(Photo by Julie Huynh)

(Photo by Julie Huynh)

After Sports Illustrated published a story on my comeback from injury, and first snowboarding competition by Patti Putnicki, I’ve decided to recap my experience of participating in the Subaru Freeride Series — North America’s Premier big mountain challenge for skiers and snowboarders.

One side of the mountain still cast a long deep morning shadow. The employees, who work the chairlifts, were still driving up the canyon sipping their coffees, far from their stationed posts for the day. I, on the other hand, had already built up quite a sweat in the cool morning breeze.

As a first-time contestant in the Subaru Freeride Series in Snowbird, Utah, I hopped on the first aerial tram of the day, which effortlessly elevated me to 11,000 feet above sea level.

The 10-minute ride not only provided views of Salt Lake City to the west and Alta Ski Resort to the east, with endless snow-capped mountains in the background, but it also gave me one last opportunity to study my line down the mountain — something I struggled with tremendously the day before.

A Search For My Perfect Line

Prior to the qualifying round, athletes were permitted two inspection runs, to come up with a winning line that would impress the judges the following day. The location: Mt. Baldy.

When Snowbird first opened in 1971, U.S. Forest Service rangers and resort management didn’t want to give skiers access to Baldy due to its difficult terrain and high avalanche risk. It was considered out-of-bounds for much of the resort’s history.

However, on my two days on Baldy, there was a better chance of an avalanche happening on a beach in Bermuda. Okay, that’s not true, but that’s how scarce the snow was.

Rock exposure was a big concern, and that became very apparent on my first inspection run. I decided to go left, in search of mountain features such as rocks and cliffs, that I could jump off of during my actual run. Once I dropped in, I quickly dinged my board with rocks of all sizes. Thin snow coverage and icy conditions didn’t exactly induce any heart-shaped eyes for the left side.

On my final inspection run, I dropped in on the center of the mountain. Again, I put more war wounds into the bottom of my board. There were some chutes I could have played in, but ultimately they were riddled with rocks as well.

With the inspection done, the only news that I had to share was that I knew exactly where I didn’t want to go during my qualifying run. Not knowing my exact line gave me an uneasy feeling, but I was reassured that the other athletes had the same less-than-ideal conditions to work with.

I sat at the bottom of the course and studied the right side (or lookers left) from there. I even made up a little jingle to help me remember what I had to navigate. In a similar tune to the children’s song, ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,’ mine went ‘Flag, Tree, Chute, Rock, Finish.’

Usually, I just bomb down mountains without much thought, able to conquer anything. Now, I was reduced to a children’s song.

Getting to the Start

People normally think of winter as a time to hibernate, with layers of snow and earth providing a protective shield from the harsh elements. Winter is a time to take stock, rest, and make preparations to redistribute energy in the future. It’s not a time to bloom, right?

(Looking southeast from the hike up Mt. Baldy)

(Looking southeast from the hike up Mt. Baldy)

If I could come back from a terrifying neck injury, then I could push back against the timing of the universe and its seasons, right? That was the hope and those were the thoughts as I made my hike from the top of the tram to the top of the course on Mt. Baldy, further from shelter and more exposed than ever.

The early sun and lean clouds in the distance gave the hike a lampshade-like feel until I looked at the cloudless blue sky directly above me. With my board thrown behind my back, I took small slow steps in the already carved out bootpack, in an attempt to save every muscle fiber in my legs for the run down. The thin air hitting my lungs was refreshing and awakening — better than any pot of coffee.

Of the 15 female snowboarders in the qualifying round, I was No. 12 in the lineup. I was glad that I didn’t have to start things off, but it gave me a lot of time to sit and think. Should I really drop right? But there was a fun little cliff I could hit on the left. What grabs should I do as I soar off the rock on the bottom of the course? I hope I don’t miss my line and get “cliffed out” (or stranded on the top of a cliff).

Was there doubt and questioning at the forefront of my brain? Yes. Was it the most healthy of thoughts to have at the top of the course. No. Was it normal to have those thoughts during my first competition? Hell yes.

Dropping In

“Now dropping from Denver, Colorado, Kim Constantinesco in 3….2….1,” a guy with a radio relayed to the announcer’s table below.

I dropped right. So far so good, except the choppy ice up top forced a few hip checks out of me.

The evening before, during our athlete’s meeting, the judges preached staying in control, so that was my main intent.

As I dropped further down the mountain, I found myself in a narrow chute with little room to recover from any error. Control, control, control, I thought to myself.

(Dropping a rock during the qualifying round. Photo by Julie Huynh)

(Dropping a rock during the qualifying round. Photo by Julie Huynh)

Emerging from the chute, I was hidden behind some pines. It was almost like a mid-show scene change behind any big red curtain on Broadway.

As I came back into sight, about two-thirds down the mountain, I realized that my intended line was flushed down the toilet. ‘Flag, Tree, Chute, Rock, Finish’ became ‘Flag, Tree, Tree, Tree, Chute, Wide Right Turn, Where’s That Damn Rock (?), Finish.’

The rock launched me into the air, I grabbed the front of my board for a few style points, and landed cleanly.

It was easy sailing into the finish from there as I could hear the announcer telling the crowd about my post surgical backflip on the one-year anniversary of my neck injury.

It was far from my best run, and the judges knew that, putting me in 12th place for the day, or basically back to where I had started from. I was relieved to get that first run out of the way despite not advancing to the next round.

Onward and Upward

Did I have fun? To be honest, I’m still trying to decide.

In a certain sense, it was a blast seeing how many other female snowboarders can throw down. However, for me, the mountain provides an escape. It’s an escape from people, pressure, the prosaic. The competition temporarily took a little bit of that away from me.

The mountain is a sacred place where I lose myself for X amount of hours, in X amount of snowy inches, in order to find myself. It sounds cliche, but it’s true.

However, I’m not done yet. I’ll be competing at the second stop of the Freeride Series in Telluride, Colorado, in early March.

After all, I’m not done blooming this winter, and the empty mountains will always be there waiting for me.

Thanks to all of you for your ongoing cheer and support!