Friday, January 07, 2011

How I feel today!



...in this world of bitterness, you've got to take a chance.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Tahoe Snowboarding Adventures: An Oxygen-Deprived Euphoriant Narrative

I had let several winters pass before I was able to truly exercise and build on my snowboarding abilities. I had been incrementally falling in love with every other board sport out there, so when I was invited to visit a friend in Lake Tahoe, I knew I could finally verify if I could just pick up where I left off, and continue my learning curve, as if I never resented snowboarding for giving me my first broken bone—as if I never decided to discredit winter altogether.

I was three when my dad first put a set of cross-country skis on me—a good head start to a love for granola winter sports, had I not performed a shrieking tantrum several miles into the wilderness. I demanded that my skis be removed convinced that it was the skis and not the long hike that made me so tired. My dad, probably annoyed by my whining, shrugged and unfastened my boots from my skis. I took one step away from the weight displacement and quickly sunk waist high in the snow. I cried to exhaustion, and my dad, thinking he had taught me a valuable lesson, pulled me out of the snow and carried me back to the lodge.

As I grew older, the abilities and interests of each family member separated, and we found ourselves no longer trudging in one line on the green trails, but sparsely divided along the mountain. Skiing became an independent journey that I could take with these little conundrums I could figure out on my own, and keep to myself if the proposed solution found me waist high in the snow again.

Then I discovered snowboarding, and I couldn’t wait to try it. I rode a sled standing up over that kid-made jump at the local sledding hill. The Oakley Country Club was notorious for sending kids to the hospital, and I ensured the place’s reputation. That jarring sound, a brisk crunch shuddered throughout my body. Clutching pieces of my shattered sled, and using my broken collarbone and concussed logic to climb back up the hill, I immediately blamed the winter for breaking my immortality at age 10.

It had been years; I had gone snowboarding intermittently, but with no intentions of letting go or adopting the craft as my own. Instead, I would ride both toes forward, continuously breaking with concentrated precision. It was incredibly boring, and I eventually gave up on pretending to love it, despite encouragement from friends impressed by my balance.

Last Sunday, I landed in Reno. In this high altitude, there were no substandard hills. Mountains seemed to compete with each other to reach the sky. Even the dirt piles at the airport were eager to peak at their full capacity. The intimidation had me dithering about trying to snowboard again.

“Normal or goofy?” The woman at the rental place asked.
I couldn’t really answer. I skate normal, I prefer starboard tack on the windsurf/kiteboard (normal), I surf depending on the direction of the break, but snowboarding? Did I want to tell the woman renting me her gear that I’m so chicken to choose a side that I ride breaking the whole time? I volunteered a side. Left. Normal. Whatever.

“Describe your level. Beginner. Cautious. Moderate. Expert.”
Without feeling slighted, I yelled out, “Cautious!” I knew I was more advanced than that, but ‘cautious’ described my feeling on the board. Cautious, guarded, on-edge. Eventually my ego took hold of the conversation.

“Cautiously moderate!”

The first day on the Nevada side of Heavenly was clear, sunny and balmy. The rows in the fresh-groomed snow were glistening and I couldn’t wait to break through it. I took the Big Easy ski lift to warm up on the Easy Street trail, a short green trail that would surely clear the cobwebs of my muscle memory before I moved onto the fun stuff. As I left the lift, the bench encouraged my board to move smoothly out of the lift’s divot and onto the trail. I conducted a structured fall to strap myself in. Insecure about my abilities, I had a desire to let the lift operator know that my fall was indeed done on purpose. With my boots and board resting in front of me, I stood erect with strong fresh arms, and made my descent down Easy Street. Feeling guarded, I rode facing downhill, digging my heel edge so deep so I barely moved at all. As I was hogging the narrow path, onlookers rolled their eyes at my technique as they swept by. The redness of anger pooled in my cheeks as I realized the alienation I was creating for myself. Time to let go, Liz. I put pressure on my left foot and shifted my hips so I could ride edge-free. For a few seconds, I was fine, and then I shifted too much. I was now facing the top of the mountain and digging my toe edge to stop from riding backwards. I was way out of my comfort zone and I was gradually making my way toward a cliff. I couldn’t dig my toes in far enough, so rather than falling forward, I did the snowboarding unthinkable. I leaned back, caught edge on my heel side, and the board propelled me, back first down the mountain. I heard a crack I had grown accustomed to hearing since first discovering I was mortal, and a wind deep inside my lungs became presentable in forced exhalation. Deceleration forces startled my internal organs when meeting the hard surface. Everything I had injured in the past started to throb—a reminder of previous events in which this one could also be catalogued. I rose up surprisingly unharmed, and inched down the hill, both toes first, riding slow as my organs retracted back into their assigned cavities, my eyes wide open, alert, and moderately cautious.

I had three days of rented gear and prepaid lift tickets that quite possibly had been a complete waste. I knew the movement I had to adopt but had lost trust in the snow that made it possible.

I swallowed my pride, which eased my stomach and signed up for Level One snowboarding lessons to occupy my day. After some routine direction, we hopped on a lift to test out our skills. At the instructor’s amazement, a few of us had picked up the basics quickly, and I later learned that I wasn’t the only one keeping a secret. The fear of letting go had bottled up in many of us and brought us together to face this fear head on.

The top of Sam's Trail


The instructor led us down Sam’s Trail, a wide blue path, synchronizing some routine drills: front and back falling leave, slow C turns, and slower S turns. Then he let us ride the trail on our own, while he focused on those who really belonged in Level One. On the lift up, I couldn’t stop staring at the trees. They looked as though only the east side of the pine trees were covered with large cotton balls. I was told that the snow is so wet that the snowflakes collect into little balls, and the top of the mountain can get so windy that they fly horizontally until they stick to the trees. Amazing how odd weather patterns can create such beauty.

With the cobwebs cleared, I focused on carving, knowing that my fear lied in catching edge during the transition and possibly injuring my left shoulder for the 4th time to date (left shoulder injuries: age 10, sledding, break; age 16, soccer, break; and age 22, windsurfing, dislocation) My left shoulder throbbed at the thought, but I became preoccupied with all of the little puzzles to figure out on this trail. I had falling skiers to dodge, acute turns to make, and moguls to ride over. I stopped thinking about the fear and started experiencing this trail as a self-made journey, the way I saw skiing when I was younger with a little more independence gained. With this trust that the instructor had in me, I had what I needed to move forward. But after the first day, I was panting and my thighs were burning, and I was finally convinced of the effects that high altitude, dry air and low oxygen could have on a person.

My friend and host, Natalie, and I stopped home and filled up on hot tea to defrost and hydrate ourselves before heading out to the Grocery Outlet to pick up dinner. This Grocery Outlet is the most bizarre grocery store I’ve ever been to. When I arrived, I understood how Natalie and her friends had such a hard time describing it. The Grocery Outlet seemingly carries only products that were rejected from mainstream grocery stores for one reason or another, and the Tahoe locals make a game out of trying to determine how each product got there. I walked by this can of Cream of Celery soup by Heinz, which probably wasn’t too popular at ShopRite, but at 99 cents, someone was bound to buy it. We picked up a bag of sausages, which must have been rejected for being packaged twice in hard plastic and impossible to open. On our way out, we walked by chip bags that must have been packaged at sea level and the altitude had caused the chip bags (interestingly only half of them) to inflate so much that I swear if the bags were one shelf higher, they would burst. They were just asking to be opened and relieved of such pressure. I sympathized and bought a bag.


I was awake at 5am, not really fighting jetlag, since my friend had to be up shortly after and I as well, since she was my ride in. Even though my knees were covered in purple bruises, I was wondering why my arms were so sore. And then it occurred to me how many times I had fallen and gotten up. Many.

The bottom of the mountain was overcast, calm and not too cold, but 15 minutes up the Gondola, I was in a cold and windy snowstorm. (I’ll save my exaggerations until later, because day 3 was a lot worse.) I stuck around the Nevada side again and was determined to break out of this fear I had been haunted by for so long. I had this urge to let go, and by the end of my vacation, I promised myself it would happen. So what is letting go? Letting go is when you don’t have to think about what you’re doing and trust that you can handle the bumps and the obstacles in front of you. And only when you trust your abilities can you truly enjoy the ride presented to you. I’ve achieved it with nearly every other board sport (I find it difficult to feel free on a skateboard when surrounded by angry traffic) and I had high hopes for achieving this in three days.

I tried to take the most challenging trails, but each time, I found myself not able to focus on what I needed work on. On one supposed blue trail, the Nevada Trail, I ended up taking off my board and walking, because the flat skating path seemed to never end. On another trail, I was about to turn the corner and discovered a wind tunnel that was so powerful, it was physically stopping me from going forward down the steep mountain. After crouching down, I finally inched by the wind tunnel. I couldn’t stop thinking about how cold I was, but I continued to study my movements, and the movements of others who had a seamless ride down the mountain. I pretended I was on the slopes even when I wasn’t. While I was in the lodge getting lunch, someone stepped in line to take a napkin, and I eased back, heel side, subconsciously thinking I would carve out of that guy’s way. The snow and wind picked up as the day went on. I managed to get in a few good runs, but I was still not satisfied. While in line to take the Gondola back down, I passed this little girl with messy blonde hair and a cold red face dripping with sniffles and tears. She kept repeating, “I’m cold. I want to go home.” Had I not been stealthily cutting her in line, I would have told her how much I understood her. I wanted to go home too. This day had left me physically and emotionally defeated.
The long line home when you're cold and tired

Later that night, the weather got worse, but I was on a mission. After a hot shower, and watching my face wash bottle explode yet again, I was going to cross something off my bucket list. No only does Tahoe have the snowiest mountains to ski on, but several natural hot springs, which isn’t surprising considering all of the other bottled and packaged items I’ve seen close to eruption. The snow was coming down so hard, you could barely see the cars in front of you. We drove easily with our snow tires, although the wet snow was testing the wipers. We passed clusters of cars, which had stopped on the side on the road to put on chains or give up and wallow. It reminded me of the mountain trails, when you ride by groups of boarders on the side who may have stalled out shortly before gaining the confidence to continue. We passed signs that said, “If you don’t have chains on, you WILL BE turned around.” Then we hit standstill traffic and decided to turn ourselves around. Ambulances and firetrucks hastily heading ahead of the traffic confirmed that we would have been there for a while.

I woke up really chilly, but my exhaustion ensured me a full 8 hours of sleep despite the coldness. Our power had gone out. I looked out the window and saw at least a few feet on the ground…and it was still snowing pretty hard.

It was my third and final day of snowboarding. This time, I went to the California side, the only group of lifts that were open. The other ski lifts were buried and had no signs of being dug out. At the bottom of the California Lodge, there’s a double diamond trail called Gunbarrel, which is so steep, it basically allows people at the bottom to see the full trail, and every embarrassing mistake the boarders make on it. For about 20 minutes, I watched as boarders struggled with this route. Old packed down moguls were buried in three foot powder drifts. Watching the beginners trying to make their way down, was like watching a mouse try to find its way out of a maze, until they got caught in a snow drift and had to detach their board completely and walk down the mountain.
A Beginner Face Plants on the Gunbarrel Trail


After warming up on some green routes, I took a few lifts until I was at the top of the Canyon Express, nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. Any laughter or warmth I kept inside my layers had blown away by the time I reached the top.
The lift to the top; getting snowier


If you have ever walked into a house of screaming people, and you think to yourself, “I need to get the fuck out of here.” Well, that is how I felt at the top of that mountain. It was snowing so hard, I couldn’t see where the trail started, and I could only follow the shadows of other boarders in dark jackets. It was so fucking windy, I could easily describe with precision how far away the air was to any area of my skin. I felt my nose running a warm liquid, and then that warmth froze off into a snowdrift.

This new altitude found me tired and lightheaded. I collapsed in the pool of white to strap myself in. I sat with my ears close to my chest, and realized I was breathing heavily. It was weird to notice my body doing something different in another climate, the arid arctic at 10,000 feet. I was already at the top of the world. All I could do is count on the lack of oxygen to keep me from hyperventilating.

I stood up and eased down the mountain once again and fought with the cold for the first few minutes, my burning thighs battling with the caustic air. I still couldn’t see anything in front of me. Like an underexposed photograph, there was no depth or texture for me to discern where the moguls started or how steep the trail was. But then, I found out why snowboarding on powder is the most amazing euphoric experience in life—other than lack of oxygen. I flew through that powder like I was flying in the sky, cutting through tepid buttery air.

I forgot why I hated winter. Then, I hit a mogul, which became a ramp, and I jumped into more white and had no idea when I would land or how I would fall, but somehow it just happened in the smoothest way a snowflake could be placed. A seamless jump. Elated from this, I carved myself all over this endless wave in thanks and praises, letting the moguls come as they did, and just trusting myself in whatever my underboard encountered. The surf was sometimes bump and jump like windsurfing over steady whitecaps. Most of the time, I felt a push from behind, as if the water was pulling crazy vector forces, throwing my surfboard on a plane ahead of the double overhead. Then in a heated moment of compassion and love for the powder, I carved a sharp toe-side turn and leaned forward to touch the stuff that had initially fed me my mortality, and it melted, inferior to my hand. I had conquered this mountain.

I rode faster and the wind howled through my helmet. I thought I heard city sirens, and I stopped short to look around out of habit. I had to remind myself I was the only one around, and there were no streets around the corner from me.

Time to keep moving. I shifted my hips and nothing happened. The snow was so thick in my sight that I didn’t even realize that the trail had leveled out. I unbuckled my back foot to skate ahead and it sank thigh high into the snow. There I was, like that three-year-old who was scared and tired, although this time, my dad couldn’t pull me out and carry me home. Focusing on trying not to fall, I stepped out of the drift with my hands high over my head, restrapped my back foot in and ooched like crazy for several lonely minutes, until my board started to accelerate on it’s own. I finished out the High Five trail and transitioned into the Powderbowl Run, wearing the most deliriously wide smile winter has ever seen.

My day ended at the Turn 3 Peanut bar, where we overheard locals talk about the power lines setting trees on fire, and how the bartender tried to smuggle bacon fat in her suitcase on a holiday flight. I was still smiling. Something had changed in me and made me want to seek out anything else I ever feared.

On the flight home out of LAX, the plane flew over the Pacific Ocean, and I stared into the dark grid of conflicting waves. The sun hid behind the plane wing until the Pacific was presented in front of me. Then the sun let itself fully reflect over the water, which fed warmth and nourishment to my dry weather-beaten face. Through this warmth, the sun expressed to me, “It’s time to explore more of what I see. The world is for you to find.” Then the plane turned around and headed east.

…next time, I’m going somewhere sunny.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Fall Climbing: I contradict myself

My Tahoe snowboarding trip was such an amazing experience, I was inspired to write a literary narrative worthy of submission somewhere else. While I work on that, I wanted to share, or rather document, my climbing progress and priceless New York moments from this fall.

In early September, after my swimming challenge was completed, I started climbing two or three times a week at Brooklyn Boulders. Since the schedule of a writer can’t always commit to weekday events, I knew I couldn’t keep a regular belaying partner without pissing them off, so I started bouldering again. At a time where my job was becoming increasingly demanding, climbing was such a release and made me so happy, I quit my regular gym at NYSC, and joined Brooklyn Boulders as a monthly member. Before I took on this swimming challenge, I had reached a climbing plateau, and couldn’t complete anything past a V3, but after 3 months of climbing regularly, I can honestly conclude that I have jumped that hurdle successfully. Viva V4!

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, I found myself back at my old climbing grounds, MetroRock in Boston. I was looking forward to testing my skills at another gym but soon met disappointment, when the two hardest routes I did were V2s. I know, I know. I shouldn’t look at the grade, and I wouldn’t still be climbing if I only cared about the grade, but their V3s seemed years away from possibility. I couldn’t believe that climbing gyms differed this much in route grading. I spoke with the man at the front desk and urged him to find me some challenging but manageable climbs, something that I would most likely ascend by the end of the day. He took me on a tour.

“The climber that sets these routes is built like a gorilla, and loves to include upper body moves, so don’t be surprised if you don’t get these…This routesetter is 6 foot 5 and always unconsciously sets reachy holds, so you might not be able to do this either…and our token girl routesetter who’s short and focuses on technique over strength, doesn’t set anything under a V6.”

Although, I acknowledge that climbing gyms can be different and I have become accustomed to the techniques of the BKB routesetters, I was thankful that I had the variety within the walls of BKB to rely on for my progress.

I competed in two climbing competitions and placed 2nd (out of 2) and 3rd (out of 10), and was heavily disappointed by all of the amazing women climbers who didn’t compete. I’ll tell you right now, I’m not that good. It would be better to have more honest competition beating me than to win out of default. Since the last competition, I have a personal goal to convince other women to compete in the upcoming comp in February.

What else? Oh yes, and I started writing the novel again on my nights off from climbing. I joined a writing group with Marble Church and just the act of going to the meeting and talking about why I like to write was the motivation I needed to finish this book. I’m looking forward to sharing my first excerpt with the group. I’ve been hiding this thing for too long.

Precious New York Moment:
A few months ago, I was walking by 2nd and 2nd, and discovered that the cemetery gate was open and people were meandering in and out. I had some time, so I walked through to see what was going on. They were giving free tours of the history of the cemetery and the headstone walls that surrounded this grassy meadow, a rarity in New York. My first thought was about how envious I was of the apartment buildings that surrounded this open space. Walking to the back of the garden, I looked up at a window and met eyes with a young man staring down at me in disgust. I guess our group was contaminating his pretty view. I shared with the tour guide how lucky the people who get to look through these windows were, and she responded, “Well, that’s a homeless shelter and that’s a [rehab] meth house, so you tell me who the lucky one is.”

Touché, tour guide lady.