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Four Lesser-Known Winter Sports

Winter sports range from the hair-raising to the merely contemplative. Here are four that beckon Westerners outdoors.

snowshoers in Bryce Canyon, image
Photo caption
Snowshoers stomp their way through scenic Bryce Canyon in winter.

Skeleton: The Need for Speed

By Josh Sens

The speed limit in Utah is 75. But I'm not worried about troopers as I hurtle headlong down a frozen runway, my chin just inches off the ice.I have no seat belt or brakes. The only law that concerns me is the one laid down by my instructor: "Keep your hands in or you'll slice your fingers off!"

So far, I still have all my digits. But I wonder if I've lost my mind. How else to explain my appearance here, outside Salt Lake City at Utah Olympic Park, home of the 2002 Winter Games? This slopeside compound is where Olympians-in-training come to soar from ski jumps that look as long as airstrips and fly like bullets down a bobsled run. Me, I've come for the Wannabe Camp.

Throughout the snowy season, the park puts on clinics so paying members of the public can try their hand at Olympic events. Those scheduled vary from year to year, but typical activities are ski jumping and bobsledding. Or you can sign up, as I did, for an obscure sport with an ominous name: skeleton.

To get the gist of skeleton, picture the luge. Now imagine its evil twin. It's a similar sled that runs on the same bobsled track. But instead of sliding feetfirst on your back, you ride bellydown, noggin leading the way. The Swiss invented it in the late nineteenth century and it last appeared at the Olympics in 1948. Skeleton never gained much popularity, but now it's back, an official event at the Salt Lake Games.

I gleaned these details while sitting in a cabin with my skeleton classmates, nine slack-jawed young men with the glassy-eyed stares of adrenaline heads. We were getting the lowdown from Trevor Christie, a candidate for the United States Olympic skeleton team. Christie showed us a video of men in rubber suits plunging through S-curves at 80 miles per hour. "Don't try to steer," Christie told us. "Just let the sled take you, and remember that speed is your friend."

Next thing I knew, I was slapping on shoulder pads and a helmet, and standing at the top of a 3¼4-mile-long refrigerated track. That competitive skeleton has not claimed any fatalities is small comfort as I flop on my stomach on the cold steel sled.

"Keep your hands in," Christie says. Then he tells me, with questionable timing, about a Canadian slider who got her thumbs caught beneath the sled blades and who will never be able to hitchhike again.

With that, he gives me a shove and I'm off. Some say the name skeleton comes from the German word schlitten (sleigh). But maybe it's called that because a skeleton ride scares you nearly to death. I bank through a curve, then hit a straightaway, rattling against one side of the track. My impulse is to stick my hands out to protect my body, but that is a no-no. Fear is the enemy. Speed is your friend. By the sixth turn, I'm doing just over 60, according to the track radar. But it looks a whole lot faster than that from my worm's-eye view. I'm skimming along like a human hockey puck.

The ride lasts 48 seconds. As I cross the finish line, terror gives way to exhilaration. Woozy, I stand and glance back in triumph at the serpentine curves of the bobsled run. Salt Lake City? Probably not. But I still have four years before the 2006 Turin Games.

A park official pulls up in a flatbed truck. I grab my sled, hold out my hand, and thumb a ride back to the top.

The Call of the Mild

By John Huey

My 21-year-old son, Jake, and I were in serious need of escape from our real lives—and in need of some time together. Somehow we came up with dogsledding as the perfect answer.

Dogsledding? In fact, that's what I'm thinking right now as Cupid, our lead dog—11 years old and a five-time Iditarod veteran—seems to be getting a little confused about where we're going, as well as bogged down in the fresh snow.

It snowed hard all night, so the powder on the ground is much thicker today than it was yesterday afternoon when we climbed our way up the rugged trails of Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest in this contraption of ours—an 8-foot-long, shoe-shaped basket of ash and oak strips strapped together atop two runners. The snow's especially deep now that we've left the trail. We're headed out into a meadow that runs alongside Granite Creek, a gorgeous mountain stream that has the hot spring where we bathed last night, watching the big wet flakes melt into the pool.

Here's the thing about dogsledding: It's mostly where you do it and who you do it with that counts. (Isn't that true of everything?) You would not enjoy dogsledding through ordinary terrain, and you wouldn't want to do it with antisocial or bossy or disagreeable mushers, as dogsledding can be pretty intimate. It doesn't require any particular athletic ability, and it isn't scary at all—but exhilarating and inspiring just the same. Not to mention scenic: Dramatic peaks give way to expansive valleys, accented with all sorts of alpine flora—lodgepole pine, blue spruce, quaking aspen, Douglas fir. There is, too, the promise of fauna—moose, elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer—though we saw none of these on this trip.

We did see a lot of dogs. Our team consisted of 14 Alaskan huskies, each weighing about 50 pounds—and each able to pull about three times its weight. The saying "If you're not the lead dog the view never changes" is also true if you're the rider in the sled instead of standing on a runner at the sled's back end. That's where I'm standing as we plow through the pasture.

"Haw!" yells our guide, Andy, uttering a command that, as in mule driving, means "turn left." Cupid, grateful for any direction, executes the turn immediately, and so do the dogs in her wake. Afghan, tethered to Cupid's side at the head of the team, doesn't seem to know or care where we're headed, but she makes up for it with unrelenting tenacity, which is to say she pulls hard all the time. You get to know the dogs' eccentricities in short order. Then, after a couple of "Gees!" (right turns) and an "On by!" (straight ahead), we are back on the firmer turf of a snowpacked trail and clipping down the mountain, sometimes reaching a speed of 15 miles per hour.

It's a great way to travel. You get to go all those places snowmobilers go but without the noisy motor or the ecological guilt. You should be warned, how-ever, that dogsledding isn't entirely pollution free. These dogs consume high-performance diets and leave quite a trail of gas behind them (again, a bigger problem for the guy in the sled).

The trip we took was outfitted by Jackson Hole Iditarod Sled Dog Tours, which ran a first-class trek. Leaving at 2 in the afternoon, you sled 10 miles up to the hot spring for a refreshing dip, then back down to Safari Club International (a training center for the American Wilderness Leadership School).

Miles Anderson, who runs the school, built a big fire and cooked some great steaks and baked potatoes, then turned the VCR over to us (we were the only guests). Next morning, Andy took us snowshoeing before hitching up the dogs and heading back down the mountainside. My only complaint: Nobody ever said "Mush."

Freak on a lift

By Ron Evans

Hey, is that one of those snow bikes?" asked a twentysomething snowboarder in standard-issue black wool cap and Korn T-shirt as he eyed my ride in the lift line near Lake Tahoe.

"Yeah," I replied, trying to sound as cool and apathetic as possible under the stares of young families out for a sunny day and the rad snowboarders looking to catch some serious air on the slopes.

"How's it handle?" mumbled his buddy, whose baggy, rust-colored pants were pulled up to his knees.

"I'm about to find out," I said, hopping onto a lift with the winterized bike.

Truth is, there's not a whole lot that separates the mentality of a snowboarder or skier from that of a mountain biker—they all scramble up to the highest point they can find, then let gravity do its thing as it pulls them down over gnarly terrain in a mix of speed and adrenaline. Considering how much the western United States caters to these incline addicts, it's a bit surprising that a bicycle crossbred with a snowboard hasn't achieved the popularity here that it has in Canada and Europe, where annual competitions pit die-hard snow bikers against each other. Perhaps it's the snow bike's appearance that gives would-be American snow cyclists pause.

Those following my lonely ascent probably thought they were seeing Wile E. Coyote, supergenius, testing his latest roadrunner-catching contraption. On my feet were a pair of skis so short they could have been stolen out of Mini-Me's closet. A yellow bike, sans pedals, dangled between my legs—its tires replaced with a front and back ski—while its handlebars rested across my lap. Strap a giant rocket to my back and—beep, beep!—let it rip.

Recovering quickly from an awkward straddle-dismount off the lift, I coasted over to a few ponderosa pines and briefly checked the steep slope ahead. Then, with a here-goes-nothing sigh, I took the plunge. In no time at all, the snow bike's alien presence coupled with my not-so-deft piloting skills had everyone giving me a wide berth.

Despite the shaky start, the bike did not fail me. In fact, it was a couch potato's dream to be able to crisscross the snowy mountainside on a comfy seat without breaking a sweat. The Mini-Me skis acted like training wheels, keeping me balanced and improving the bike's sluggish turning power as I worked my way down in wide sweeps. Gliding back toward the lift, I snowplowed to a stop and jumped in line for another run.

After half a dozen more mellow rides, it was time to take it up a notch. Feeling a need for some more speed, I straightened the bike out and hung on. Streaking past skiers and boarders as if they were standing still, I moved into a turn—and that's when things got interesting. The bike hit an icy patch and fishtailed, throwing me into a clothes dryer-like tumble. The dizzying swirl of sky blues and powder whites ended with me spread-eagled on my stomach.

I retrieved the cap lost during my somersault and shook off the excess snow, then shuffled over to the bike, which had landed about 20 feet away. The same skiers and boarders I'd left behind were now whizzing by without sparing me a second look. Oh, well, I figured, no pain, no gain. Though a little less cocky, I hopped back on the bike and took off to join the standing-room- only crowd at the lift line for another run. Wile E. would have been proud.

Leave only Footprints

By Jennifer Reese

Snowshoeing is slow, it is safe, it is cheap. You can do it without much snow and without lessons. And vigorous snowshoeing is excellent exercise.

This, I decided, was the winter sport for me.

On a cold Sunday morning, I tossed three pairs of rented snowshoes into the car and drove to Mount Ashland, just south of Ashland, Ore., accompanied by my husband, Mark, and our 4-year-old daughter, Isabel. Partway up the mountain, we pulled in at the Bull Gap Snow Park. We chose Bull Gap for the unscientific reason that we would have to put chains on our tires if we drove any farther. "You can snowshoe anywhere," I told Mark. "That's what's cool about it."

Jackets zipped, granola bars stuffed in our pockets, we waterproofed our street shoes with some plastic bags and strapped on the snowshoes. In all, it took about 20 seconds and we were ready to trek.

Most winter sports are about adrenaline. Snowshoeing is different; it's about quiet enjoyment, moving at your own (probably slow) pace, and the freedom to trek over countryside that has been transformed into one vast trail by a blanket of smooth snow. And it's pleasingly easy; all you have to do is walk.

Trekking across the snow used to be a lot more demanding. Archaeologists believe that snowshoes may have originated in Central Asia six thousand years ago and traveled east over the Bering Strait. American Indians built them from wood and animal hides. These shoes were enormous and heavy.

Then, in the 1970s, manufacturers began making snowshoes of aluminum tubing. Synthetic fabric or plastic decks, metal crampons, and nylon straps to attach the shoes to your feet were further refinements. The shoes were light and narrow; suddenly anyone who could walk could snowshoe.

The sport has become trendy: Annual snowshoe sales have grown from only 13,000 pairs in 1996 to 160,000 pairs last year, according to the SnowSports Industry Association. "Snowshoeing is something you can do with your entire family," says Julee Lynch, director of market research for the association. "Grandparents can do it, kids can do it, anyone can do it."

In theory, anyway.

Isabel's tiny snowshoes seemed a delightful novelty to her for several minutes as she tripped happily across the snow. As we neared the trailhead, she tripped for real while trying to climb an embankment. She picked herself up and fell again, scooping up a chunk of snow into her mitten. "I'm cold," she said sadly.

This was something that Julee Lynch had not factored in. When it comes to children, mood counts for everything. A short 10 minutes after setting out, Isabel had returned to the car with her father. I have doubts about how successful we would have been even under the best of circumstances. It is true that if you can walk, you can snowshoe. But small children generally do not like to walk very far.

Adults are another matter, and I hiked down the wide, easy trail for half an hour, past snow-flocked firs. Through clearings I caught vistas of the surrounding mountains. The snowshoes seemed such natural extensions of my feet that I could focus on the environment, not on my pounding heart.

I walked quietly and alone, with a minimum of gear, deep into a wintry landscape that was silent and extraordinarily beautiful. It was a lot like cross-country skiing—but easy. I could have walked all day.

Returning to the car, I felt both serene and invigorated. I was right: Snowshoeing is the winter sport—for me.

Photography courtesy of Dbenbenne/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in November 2001. Some facts
may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.