I’m jealous of my northern friends and the snow storms that dumped a load of delight on the area. One of the things I miss in winter is sledding, a genuine childhood delight.
“It’s going to be super fast today, super fast,” Mike Chaney says.
The day before Chaney, the ski area manager for West Virginia’s Canaan Valley Resort, had spent a couple of hours riding with me on an Airboard, an inflatable sled that careens down mountains at speeds you only dreamed about on your old Flexible Flyer. But the afternoon brought a high sun turning the snow soft and even when we went to the top of the mountain, something the resort doesn’t normally permit airboarders to do, the speed was moderate if fun. Maybe tomorrow will be better, he said, when we finished.
Even so, Chaney warned me about the allure of speed. Fast was good, fast was fun. But under control fast. Earlier in the winter, Chaney, a passionate convert to the new sport, had been filming a promotional video when he got carried away, flying down the mountain and over a jump that shot him 20 feet into the air for a few seconds of adrenaline thrill punctuated by a thudding, bellyflop landing. “It sure did seem like I was up there a long time,” he recalled.
This morning dawned cold with flurries, yesterday’s soft snow frozen hard, as I’d hoped. When it gets icy, he’d warned, Airboards prove difficult — very difficult — to steer. As if on cue, someone at the rental shop cracks “Is that the kamikaze look?” after I’d donned a helmet with a red target on the forehead. But when I get to the top of the glistening slope find it virtually clear of traffic, the warning and the wisecrack faded from recent memory. So what if the slope was slicker than an Olympic luge run, I had a half day left, one more chance to go fast, really fast, and I was going to enjoy it.
I push off from the top and within seconds lean into a long sweeping turn to the right, burning off some speed, then I sweep back to the left, shooting down the mountain, the airboard chattering on the ice, resisting my command to turn even as my legs whipsaw to the side. Pushing hard, white-knuckling the handles, I force an arcing turn back towards the center of the slope, barely holding on.
I’m flying, too. Fast. Faster than I can remember any sled run as a kid, faster than that wintry day decades ago when the icy hill behind my boyhood house froze solid into a memorable, miniature, homemade bobsled run.
Just then, I hit a patch of ice and I’m no longer turning, I’m hurtling. Straight for a pack of high school students ambling towards the lift, presumably for their first run of the day. To their right, the trail ends, sloping off steeply into a thicket of trees. I put my feet down, dragging them, but there’s little effect. I try a hockey stop, pushing the sled in front of me at a right angle. I’ve become practiced at it over the past day, but never at this speed. Predictably, it fails. Delightfully. I’m going so fast I lose my grip and slide off the sled, rolling sideways, stopping short of the crowd. I get up laughing, dust off the ice flakes, and head past the baffled crowd to the lift for another ride. Why not? This is a blast.
I’m not alone in that assessment. Chaney, enchanted by the idea of reliving his youth in Winchester, Virginia, sledding down hills, quickly became a convert. Eric Skarvan, a guide and outfitter who has been leading snowshoeing and airboarding treks into the mountains around Aspen, Colorado, calls it “an endorphin adrenaline cocktail.” He and friends hike up the Buttermilk Trail on a full moon night and rocket down on Airboards. “That is such a great time,” he says.
Greg Murtha boarded for the first time as part of his job as the director of marketing for the Sugar Bowl Resort in California. “I have not had that kind of ear to ear grin in a long time,” he says. “Sliding down the mountain was a whole new thrill ride. It’s a hoot.”
Sugar Bowl and Canaan Valley are among a handful of resorts inching into airboarding, which was invented in Europe and is only now gaining a snowshoe-toe hold in the United States. Ann-Elise Emerson, president of Emo-Gear, the Airboard distributor in North America, is in her third year of business and thinks the Airboard is “making good headway.”
But, like in the early days of snowboarding, Emerson says the tough question for resorts is how to bring in a new and fast sport like airboarding with skiers and snowboarders already crowding the slopes. “A lot of them don’t want to be the first,” she says. “I’ve ridden at a huge number of resorts with management and no one had a negative experience.”
At Canaan, most airboarders are restricted to the slopes below mid-mountain. At Sugar Bowl, they have a slope of their own, but only on Tuesday and Saturday nights. At HooDoo Ski Area in Oregaon, the first to offer airboarding in North America four years ago, all slopes are open Monday through Friday and in the evenings.
Chaney says there were “mixed emotions” from enthusiasts on both sides — skiers and airboarders — about how they would share the slopes, but no problems ensued. Like snowboarding, Emerson says airboarding will take time to gain acceptance.
Emerson decided to start a company selling Airboards in North American after getting hooked during a trip to Switzerland, where the Airboard was invented. Unlike traditional sleds, Airboards don’t need special snow conditions so they can be ridden over powder or groomed surfaces, just like skis and snowboards. They’re part whitewater raft, part snowboard and part boogie board, made of a tough urethane-coated nylon fabric. Handholds on either side and hard nylon runners on the bottom provide a control akin to skiing or snowboarding, carving turns and making hockey stops by pushing down one side. Riding head first and close to the snow heightens the sense of speed.
And Airboards are fast, faster than skis or snowboards if you’re willing. Chaney says 40 mph isn’t out of the question and in 2005, a European snowboarder reached 88 mph rocketing down an empty slope. The freestyle tricks are already evolving with some enthusiasts launching into barrel rolls off jumps.
Emerson says while airboarding offers something for extreme sport enthusiasts, it’s also appealing to families who just want to have fun. Families, she notes, have less and less time together so they’re looking for a sport with an easy learning curve. Airboarding is one. Most resorts, for instance, require only an hour of instruction before turning people loose on the slopes. “Families can get up on the mountain and have a great time on their first day,” she notes.
Skarvan agrees. “It’s a thrill, very unique, a great sensation,” he says. “You’ve got speed, the flotation over powder, control and jumping capability.”
While airboarding is easy for the novice, it also offers an opportunity for extreme riding. “If you want to get really good, you can go for it,” Emerson adds.”There are amazing aerial maneuvers folks are doing.”
While the first North American Airboarding competition was held at HooDoo Ski Area in Oregon two years ago, Emerson says the Europeans have a couple of years head start. There are regular competitions, especially in Switzerland, with 100-200 competitors.
Switzerland is the birthplace of the Airboard. Joe Steiner, a snowboarder grounded by injuries to his ankles, spent nearly a decade developing the Airboard, researching inflatable sleds from patents going back decades. A Swiss maker of inflatable hospital mattresses helped him develop prototypes that eventually became the first sled (there are several models now, ranging in price from $149 for a kids’ board to $298 for a bigger Freeride model designed for backcountry powder).
Skarvan likes to pack his Airboard in a backpack, hike up a bowl, inflate the Airboard and zoom down.And while the speed and backcountry aspects of Airboarding are attracting fans, there is a downside. Skarvan’s company, Sun Dog Athletics, was scrambling for insurance coverage over the summer because his old carrier went out of business and his new carrier was unwilling to offer insurance for Airboarding after reading stories about the speeds involved.
“We’ve been running this successfully for two years with no incidents,” Skarvan says. “Insurance carriers in Europe are covering it. The track record is good, statistically it’s safe, but it’s an unknown to them. Insurance companies don’t want to deal with question marks.”
At Canaan, Chaney says there was one minor injury among the more than 350 riders who tried Airboards last year. The resort opened the season with six adult boards and three kids’ boards, but sold out several days so it added more, ending the year with 15 adult boards and six kids boards. “We’re going to expand some this year, hopefully get the terrain park open earlier,” he says. Canaan was the only resort in the country last year with a terrain park of S curves and jumps catering to snowboarders and airboaders.
My day at Canaan Valley resort began with instruction from Jonathan McArthur, a college student during the summer and mountain mainstay during the winter who said he hadn’t heard of an Airboard before being trained at the resort at the season’s beginning. As we stand on the bunny slope, Airboards in hand, the questions begin:
“What is that?”
“That looks like fun. Is it easy to control?”
That’s the question. Isn’t it? The snow is slow and we have to push to start gliding down the soft incline, a little lower mountain tree-lined trail. At first, leaning the direction I want to turn doesn’t seem to have much effect, but I learn that with a little speed and by pushing my opposing hand down, causing the rails on that side to dig in, I can make slow, controlled turns.
Riding the chair lift to the top of a real slope is easy with the Airboard. You hold it in front of you with both hands, the back propped on your feet. At the top, Jonathan goes first, showing me a line down the slop, which doglegs to the right. I slide the Airboard onto the snow and take off tentatively, slowly gaining speed. Soon, too soon, I’m going faster than I expected, dragging my feet and trying to turn, sliding off the board in a heap halfway down. But I get back on and finish the run, eager to try again.
The next run is smoother. I learn to begin my turns sooner and carry more speed. And I execute a neat hockey stop when I reach the end of the run. Good thing. It empties into a thicket of trees. I’m hooked, though I want more and Chaney promises we may explore going to the top of the mountain and coming down after lunch.
With a simple, “Are you ready” after lunch, Chaney grabs his helmet, an Airboard and we’re soon on the lift to the mountain top with a buddy and a guy from Miami trying airboarding for the first time. It’s warm and the snow is soft so Chaney thinks we’ll handle it fine. Not too much speed.
The black diamond signs give me pause, but Chaney goes first, showing us a line down a slope where he’s built a terrain park featuring a couple of banked S curves and a small jump at the end. The first time, I miss the first curve, then hit the second one at the wrong angle, slowing me down. By now, going slow frustrates me. I crave the speed.
The next run is better and it empties onto a long, broad slope below allowing me to point the Airboard straight down the mountain and gather speed before burning it off with a slow turn near the bottom. Now, this is fun. We go up and come screaming down again and again, careful to stop atop one blind rise to survey the skiers below so we don’t run over the slowpokes. Yes, slowpokes. I give them a wide berth as I zoom by them.
As the afternoon slips away, the snow turns wetter and stickier and we decide to call it a day, hoping tomorrow will dawn colder and slicker.
Indeed, I get my wish — and then some — the next morning, taking the teeth-chattering ride down an icy slope. What could be better? I’m a grownup giddy as a kid home from school on a snow day, revisiting childhood memories and indulging in adult adventure.
After my first tumble, I’ve no time to waste. I want to squeeze in every adrenaline-pumping run I can this morning. I’m hooked.