Squaw Valley: Boarding School

Course: Private Snow Boarding Lessons

Institution: Squaw Valley Ski School

Instructor: Travis

Location: Squaw Valley, Tahoe, CA

In these very ambiguous times, there’s a lot to fear. Will I fail? Will I succeed? Will I be alright? From the generalized to the very particular. Did you know that Allodoxaphobia is the fear of opinions? If you have that, I suggest you stop reading here.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I must admit, this popular quote never occurs to me when I’m afraid. It’s tough to face fear in all its interesting forms, everywhere it pops up. Facing fear takes courage – an ability to be aware and present no matter how uncomfortable. Not an easy task when the main sources of your fear, your thoughts, are taking you everywhere but here. It’s tough to grasp that when we are consumed by fear, what we think may be happening or will happen may not actually be happening or happen at all.

That’s what happened to me. A while back, my college boyfriend, a snowboarding instructor, decided he was going to teach me to snowboard. Tears (his) and recriminations (mine) prevented us from even getting down a bunny slope together.

Frankly, I was terrified of snowboarding. I never learned to ski as a child – we didn’t have the money and growing up no one I knew had even seen snow. All I knew about boarding was that I didn’t know anything about it. It was new and would require new things from me and that scared the bejeezus out me. I thought I would die getting off a chair lift or die from exposure. I thought that I didn’t have the right gear or was mistakenly on a black diamond run. I thought that Après was some sort of secret society that excluded brown girls from Los Angeles.

It took me years to get up the courage to try again and those attempts were equally terrible. Finally, I enrolled in a snowboarding school in Whistler. I had no idea what I was getting into. I went by myself and somehow landed in a house full of nine dudes (really – no better way to describe them). They were from all over the world, Japan, France, Italy, Australia - there to become certified snowboarding instructors.

Somehow I, the consummate beginner, had ended up in a house of near pros. Packed with all my gear were all my old fears: Tachophobia (the fear of speed), Atelophobia (the fear of imperfection), Atychiphobia (the fear of failure) and Catagelophobia (the fear of being ridiculed).

We snowboarded 5 hours a day every day for a week. When we were not riding, we worked on board maintenance or watched snowboarding footage. That’s it. It was monastic really.

I learned though. I discovered that the irrational fear, the fear that is important to face, first comes up in your mind and then makes its way to your body – tensing you up. And if there’s anything you cannot be while snowboarding – it’s tense. You have to get loose and bend your knees. A relaxed body is better able to respond to the dynamics of the terrain.

I also learned how to manage my fear by doing a few key things:

(1) get help: getting a lesson is a great way to have someone with you who is not invested in the outcome, just in teaching – boyfriend/girlfriend or parent/child skirmishes alleviated plus there’s a certain safety in numbers;

(2) be mindful and aware moment to moment: focusing in on the skills I learned in boarding school kept my mind from going off into the thoughts that fed my fear. As Rosa Parks once said, “Knowing what must be done does away with fear;” and

(3) accept my fear: it’s okay to feel fear. Just acknowledging that I was afraid allowed me to put it down and get focused on what I needed to do. As Lauren Ambrose puts it “The fear is the way through.” Or put another way: “The coward turns attention toward fighting fear; the warrior accommodates it.”

By the end of the week I was much better – hitting all the blues and a few blacks on Whistler. I finally knew what to do on a chair lift. I understood that everyone wipes out – even the best and sometimes even on exiting a chair lift. Shit happens out there. The fun is that it’s usually a soft landing.

Today, when fear, of any kind, is getting the best of me I go boarding. That’s why I headed to Tahoe last week. After a few missed seasons, I was a bit worried about how I’d do so I signed up for a lesson. Ironically, my teacher’s name was Travis. Travis and I got out on the first cable ride up the mountain and marveled at the sun peeking out from the clouds. The snow was perfect – fluffy, pristine. I snapped on my board and did the awkward shuffle to the lift line. That’s where it hit me: all my old fears came raging back. What if I wipe out trying to get off the chair lift? What if I make a fool of myself? Am I too old for this?

Yep, even though I knew what I was doing, I still had fear. It never seems to go away completely and that's the challenge. Courage takes practice. Ever the good student, I turned towards Travis in the lift chair and said, “I’m afraid.” He said, “Okay.”

Not sure what else to say I focused on the upcoming chair lift exit and told myself, “Trust your body. Look where you want to go.” I exited smoothly and joined him at a perch above the run.

He turned to me and said, “Whenever you encounter anything steep you want to stop at the top and plan your route.”

I nodded my head, trying to appear confident but truth be told I was beginning to sweat. I was so sure I was going to flip butt over head in a matter of seconds. Travis, without additional preamble, started his descent. I watched him carve smooth S shapes across the snow. I focused on those shapes and before I knew it, I was riding in his wake.

Then I caught an edge. Then some air and before I could gather my thoughts was thrown into a pillow soft heap of snow. It felt fantastic. I started laughing uncontrollably. I punched back up and continued riding down to Travis.

“Are you okay?” he asked?

“Oh yeah, “ I said, with a big grin on my face. “I had to get that out of the way.”

“Cool ,” he said. “See? Being afraid can be fun.” Then Travis zipped on down the mountain and I was not far behind.