IN SNOW MOTION : A Surfer Decides to Bundle Up, Get Down and Take Off

<i> Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition</i>

Skiers tend to give beginners gentle advice. They take your hand, nod comfortingly and tell you to approach the slopes calmly, snow-plow when problems arise, take pauses to smell the pine trees and admire the moguls.

Snowboarders tend to give beginners rough advice. They push your shoulder and tell you to hit the mountain, man, and don’t be a wimp about it. Forget the scenery; you are the scenery. Charge, cut, attack! Beat the hell out of the run’s soft, white underbelly.

“You gotta go for it, just do it,” shouts Paul Herzog, a 20-year-old from Culver City who’s been snowboarding for six years. His eyes are nearly as intense as his neon-colored plaid jacket, and I know he could care less that this is my first time on one of these things.

“If you don’t go fast, you’re not gonna get it,” Paul urges, stroking the edges of my board with what seems like affection. “You’re gonna fall, I can tell you that, but you’re also gonna dig it until you hit the snow.”


“OK, Paul,” I say, and then let him give me a shove down the curvy, bumpy Mt. Baldy run specially designed for snowboarders. “I’m ready to fall, man, I really am. Here I go. Yes!” About 15 feet later, I’m a foot deep in the white, gazing at the sun rising over a distant hill, thinking that it was great , thinking that I can get the hang of this.

“Hear me laughing?” Paul is yelling. “Hear me? You were cool . . . for about five seconds. Keep at it, man. This is so funny.”


The thing is, I don’t even know Paul. I’m up here on a stunningly pretty California day with Tom, a friend who works out at the same gym. Tom, during a break from the weight routine that leaves him looking like a human bull mastiff, said we should try snowboarding. His wife does it, and she says it’s the hottest sport going, Tom promised. We decided to drive up the next day.

As soon as we got to Mt. Baldy, rented our boards and found the right runs, Paul sauntered over.

We’d been watching him--slicing up the snow, taking bravura jumps, spurting wildly past other wildly spurting snowboarders--and knew he knew what he was doing. This was his advice to us: Besides “going for it,” don’t lean too far into the turns and make sure you bend your knees. Oh, and when you take a spill, cover your head. Paul broke his nose once. It hurt “worse than friggin’ anything.”

I tried to forget Paul’s pain and, instead, thought of the time I took skiing lessons several years ago in Lake Tahoe. My teacher, a large blonde with a suspiciously thick Swedish accent, had us sit in the snow and try to “imagine” what our skiing would be like. We were placid, we were one with the slopes, we were shivering grasshoppers under her Zen teachings. There was a disorienting array of technique reminders thrown in, but the basic philosophy was “children, play nice.” She said we’d all learn to go furiously fast later, but for now we had to go slow.

I enjoyed skiing but was never fascinated by it. I preferred surfing, enjoying the rough and tumble, even though I never became a first-rate surfer, more a decent one, only pretty good on a really good day. Snowboarding always promised some of the smash-happy kicks of surfing, but it had taken me years to finally get up and try it. Snowboarding has been around since the early ‘80s, created mainly by young skiers who also surfed and wanted to interpret a mountain in more radical, challenging ways.


Just about everybody from resort managers to snowboarding groups agree that the sport has grown quickly in recent years. The Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn. in Corona del Mar estimates that nationally 2.2 million snowboarders are expected to visit the mountains this season, up from 1.9 million last year.

That’s helped to create crowded slopes, and conflicts between skiers and snowboarders, who usually have different styles and fight for space. The resorts recognize the need for a peaceful coexistence; while some don’t allow snowboarding, most do and have tried to minimize tensions by creating special snowboard runs featuring “half pipes,” or banks of snow used for tricks, much like skateboard ramps.

They also have staffers patrol the slopes, warning visitors about unruly behavior. A few resorts have embraced the sport, even sponsoring contests. Mt. Baldy, for instance, has one scheduled for this Saturday and another March 20.

Instead of two long skis, snowboarding is done on a sleek fiberglass plank (which can cost as much as $500 new, or $100 used) somewhere between the size of a skateboard and a surfboard. Rentals (which can be found at most local ski shops and resorts) cost around $30 a day for both the board and boots. The rider stands sideways, with his or her feet hooked into a pair of latches. From this position, the snowboarder can slash and cut through the powder, leaping from moguls to perform “aerials,” or airborne tricks.

That, of course, happens if you know what you’re doing. For someone like me, the slashes are more like butter-knife jabs than razor cuts, the aerials more mistakes than anything else, culminating in that quick drop into the bank. Actually, I felt fairly comfortable with snowboarding right off, mainly because the mechanics are similar to surfing. You use one rail (or the edge of the board) to make turns, shifting body weight and twisting with your legs to complete the maneuver. It’s not as quick as surfing but quicker than skiing.

The problem I had was adjusting to the changes in speed and anticipating where I would be. Several veteran snowboarders from Orange County and elsewhere told me that. They also told me that a few trips up the mountain were needed before I got the feel for it.


After spilling several times, and watching Tom spend more time shaking off snow than skiing it, we decided to take a lunch break. I pondered the art of snowboarding while Tom pondered the art of beer drinking. Then it was time to take another leap into the great white unknown.

Surprisingly, I was much better in the afternoon. The act seemed more natural, and I fell only about a third of the time. I even tried a minor league jump off a small bank. I felt really good in the air, not so good when reality hit, and I ended up crumpled but unbowed. Tom and I snowboarded for a few more hours. I wanted to go on, but Tom had had enough, especially after Paul zoomed by, laughing like the rude maniac he is.

“You guys are awesome,” he taunted. “Really awesome.”

“I’d like to crunch that guy,” Tom said.

“Relax, muscle-head,” which is what his wife calls him so I call him that too. “He’s a snowboarder, he’s suppose to have an attitude.”


The Kemper Snowboard Competition at Mt. Baldy is open to snowboarders of all levels. Registration ($5) is from 9 to 11 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 26; competition begins shortly after 11 a.m. Free for spectators. (909) 982-0800.