Take Off To Boarder Country
It's fast. It's invigorating. And women love it. British Olympic hopeful Lesley McKenna has ridden the world's best slopes, but her heart belongs to Scotland
Sunday 22 January 2006
Having grown up in Aviemore in Scotland, I learnt to ski on Cairn Gorm at a very young age. But I've only been snowboarding for 10 years, eight as a professional. I was a member of the Scottish and British ski teams before I started snowboarding - but the two sports are quite different. What I like most about snowboarding is people's attitude. Snowboarders are enthusiastic about what they do; they've got a real love for the sport and the environment they do it in.
On the competitive side, skiing is more established. When you're skiing at such a high level, you don't appreciate how much fun it should be. So it's refreshing to do a sport where the fun element is still an important factor. You train as hard as skiers do, and it's the same rigorous schedule, but the attitude is more light-hearted and friendly.
What's great is that there are so many places in the world to visit. New Zealand is one of my favourites, mostly because it reminds me of Scotland. It's quiet, with beautiful lakes, and the mountains are amazing.
The snowboarding locations are all different, especially in Europe. I've spent a lot of time in the French Alps at a resort called Sainte Foy en Tarentaise. It's off the beaten track, but if it's a good powder day, you get some great snowboarding.
I've spent a lot of time in St Anton in Austria, which I love, and whenever I'm in Switzerland I go to Saas-Fee. It's a traditional Swiss village with no cars - a lot of the resorts in Switzerland have electric carts instead of cars, and the houses are old-fashioned, wooden chalets. In Italy, Livigno is pretty special. Again it's an old town but it's also a tax-free haven for Italians, so it's pretty crazy there, almost a law unto itself.
Obviously, there is great après-ski to be found in all these resorts, but I rarely get to participate because when I'm competing I'm pretty busy. A lot of people like Val d'Isère in France - it's well-known for its British music scene. In North America most of the locations are big, well-established resorts. The first season that I spent away from Scotland I went to Jacksonville in Wyoming. It's way out in the sticks, but there are still cowboys riding around.
Whenever I go to Japan I make a real effort to go off on a tour because it's a great chance to experience a different culture. The Japanese are into snowboarding and it's one of the countries with a high number of top-level riders. I've been to Sapporo and Nagano. In all there are about 700 ski resorts in Japan.
With snowboarding, you can have a season that runs all year round if you're up for it. The first world-cup competition runs in September, in Chile, and the last one is at the end of March. There are a few independent show competitions in April going into May, then in July and August you can snowboard in Chile and New Zealand. For great scenery, Iceland is an amazing place to snowboard and it's another one of my favourites. It's very remote and quiet, with lots of black volcanic rock. And the people are great fun. I'd recommend visiting the Iceland Park Project, which runs every May. Once we saw a whale when we were walking along the beach.
You don't have to be fearless to have a go at snowboarding, just a bit adventurous. It's important to take a lesson if you've never tried it before, but all you need is a love of being outdoors and amazing scenery. It's a good sport for a fun day out in a fun environment. If you're going to take it to a higher level then you need perseverance because you do get hurt a lot. Last year I broke my ankle; one year I broke my jaw; I've broken my arm and a rib, all from bad landings.
My main event is half pipe, but the Olympics now includes boardercross and alpine snowboarding. Boardercross is like motocross on a snowboard. Four riders go down a pre-built track with big-bank turns, camel jumps, and the first one to the bottom wins. Alpine is like alpine skiing, racing around gates and the fastest to the bottom wins. Half pipe is a freestyle event. You ride down a kind of skateboard ramp in the snow, about 120m long, and you do tricks from side to side.
My first Olympics was in 2002 at Salt Lake City. It was a big experience and pretty nerve-wracking, especially because I was the first Brit to enter the Olympics for snowboarding. It was quite stressful for that reason. A lot of the British public hadn't seen or heard about snowboarding, so I felt very responsible for the sport. I hope people will be interested in watching it this time rather than wondering what it is.
In Canada, the top resort is Whistler and it's currently gearing up for the Winter Olympics in 2010. They're putting a lot of effort into the structure, which is interesting to see, especially with the Olympics coming to London in 2012. I'm very keen to see how another country is coping with their whole Olympic experience.
For me, the ideal place to go snowboarding is at home near Aviemore in Scotland. There's nothing better than going into your favourite restaurant, buying your lunch and sitting there chatting to friends. My nearest slopes are at Cairn Gorm, about seven miles to the south-east. They're easily accessible slopes, plus they've recently built the CairnGorm Mountain Railway to replace the chair lift, so you can get to the top of the mountain quickly. It's just such a nice scene when you're at home: you can hang out with all your mates and then go up the hill for some snowboarding.
Aonach Mór, the ski resort near Fort William, also has some good terrain. There's some challenging riding over there. I get quite jealous of the competitors from Alpine countries because they can host world cups in their home town. How I'd love that!
I am an ambassador for Visit Scotland and we have groups of people coming up here to do outdoor adventure sports. It's not just skiing and snowboarding that you can do up here. We had a great surf trip to Tiree, an island off the west coast, a couple of years ago, and the surf there is amazing. A lot of people don't realise that there's some good surfing in Scotland. I'm still a novice but it's something I hope to do a lot more of.
Scotland has lots of hidden gems. The mountain biking is amazing and we now have some world-class tracks. I went to watch the Mountain Bike World Cup a few months ago in Fort William. It's worth checking out the kayaking and canoeing, too.
I have a small production company called ChunkyKnit Productions and we make all-girl snowboard films. I love to go free-riding in the biggest mountains I can find. When you're free-riding you have to be with other people because there is a risk of an avalanche, so you have to take special equipment with you. Whenever possible we take a guide. It's potentially the most dangerous part of snowboarding.
Safety is always the first concern. It's frustrating to see people who aren't used to the mountains taking risks. They put other people at risk, too. Then the ski patrollers have to go and rescue them.
We're always looking for great locations to film in. This year we want to go somewhere we've never been to, Romania maybe or Iran. Also, Morocco is a great place to snowboard because it has some big mountains.
I'm keen to promote snowboarding for girls and it seems that it's becoming increasingly popular. Retail companies report that the women's side of the business has overtaken the men's side. I hope our films will help women to feel part of the scene.
I'm preparing for the Winter Olympics in Turin next month. I've only snowboarded there a couple of times. Each pipe has its own personality. I'm the only Brit competing in half pipe but Zoë Gillings is competing in boardercross. As for my chances, I'm quietly optimistic, but in half-pipe riding you're relying on the judges. It's not like the 100m. It's harder to predict.
It's exciting to see an Olympics coming to Britain in 2012. Encouraging people to get involved in sport is something I feel strongly about.
For information on bookings and accommodation, contact Visit Scotland (0845 22 55 121; visitscotland.com). For information on ski reports and snow conditions visit ski-scotland.com
Keep it covered
This may sound obvious but if you're snowboarding abroad you need to make sure that your travel insurance covers you for everything that you're going to do. Policies demand extra winter sports cover if your activity has the merest acquaintance with snow.
How to keep your cool: Tips From A Pro
Splash it all over
Always use sun cream. With snowboarding, you're up at a high altitude a lot of the time and the sun's rays are doubly bright because they're reflected off the snow. So it's really important that you wear protective cream for your face.
Water, water everywhere
It's important to stay hydrated so drink plenty of liquids - water, juice, whatever. I drink a lot of flavoured water and you wouldn't believe the amount I go through. There are plenty of rocks you can go behind if you're off the beaten track and you're caught short.
I can see clearly now
You need to wear proper skiing goggles because anything else is not designed to protect your eyes from such bright sunlight. Snow blindness is really horrible. I know people who've had it and they've had to lie in a dark room for three days.
Pay attention please!
Whenever you're in a ski resort, whether you're skiing or snowboarding, you must be aware of what's going on around you. Lots of injuries happen because people are not paying attention and going too fast, out of control, in a busy area.
Pad it out
I don't go out of the house without a helmet, slam shorts, a back protector, knee pads and shin pads - honestly, I look like an ice-hockey player. But it's definitely worth it. If you're a beginner, also wear wrist guards because you will fall over a lot.
Get on board
When you buy your first board, you need to get the staff to explain your stance - how you stand on the board. It's quite a personal thing but it's very important that you are comfortable. Make sure you get it sorted out before you hit the slopes.
Don't go it alone
If you're going off-piste for the first time, take a guide with you. Make sure you've got avalanche equipment and be sure that you are of an ability to go off-piste. Talk to the guide first about the different levels and they will take you on a route to suit your ability.
My best resort
I have favourite areas for different types of snowboarding, but the most fun I have is when the snow's good in Scotland. That wins by miles. Scotland can be as good as anywhere and when I can be there at home, in Cairn Gorm with my friends, it's my favourite place to be in the world. The mountain is very remote and very beautiful. The scenery in the Cairngorms National Park is stunning because it has moorland, forests, rivers, lochs and glens.
My best view
New Zealand has some spectacular views. Typically, the best views are when you're up on the mountain first thing in the morning looking down at the valleys. At that time of the day, the light is getting brighter and it's so nice being up. I remember the first time I went heli-boarding there, three years ago, and we travelled along the valley from Lake Wanaka to the back of this amazing mountain. To be up in a helicopter and see the mountain below was an amazing sight.
Lesley's best restaurant
The restaurant I always go to is La Perdrix Blanche in Val d'Isère. They serve traditional food from the Savoire region, which is really good, plus things like Chateaubriand, lobster, oysters and crayfish. But they also do simple pizzas and salads. It's very popular and it's always lively, so it's a good place to meet up with friends. They also have a lovely terrace that looks out over the centre of Val d'Isère. It's a great place to sit and chill out, especially when the sun is shining.
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