I’m an Arizona snowboarder

About a month ago I learned that to be an Arizona snowboarder and a snowboarder from Arizona are two COMPLETELY different things. And I am definitely the former. Allow me to explain.

In my role at work I spend a fair bit of time working with various banks. They help us fund our business and we help them make a return on their money. There is a significant advantage to partnering with banks, because their cost to acquire money is virtually zero. How much would it cost you to borrow $100,000 (or, more frequently we are asking for amounts closer to $100,000,000)? Even with excellent credit it will cost you about 12% in interest. But, how much does it cost a bank to borrow $100,000? Well, you and I and just about everyone else in the modern world willingly put a chunk of our money into checking and savings accounts where we earn somewhere around 0-2% on our money. That is, for a bank to borrow money from customers they pay us a very small interest rate. So, when you are looking for someone to invest in your company, banks have a significant advantage because to earn the same return as a random person they can charge quite a bit less because the cost of borrowing the money to invest is so much lower for the bank.

That was probably way too much detail to just tell you that I work with Citi bank regularly (along with many of the other big banks). Every year we try to get together with our partners over at Citi for no purpose other than to catch up on our business and have them catch us up on how they see the market, how we can better fund our business and what we can expect to pay in interest rates in the near term. We are based out of Phoenix and Citi is based out of NYC. So this meeting usually requires us to fly out of Phoenix at 7 AM, land in NYC 5 hours later (plus a 3 hour time change means it’s already 3 PM) and then check into our hotel for the evening. Then we can head to Citi’s offices the next morning and spend a couple hours meeting with the team before we head back to Phoenix (or more likely go spend some time with our other banking partners). In any case, it is typically a two day trip for us to get to do this two hour meeting with Citi.

Well, at a conference in Vegas not long ago we were having a fabulous dinner with our Citibank team and as it usually does the conversation quickly shifted to skiing. You see, the Citi team is full of avid skiers. Now, none of them talk the talk of an avid skier. In fact, they very much like to pretend that their skills would put them somewhere between beginner and intermediate. But when you ski 50 days per year and all of your vacation days are spent chasing storms around the world you are not an intermediate skier, at least not to this Arizona girl. So under the persuasion of a little (lot) alcohol we all agreed that instead of spending two days getting to NY for a two hour meeting we’d instead spend those two days meeting up at a ski resort somewhere for the ultimate boondoggle. Because yes, that is what this is, an excuse to get out of the office to “build relationships” over an adrenaline filled activity. We didn’t agree on a destination but instead decided that we’d “follow the snow”.

Now, Arizona is known for it’s desert climate. It is hot in Phoenix. Aech oh tee hot. Summer days reach 120 degrees and winter days don’t fall below 55. But a few hours north of Phoenix is the town of Flagstaff, Arizona. A college town whose main attraction is the climate. Little does the rest of the world know, Arizona is home to both one of the hottest cities in the country as well as one of the snowiest cities in the country. Summer weekends mean leaving the office a little early and starting the two hour drive to your Flagstaff “cabin” if you are one of the wealthy ones (I am not). And winter weekends mean it’s ski time. Now, us Arizona skiers typically go up to one of Arizona’s two ski resorts for a weekend or maybe two a year. And we certainly don’t follow the snow. We just didn’t grow up with it. Skiing was like going to Disneyland, we had access but not the kind of access where it made sense to have a season pass. And living in Phoenix you just weren’t that accustomed to snow, let alone the cold. A few days a year was really all any of us wanted. And if we did want snow but didn’t have any we wouldn’t travel anywhere else, we’d just make the snow. Our mountains are full of man made snow. Real skiers look down on mountains like this, they aren’t for the “purist” or the true skier.

So when we all agreed to go skiing and “follow the snow” I was nervous. I hadn’t skied or snowboarded in about 5 years and prior to that it was really just once a year. I knew I would be the worst one in our group, but I also knew that I loved to snowboard and it would be fun regardless. From our company we brought Kurt – a former ski patrolman, Dan – who grew up in the snowboard half pipe at his local mountain and Alex – had never skied before but he ended up having to work anyways. Citi brought Amy Jo – who still reluctantly refers to herself as a beginner (lies) and Bret – owner of multiple pairs of skis (in Arizona it is weird to own one pair).

We arrived into Salt Lake on Thursday evening, picked up our rental gear and met up for dinner. First thing Friday morning it was time for breakfast and then time to hit the slopes. This was it. Dan and I were the only two snowboarding. I warned everyone that getting off lifts was not a specialty of mine. I mean, I don’t exactly have a specialty but if I did it definitely would not be getting off of the lift. And after a 5 year hiatus I was sure to fall, and take anyone down who got in my way (which was unpredictable). So when the crew started talking about taking the gondola up to the top of the mountain instead of taking a lift I was excited. “You mean, we can just walk off holding our snowboards?” I asked everyone. I’d never taken a gondola before, sounds brilliant. Why would there ever be lifts if you could just take a gondola? I think Amy Jo was trying to warn me that the top of the mountain was the steepest part. I said, “hey, as long as you don’t make me do any black diamonds I’ll be fine, I think.” I had also sort of been warned that Snowbird was known for being one of the steepest mountains in the country. Without much experience at other mountains besides my two Arizona resorts I didn’t know how bad it could be. Bad, it can be very very bad.

We arrive at the top of the mountain and immediately the operator lets us know that only advanced and expert riders can get off at the top today as the wind and snow were providing for no visibility and very tricky conditions. Yikes. Now I was nervous. The group seemed confident that they knew the “blue” (medium difficulty) route down and we’d be fine. Holy crap. I’ve never seen runs like this. They are these paths that are maybe 15 feet wide, hugging the mountain above you on one side and a sheer cliff on the other. As in sudden death. So I am hugging the mountain as closely as I possibly can. But my toe edge is somewhere between non existent and very weak which meant anytime I wanted to turn I’d have to switch from riding regular to goofy and stay on my heel edge. It takes space to navigate this very beginner maneuver. Space that I didn’t have. Golly I was scared. The others in the group though were being pretty good making sure that one of them was no more than 200 yards ahead of me and then they’d wait for me to catch up and then take off again. As if the difficulty of the trail wasn’t enough the winds were also blowing all the fresh powder all over and I could hardly see where I was going. Needless to say I was lucky to make it down to the next lift halfway down the mountain. That was the scariest hour of my life probably. At least up to that point. It wasn’t until we’d made it down to the bottom that Amy Jo informed me that they had taken me down a couple of black diamonds and I did just fine! We didn’t agree on the definition of fine. Thank goodness we all agreed that the conditions and visibility were too rough at the top and we’d avoid going back there until it cleared up.

Here I am enjoying snowboarding from the comfort of the lodge…

So we spent the next couple of hours on the bottom half of the mountain where I could hang. I still was in the back of course but I wasn’t afraid of dying. After lunch we took the lift back up to the halfway point and were pleasantly surprised to find the wind had really calmed down. This led the group to decide to ride the second lift back up to the top of the mountain. This was a mistake. You see, it looked like the wind had died down because we were still under the tree line meaning that the wind was blocked. As soon as the lift got over the tree line all hell broke loose. It was freezing, visibility was about 2 inches and there was so much snow falling. We got off the lift (I’ll have you know I actually never fell off of a lift, I fell plenty of other times though) and were faced with a sign that now read “EXPERTS ONLY. RIDE AT YOUR OWN RISK”. I survived the “Advanced and Experts Only” ride in the morning but with a lot of luck. This sign was not welcoming. Not only that but we couldn’t actually see signs for any of the runs so not only did we not know if we were on a double black diamond or a blue we didn’t even know if we were on a run. Avalanches are real people and I didn’t want to be caught up in one! Now like I said, the team had been great all day and were always making sure I was safe. That was until now. You see at this point the conditions were so bad and so terrifying that it was every man for himself. As soon as Dan strapped into his board he took off without so much as looking back at me. I was alone. The winds were now going about 40 miles per hour and we had received a foot of snow so far that day so the powder was deep. These are the types of conditions I’d never faced before that day and now I was facing them alone. I couldn’t see a foot in front of me and had no idea where I was supposed to go. I was starting to panic. I am the most laid back person you’ll likely ever meet but in this moment I was everything but. As I stood the wind just about knocked me back over and the problem was if it knocked me the wrong way I would fall off of a cliff, that much I could see. So I made what was the wisest call I’ve probably ever made and unstrapped myself from my board. Now as I stood I felt the wind knock me back, I couldn’t scale back up the ten feet I’d descended since getting off of the lift! This was bad, very bad. So I got on my hands and knees and started crawling back up the mountain. What a pathetic sight this would have been if anyone had actually seen me. There was a brief moment where my board got away from me and started sliding down the mountain. I grabbed it just in time, but I would have been willing to let it go. Left hand and left knee forward, then the right. One after another for ten feet. I was shaking. Yes it was freezing but I was so overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do. I climbed up to the lift operator’s office and banged on the door. He let me in and said “can I help you?”. “I CAN’T DO THIS. I CAN’T.” I told him. “You want to ride back down?” he asked. “I have to”, I did have to. He agreed. “I wouldn’t even ride this myself” he said. I don’t know if that was true or if he was just trying to make me feel better. Either way he said that he’d slow down the lift so I could get on, hold my board and ride down. He’d let the operator at the bottom know to expect a “downloader”. I think that’s their way of saying “wuss”, whatever, I didn’t even care. I was just so grateful I could go down, I’d never done that before and didn’t know if I could. So I got back on the lift and rode it back down to the halfway point on the mountain where everything was safe and achievable again. While on the lift I turned around and saw that there were three guys in the chair behind me, more downloaders! This made me feel much better. I wasn’t the only loser on the mountain that day. Perhaps we weren’t losers, we were the smart ones.

After I got off the lift and back on my board I felt much better and started heading back down the mountain. Immediately someone yelled at me from above. It was Dan, he was already headed back up the mountain! I boarded down to the lodge at the base of the mountain and got some water and took some deep breaths. Finally the rest of the crew showed up and were surprised to see me. “You made it?!” they asked, with some relief in their voices. It was as if they’d already resigned to my unavoidable death. I told them what really happened and they were so glad I chose to download, because after seeing my skills all morning they knew that I’d be risking death attempting that run. It was so nice that they cared, down there, at the bottom, not at the top where I could have actually used them! Ha, every man for himself. I didn’t ski much more that day, the excitement had been beaten and scared out of me. But in that moment I was very proud I made the right call. I normally think I’m capable of anything, I was very glad to learn that I know my limits and now I can trust myself to not go beyond them.

After the day was over we went to dinner and finally held our annual meeting. At dinner we all agreed that next year we’d pick an easier mountain. Thank goodness. Amy Jo and Bret commended me, not on my snowboarding, obviously. But that I never complained, I always tried my hardest and I knew when I was in over my head. That felt good. I am very often the least skilled person in any activity I do but I always have so much fun and try to maintain a really upbeat attitude. I hate the idea of ruining anyone else’s time because I’m not good enough so I will try my hardest and smile through the whole thing. I’m glad I didn’t ruin their days.

But now I know. I can ride any of the runs at Snowbowl or Sunrise, in my typical falling leaf mode (avoiding that toe edge at all costs!). I now know that when people ask if I snowboard I have to clarify because I am NOT a snowboarder from Arizona., I’m an Arizona snowboarder.

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