It was my first winter living above the clouds in Switzerland. I was 19 years old, embracing my new-found freedom, ready to tackle anything.
When the first snows fell, I visited Tony, the old man who owned the sports shop next to the hotel in which I worked, in order to pick up some gear. “Skis or snowboard?” he asked, to which I replied “Which is easier?” Snowboarding at that time was still relatively new, something that only the teenagers were into. Thus, it was only natural that Tony should recommend skiing. So it was that a few weeks and many stretched muscles later, I could be seem bombing down the slopes at ridiculous speeds, risking everything – I had yet to learn anything but how to go in a straight line, but that didn’t concern me.
Half way through the season I was persuaded by my snowboarding friends, Alfonso and Paulo, to bolt both of my feet to a single plank of fibreglass.
The experiment did not last long. I think I gave it about 6 hours, before the pain of falling on my arse, my knees, my head, my elbows, and every other part of my body that it’s possible to fall on, became too much to bear. That was it, I thought, snowboarding is not for me, I just can’t do it. I’ll stick with my skis.
And so it was that for 10 years, I told people, “No, I can’t snowboard”. I said it so many times that my ‘inability to snowboard’ ceased to have any connection with those 6 hours on the slopes in 1997. It was the accumulative effect of that repeated spoken phrase that gave the truth its seemingly unshakable foundations.
However, with this being the “decade of dekiru” (I Can), when asked by a friend at uni if I’d like to join a bunch of folks on a snowboarding trip, rather than turn them down, I figured I’d test the strength of these foundations. It took a bit of preparation, firstly in the form of putting in a special request for 30cm snowboarding boots (the hotel, from whom they were rented, initially suggested that given the size of my feet, I could do without skis or snowboard and still make good time down the piste: however, after repeated requests they did find a neglected pair of boots in the basement). The second bit of preparation was mental: repetition of the phrase “I can snowboard, I can snowboard”, and visualisations of a Joseph winging his way down the piste, to the left, to the right, left, right, stunning the onlookers with my the swing of my hips.
It was Wednesday night, 9pm, when we all met up at Shinjuku South (Twinkle had also come along to wave me off / ensure that all the women were aware that I was not available). From there, we made the trek round to the East, into the long underground passage that feeds the hungry skyscraper district with its lifeblood of office workers. Our destination was the basement of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, a huge underground car park packed with coaches carting hundreds of snowboarders off to various resorts in the north of Japan.
I didn’t sleep a wink on the night bus. Part of the problem was the excitement induced by the intro to the book I read as we headed out of town. My head started buzzing with ideas; the only thing to do was to scribble down 10 little pages of notes by the light of my iPod. I’ve started carrying a little notebook with me wherever I go, as I find that some of the best ideas come when one’s out and about being inundated with input. Upon review, most of them turn out to be a complete load of rubbish, but amongst the crap is the odd gem.
We arrived at the hotel (somewhere in Fukushima prefecture) at about 5.30am. Perfect time for an early morning soak in the sento (public bath), then off to the rental department to pick up our sexy trousers, jackets and boots. Knowing that I was going to spend a significant part of the day on my arse, I folded my IKEA bath towel up to create a thick pad, and hung it from the rear of my waist with my belt, before putting my ski pants on. Made me look rather overweight in the bum department, but that was a small price to pay.
Thankfully, virtually all of us were beginners, so we were able to fall over in a communal type way, celebrating in our shared inability to stay upright on the freshly laundered piste. I blessed my IKEA towel time and time again, as the board had a habit of moving without me telling it to.
Four hours later, I smiled a big smile: I’d managed to make it all the way from the top to the bottom of the piste without falling over once! But watching the professionals from the comfort of the chairlift, I could see I was doing something wrong. Whereas they were winding their way down by leaning forward and backwards (with the board descending the piste end-on), I was doing so by first bringing my left foot forward, and then my right; my board was side-on.
It was quite a challenge to overcome this habit I’d developed. I had no confidence in the power of my toes to keep the board stable when descending backwards, so as soon as I felt any resistance from the piste, my resolve crumbled; in a knee-jerk reaction I’d throw my weight back onto my heels, thrusting the edge of the board into the snow and sending me flying backwards to the ground. It was on one such occasion that I sustained the injury that I’m now suffering from – a very bruised back, with an imprint of a large rock in it. Still, I’d promised myself I’d master snowboarding – giving up was not an option, no matter how long it took.
I distinctly remember the moment it finally clicked; it was that moment when I realised that the only thing that had been stopping me from staying upright was the fear of falling – a self-fulfilling prophecy! To combat the fear, I started talking to myself out loud; whenever I felt that threatening resistance from the piste, I’d say to myself, “Come on Joseph, weight forwards, bring your right foot round, you are in control, you know you can do it, swing that foot to the right!” And you know what – it worked! Wow, what a rush of happiness I felt! I’d achieved my dream, just by believing I could do it, and refusing to give up. I was particularly struck by that graphic demonstration of the power of fear. Not only had it prevented me from attempting to make that turn, but the knee-jerk reaction against it had actually caused me to fall. Yet, when I made the decision to make the turn in spite of the fear, the result was outstanding success.
That evening, having soaked our tired muscles in the outdoor bath with the view over the huge lake in the valley below, and having stuffed ourselves with food at the all-you-can-eat restaurant, we all slept very soundly.
Day two saw us back out on the slopes bright and early, honing our newly acquired skills. It great to watch my friends from the chairlift as they too made great progress down the piste: like me, only 24 hours earlier they’d spent most of their time on their bums.
It was around lunchtime when I retired. My back, which I’d banged the day before, was becoming increasingly painful, whilst the idea of a long soak in the steaming hot outdoor bath became increasingly attractive, as had the idea of reading my exciting book.