On Thin Ice: A Snowboarding Weekend in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Getting ready to hit the slopes!

I’m going way too fast.

My thoughts were racing as my snowboard careened down the crowded slope. Sure this was considered the green slope, but as a novice snowboarder, my control was based on luck, and stopping usually meant plowing into some unlucky skier.

As I picked up speed, the snow, a fresh powder that had fallen only the night before, kicked up into my face and the stinging icy cold blades flew into my sunglasses. I slightly lifted my heels up, turning the snowboard onto its edge and smoothly rounded the corner, passing in between two skiers, and feeling proud of myself for my admittedly slick move.

Coming out of the bend, I pointed the nose of my snowboard downward on the steepest part of the course, as I once again started to pick up speed, I realized the snow wasn’t as powdery as it was up top, this ice was hard and crystalized, like the kind you find in the freezer, and it was everywhere. I was about three quarters from the finish and I flicked my legs to turn the board horizontal and grab the edge of the slope to slow down. For half a second, I felt like I had some kind of control. Suddenly the board stopped, and I heard nothing but silence. My body jolted forward, and the next thing I felt was the hard ice slamming into the right side of my face.

Growing up in Miami, “snow” is a foreign word. Many Miamians consider any temperature under 70 degrees to be their threshold until the heavy down jackets and scarves start coming out (There’s no irony in that statement, this actually happens). So when my friends and I saw that FIU was hosting a ski and snowboarding weekend in Gatlinburg Tennessee, we jumped at the opportunity to spend a couple of days on the slopes and take our chances with a sport that was I was relatively unfamiliar with.

After a relatively uneventful fifteen hour bus ride from Miami to Gatlinburg, traversing Georgia, North, and South Carolina we arrived in Tennessee at 11 PM and did the first thing a bus full of college students would do – went searching for the nearest bar. Much to the Miamians chagrin, Tennessee’s wild nightlife on a Thursday ends at about midnight, so we had to content ourselves with the nearest TGI Fridays in town.

The next morning, through the rain and the crisp air, the beauty of Gatlinburg revealed itself. Set on the edge of Smokey Mountain National Park, the area is surrounded by majestic peaks in their famous blue haze. Miles of forest run in every direction and the city takes on a small town feel with a Disney twist. Gatlinburg is built around it’s thriving ski resorts, and although it doesn’t have the fame or the soaring peaks of the West, it’s the perfect ski getaway for the weekend East coaster.

The Smokey Mountains

Finding some hometown hospitality, we hit up something that Gatlinburg is more than famous for – pancakes. At Flapjack’s Pancake Cabin we dined on warm, homemade, delectable pancakes that seemed to melt in the fork. The syrup was readily heated, the service was friendly, and it barely made a scratch on the wallet.

After a walk through town, we headed back to get suited up in our ski gear and head up the mountain via Ober Gatlinburg the main ski resort in the area. A nostalgic ride in an old converted school bus rode us up the winding mountain road to the slopes, and although there had been minimal snowfall this year, they had done a great job producing artificial powder that although slick, provided speed and an extra thrill under the board.

Snowboarding, as i’ve learned, is not picked up on the get-go. It requires balance, concentration, and excellent body and foot coordination. Our instructor made it clear that we knew the golden rule: Always keep control. As we learned over the next two days, this was easier said than done. Our forays onto the Cub Way, the beginners slope, offered 1,100′ of slick ice, a tricky turn, and a final downhill speed run, all while avoiding other, some more experienced, skiers. Our little group was excellent, learning how to control our falls, take corners smoothly, and even add in a trick or two. Shaun White we were not, but we weren’t total scrubs either.

That night, we were treated to our first true snowfall. For the Miamians in us who had never seen, let alone, touched snow, it was a childlike moment that brought the best in snowballs and snow angels. In all our fun, we realized that we’d inadvertently missed Gatlinburgs unofficial restaurant curfew (although on a Friday night the drinks were still pouring) and had to content ourselves with a college student diet of beef jerky and ramen noodles. There is just something I love about hastily prepared improvised meals on my adventures.

The next morning, with the slush of the day before now covered by true snow, we skipped a practice run on the Bunny Slope to hit up our favorite route once again. It was my first run of the day where I realized how painful a tough fall could be.

The curve and the final speed slope

After landing in the snow I immediately felt that familiar metallic taste in my mouth and knew I had busted myself up. With a groan I lifted my body and sat up, seeing my glasses glint at me from about three feet away.  With my head spinning, and a loss of orientation, I re-found my balance on my board and took a slow mournful ride to the bottom of the slope. Taking off my gloves I felt the scratches on my lip and my chin and the big bruise around my right eye. Luckily according to the first aid center I had no major bruising or damage considering I had hit my head pretty hard.

Despite my little incident, and a bit of a break that involved copious amounts of tacos, I picked myself up and trudged my way up the hill once again. Lesson learned, the snowboard felt like an extension of my body. Despite a few little minor falls, I enjoyed the feeling of speed, the quick changing movements, and the feeling of elation after a successful run. Could snowboarding be seriously in my future? I wouldn’t pursue it as rigorously as my climbing, but I definitely see myself toying with it from time to time.

We celebrated our successful snowboarding weekend at the Smoky Mountain Brewery  where we toasted a nine-beer sampler, feasted on a fantastic steak, and walked out of there happier, knowing that some excellent brews might have had a part in that.

Celebrating a successful weekend at the Smoky Mountain Brewery

Yet our night still wasn’t finished, as we made our way up the scenic cable car, watching the lights of Gatlinburg flicker under the mountain, and partook in some late night ice skating. With a newfound sense of balance and control (always that golden rule), our group found skating naturally, and after a while we found ourselves on the ice alone, persuading one of my roommates to take his hand off the railing and glide out onto the open ice. With some hefty persuasion, he eventually did.

Following our ice skating run, we decided to make one more run in downtown Gatlinburg and head over to the Loco Burro for Margaritas, dueling pianos, and a rather vibrant character named “Missy”. After succumbing to Gatlinburg’s early ending nights, we braved the cold back to the hotel, and after a demagnetized key left my roommates and I out in the cold, we boarded the 4 AM bus for another fifteen hour drive back to Miami.

The bus ride back, knowing that our weekend adventure was over, was somber, yet when you take a group of Sunshine State college students, and dunk them in the snow, you get some truly unforgettable memories. Gatlinburg is one of my most recommended destinations for us East Coast snowbirds who just don’t have the time or money to get far out west just yet. Enjoy the slopes, the small town feeling, and of course the excellent local brew, and discover our little snowy paradise.

5 thoughts on “On Thin Ice: A Snowboarding Weekend in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

  1. Sweet stuff dude! I just got back from my first skiing lessons in Vail, and had a blast. Luckily, I managed to only fall about three times during the day, and all were mildly graceful, haha. Snowboarding is way tougher, I could never quite get comfortable on my board.

  2. Glad you had an awesome time, we were actually talking about coming out to Colorado later in the year to get some fresh powder there. Our instructor was telling us the ice was denser and the trails were steeper in Gatlinburg than in Colorado so there was definitely a bigger element of speed and it hurt to fall. Hope to see you back here soon!

  3. Great article – love your writing style. I grew up in New England so skiing/snowboarding was just a part of my life, so it is always interesting to read opinions/experiences from people who didn’t see snow until their 20’s! Glad you had a blast snowboarding. Have you tried the Snurfer? It is the original snowboard (just a piece of wood with a rope!) and is perfect for small hills, backyards, etc. Not so great on big slopes but it is great for beginners.

    1. Thank you! I grew up in the southeast (Florida) so experiences on snow are really limited. I live out west now in Seattle so I’m getting proper training this year. I think I’m trading in snowboarding for skis but I’m excited for my first full season out here.

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