Powder Vroom

The Old Ladies' Board Adventure Team (OLBAT) will now come to order. If you are male, have always been athletic and wish to catch big air while riding faster than common sense would indicate you should, this is not your meeting. All you 26-year-olds? Who smoke cigarettes on the chairlift? That mountain isn't big enough for the both of us. In fact, if you are anywhere under forty, leave the room. And if you're not a mom, see ya.

Now I'd like to extend the warmest of welcomes to whoever is left.
At this point, my favorite fantasy--a snowboarding club for women over forty, started by me--always fell flat. I just couldn't picture a room full of older moms who shred, although I knew such creatures must exist somewhere besides in my mirror. By the beginning of this snowboard season, I had been desperately seeking my elusive peer group for nearly four years. I'd come close to finding it three years earlier, at the Wild Women Snowboard Camp in Jackson Hole, where I had been thrilled to locate another then-38-year-old. Since we tied for Oldest Camper of the Week, I imagined we would wallow together in our special status. But the other "old" camper, who was attending class with her beautiful, much younger lover, just wished I would give the topic a rest. Wearing all our cold-weather gear, did we not look pretty much like everyone else at camp?

Well, I did not, and would not, give it a rest. I continued my quest and told myself it was for completely practical reasons:

If (a) snowboarding is the best thing that ever happened to winter (and I have been hooked on it since 1995, belatedly born, it would seem, to rip); and (b) still, somehow, I have no athletic talent, and every time I dislocate a rib or throw my back out it takes me longer to heal; and (c) all the boys I ride with ride too fast for my enjoyment; then (d) my obvious snowboard partners should be people just like me.

The only way to meet them, I reasoned, would be to form my own club. The OLBAT name was catchy. Maybe, I mused, we could even form a NUBAT--New Underage Board Adventure Team--for twelve-year-old beginner girls who hadn't yet learned to hurl themselves off cliffs. Maybe we could order cool team jackets?

Typical fantasy. By the time the snow began to fall, I was still daydreaming and had yet to locate one old-lady pal. Time pressed in. At nineteen, when I should have been a ski bum, mixing in a little fitness with my dereliction, I was busy selling crappy jewelry on a California street. Now, at forty, I was asking merely for one four-month, snow-based goofoff of mass proportions. I couldn't let it go. Finally, I took the drastic step of renting someone to ride with. I signed up for Women's Wednesday at the Eldora Mountain Resort, faxing in my registration the day before the program began. I was lucky, the ski-school woman told me. Women's Wednesday was about to max out, with 257 females registered for the seven-week session of snow, lessons and gourmet lunches.

"How many in the snowboard class?" I asked.
"Uh, let's see--seven beginners...but you've ridden before? Looks like you'll be in a class of three."

At the time of this conversation, Joanne Henritze, a 46-year-old physiologist who lives in Boulder with her husband and two kids, ages ten and thirteen, was trying on the new purple jacket her kids had given her for Christmas. It was snowboardy, they told her, yet not too kid-looking. She wondered--as I did that same night--whether she really ought to take off one entire Wednesday. Her consulting clients would have to be moved around, her kids had science projects as well as other after-school activities up the ying-yang--and as far as she could tell, there had barely been any snow, meaning that the women, whoever they were, would be riding on ice.

Several miles closer to the mountain, in the woods near Nederland, Carol Baringer was driving home from her waitress job, feeling a noticeable lack of pressure. At forty, she had just sent her nineteen-year-old son back to college after Christmas break and was looking forward to continuing her winter as a "savvy ski bum." She'd been a single mom and working registered nurse all these years, had crawled out from under money and time problems, now owned her own house in Vermont and was halfway through spending one entire carefree winter in Colorado. She'd been staying with friends, working at whatever night jobs came her way and telemark skiing, snowboarding and cross-countrying all day, every day.

These were the two women I ended up riding with throughout most of January and February. All three of us enjoyed being Eldora's official old-lady snowboarders, probably because we had no intention of ever doing any concrete aging. As it turned out, both Carol and Joanne had been athletes all their lives--Joanne a former bike racer and climber, Carol pondering a summer of mountain-bike racing in the master's category. "I crumble in competition, though," she admitted. "My real goal these days is just to play as much as I work."

The supporting role in this ensemble belonged to Gina, our instructor. "I'm ADD," she told us on the first day, "so what I say may not make linear sense."

A lot of the time it didn't, but we always listened to her politely and managed to learn quite a bit, even when we were passively pouting. She taught us, for instance, to ride fakey, which caused us to bruise up as if we were rank beginners. She made us jump 360s--which, in our case, were usually closer to 180s--at the top of each run, with all the young folks watching. Then she'd suggest we practice this at home. "Like, you put your snowboard on in the house and stand on the sofa and jump off? Over and over again? It's sweet," she assured us. "It really helps your riding."

"We're older than you," we told her. "We don't have that kind of sofa anymore."

Nevertheless, we began to improve. You could see it on Gina's face once in a while--we would seem to have some kind of breakthrough, and she'd say, "Hey, guys, let's go do the Elevator Drop, okay? Follow me!" And then she'd shoot off into the woods, fly into the air and disappear. Mostly, we just stood at the top and laughed.

"Guys, you have to just roll over the Elevator Drop," she'd say, disappointed. "Just let it happen. Just not think!"

Ha. We just thought about everything. Especially Carol, in the half-pipe: "Now, when you say 'turn,' do you mean 'carve' or 'rotate,' or are we just supposed to 'slide'? And what about your knees? And what about your hands?" The sixteen-year-old boys at the top of the pipe were always very polite as they listened to this. One of them told her, "Well, see, it's kinda like you're in the ocean? And your arms are swimming you up to the edge, and then you kind of pop off the wall, and you can, like, drop a hand down, and in that way you're being the shark--well, just watch me."

He was poetry in motion, all right, and we decided it was time for lunch. We ate a lot of good catered food on Women's Wednesday.

By the time we enrolled, Women's Wednesday was twenty years old.
"No one quite remembers who started it," says Petie VanEveren, the program coordinator, "and other places do things that are sort of like it, but ours is the oldest and the biggest. People sign up and come back year after year. One woman's been with us so long, we finally hired her as an instructor. We have good teachers and good lunches, but the best part is the camaraderie. Everyone's up here together, playing hooky."

Petie is aware, perhaps more than most middle-aged ski fanatics, of how addictive this can be. Thirty-one years ago, having moved to Boulder with her professor husband and four small children, she looked at the mountains and thirsted for a way to kill time there. Lift tickets and lessons were completely out of her financial reach. So she and another friend from Back East decided to apply for ski-instructor jobs at Eldora--more for the family discount, she remembers, than because they knew what they were doing.

"They kept us in clinics for weeks and weeks," Petie recalls. "Finally, they let us start teaching beginners." After several years of teaching kids, it finally occurred to Petie--and her bosses--that the mothers of those kids might constitute a brand-new market. "The thing was, how to get them to come up?" she says. "We had free daycare in the beginning. That got their attention."

Since then, several owners have come and gone, and Eldora's buildings have gotten too crowded to house any kind of nursery. "Once, the whole mountain closed for a while," Petie remembers. "Some criminal had leased it, and it got shut down. I had to bus all the kids I was teaching to Copper Mountain. It was a terrible hassle."

But Women's Wednesday persevered. Today Petie still teaches one intermediate skiing class, as she always has. "I end up exchanging numbers with all my students," she says. "They end up making friendships, getting together afterward to ski."

"Or snowboard," I add.
"We started that in '97," she says. "We had one student. Now we have--what--ten? Three in your class? Have you been having a good time?"

Have we ever had a better time? In our entire lives?

"The three of us are a good match," Carol says one recent morning. We've been up on the mountain for two hours, without an instructor, having chosen not to sign up for the second session of the program but still riding together. "We have a lot to talk about, and we have stopped flailing around so much. We have a riding style that is...mature."

The mature style fits us perfectly. If you were here, you would see us all over the mountain--picking our way down the expert slopes, falling through the trees, doing our dignified thing in the half-pipe. Have we actually gotten good?

"I don't know," Joanne shrugs. "I still can't keep up with my kids, which was what I wanted to do."

"But now you have us," I say. "Besides, you ride like a dream."
She does, and that purple jacket is tres, tres OLBAT. As for Carol, she has a "ripping carve," according to a man half her age who has just flown by. As for me, I have become quite the free rider, absorbing big hunks of powder with my fluid knee action in a style that recalls Mikhail Baryshnikov and Amelia Earhart. At the same time.

"Yeah, but something's weird with your shoulders," Carol tells me.
"No, it's her knees. They don't bend enough," Joanne says.
"Like she's sticking her butt out?"
"Yeah, that's it. You know what we're saying, Robin, right?"

Oh. Yeah. But, so? For an old bat like me, snowboarding is most therapeutic from the neck up. Every Wednesday morning, I continue to go through the list of excuses--no snow, no time, a slight reduction in the urge to avoid real life. And every Wednesday evening, I drive home completely restored to sanity. I sing along with the car radio, loud.

I particularly like the curves in the road. I pretend I'm riding them on my snowboard.


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