The rivalry between those who choose “planks” (skis) and those who prefer “trays” (snowboards) is well-documented. As a lifelong skier who decided to learn snowboarding 10 years ago, I feel anyone who doesn’t do a bit of both is missing out. But not everyone has the time to learn both modes, so which one to go for? Here’s a run through of the pros and cons.
Ease of learning
Skiing: The initial learning curve is pretty fast. The most natural mode of transport we ever learn, walking, involves independent leg movement. So does skiing. Once you’ve got the hang of the snowplough turn, usually on the first or second day, you’re capable of skiing around the whole mountain, as long as it’s not too steep. Even parallel turns usually come fairly quickly.But the problem with skiing is that it’s too easy to get away with doing it badly.
You can spend all your life making turns on blue and red runs by rotating your whole body, but as soon as you get on to steeper slopes, you’ll get “found out”. You will only master bumpis and off-piste with style when you learn to pivot your feet beneath you while keeping your upper body still and facing down the slope.
Snowboarding: Anyone who has done it will tell you that learning to snowboard is a long and bruising process at first, only to be undertaken when the snow is soft. Imagine learning to windsurf with out the water! For me it was humbling: even after three days, it took me half an hour to ride down a run that I could ski down in around two minutes.
As a skier, I felt very constricted having both feet clamped together, but I imagine that that feels unnatural for most people. There’s almost no other activity where it is necessary – even skateboarders and surfers can move their feet a bit. And in snowboarding, there are two totally different types of turn to learn: backside (edging with your heels) and frontside (edging with your toes).
Like most skiers, I found the backside turn easier at first (at least your toes are pointing roughly where you’re going), and the frontside utterly alien. But, ironically, once you’ve picked up the frontside turn, you’ll find it’s the more stable and natural movement. It has been found that some skiers learn snowboarding quicker if they are given a pair of ski poles for balance.
Soon after learning to snowboard on piste, you can try going off-piste. It will be a revelation – you’ll realise that all the pain and anguish was worth it. Snowboarding in powder is virtually easier than doing it on piste, and is one of the greatest sensations known to humankind. Young snowboarders will also soon progress to taking air in the terrain park and halfpipe. But only the most masochistic will ever try to manoeuvre a snowboard through a mogulfield.
Skiing: Of course, the worst part is walking to the lifts, clumping along with your ski boots open, dropping skis, poles, gloves and goggles as you go. You try to look cool with your skis on your shoulder, just like your instructor, but they keep slipping apart, and anyway they hurt your collarbone. But once you’re on the mountain, you’re in your element. Chairlifts present no problem, and once you’ve got the hang of T-bars and Poma lifts, they’re fairly comfortable to ride.
Snowboarding: Walking through the car park, you’re the coolest of dudes. In your comfy soft boots you can saunter past the clumping skiers, snowboard nonchalantly tucked under one arm. But on the mountain, a snowboard is not the best-thought-out method of getting around.
To ride any lift, you have to remove your back foot. Step-in bindings have made this easier, but most of them still keep clogging up with ice. At the top of every lift you increase your risk of haemorrhoids, sitting in the snow as you struggle to strap your back foot in again. T-bars and Poma lifts are, literally, a pain in the groin. And when you encounter the dreaded flat sections, you have four options: take the back foot out and “scoot”; bend down and claw yourself along with your fingernails; hop like a demented frog; or beg your skiing mates for a tow.
Skiing: At the moment, skintight suits are just not “in”. Ski-racers need to wear them for aerodynamics, but most other young skiers have adopted fairly baggy gear. The “New School freeriders”, acrobats who are inventing new skiing tricks based upon snowboarding, would not be seen dead in anything that isn’t baggy.
Snowboarding: You may think those young whippersnappers in the terrain park look pretty scruffy, in their baggy, drab-coloured gear. But they have spent good money to achieve that look. The snowboards themselves should have fairly subdued, retro graphics (no palm trees, motorbikes or naked women nowadays, thank you very much).
Skiing: Has always been a source of techno-head jargon, and you’ll still encounter plenty of that, especially with the current breakneck pace of ski development: torsional rigidity, sidecut dimensions, taper angle, ramp angle, alignment, vibration dampening, multi-injection, lateral transmission, dualtec, prolink, beta profile, monocoque, energy frame. The list is endless, and that’s before you’ve even left the shop. Once you’re on the mountain, there’s plenty more: initiation, angulation, anticipation, upper-lower body separation, rise line, zipper line…
But to be fair, these terms are sometimes coined by technicians or instructors to encapsulate a complicated concept, which would otherwise require many more words to describe.
Snowboarding: Has adopted Californian surfer slang, and added a few terms of its own. If something is extremely tough, it’s “gnarly”, “sick”, or “rad”. To describe something especially good, the epithets “wicked”, “bad”, or “dope”.
Of course, these words may already have been superseded by even newer ones. But when referring to the sideways-standing sport, whatever you do, don’t ever call it “boarding” – real snowboarders hate that word; it’s either “snowboarding”, or “riding”.
Skiing: No longer lives up to its “break a leg” reputation, but still keeps plenty of knee surgeons in golf-club fees, mainly due to the ubiquitous anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) ruptures. In addition, upper body and head injuries, caused by collisions with other piste users or trees, are increasing as pistes get busier and better equipment makes people ski more confidently – and faster.
Snowboarding: Much safer for leg injuries, although the ankles sometimes suffer. But upper body injuries are frequent. If you stack on the frontside, you may break your wrist or collarbone. If you slam backwards, your coxyx (“tailbone”) could snap.
Skiing: The media coverage of freeride events is motivating more skiers to go off-piste. Even in the (relatively) safety of North America, more skiers are choosing to exit the ski areas through the backcountry gates, and take their chances.
Snowboarding: For many years, snowboarders were the avalanche bogeymen. There is no doubt that snowboards make it easy for inexperienced riders to go off-piste, with little experience or mountain savvy. It’s all a matter of education, and there are now special signs on the slopes in Austria, bearing the slogan: “It’s not cool to kill friends”.
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