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Snowboarding in The French Alps

Stephen on losing his 'boarding virginity in the alps

I swore I would never snowboard. Just like I swore I would never bungee-jump. Are you crazy? I get nauseous climbing into a car and you want me to tie an elastic band to my shins and leap off a bridge? The whole trip north from Sydney to Cairns in Eastern Australia, I would monotonously shake my head. Like a metronome. No, no, no, no? But then, when my manhood was threatened, I relented. If that giggling Oriental girl sitting opposite can do it, so can I, Godammit! I leapt, closed my eyes, and thought about Elle MacPherson?

So I've always been a skier. I even look like a skier. I own this awful ski jacket that I've worn with pride precisely because it is not cool. It's a day-glow nightmare. Is it possible to 'board in a jacket this bad? This?. gaudy? Will the Snowboard Cool allow it? What is the point of 'boarding?

This year, I joined a tribe of 14 others on my annual trek to the Alps. Our chosen resort, Les Deux Alpes, rises to nearly 3,700 metres with 220 km of piste serviced by 64 lifts, chair-lifts, cable-cars and cable-rail. Situated in the Southern region of the French Alps, in the shadow of the majestic Mt Blanc, the resort boasted some of the best snowboarding and skiing in Europe - "most of the pistes are motorway-wide, great for hooning around and general flat-land trickery", according to Snowboard Village, the UK's First Internet Snowboard Magazine.

'Hooning', 'flatland trickery', 'regular vs goofy', 'free-riding', 'carving', 'hopping'? Yep, I had some new boarding lingo to pick up. I became particularly familiar with 'hopping'. In generic terms, hopping is falling on your arse. Or your face. Painfully. Face it, you boarding beginners out there, you're going to fall. A lot.

The first stage is getting equipment. All technical decisions (type of board, boots, bindings) I left to the experts. The boots were pretty comfortable; anyone who's suffered with their ski-boot cutting off circulation and that constant feeling of swelling and constriction will know how important this is.

"Are you goofy or regular?".
"Pardon?" I replied in my best French.
"Turn around!". I stood with my back to the assistant who promptly shoved me between the shoulder blades. Instinctively, my left foot shot forward to prevent me falling face-forward into a ski-stand.
"Regular" he declared and disappeared off. Dammit I want to be goofy, I thought. Goofy sounds far cooler?

Within five minutes of starting Board school, we had our first casualty. Maj, from Dublin, was quickly escorted from the slope. Broken wrist. I stared at my friends, shaking my head? Rule No 1 - always keep your hands close to your body when you fall, clench your hand into a fist. Protect your wrists.

It's so different to skiing. Boarding is about body position and utilising your body weight and innate balance to carve the board into toe and heel turns. Leg strength is not so important. The technique is simpler than skiing. Forget about that snow-plough. Turning seems more graceful, more sweeping. Look where you want to go, turn your shoulders, bend your knees and the board magically spirits you across the slope (unless, by this stage, you haven't smashed your knee on a lump of ice as you cartwheel down the mountain, careering into a French skier who curses you, your mother, your father and your pets).

Pistes, slopes and lift network of Les Deux AlpesBy the second day I had dropped out of Board School. Not because I felt I was so good I didn't need it. I was frustrated, standing at the foot of the mountain watching the Cable-cars disappearing upwards? What the hell's up there? The wonderful thing about learning to board in Les Deux Alpes is that the glacier is dome-shaped at the top, 3640 metres. So the gentlest, widest slopes have the best snow. No drowning in slush by late afternoon. Riding the Cable-car, then the Underground train, to the top of the glacier, my decision was made. No pain, no gain.

That day, I practised and practised. Sliding, twisting, warping, crashing?. Until it happened. A series of slow, languid turns down the mountain-side. All balance and body movement. Seemingly effortless. I sat down and stared upwards, into the sun, a glow of satisfaction burning through me.

"I get it", I thought, "I really get it." Gingerly, I felt the aching muscles in my shoulder, the stinging graze on my forearm and the throbbing bruise that used to be my arse and turned to my friend, "I'll probably be on the skis tomorrow though".

Stephen McNulty

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