By Spencer Spellman, on January 11, 2014

Learning to snowboard in Alberta

“It’s really hard to learn.”

“You’ll be so sore.”

“Skiing is so much easier.”

These are just some of the things I heard when I recently told people that I wanted to snowboard as part of my “30 at 30” life/bucket list. It’s not exactly the encouragement I was looking for. But I took it as a challenge. So on my recent trip to Alberta, Canada, I resolved to not leave Alberta until I learned to snowboard. 

My first day on the slopes had me at Sunshine Village, located deep in the cut of Banff National Park, southwest of the town of Banff. Just how deep in the cut? Well upon arriving at the entrance, my friend Josh and I were met by a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Yes, like the bighorn sheep from the Mountain Dew commercial back in the day. I took this as a magical omen. Not only was I not leaving Alberta before learning to snowboard, I wasn’t leaving Sunshine Village before learning to snowboard.

The view from Sunshine Village’s gondola ride

Sunshine Village is literally a village deep in Banff National Park perched amidst snowcapped mountains. It’s home to over 100 runs, several restaurants, a saloon, and ski-in, ski-out accommodations. However, you may want to grab a cup of joe and a newspaper for the ride up, because you have a 20-minute gondola ride ahead of you when you first arrive. But have your camera handy, as it offers majestic views of Banff National Park that you won’t find anywhere else. Sunshine Village has made a name for itself because of its champagne powder, which is 100% natural, thanks to the ski resort’s snow farming techniques. Yes, they farm snow.

Viewfinder Tip: Layer up and carry around a few hand warmers in your pocket. These will come in handy for your hands and feet when those temperatures drop.

After getting strapped into my snowboard, my instructor, Glen, told me it was time to learn to skate. “I thought I signed up for snowboarding?” Not a skater at all, I soon found out that “skating” was an imperative snowboarding skill. Skating being the act of keeping one foot strapped in while the other drags the snowboard along, typically on flat or uphill areas, and while getting on and off the chairlift. After mastering this (almost like if you were skateboarding with one foot strapped onto the board) and cruising down a gradual hill with one foot strapped in, it was onto the bunny slopes. After a couple hours on the bunny slope, I was able to link turns without falling. It had taken me a week to successfully ride a surfboard. It took me two hours to successfully ride a snowboard. 

From Banff, it was onto Lake Louise Ski Resort (considered one of the best ski resorts in the world), located just an hour Northwest on Highway 1. As my friend Josh and I pulled up, we were feeling good after a great first day on the slopes at Sunshine Village. That is, until we pulled into a parking spot next to the Italian national ski team (practicing for the Lake Louise World Cup super-G) and were greeted with -25 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. We’d be hitting the slopes with some of the best winter sports athletes in the world under conditions that would make a polar bear want a jacket. I was up for the challenge!

While I had successfully snowboarded at Sunshine Village, I had gotten cold feet (literally and figuratively) when I moved from the bunny slope to actual runs. My goal on this day was to successfully link turns on Lake Louise’s runs so that the next time I went snowboarding, an instructor wouldn’t be necessary. After a half-hour of successfully linking turns on the bunny slopes, my instructor, Michelle, told me I was ready for the “big leagues (my words, not hers).”

This time around, I didn’t have cold feet. Everything I had learned the last couple days was finally sinking in. While I certainly had my share of falls, I was linking several turns on what I later found out was one of the more intermediate hills at Lake Louise Ski Resort. I knew I could now leave Alberta and hit the local slopes of California without the help of an instructor. 

Tips for First-Time Snowboarders

1. Determine your lead foot. If you surf, skateboard, or wakeboard, then you likely already know what your lead foot is. If you don’t, a ski shop can help you with this. You can also determine it from having someone push you from behind. The foot you step forward with to catch yourself will typically act as your lead foot.

2. Buy a helmet. There’s no getting around it. You will fall when learning to snowboard, but while you may not be able to stop your knees and butt from being sore the next day, you can help prevent injuries to your head by getting a helmet. 

3. Hire an instructor for the day. And don’t just get an instructor to teach you the basics for a couple hours, but someone who can take you out on the runs. Michelle was one of the best sports instructors I’ve ever had. She was incredibly encouraging and empathetic while instructing (no matter how many times I fell), but challenged me when she observed that I was ready to be challenged. 

(If you go to Lake Louise Ski Resort, ask for Michelle!)

4. Tip your instructor.

When I left Alberta, I left not only having successfully learned to snowboard, but having picked up a new hobby. Was I sore? Yes. Was it hard to learn? Yes. But it came to me much more easily than other sports, such as skiing, and even surfing. With ski slopes less than two hours from Los Angeles and a flight to Alberta less than three hours from LAX, I can’t wait to get back on the mountain.  

What are your best tips for learning to snowboard/ski?