The spring-like sun had begun to soften the snow, the perfect conditions for making snowballs Sunday morning at Steamboat Ski Area.
Kristyn Wardlow, 12, sat on the lower part of the mountain, her snowboard propped up in front of her, absentmindedly throwing snow at her instructor, Matt Snyder.
“What was your first day of snowboarding like?” she asked him.
“It was terrible,” Snyder said. “It was so frustrating. I wanted to take my snowboard and throw it off the mountain.”
With that, Kristyn and the rest of her group, who, just three weeks before had never strapped on a snowboard in their life, popped up and made slow, winding heel-toe turns down the slope.
“It was tough,” Kristyn said about her first day with the Snowboard Outreach Society three weeks ago. “You definitely get some cuts and bruises.”
By the end of her last day Sunday, Kristyn and the rest of the first-time group were sliding down the middle of the half pipe.
“They went from not even knowing how to strap into their bindings to making turns down greens and going through the half pipe,” Snyder said. “And every single one of them, when we got to the bottom, said ‘Can we do it again?’”
Through the Snowboard Outreach Society, a nonprofit organization founded in Vail in 1993, and the Boys & Girls Club of Craig, 14 Moffat County children were given the opportunity to learn how to snowboard.
SOS now serves more than 4,500 aspiring snowboarders across the country with the mission of building character and self-esteem on the slopes.
Boys & Girls Club executive director Dana Duran said she has had a group participate in the program for the past four years and that it’s an invaluable experience to Craig students.
“I think it’s an amazing experience for the kids to reach outside of their boundaries and do something they’ve never done before and relay that into their life,” Duran said. “You do it to give them that new experience. There’s life outside of Highway 40.”
She said snowboarding was not a “Craig thing,” and that many parents might not have the resources to take their children to the mountain.
Some had been snowboarding before the program, but it took learning with SOS to build their confidence on the snow.
On the Sundown chairlift Sunday morning, 13-year-old Britney Rothermund recalled an unforgettable day snowboarding three years ago.
“I was on my own, and I took a bad fall,” she said. “My knee was swollen for weeks. But I felt a lot better this year since I joined SOS because they taught me a lot of stuff. I was afraid I would break my knee, but now I know how to snowboard. It helps you face your fears.”
There were plenty of fears to face on the mountain throughout the five-day program. There were icy slopes and “scorpions,” where the snowboard hits the rider in the back of the head when they fall on their stomachs. There was the elusive toe-side turn and a mysterious “gravity storm” that led to a series of falls on Saturday.
But it wasn’t the face plants or injuries that Becca Bird recalled when she strapped in for her last run of the program Sunday.
“I don’t want to graduate,” Becca said. “I mean, I want to graduate, but I just don’t want to go inside today.”
At the graduation ceremony attended by riders, volunteers and parents, Regional Program Manager Amy McFadden said she had the chance to ride with some of the groups throughout the program and was impressed by their progression.
“I was amazed with this group and the progress everyone made,” she said. “ It was like riding with my friends. This is a group that I hope everyone comes back because you have such immense potential. It’s great to see you all learn and love the program.”
Each of the five days, the students focus on one core element: Courage, Discipline, Wisdom, Compassion and Integrity.
McFadden said she was proud to hear her students were using these elements outside of snowboarding, whether it was picking up someone else’s trash or congratulating someone else on a job well done.
“It’s not about just on the hill,” she said. “It’s about the core values and applying them to life and having a wonderful time.”