Lessons at Vail

Yesterday, after arriving home on a flight from Milan, my friend Lindsay sent me an e-mail. “If you want to make yourself feel like a total moron,” she said, “sit next to an Oxford-educated combustion scientist for nine hours.”

Well, if you want to make yourself feel like a slow Florida girl trying to pass herself off as a decent snowboarder, spend the day riding powder with Gretchen Bleiler.


Yesterday, I met Gretchen and the Oakley crew at 7 a.m. and then headed to Vail for a day of photo shoots on the mountain. The conditions were wonderful: mountains covered in mountains of powder and frequent appearances by the sun. Such a fun day. I can count on one hand the number of days I’ve ridden in deep powder, so the backcountry runs were tough, but I had some talented riders cutting me a path. Besides Gretchen, Oakley rider Erro Ettala and skier Kristi Leskinin were along for the shoot. (Kristi is also from Pittsburgh and a huge Steelers fan. We ducked off the mountain at 2:15, found a bar showing the game, and prepared to watch the Patriots’ perfect season come to a close. Needless to say, we were disappointed.) It is a privilege to ride with such talented women; I learn so much just by watching. Especially through the trees. Man, they fly. Gretchen disappears into a tree section and reappears with equally as much speed. Such skill and confidence.

My favorite moment of the day came about halfway through the shoot. While hiking from shot to shot, we came upon a group of kids from the Vail snowboard team. They’d built a fun backflip kicker and were sessioning the jump. It looked like so much fun, so Gretchen, Erro and Gretchen’s boyfriend Chris, who works for Oakley, took turns throwing backflips. The kids had such a blast, especially when they figured out who was poaching their jump.

One 15-year-old girl named Emma was nervous to try her first backflip. Gretchen gave her a few pointers and then she dropped in and gave it a go. “I can’t believe I just tried that in front of Gretchen Bleiler,” she said afterwards. “She’s my favorite rider.” Gretchen signed her jacket and wrote a note reminding her what she needed to do on her backflip. “Pull your knees and commit!”

The coolest thing about the scene: When Gretchen and the gang rolled away, those kids were grinning from ear to ear. And not just because they got to ride with Gretchen Bleiler. But because she made them feel like she was more honored to meet them and borrow their jump than they were to meet and ride with her. And the amazing thing: it’s true.

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