Variety, as the old saying goes, is the spice of life. That applies to the “perfect” learning environment for snowboarding. Different conditions present myriad advantages and disadvantages. And few months produce quite as much variety in terms of trail conditions as March and April.
“Every snowboarder will have a different opinion about the best conditions, and will find that the type of riding they enjoy most will shine more in one condition over another,” said David Binford, assistant director of the Ragged Mountain Learning Center in New Hampshire. “Those conditions most likely will change as their riding advances due to their changing or evolving skill-set.”
For me, springtime provided a turning point when I first started snowboarding a quarter-century ago. Already a veteran skier, I was admittedly having trouble making the transition to a single board and the different body dynamics required, particularly edging with my heels and toes. But during a March outing when the temperatures were hovering in the 40s and the snow softened up to a classic “corn” consistency, I found it much easier to lean into my turns.
Soon, I was zig-zagging down the hill, much like riding a longboard. With that sensation came more assurance about how to transfer my weight efficiently. The next season, I would take that newfound confidence to tackle a variety of terrain. Adam Ford, a snowboard instructor at Okemo Mountain in Vermont, said my experience was almost predictable.
“I find that the warm, slushy snow conditions create a lot of fun due to the ‘surfing’ style of riding that’s possible,” said Ford. “Being able to push the snow away from the board, building up a sort of ‘wave’ to ride against, can make for some exciting turns.
“Of course, when there’s no fresh powder on the bumps, having a warm sunny day can turn what could be piles of granite into forgiving lumps of slop where a rider can turn at any point in any shape,” he said. “It’s a workout, but there’s no icy trough to contend with.”
Snowboard instructors note that every trail condition, other than sheer ice, has benefits and drawbacks. “I personally enjoy spring riding,” said Binford, who has been snowboarding for more than 30 years. “Corn is some of the best riding snow, and its carvability can rival that of packed powder.”
Lucas Worrell, a snowboard instructor at Sunday River in Maine, had a similar take.
“As for picking up this sport, springtime, in my opinion, is one of the best times to learn besides on a powder day,” said Worrell. “The sun is shining, the weather is warm, the snow is soft and forgiving. When learning, the softer the snow, the less beaten and bruised you’ll be.”
Worrell is spot on. My wife, Lauri, and I still laugh (in hindsight) about her first, and only, snowboard lesson. It was in the dead of winter, on a frigid day, and Lauri had a half-day private lesson. We met up afterward for lunch, and I knew immediately things didn’t go well. Sitting in the lodge, she rolled up her snowpants, revealing a pair of bruised kneecaps.
“The snow was just so hard,” she said, holding back tears.
My bad. I should have known better. I suffered a similar incident a few years earlier, when I was taking up the sport. I was finishing a toe-side turn when I had a lapse in concentration, leaned back, caught my heel-side edge and jackknifed. I landed on the packed-powder trail with so much force that it took three days for the enormous bruise on my backside to surface. Not the ideal learning experience.
“Moderate depth soft snow or powder is obviously best for the beginner, considering the pounding one takes as a never-ever,” said Frank Cutitta, a Stratton Mountain snowboard instructor.
The flip side, though, according to Cutitta, is that “mashed potatoes create exhaustion for beginners and an inability to make tight curves easily.”
“Despite making it more comfortable to fall, wet or heavy snow makes learning difficult in regard to learning to link turns,” said Cutitta. “Fast conditions make it easier to turn but is less forgiving when catching an edge. Deeper, heavier snow also can be risky in catching a full front or back edge when the board is completely perpendicular to the slope.”
Worrell, again, agreed.
“One drawback to learning in the spring, or on a powder day, is that the snow can be slow,” he said. “Like riding a bike, the more speed you have, the easier it is to maneuver the board. So slow snow may hinder your ability to pick up skills needed to ride.” Likewise, Ford said the “biggest detriment to slushy spring snow is for beginners.”
“Learning how to balance weight on one edge and slide from one edge to the other can be hindered by snow that’s too soft and ‘grabby,’ “he said. “It may be good for padding on the falls, but it can be tough to learn in.”
However, instructors emphasized that all conditions present challenges.
“You’ll experience days when the snow pack is hard pack, like boilerplate, which brings with it a whole different set of riding techniques that typically more experienced riders have mastered,” said Binford. “Generally, this snow condition will leave newer riders frustrated and ready to pack it in if the day remains cloudy and cool without the radiating sunlight or warmer ambient temps softening the snow into corn.”
Spring often brings the dreaded “freeze/thaw” cycle that can leave snowboarders facing a raft of conditions over the course of a single day.