Travel Travel Stories

Zero To Hero



Words: Pete Rees

It seems appropriate to start this tale with my daily grind. Today is Monday 21st January 2008. It is day 1 of the 235 I’m likely to work this year, and possibly the most depressing. I walked into Guildford station at around 7:05 and was immediately surrounded by hundreds of people – each of them vibrantly lifeless. Each one looked miserable and avoided eye contact. They moped onto the train before joining the thousands in the pushing, shoving, angry scrum of Waterloo station. Outside, streams of folk rushed along their well-trodden paths towards (judging by the looks on their faces) another day of misery. I did the same. I sat at my desk and spent far more time wondering what the hell I was doing with my life than I did working. I’m currently sat on a commuter train on the way home. It’s the same story. Nobody acknowledges anyone else. The guy next to me wants to look at what I’m writing, I can feel him glancing over, but to blatantly look or to talk to me about it would break ‘the rules’ of self-enclosed London behaviour.

Every day isn’t like this, thank God! This is the first day back from an amazing three weeks in Fernie, BC, and there’s nothing like a bit of fresh mountain air to open your eyes to the world around you. I’m sure you can all relate to those post holiday blues. My hatred of this existence will subside over the next few months as I mould back into the machine. Trouble is, this time I’m not so sure I want it to… Being this honest may be career suicide on a Jerry Maguire scale (considering I work as an evil marketeer for the very company that publishes this magazine) but fuck it – I’m outta here, SHOW ME THE POWDER!

So, as you can see from the title of this article, I was given the challenge to become a snowboard instructor in only three weeks. You can also probably gather from my introduction that I’m just a common schmuck. I’m not a professional snowboarder, I’ve never done a season, and like most people in the UK I work 9 to 5 year round, waiting for those hallowed couple of weeks a year where I jack up my snowy fix. I am Mr Joe Snowboarder… Could I do this? Could I become a snowboard instructor? Could this be a way to escape the grind?

Reading back over my introduction is a little depressing. But heck, I was sat on a commuter train when I wrote it, what do you expect? I’m now chilling out at home with a full belly and glass of Jack. It’s time to go to a happy place, filled with beef jerky, maple syrup and ‘tuques’ – it’s all aboot Canada, ‘ey!!

Now, I’m kind-of hoping that the background colour of this article will fade from dark into light about now – like the Wayne’s World mega happy ending. I’m sure Nick, our designer, will oblige… cheers Nick!
It never occurred to me that I could become a snowboard instructor until recently. I guess because I’ve always been more likely to be the one in need of instruction. I considered myself ‘reasonably competent’ and was at the stage where I could offer hints and tips to less experienced riders. I’d even managed to teach two girlfriends to ride with an impressively low 50% break-up ratio. Nevertheless, according to Nonstop (the organisers of this instructor course), my 10 – 15 weeks riding experience should be ample to sign up.

Going into an ‘intensive’ three week instructor course, I was expecting it to be full-on, but all the same I was a little disappointed to find we had to check in with the instructor the morning after flying in. I was hoping to have a razz around and check out the area before we got down to the knitty gritty. Holy crap, was I wrong to be disappointed! Minutes after Glen, our instructor for the week, introduced himself and sorted us into a group of six, he whisked us up the nearest lift and nailed-it down the first run. As usual when riding with a new group of people, I tried to suss out the others’ riding standards and where I fitted in. It seemed, looking around, that we were all at a pretty similar level. Nobody got left behind – nobody dared, as we all admitted later on. A couple of runs in, Glen introduced us to ‘Cedar Bowl’, his favourite place in the world. I was a little alarmed by the ‘avalanche caution’ signs as we traversed into the bowl. Being a European rider, it’s the sort of warning that sent shivers down my spine and put me on edge. But it wasn’t long before Glen explained the ways of the Canadian mountains: everything is ride-able apart from the roped-off areas – unless the avalanche signs are flipped to ‘closed’, in which case you just can’t ride between or above the signs but all the rest is safe. Still, I’m sure there were a few mumbled disclaimers from Glen before he leapt off the cat track and steamed down the perfect powder field. Quite taken aback, and not wanting to stand on ceremony for risk of ‘falling behind’, we all flew down behind him. There were a few tumbles throughout the group at first. My legs were more accustomed to riding ice and slush from the last couple of European winters, but it was obvious that they’d better adjust pretty damn fast. There aren’t many groomed runs in Fernie and there’s a hell of a lot of powder! At the top of the next run, Glen started to teach us about riding, almost without us noticing. He asked us to ride the run pretending that we were steering a motor boat with our back hand and holding a cooler of beer with our front hand. After concentrating on that, nothing more was said as he led us down another insane tree run. The Canadian teaching style is laid back and constructive, and is miles ahead of most of the French instruction I’ve witnessed. Having fun is the highest priority (right behind “looking good”) in the Canadian snowboarding philosophy.

Those first three days were hard, but stupidly good. We rode in areas that many of us wouldn’t have dreamed about going to before. Forced to keep up, our boundaries were constantly pushed, and I already felt like a different snowboarder. Even so, it was nice to have a couple days away from instruction so that we could just take the pace down, cruise the mountain and loosen our weary legs.

The first two weeks continued in the same vein: three days of instruction, with two days off in between. These were often filled with extra activities, such as avalanche awareness courses, tuning clinics and catskiing (which could fill a whole other article!). At first I was quite disappointed to find out that our “let’s go shred pow” instructor was going to alternate with a new chap called Ryan – I had grown to like Glen and his insane, full-pelt-death-defying ways. However, not much changed with Ryan. He had a similar love of crazy lines, but a slightly more structured approach to riding development. I felt that he really got to the bottom of my ground-in bad habits. He also taught us how to really carve – WOW, thank you Ryan! It was enough to make me want to strap on some hard boots! Best of all he coined the phrase of the trip as we were cutting out some fresh tracks: “Sickter off the Richter!”

In Fernie it never stops snowing… really. The quote on virtually every chair lift, every day, was “Dude, it’s still snowing”. The place is unreal. Some say it’s due to the horse-shoe shape of the mountains trapping the clouds, others that the legendary ‘Griz’ brings the snow (you can see him in the face at the top of the Bear Chair). Whatever the reason – I’ve never seen anything like it!

Mid way through the trip we had the opportunity to spend the night up the mountain in a snow cave, or ‘Quinzee’. I was quite surprised to find only a fraction of our group were interested in doing it. For me it seemed like an amazing experience that couldn’t be turned down. I was massively excited as we trekked into the snowy wilderness and shovelled and packed snow to form our dome-shaped home for the night. After four hours of hard graft and an unfortunate incident with a tree well, my enthusiasm had faded. Little trees are very deceiving – they may look a foot tall, but if you’re anywhere like Fernie they’re more likely to be taller than you are under the snow. I found that out the hard way, when I stepped too close to one. One leg flew straight through the snow up to my hip and the other leg crunched sideways on the surface. What followed was the most miserable night of my life. I would have relished the thought of a nice hot sticky commuter train! In a snow cave, you share your sleeping bag with all of your wet clothes, boot inners and anything else that you want to wear the next day. The intention is to stop things freezing, which is all well and good, but it makes things very cramped and uncomfortable and it didn’t seem to stop me from freezing. So there I shivered for eight hours with an aching leg and a bursting bladder. As agonising as that was, it seemed more appealing than re-kitting and braving the elements on the way to the loo. In hindsight I should have just unzipped my sleeping bag and pissed in the wall, it would have gone straight through I suppose. Anyway, all of that said, it was an amazing experience and I’d recommend it to anyone… suckers!

Instructor training crept into week three, which brought the pace down slightly. In between our usual hard-shredding we’d head over to the nursery slopes to learn our CASI (Canadian Association of Snowboard Instructors) Level 1 material. The Level 1 instructor qualification covers complete beginner through to novice training, so we’re talking: Basic mobility (skating, climbing, straight running), Side Slipping, Pendulum (falling leaf), Fall Line Edge Change, Isolated Beginner Turns, Linked Beginner Turns and Novice Turns (including flexion, extension and speed control techniques). The progression made a lot of sense, and the teaching techniques seemed really affective. The CASI way seems to be focused on keeping people snowboarding. If they can help to make the first few days of snowboarding enjoyable, pain free and simple for newcomers, they hope more will get hooked and will resist strapping on two planks instead. I’m completely sold on their learning techniques and I wish I was taught in Canada, I’m sure it would have saved a lot of frustration and a few bad habits.

The end of the course all boiled down to three days of assessment, where we had to prove that our riding standard was up to scratch and that we were able to teach the entire beginner / novice progression. The tone of the trip came crashing down over the weekend. Confidence seeped out of the group as one by one we got jittery about our likelihood of passing. Beforehand I was quite confident, but it’s amazing what a bit of uncertainty amongst your piers can do to you. Over the weekend I was given points to work on with my riding. It was nothing serious, but the more I tried to work on them, the stiffer and more robotic I got. I was properly psyched! By the end of the weekend we had to prove that we could ride comfortably and controlled over a variety of terrain, with nice rounded turns. You don’t have many ‘observed’ runs to prove your worth, so each one brought me out in a cold sweat as I tensely tried to stay relaxed!

The larger part of the assessment is based on your teaching skills and understanding of the beginner/novice progression. You are given several opportunities to conduct practice lessons over the weekend and on the final day the examiner selects two topics for you to teach to the rest of the group. It feels quite strange teaching basics to snowboarders who know as much – if not more – than you, but you soon enter into your own make believe world! I was confident with my teaching, the only worry would be if I’d forgotten any parts of the progression – just a couple of mistakes would lead to a fail and I’ve got a head like sieve!

After our final evaluations we all huddled nervously around a pitcher in the Griz bar, as the examiners went through their notes and decided our fates. We were called downstairs individually to get our results. The walk to the table made me feel like an X-Factor contestant, but thankfully Glen didn’t prolong the agony in Simon Cowell style. He stood up to shake my hand and welcome me as a colleague. Hold on, pause a minute. This guy spends his days razzing around the mountain with a group of competent riders in tow, showing off his favourite spots and passing on his knowledge. I can’t think of a better job than that… and I’m his colleague! Okay, so he’s a million miles away from where I am (the most I can hope for is getting a group of seven year olds to stand on a board for the first time) but that’s an honour I’d relish!

Okay Nick, fade to black…

So here I am back in the UK. I’ve done it, it’s possible and it’s something I’m very proud of. Is it an escape from the Grind? To be honest, not just yet – for me at least. Level 1 instructors are paid peanuts (only around $9 / £4.50 an hour) so you’d probably have to get another job in resort to survive. Getting a work visa for Canada can also be a bit of a challenge, but if you don’t have any luck with that, a CASI qualification will go a long way in most countries around the world. However, even if you have no intention of instruction, this is an extremely valuable and rewarding course and, for me, it was a holiday of a lifetime.

How to do it?
It couldn’t be easier. This trip was organised by Nonstop snowboarding, who run a whole range of instructor and improver course in Fernie, Banff, Red Mountain and Whistler. Once you’ve placed your booking with them, you just sit back and let them do the rest.

How much?
The three week instructor course will set you back £2,950 (it may sound like a big number but it really is a snip for what you get).

What’s included?
The 12 days of top notch instruction and guiding alone make the package worthwhile. You also get: A winter camping night, an amazing cat skiing day, avalanche awareness course, board maintenance seminars and equipment advice, flights, transfers, breakfast, dinner, accommodation in Nonstop’s flashy new lodge, hot tub, swimming pool, cinema, table tennis, fuseball, wi-fi, laundry, career help, phew… all they need to do is throw in some beef jerky and they’ll be onto a winner!

What to expect?
Nonstop is an appropriate name. This is not a trip for those that prefer stopping for a hot chocolate every other run. The fitter you can get before the trip the better – it’s full on! Nonstop recommend that you have at least 5 weeks riding experience for this course, as it’s one of the hardest to complete. However they offer a whole range of courses for all types of rider, from two week ‘Improver’ to eleven week ‘Instructor’ courses.

0845 365 1525

Photo Credits

Image One: Mark Shannon; Image Two: Rob Plato; Image Three: Mark Shannon; Image Four: Rob Plato

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