A Tale of Two Snowboards

When I awoke, Nadia was nowhere to be found, and the hostel dormitory was deserted. I had obviously overslept. Immediately I got up and, after hitting the washroom, decided to go snowboarding.

While I was dressing as fast as I could, not wanting to miss any more of the day than I already had, a most unusual thing happened to me. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to take my long or short snowboard up to the mountains with me.

Normally, when I’m heading off to go snowboarding, I have a gut feeling as to whether I want to take my long board (which is better suited for carving and cutting in deep powder) or my short board (which is excellent for extreme vertical terrain and high jumps). But today, for some unfathomable reason, I felt ambivalent about which board to bring. Master Fwap probably would have said that I was totally out of touch with my second attention.

I finally ended my mental conflict by taking both boards with me, assuming that once I got to the mountain, I would assess the snow and terrain conditions, pick the appropriate board, strap my second board underneath my day pack, and snowboard down the mountain with my second board attached to my back—something I had never tried before.

It was around ten o’clock when I left the hostel. Fortunately, I quickly managed to hitch a ride with a group of Japanese mountain climbers who were headed for the backcountry in their beat-up Land Rover.

They dropped me at the top of a fourteen-thousand-foot pass—which is as high as the road went—and I spent the next several hours trudging up another three thousand feet to the top of the peak.

I adjust to altitude shifts very quickly, but even so, every thousand feet above fourteen thousand that day required an extreme effort on my part, causing me to climb more slowly than usual.

All of the snowboarding I had done thus far in the Himalayas had ranged from fourteen to nineteen thousand feet. Beyond nineteen thousand feet, a gradual altitude adjustment by staying at base camps would really be required, unless of course I was a snowboarding Sherpa or had a helicopter.

I certainly didn’t have the money to charter a helicopter, and since most of the choppers in the area were either military or reserved for mountain rescue, climbing up the snow- and ice-covered face of the mountain that day was my fate. Master Fwap had once told me that the exercise of climbing the mountains before I snowboarded down them was good for me and that it would help me to develop character. Not!

After reaching the top of the peak, I began to prepare to snowboard down. The slope was relatively vertical and gnarly, so I decided to use my short board. I was just about to strap my long board onto my back and hook my day pack over it, when I heard a voice humming a Buddhist chant behind me.

I slowly turned around, expecting to see nothing. I figured I was simply hearing the voice of the disembodied master I had heard on my last solo snowboarding adventure. But much to my amazement, Master Fwap was standing directly behind me, his ochre monk’s robe gently fluttering in the Himalayan mountain breeze.

“Master Fwap! What are you doing up here?”

“I have come to give you a lesson in Tantric snowboarding. I am glad you had the courtesy to bring a snowboard along for my use,” he continued. “That was very Buddhist of you.”

“Master Fwap, in all honesty, I brought both boards up here today because I didn’t know which one I wanted to use. I really didn’t anticipate meeting you up here.”

“Ah, but your second attention—the deeper part of your being—obviously knew that you and I were going to encounter each other here; it also knew that I would require the use of one of your two snowboards. Remember, your conscious mind is aware of only a small portion of reality, but the nonphysical portion of your mind, which I refer to as the second attention, is aware of things your conscious mind can’t even begin to fathom.”

“How can that be? If that is the case, why doesn’t my second attention always prepare me for whatever is going to happen to me each day of my life?”

“Why don’t we sit down on your snowboards for a few minutes,” he suggested, “and I will explain.”

I set my long board down on the white snow in front of Master Fwap and took a seat to the right of him on my short board. Master Fwap gracefully seated himself on my long board, sitting in a cross-legged position, carefully folding his robe under his knees.

“You are familiar with icebergs, yes?” I nodded. “Well, when you see an iceberg floating in the water, I am sure that you are also aware that at least two-thirds of its mass exists under water and is invisible to your eyes. Try to imagine that the human mind is like an iceberg,” he continued, slightly shifting his position on my snowboard. “The conscious minds of people who do not practice meditation, as you now do, are simply not in touch with most of reality. They do not realize, as you are just beginning to, that most of existence lies on the other side of consciousness, veiled by their thoughts and ideas. As a matter of fact, most are in touch only with a tiny segment of their mind’s totality.”

“Are you referring to what Western psychologists call the subconscious mind?”

“No, not at all,” he said in a dismissive tone of voice. “Your subconscious mind is a portion of your physical brain; it is composed of neurological cell structures. I am referring to your second attention, which is the nonphysical portion of your mind.

“As I have told you before,” Master Fwap reminded me, “your second attention is your spiritual body. It is composed of two sections, your astral body and your causal body. Your astral body gives you access to the various astral dimensions, and your causal body gives you the ability to merge with the higher causal dimensions of light that exist in the highest planes of consciousness.

“Most human beings are completely oblivious to the astral and causal portions of their minds. It is in and through the regular practices of meditation and mindfulness that a person can gradually awaken and forge a link between the conscious mind and the second attention. It takes many years of meditation and mindfulness to gain full access to your second attention,” Master Fwap said, assuming the tone of voice he used when he discoursed on complicated Buddhist subjects.

“As you are currently observing, having practiced meditation and mindfulness for little more than a month has already given you some access to your second attention. The proof of this is that your second attention knew you were going to encounter me on the top of this mountain today—even though your conscious mind was oblivious to this fact—and caused you to bring both of your snowboards up here with you, because it knew that I would require the use of one of them.”

“But how can this be?”

“Why does the sun rise in the sky in the east every morning? Why do birds fly through the air? Why do the seasons revolve in perfect harmony? Buddhist masters do not have answers to the ‘whys’ of life; that is for philosophers to debate. But what we do know is that life is much more mysterious, complicated, and beautiful than most people suppose.

“In Buddhism,” he continued to explain, “we simply accept that things exist in the universe the way that they do, because they do. Through the study and practice of Buddhist yoga, masters gradually come to understand both the surface and the depths of life, and then divine how this information can take them and others beyond the shores of pain, across the seas of mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering and death—to the land of eternal ecstasy and immortal light.

“Now that I have taught you something about Buddhism, it is your turn to teach me something,” Master Fwap said, addressing me in a less serious tone of voice.

“What can I possibly teach you, Master Fwap? You know everything about everything. You can even snowboard better than I can. I still can’t believe how you managed that! I mean, you had never been on a snowboard before, and I saw you not only snowboard perfectly down a mountain that would be difficult for an expert snowboarder, but you then somehow managed to levitate both yourself and my snowboard back up to the top of the mountain. How can I possibly teach you anything?”

Master Fwap looked at me with an expression that I can only characterize as youthful. Suddenly his facial expression instantly transformed from that of an aged and formal Buddhist monk to that of a youngster excited about learning something new. I didn’t know if he was mimicking the way I looked at him when I asked him questions, or whether this was a side of his personality I had not witnessed before.

“Tell me about this sport of yours, snowboarding. How did it begin, and why did you become involved in it?”

“Well,” I began, “snowboarding really started to happen in the early 1960s with the invention of the Snurfer. There was this guy named Sherman Poppen. He came up with a radical piece of winter sports equipment that looked something like a single water ski without any bindings. It had a clunky handle that was attached to a rope that was hooked to the front of the thing. And there was a traction pad fastened to the board that helped keep your feet from sliding off. It was kind of like a weird mega-toboggan thing that you stood on as you went zooming down a snow-covered mountain, holding onto the handle for dear life. Poppen was a great inventor, and I guess it just made sense from his point of view to surf frozen water on mountains as well as regular waves in the ocean.

“Snurfers then got picked up by an outfit called Brunswick Sporting Goods and sold for around twenty dollars. The Snurfers eventually evolved into snowboards. Two brothers, Jake Burton and Steve Burton Carpenter, took the Snurfer concept—which was coming out of the surfing world—and because they were both skiers and Snurfer freaks, they started modifying the concept. Steve was an expert in fiberglass and resins, Jake added rubber straps to the board to help stabilize it, and their designs just kept getting better and better. Also Jake really saw that the sport was going to go worldwide; he has probably done more good PR for snowboarding than anyone else on the planet.

“Around this time, other people were starting to develop snowboards. On the West Coast, Tom Sims, an ultra-skateboarder, had gotten into building snowboards, and in New York, Dimitrije Milovich, an engineering dude, was making epoxy and fiber boards, which he started selling through his company, Winter Stick.

“Things just took off from there, and people started to ride high. Chuck Barfoot, Chris Sanders, and other early pioneers of the sport started to refine riding techniques. Better and better bindings and snowboarding boots came in … we had a new sport!

“The thing to understand about snowboarding,” I said didactically, “is that it is a lot of different things to different people. From my point of view, it is definitely more radical than skiing with your mother and father on weekends.

“There are basically three different schools of snowboarding,” I continued, in my newfound role as snowboarding guru. “You have your skateboarder crossovers, the kids who do half-pipe and way cool trick riding; you have your skier crossovers, who are usually slightly older types who have brought the style and grace of alpine skiing to snowboarding; and then you have your surfer crossovers, who are more into what I would call the ‘spiritual’ side of snowboarding.

“Your skier crossovers are mainly into altitude and deep-powder boarding. Since they are already masters of the skiing scene, they are very comfortable with altitude and long jumps. But your surfer crossovers are coming from a whole different place. To really understand where they are coming from, you have got to get into the whole surfer mentality.

“Surfing is a sport that requires a very heavy commitment,” I continued, leaning slightly forward on my board. “Normally, when you surf, you get up at dawn and you ride waves, and then you return in the late afternoon—after working all day—when the surf’s up, and catch the late afternoon swells. While there are competitions, it is really not a competitive sport. You spend a lot of time hanging out on your board in the water, waiting for the perfect wave to break. Surfing definitely attracts both a more dedicated and laid-back crowd than most other sports.

“Also,” I continued, hoping I wasn’t either losing or boring Master Fwap, “the balance and patience factors are much more critical in surfing than they are in snowboarding, as is the danger factor. If you’re out surfing serious waves and you wipe out, you don’t land on soft snow. It’s usually either very sharp coral, or you get raked across the beach gravel and sand while you’re tumbling underwater.

“Then, there is the whole snowboarding image thing. The skateboarder crossovers helped give the ‘bad boy’ image to snowboarding. While they are amazing riders, some of them tend to be a little bit rude and party heavily. I skateboard a little myself, but it’s not really my main thing. I’m mostly coming from the surfing side, with some alpine techniques that I picked up skiing and a little bit of the ‘no fear’ attitude I got into when I was skateboarding.

“For me,” I continued, “snowboarding is mostly like surfing. I’m into extreme vertical and off-piste boarding. I like to ride alone, otherwise I find myself competing with the guys around me, and that’s not what it’s all about for me. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about just doing it. The only person I’m competing with when I go snowboarding is myself.

“I have total respect for all other snowboarders and their styles, except, of course, for the macho, out-of-control types. They are the ones who are really starting to give the sport a raunchy reputation. I like to drink a couple of beers with friends at a club after a day of major boarding or surfing, too, but the actual experience of snowboarding and surfing is more of a transcendental thing for me. That’s the only way I can describe it.

“I love the athletic challenge,” I continued on enthusiastically, “and being in nature, but I think the numero uno reason I am into surfing and snowboarding is that it takes me to a really clean place inside my head. I guess it’s my way of meditating.”

“I have heard you use two terms, ‘carving’ and ‘cutting,’” Master Fwap interjected. “What is the difference between them?”

“Snowboarding is really developing a new vocabulary. There are hardly any words for what we are doing yet. So everybody in the sport seems to have his or her own terminology. Let me answer your question by first explaining the four different types of riding: alpine, free riding, freestyle, and extreme snowboarding.

“Alpine snowboarding, as I mentioned to you a few minutes ago, comes mainly from your skier crossovers. It involves mostly carving, which are gentle sloping turns where the edge of your snowboard is literally carving into the packed snow. When you carve properly, your turns are caused by gradual weight and stance shifts that you make on your board.

“Free riding has evolved mainly from your skateboarder cross-overs. It involves trick riding, major jumps, and half-pipe. Most of the kids like free riding.

“Freestyle is a mixture of both free riding and alpine, only it’s a lot more intense. It’s for riders who really want to push their limits.

“Extreme snowboarding is mainly about boarding heavy vertical drops. It’s the most dangerous type of riding and definitely not for beginners. It’s usually done off-piste, meaning in the backcountry, away from regular runs and lifts. That’s where cutting comes into play. Cutting is radical carving, only you can’t ride your edges too deeply into the snow or you will flip.”

“Why is it more dangerous?” Master Fwap asked. “I would think jumping would be.”

“Not really. I mean, not really unless you’re a bad free rider. Jumping is very smooth, unless you are doing a lot of double spins or flips. The impact on landing is mostly absorbed by your board and heavily cushioned by the snow you’re landing on. Naturally, you have to line up your angles correctly on an extreme jump, or you and the ski patrol are going to go on a toboggan ride down the mountain together.

“The real danger in extreme snowboarding comes in a bunch of forms: falls, avalanches, ice, altitude, rapid weather changes, rocks, crevasses, and unknown terrain. You’ve got to be able to deal with spending time at high altitudes, and some people just can’t. I have never had a problem with altitude sickness, but I know a lot of people who have. I think it’s because I did so much long-distance running and swimming in high school, or maybe it’s just genetic or something. I can normally adjust from fourteen to nineteen thousand feet without a major hassle.

“Now, a lot of high-altitude snowboarders have to do the base camp thing, like in mountain climbing. They get up to about sixteen thousand feet and camp there for a couple of days to acclimatize to the thinner air. I don’t find that necessary, although if I started going over nineteen thousand feet, I’m sure I would.

“Also, when you are dealing with higher-altitude snowboarding, it’s colder, and the weather and temperature can change much faster than at lower altitudes. A fast weather change or temperature drop, combined with a lack of oxygen, can completely throw off your balance and visual perception.

“The greatest danger in extreme snowboarding is avalanches. So it is imperative that an extreme or off-piste snowboarder learn the signs for detecting potential avalanche situations. If you get caught in an avalanche, then it’s adios muchachos.”

“How can you tell if you are in avalanche territory?” Master Fwap asked with a concerned look on his face.

“Well, aside from a gut feeling, which you would probably refer to as a message from my second attention, I consider all of the standard observable factors, but it is also helpful to understand what causes avalanches to happen in the first place. Avalanches are caused by the layering of snow. When snow falls in a storm, it creates a layer. Every additional storm adds another layer. As long as all of the layers fall and remain at about the same temperature, there is actually very little danger of an avalanche. But if you have a lot of different layers of snow that are at different temperatures, you have a high avalanche probability. About eighty-five percent of all avalanches occur within twenty-four hours of a new snowstorm.

“Aside from being wary of new snow and checking with the local authorities about potential avalanche conditions,” I continued to explain, “I like to observe a few things firsthand, with my own eyes and other senses. For example, if the snow feels empty or hollow when you are walking on it, you have weakly packed snow. If I see a lot of snow runoff, that tells me that the pack isn’t tight yet. Heavy wind conditions and extreme snow rates are also tip-offs; if you’re dealing with a snow rate of more than two inches an hour for five or six hours, it’s prudent to rethink your ride. Also, if you have several hours of heavy winds, the drifts that accumulate can create serious avalanche potential.

“It’s also not a bad idea to dig snow pits to see how the snowpack is layered. I always advise anyone new to backcountry snowboarding first to take a course in avalanche detection and rescue before attempting radical boarding. Being buried alive under tons of snow that is moving at over a hundred miles an hour is not my idea of a peak snowboarding experience.

“Then there are the other usual problems that are related to extreme vertical snowboarding. Normally when you start your run, you’re on top of a peak. The wind-chill factors are higher, and it’s easy to get frostbite without realizing it. You’re also dealing with more rocks higher up, because the snowpack is usually lighter. So what looks like a pile of snow can really be a rock with just a light glaze of snow covering it.

“In extreme snowboarding, you also tend to run into more ice because of the cold. Ice is one of the snowboarder’s worst enemies. It’s very hard to control your board on ice. The hairiest thing that you can encounter in extreme snowboarding are crevasses. Falling into a crevasse is bad for your board and worse for your bod. I had a good friend who died boarding into a crevasse—they never even found his body.

“The final dangers,” I said in summation, “are falls and unknown terrain. It’s one thing to fall on a standard trail, but if you do an extreme vertical drop-fall, you are definitely going to break bones. In addition, it’s very easy to get lost off-piste, so it’s important to carry a compass, map out where you are going, and always have a good sense of your bearings.”

“This all makes sense,” Master Fwap replied in a judicious tone of voice, “but one thing I still don’t fully understand is your ability to deal with altitudes so easily. Living in the Himalayas acclimatizes the Sherpas and mountain guides to constant altitude changes, but you also spend a lot of time at sea level.”

“Master Fwap, I trained for snowboarding. Before I came over here, I was snowboarding in the American and Canadian Rocky Mountains for months. I can jog at fourteen thousand feet. So, while fifteen to nineteen thousand feet is certainly challenging, when I go boarding at those altitudes, I am in top shape. Even my low-altitude workout schedule is pretty intense. Some people can just tolerate high-altitude snowboarding and mountain climbing, while other people can’t.

“I watch myself constantly for the usual signs of altitude sickness,” I continued in response, “and if I see any of them, I immediately snowboard down the mountain, rest, drink lots of fluids, and take a few days off. In Boulder, where I like to spend some time mountain climbing each summer, I have met a lot of mountain climbers who can tolerate much higher altitude changes than I can, with even less preparation.

“I’ve asked some of them about it, and their answer was that the more altitude work you do, the faster you readjust. That’s been my experience, too. When I first started at fourteen and fifteen thousand feet, I thought I would never be able to go higher. But the more I did it, the easier it got. I really don’t see a future for myself snowboarding above nineteen thousand feet. I’m sure that there are people who will do it with helicopters, base camps, and all that stuff. But for me, that is all too much of a hassle.

“If I have to go through all of that just to make a run, why bother? For me, the beauty of snowboarding is that I can be alone in perfect powder, challenging myself both physically and mentally, and I can push back my fear limits to the max. I like the adrenaline rush of extreme boarding, but I also do a fair amount of lower altitude freestyle boarding, just because it is so beautiful.”

We sat in silence for several minutes after I had finished. All around us the snow-covered mountains provided one of the most beautiful panoramic vistas of the Himalayas I had yet seen. Then, quite suddenly, Master Fwap stood up and instructed me with his left hand to do the same.

“Now it is time to try snowboarding together. I will lead and you will follow. See if you can keep up with me,” Master Fwap said with a grin on his face.

As we mounted our boards, I snapped my snowboarding boots into their bindings, but Master Fwap just stood on his board in his monk’s boots, between the bindings, ignoring them. He intended to ride his snowboard without bindings, as if it were a surfboard.

Master Fwap pushed off and started down. The first few hundred meters were extreme vertical, and then the slope evened off into waves of powder on what I still considered to be a heady incline.

Masterfully cutting in and out of the vertical drop, Master Fwap began to carve back and forth in the granular powder as it started to even out partway down the slope.

Pushing off, I did some fast cuts and a high jump. It went well and I did a razor-back landing on the soft powder below. Then I started carving tightly, following Master Fwap’s snowboarding trail for direction.

I snowboarded as fast as I could, but no matter what I did, I was unable to keep up with Master Fwap. The faster I moved, the farther ahead of me he got, until I completely lost sight of him.

Following his tracks down to the bottom of the mountain, I found him standing waiting for me. He laughed with glee for a minute or two. I must have had a pretty amazed look on my face.

“Why isn’t snowboarding an Olympic sport, like skiing?” he asked.

“Most snowboarders have a bad reputation, Master Fwap. It’s an anti-establishment kind of sport. I don’t think they would ever let snowboarders into the Olympics. The skiers don’t like us, to begin with, and it’s just not popular enough. I mean, for a sport to go Olympic, you need sponsors and all kinds of things.”

“Before we begin our journey back to Kathmandu, I have a prophecy for you,” Master Fwap said in a serious tone of voice.

“One day this sport of yours will be more popular than skiing. It will capture the imagination of the world, and yes, one day it will be an Olympic event.”

“No way, Master Fwap, no offense intended.”

“None taken, but stranger things have happened.”

“Yes, but why would anyone care about a bunch of low-life snowboarders? It’s more likely that surfing will become an Olympic sport. It’s been around long enough, there are lots of competitions, and there are major board companies that would sponsor it.”

“The future is unknown,” Master Fwap replied mysteriously, with a twinkle in his eyes, “but that is my prophecy nevertheless. Only time will tell if I am correct or incorrect.”

We stopped talking after that. I shouldered both of my boards and day pack, and the two of us began the trek down to the road. We hitched a ride back to Kathmandu in an old beat-up army truck that was filled with hippies who had come to Nepal looking for Ram Dass.