencing it.
“I get the rare sensation that I’m somewhere totally new"
We’re travelling across Switzerland and France to reach our Chalet in La Rosiere, where the two of us will start an intense week of learning new skills – snowboarding for me, skiing for her – to see how well they can be mastered in a short amount of time. The group we’re sharing our car with are old hands and skilled snowboarders.
“Skiing is easier," a tall, friendly looking guy in front offers as we explain our total novice status. “If you want to get anywhere in a week, skiing is your best bet."
“Just ignore him," laughs his partner in reaction to my fear struck expression. “You’ll just spend the first couple of days falling on your arse and come home with some impressive battle bruises. That doesn’t mean you can’t still manage to learn in that time."
This is the first time I’ve tried a totally new sport in years and I really want to like it.
I think back to when I was six and I surfed my first wave. Heading out with my gigantic foamy I spent an hour or so getting more and more bad-tempered about being beaten by green waves on the way out and failing to jump on the whitewater as it rolled in, then suddenly I stood up.
As my tiny wave quickly disappeared and I slowed down to a complete stop, I remember a huge feeling of triumph. That moment is where I place the pin for falling in love with surfing.
In the years since then I’ve discovered many other new sports, including an arduous relationship with skateboarding that has at this point resulted in no less than five broken bones and a surprising but welcome friendship with long distance running, yet I’ve never experienced that moment again. Which has given me the idea to go looking for it.
Getting out of the van on reaching our destination, I stare out at the incredible landscape in front of me. When I look at the ocean before a session, while infinitely sublime it always feels personal, yet these mountains look totally unknown to me, alien almost. As the landscape goes dark and we settle into our accommodation, I get the rare feeling that I’m somewhere totally new.
That feeling does not diminish at all in the twelve hours overnight. Waking the next morning, the mountains look even more awe inspiring under the early blue sky.
We’re staying at Bura Snow’s lodge with our two hosts Py and Sarah, who after helping to find hire boards and boots in the dark of last night are now providing me with coffee and grub before I head out for my first experience of the slopes.
Before even leaving the chalet I am overwhelmed with the amount of information I’ve already picked up about snowboarding. Over wine last night before bed, the guys from our shuttle van took time to explain the different boards, bindings and boots everyone had brought and why they all had so many differences.
My head is whirling with information as I try and pull on my own snow boots and head towards the mountain for the first time with my board under my arm.
A much quieter and low key area than many of the surrounding resorts, I’ve been told that La Rosiere is a great place to find your feet on your first snow experience.
La Rosiere is a small resort of traditional-style chalets and cabins with views of the Isère valley to Les Arcs and beyond with direct slopes heading to Italy. There’s a very decent and wide slope, great for beginners and intermediate riders, as well as harder routes and opportunities to go off-piste for experienced riders.
Standing at the bottom of this slope, I meet snowboarding instructor Marina and my group for the first time and we head away from the red runs and over to the nursery slope.
I imagined we’d be riding slowly on a first lesson, but riding all the same. In reality however, we spend the first hour finding our front foot and learning to stop on the slopes in falling leaf. Though I tell myself to be patient, I can’t help but feel like I want to start riding for real.
The grumbling devil at the back of my head wins out and I launch myself across the slope faster than I should. Crossing the nursery slope and traversing into a red run, I feel myself picking up speed, before I lose balance and fall. My board turns under my body and as I fall towards the mountain, I feel my knee twist unnaturally below my waist.
“Fuck," I curse under my breath as I lay on my back and try to assess the damage. Day one, not even off the nursery slopes and I’ve damaged myself, it swells up immediately and my riding for the day is done.
Meeting up with Philly at the bar post-lesson and she laughs at my crumpled expression.
“Oh man," she says, “five skateboarding breaks and you still never learn. Stop trying to run before you walk or you won’t get anywhere."
Returning to the chalet, it turns out I’m not alone in my injured state. Two girls from the other group are sat on the big corner sofa in similar states of disrepair, both also first timers. They smile at me and my swollen knee and make space.
Speaking to people on the mountain, I’ve got the sense that the other chalets have less of a fun and communal air to them, with groups keeping to themselves. For us however, it’s wine, poker, films and hangs into the early hours, every night.
The living room at Bura seems to be a great place to hang out at all hours. Our accommodation has the advantage of feeling both warm and plush, while still having a youth hostel type of friendliness to it.
Over dinner on the third night I air my disappointment to the guy sat next to me about my lack of proper riding so far on the trip and spend a good five minutes boring him about how I’m trying to link up my turns.
“Whoa, whoa" he laughs, between mouthfuls of cheese and baguette. “Chill out man! It’s supposed to be fun! There’s only so much theory you can put into snowboarding. Get out there and just do it. It’ll click."
“One day you’ll get on the lift, turn your favourite album on your headphones and just ride easily down, no problem. You’ll see."
Two days and seven hours of riding later and I’m no longer falling over my own legs on the runs, but neither am I falling over myself in morning to get to the mountain. I like snowboarding, but I’m not hooked.
After a first day of blue skies and total visibility the weather has now closed in and transformed the slopes into a very different place. You can lose the rider in front of you within seconds in the fog. Standing at the top of a red run on my fourth lesson, I make a mental decision that this will be my day to conquer it - this is where it all comes undone.
“My helmet feels uncomfortably hot and itchy, I want nothing more than to get to the bottom, take my board off and throw it at the nearest brick wall."
Turns that came easily to me just hours before now seem impossible, my front turns have slowed down to a point where I can practically stop and have a sit down without losing anymore speed than I already am.
My goggles have misted up, my helmet feels uncomfortably hot and itchy. I want nothing more than to get to the bottom, take my board off and throw it at the nearest brick wall.
What was previously a simple green slope now seems impossible and the more I try to regain control, the more I feel like I’m the worst rider on the mountain. In short, I’m done. I finally get to the bottom and head back.
Snow is dumping hard by the time I get back to the chalet and I find a group of six people have beaten me back and are on the sofa watching a DVD.
Throwing myself down next to them, I look at the screen. It’s Jeremy Jones’ film Higher. I’ve seen it before, but I stick around and watch it again.
As the minutes go by I find myself engrossed. The riders on screen are a million miles away from what I’m doing this week, but I can’t help watching them in a totally different light. The lines they carve, the way they turn, I get it. Something in my brain feels like it’s connecting the dots.
As the group finish dinner and start dealing for poker, I go to bed early and dream of ski lifts, never-ending slopes and riding all night long.
Approaching my lesson the next day with a quiet determination, I act the model pupil. Focusing on practising linking my turns and keeping speed with Marina. I get out of my own head and stay out.
When the two hours are over, the group starts heading towards the town and I say my goodbyes before heading back towards the lift. Strapping on my board at the top I look down the slope.
Before I have time to argue with myself, I launch myself straight down.
Feeling the board gain speed in the same uncontrolled way it had on my first day, I feel panic rising in my chest. Getting faster and faster, I take a breath and successfully lean into a backside turn.
Feeling my speed decreasing I laugh at my own chicken shit and speed off again. Sailing down the slope and making turns with ease I pass a rider, then another and another before I realise the speed I’m keeping - I’m really snowboarding.
“I loudly whoop to the surprise of a family I’m passing to my left"
Suddenly the snow and the slope make sense, it’s somewhere between surfing and longboarding, your turns are more definite but you’re carving all the same.
At the bottom I see that my instructor Marina is stood with others from the ski school. “Yes Lou!" she shouts. “And it’s like riding a bike! Now you’ll never forget it!"
I loudly whoop to the surprise of a family I’m passing to my left.
My muscles are already aching from my morning lesson but leaving it now is out of the question, no one could stop me getting back out there
3pm on the last day. With all our lessons done we collapse in the bar with our rental equipment.
“Not bad. One month in to the new year and we’ve learnt a new skill" says Philly in the corner, holding a peach beer in one hand and yanking off her ski boots with the other. “2016 is off to a good start, I’d say. Time to take back the boards and head back to the chalet?"
Everyone starts shuffling and collecting up their things as I sit looking at my board in the rack outside and think about my last run. I’m obsessed, I can’t finish yet.
“You guys go ahead" I say. “I’m going to go out again."
Jumping on the ski lift, I smile and lean back as I put my board over the bar, pull out my iPhone and put in my headphones, switching on my favourite playlist.
Is it possible to go out and really fall in love with a new sport as a full grown adult? Yeh, I think it is, but you can’t force it.
The luxury you have as a kid is to be caught off guard by a new passion, the moment when I fell in love with snowboarding, was the minute I gave up on it.
Turning up my music, I set off down the mountain.
DO IT YOURSELF:
Easy Jet fly from London to Geneva from £93 return
Bura Snow can arrange a minibus transfer from the airport which is included in the price for the week.
Accommodation And Snow Hire:
Contact: Bura Snow Lodge
Tel: (+44) 7918 799 456
Address: 53 Chelmsford Road,
Exwick, Exeter, Devon, EX4 2LN,
One week accommodation starts from £599pp (discounted rate) and include: 7 nights in catered chalet accommodation, Lift pass, Hire gear, Airport transfers, Half board - breakfast & 3 course dinners, Freshly baked cakes and Unlimited wine.
Bookings are still being taken for this season, with bookings now also being taken for next season, with the option to pay in monthly instalments.