Ben Ingersoll: Snowboard school builds confidence, makes memories
December 6, 2013
Steamboat Springs — If you were to ask me to describe a person the complete opposite of me — personality, looks, age — that person would walk, talk and act a lot like Danny Pinegar.
Underneath his goggles and helmet combo, the Steamboat Snowboard School instructor sports long gray hair. Pinegar's kind words are complemented by his soft, soothing voice. And he's the self-described Zen master type.
For me, the overthinker, high-strung — and mostly bald — rookie in Steamboat, learning from Pinegar in a one-on-one setting was just what I needed.
I moved to Steamboat Springs three months ago without knowing where it even was. I had never even stepped foot in the state of Colorado until Sept. 2. In fact, when my editor, Lisa Schlichtman, called me in late August for an interview, I thought Steamboat was in Wyoming.
I’m from Northern California and a foreigner to the Ski Town USA lifestyle. Pinegar, a native of Northern Michigan, has spent his past 14 winters as a snowboard instructor for the Steamboat Ski Area school.
Pinegar is calm, gentle and alert, but there was something he said at the beginning of our daylong lesson that sparked a light bulb in my head. It was something someone desperately looking to fit into a snow sports-crazed town needed to hear.
"In many ways, snowboarding changed my life," Pinegar told me.
A Zen-like approach
I wasn't necessarily seeking a life-changing moment, but I did need the confidence to hop onto a snowboard for the first time since eighth grade. The fact that Pinegar, a 51-year-old veteran of snow sports, shared that bit of information with me, a 23-year-old petrified newbie on Mount Werner, told me that I was in good hands.
"Maybe this whole Steamboat thing might work out," I thought to myself.
"My goal when I teach a lesson is, I don't care how good somebody gets right away," Pinegar told me. "I just want to hook them on the sport. I just want to make it where they're having a good enough time that they're like, 'Man, that was pretty cool.'"
So away we went, starting on the bunny hill by shuffling around our snowboards to get the blood flowing. Clouds blocked the Wednesday morning sun, and the temperatures plunged well below zero degrees. The mountain had just got a 9-inch dumping of fresh snow on the season's first powder day.
I told Pinegar that my biggest downfall 10 years ago was my toe-side turn, so he emphasized the floating leaf technique down the bunny hill — heel turn, glide. Toe turn, glide.
Being on the board wasn't totally new to me, and Pinegar's keen eye caught that quickly. Because the powder buildup on the small hill turned our lesson into a standstill in the unforgiving cold, he elected to take me on the Christie Peak Express chairlift, which drops off beginners less than two minutes up the mountain.
Down the hill we went, inching our way along Lil' Rodeo, which is hardly a rodeo at all for the experienced rider. Run after run along the freshly groomed trail provided enough of a hill for Pinegar to hold my hand down the slope — figuratively and literally — as we carved “S” shapes with heel-side and toe-side turns all the way down.
Snow sports are a funny thing. Pinegar would point down from the chairlifts at experienced riders who would rip through the day’s powder and tackle the steepest slopes with very little body movement at all. The best make it look like nothing is even happening.
For me, it felt like a ton of work, but Pinegar's Zen-like approach to instruction was perfect. For every tumble I took and every choice four-letter word I blurted out, Pinegar came to my aid, calmed me down and got me back up on the board for more.
"Rookie instructors sometimes just want to teach everything they know," Pinegar said. "I think as you get more experience, it's not about teaching everything you know. It's about just making a good experience for that person."
A day, and winter, to remember
I had little confidence at the beginning of the day stepping into a pair of boots and bindings, but at the end of the day — as the sun came out and the temperatures became reasonable — Pinegar had enough confidence in me to take me up the gondola for an intermediate run.
We had a gondola car to ourselves, and on the way up we talked about things that guys talk about: girls, work, money and so on. Pinegar reminded me of how young I am, telling me to worry less and enjoy more of what Steamboat has to offer. I reminded him I honestly was scared of this lifestyle, but I'm trying. He understood.
We reached the top to tackle Vagabond, an intermediate run that felt like an expert slope for my abilities. Echoing the same "don't worry, I'm here" sentiment, Pinegar and I swayed our way down as experienced riders whizzed by. I then realized Pinegar was missing out on a powder day, but he never made mention of it.
There were more falls and more curse words on my part, but most of all, there was even more confidence. Pinegar had me hooked, and as the student of the instructor with that singular goal, I admitted it was the best day I'd had since I moved here three months ago.
We shared pleasantries in Gondola Square before parting ways. He laughed saying there's no way he could write a newspaper article. He can; it’s fairly simple. He also told me my potential could make me a better snowboarder than he is. I found that a little far fetched.
He shook my hand and in his soft voice told me something I may not have been as receptive to when I woke up Wednesday.
"Hopefully, this will be a winter you never forget," Pinegar said.
Something tells me it will be.