It’s never too late to snowboard in Pennsylvania

My physician wasn’t thrilled when I told him I wanted to learn to snowboard at the tender age of 57. He sighed — and suggested I buy a motorcycle instead.

That’s in the midlife crisis handbook.

But I had made a bet to commemorate being five years cancer-free by doing something out of the box. I couldn’t succeed though without a practical and novice-friendly place to do it.

Living near our nation’s capital, with its milder winters, and having minimal travel time and funds forced me into an affordable means to face my challenge within driving distance. Enter my favorite Pennsylvania playground of nature Laurel Highlands. The region’s big three co-owned niche ski resorts offer a New England-caliber experience without the schlep — or price.

The massive Seven Springs resort anchors a premium winter triad that also includes family-first Hidden Valley along with laid-back historic Laurel Mountain in a revitalized state park. Also known for summer activities such as golfing, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and fishing, these are the closest thing to an Alpine destination in the Appalachians.

There’s snow, and plenty of it — an unusual amount for this geographic area, blanketing 33 slopes and trails, seven terrain parks or halfpipes, and a highest elevation of 3,000 feet with 285 acres of skiable terrain.

Hidden Valley Slope from Lodge

But let’s get back to those lessons. I ended up being the oldest and coldest in my first class. My instructor, young enough to be my grandchild, taught me that falling is the best way to learn.

Somehow, I survived the first lesson on “technique,” which entailed standing still with both feet on the board and creeping along sideways as slowly as possible for control.

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Learning to snowboard is an adventure. After mastering the standing, I got to hobble around with one foot on the ground without twisting a knee while the other foot is still strapped to the board. I got on and off a chairlift, which turned out to be as hard as snowboarding itself. I stayed the course.

Then followed the first attempts to actually zigzag downhill. Yay. But forget everything you know about falling. It won’t be long before you “catch an edge,” which is a rite of passage for new snowboarders. The result is a sobering and stunning face plant in snow that surely must be colder and harder packed than even the ski area would admit. But I stayed the course.

As I recovered from my first face plant by sitting up to wipe off the freezing fluff, an eight-year-old girl in a state-of-the-art matching pink board and parka flew by in a blur, looking uninterested. I couldn’t decide whether to be encouraged or shake my head.

Falling in snow doesn’t hurt. Rather, it constructively humbles and motivates — if you embrace it.

I was reminded that a critical part of the process is just having fun, face plants and all. People seem to have forgotten how. Maybe they are too busy taking themselves and life too seriously, and not appreciating what they have? Something I knew, but may have been reinforced the hard way? Without that, it is just another thing to do.

Pennsylvania’s Highest Vertical Drop Outside of Laurel Mountain Lodge

My last lessons during a later visit to Laurel Mountain were the most meaningful. I was delighted to have been paired with an instructor of the female persuasion more toward my end of the age spectrum. She understood me. She was the only one who noticed that my boots needed tightening, which is what was holding me back from world fame. I was verklempt (look it up). Just the motivation I needed. No face plant. Ego intact.

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Not constantly falling allows you to appreciate what’s around you. The purist less-is-more Laurel Mountain is my favorite place to do that — mixing history and natural resource appreciation. Don’t let the subdued nature of this partnership between Seven Springs and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources fool you. The steepest slope and double diamond vertical drop in Pennsylvania (yikes) awaits in a revitalized park with an antique lodge complex that is older than this writer. (That’s old.)

Nestled near super historic Ligonier, dripping with Revolutionary War history, Laurel Mountain’s “new” ski resort reflects an Austrian design that promotes the Arlberg Method of modern alpine technique during the initial 1940 opening. Some of the original structures are still there from when only the most prestigious residents of Pennsylvania were members. Now it is gifted to the commonwealth for all to enjoy. Unlike most other resorts, the rustic lodge and parking is at the top of the mountain, so feel free to gorge on the outstanding meat and potatoes menu at the end of the day. No need to pace yourself for a last downhill run back to the car.

Author Ready to Solo

I survived snowboarding in one piece. And no one even said, “Look at the old dude.” I wasn’t the only old dude (or dudette) there. On a good day, I can now do an intermediate slope without falling, but with a bit of flailing. And that’s just fine with me.

But, I got the motorcycle anyway. Doctor’s orders.

Andrew Der

Der is an environmental consultant and travel journalist specializing in water science, nature, eco-travel, and cultural destinations

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