Snowboarding: A question of balance

Mary Novakovich heads to Austria for snowboarding lessons – and finds out whether she's goofy or regular
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The Independent Travel

Andy stepped behind me and gave me an abrupt push. "Regular," he said as my left foot shot forward. He did the same to my husband. "Goofy," he told him. Were these obscure reflections on our personalities, or did our Kaluma Travel rep have a Disney fixation? Neither, it was just a suitably weird introduction to the wondrous world of snowboarding.

My mind went back to the last Winter Olympics, in Turin, where the snowboarding competitors injected a much-needed shot of fun and coolness into the winter-sports scene. We'd been simultaneously amused by their look (surely they can't ride with their trousers halfway down?) and enthralled by the dare-devil movements that looked much more thrilling than going downhill on two skis. We have to have a go at that, we'd told ourselves, rashly ignoring the fact that we were a good 20 years older than the average competitor.

Fast-forward and there we were in Lech am Arlberg, one of the most beautiful villages in Austria, a former haunt of Princess Diana and current favourite of the moneyed set. Its grown-up atmosphere would suit a couple of 42-year-olds better than some of the brasher and noisier resorts in the French Alps, we thought. As it sits at a height from 1,500m to 2,500m, it's more likely than some parts of the Alps to have snow, and it has one of the best snowparks in Austria (for when boarders get good enough to do tricks).

But before we could do anything else, we had to get measured for our boots and boards at Sportalp, the equipment rental shop. (By the way, the " regular" and "goofy" refer to which way you prefer to go down the slope – left foot forward, or right, respectively.) That's when I discovered one of the advantages of boarding over skiing: it's so much more convenient to sling your board under your arm as you walk along in soft boots. The coolness factor immediately goes up when you don't have to trudge at an awkward angle.

Our instructor Gunnar, a friendly chap with a huge cheerful grin and the patience of a saint, took us to the neighbouring village of Zürs for our first lesson, as the nursery slope at Lech was too icy. Looking at the expanse of powder I was pleased, having been warned that the first few days of boarding involves falling on every part of the body imaginable.

The constant falling about didn't bother our only other classmate. Nicolas was a sweet 13-year-old from Sao Paulo. He was the first to try new moves, the first to land on his bottom and the first to get up again and have another go. He was also the first to "slide" (going downhill facing either directly forwards or backwards) and to make any turns. My husband, who spent his adolescence on a skateboard, was the second to accomplish these moves. I, who last went downhill 22 years ago – on two skis, mind you – was the last one to let go of Gunnar's hand. My normally competitive nature went into hibernation when I found that my goals would be achieved in much smaller steps than the others. Once I realised that, I began to enjoy myself.

After two days of following the same pattern – rubbish at the start, really quite good just before lunch, rubbish after lunch, low point mid-afternoon, rather good finish to the day – I was finding that progress was slow even by my standards. Nicolas had been sent off to higher group by day three, and Gunnar gave my husband the same option. Loyally he said he'd stick with me and add his encouragement, for I was turning into something of a coward.

My problem, quite simply, was an intense fear of falling. On skis you can fall towards the slope on your side. On a board you go either forwards (on your wrists, elbows, knees or nose) or backwards (on your bottom, wrists or head) while somersaulting with the board attached. Things weren't helped by the state of the piste: the snow was packed hard instead of being covered with a nice soft powder to cushion the landing.

Still, other novices were coping quite well and I just had to get on with it. My goal by the end of day three was to do some turns, and this I managed to do – although they occurred on separate runs. I even got over my extreme annoyance at constantly being flung off the poma tow – surely the most sadistic piece of winter-sports equipment ever invented.

I was beginning to get to grips with the mechanics of boarding: slide on the heel-side edge while traversing the slope, shift your weight so the board goes flat and you go downhill, go on the toe-side edge while traversing again and repeat until you fall down at the bottom of the slope. Or, in my case, do all of the above but hold on to your instructor's hand until you finally get the courage to do a turn on your own – usually right at the bottom where it's almost flat. "Don't worry, Maria," Gunnar reassured me. "See? You're barely holding on to my hand. You're doing most of it on your own."

The ice bar at the Tannbergerhof Hotel became our daily haunt, where a beer and a schnapps went hand in hand with gawping at spectacularly badly dressed people and listening to Shakira howl at full volume. We would take our slightly tipsy selves back to our cosy and delightful hotel, the Kristiania, where the whirlpool in the downstairs spa awaited us with its soothing hot jets. When the booze wore off the muscular aches kicked in and we amiably compared our bruises.

Once we rediscovered the art of walking upright, we would relax in the Kristiania's intimate and comfortable bar and then sit down to one of their exquisite five-course dinners. Or we would head into town for a drink at the trendy Schneggarei bar that sits at the bottom of one of the main slopes, followed by hefty dose of bratwürst and sauerkraut.

One night we were lucky enough to witness the monthly outdoor show put on by the ski school of Lech. An enormous projection screen was set up in the centre of the village, which showed archive footage of Lech in the 1920s when the village was a pioneer in winter sports. The ski-school instructors then came down the slope in an enchanting torchlight procession, followed by a few of their number showing off boarding tricks and carving turns (including our very own Gunnar). This we watched clutching our glasses of gluhwein as the party atmosphere grew and the singing started.

Scenes such as this increased my warm feelings towards Lech. Yes, it's an expensive place, but the tourist office, shop assistants and bar staff are unfailingly friendly and eager to please, regardless of the labels (or lack of them) covering your clothes.

It will certainly provide a marked contrast to the next time I get on a snowboard to work on what I've learnt before I forget everything: Milton Keynes's indoor snow slope, here we come.

Traveller's guide

Getting there

The writer travelled with Kaluma Travel (0870 442 8044; www.kalumatravel.co.uk), which offers seven nights' B&B accommodation at the four-star Hotel Kristiania from £1,385 per person based on two people sharing. This includes return scheduled flights and private transfers; the price is reduced if travelling via Ryanair. The closest airports to Lech are Zurich, which is served by Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com); Innsbruck, which is served by Austrian (0870 124 2625; www.aua.com) and British Airways; and Friedrichshafen in Germany, which is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com).

Eating and drinking there

Hotel Kristiania, Omesberg 31 (00 43 5583 25610; www.kristiania.at). Tannbergerhof Hotel (00 43 5583 2202; www.tannbergerhof.com). Schneggarei (00 43 5583 39888; www.schneggarei.at).

Equipment/lessons

Sportalp (00 43 5583 2110; www.sportalp.at) offers seven days' board hire from €159 (£110) per person and boot hire for €65 (£43). Lech Ski School (00 43 5583 2355; www.skilech.info) offers a range of group lessons, including one day at €52 (£36) per person and seven days at €181 (£126) in low season. Family tickets are available.



More information: Lech-Zürs Tourism (00 43 5583 21610; www.lech-zuers.at).

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