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Mountain Madness
Forget the snowboard, dude. The new wild plunge in snow are "sliding sports"-and they're designed for kids

By Larry Olmsted

Once upon a time, ski areas were just for skiing. Nearly everyone on the mountain made, or tried to make, parallel turns. There was the occasional telemark skier, and the even rarer oddity, the monoskier, but for the most part, there were just skiers. If you wanted your kids to enjoy
winter vacations, they had to learn how to ski.

Snowboarding changed all that. The ski industry was in decline, falling victim to a steep learning curve, high lift ticket prices, and pricey equipment that in the case of children, had to be replaced every year. But snowboarding attracted a new audience: it was much faster to learn, cheaper, and appealed to urbanites familiar with skateboards. Snowboarding revitalized alpine ski areas, and in less than a decade, most ski areas began bending over backwards for snowboarders, building them parks, renting them gear, and teaching the sport.

So, if you wanted to get your kids out to the slopes with you, but they didn't fancy skiing, snowboarding offered a useful alternative. But the story doesn't end here. What snowboarding really did was open industry and visitor eyes to the fact that there is more than one way to get down the mountain. Since then, the winter community has been searching for something new. "The improvement in technology in all the various snow devices over the last few years has been dramatic," said Skip King, vice president of communications for American Skiing, the largest ski resort operator in North America. "Also, ever since snowboarding, everyone has been looking for the next big thing."

This search has created a new flurry of what are being cumulatively referred to as "sliding sports." There are far more ways to get down the mountain than ever before, from old-fashioned inner tubes gone high-tech to truly bizarre gizmos. All this has turned the mountains from exclusive ski areas into snowy theme parks, with some sort of attraction guaranteed to provide your children with fun. Going even further, some of the mountains have gone the route of offering kids entertainment that has nothing to do with the slopes, like mountaintop video arcades. The 800-pound gorilla arrived on the resort scene four years ago, when Colorado's Vail built Adventure Ridge, a mountaintop nighttime recreation center on its peak. A heated gondola carries families from the base of Vail to the indoor/outdoor complex, which gives guests something to do after the sun goes down, offering myriad pleasures from snow biking to laser tag. The other industry leader has been Booth Creek resorts, which operates Sierra and Northstar at Lake Tahoe, Grand Targhee, WY, and Cranmore, Loon and Waterville Valley in New Hampshire. Booth Creek has filled its mountains with a wide range of what it calls Snow Toys to offer even the most adamant non-skier a full day of options. Mountains coast-to-coast have been playing catch up with these resorts, rolling out fun parks and attractions. Here are some best activities now available at ski areas:

Tubing: Nothing has caught on faster than lift-served tubing, both daytime and on lighted courses. Borrowing the lift from skiing takes away the chore of hiking to the top of the hill, and using concave chutes copied from waterslides offers a controlled environment. Vail's Adventure Ridge has a half dozen lighted runs, varied by speed and ability. Tubing parks have sprouted up all over, and can be found at many, many ski resorts today. Some of the most notable are Vermont's Mt. Snow, Killington and Stratton; Maine's Sugarloaf; New Hampshire's Cranmore and Loon; and Colorado's Snowmass, which operates the large, lift served Tube Town, complete with green, blue and black runs. Maine's Sunday River has a long, extreme tubing run that winds through the woods with high, banked turns.

Ski Blades/Ski Boards: These very short skis are the winter's equivalent of in-line skates. Cheap and easy to use, ski blades or ski skates attach to conventional ski boots, and are easy to master, allowing experienced skiers to relive the thrills of learning the sport or beginners to take it up quickly. In-line skaters will love them, and many non-skiers have found them an encouraging shortcut to the sport. Any competent skier can quickly be zipping down blue and black runs on these toys, carving turns while swinging their arms back and forth like a speed skater. More ambitious riders can use them for the jumps and tricks of the terrain parks. They are rented at all major ski areas and Vermont's Okemo has a large instructional program.

Twin Tipped Skis: These evolved directly from the sudden popularity of ski blades. Twin-tipped skis are much shorter than normal downhill models and have upturned tips, normally found on the front of skis, at both ends. This lets skiers land jumps backwards, and the short length allows use in the half and quarter pipes once reserved for snowboarding. In fact, twin tipped skis are more maneuverable than snowboards, allowing for more incredible stunts, and have been mesmerizing would-be acrobats. The popularity is so dramatic that Aspen Mountain in Colorado now offers North America's only non-snowboarding terrain park: it's reserved exclusively for skiers.

Sledding: If pushing a sheet of plastic down a slope is your idea of sledding, welcome to the future. Vail's Thrill Sledding lives up to its name, as passengers lay face down, head first on a high-tech sled equipped with a bicycle-style handlebar which steers four small ski-runners and controls a hydraulic braking system that lowers a claw into the snow. Thrill sledders take guided trips down Vail, dropping from Adventure Ridge to the gondola base, thousands of vertical feet and over three miles. There are two tours nightly, and if you are good enough at hurtling face first down the dark mountain while suspended just six inches off the ground, you can get in two or three trips. Helmets and headlamps come standard.

Snow Bikes: A natural extension of mountain biking, these were among the first snow toys at Vail, setting the stage for Thrill Sledding with nightly, guided descents of the mountain. Ski bikes look like normal bikes, except with two skis where the wheels should be. Riders also wear little skate skis on their feet to use as outriggers. Ski bikes have taken off, and can be found at many resorts, including those of Booth Creek Skiing.

The Zorb: When it comes to bizarre snow toys, nothing comes close to the Zorb. The passenger climbs inside a clear, air filled plastic ball nearly ten feet in diameter, and after choosing whether or not to grip the inside handles, is rolled down a snow covered track. That's it. The Zorb can be found at Booth Creek properties. Hang on and don't ride right after lunch.

Snowshoeing: Okay, this is not exactly a new sport, as snowshoes in one form or another have been around for hundreds of years. But the recent switch to high-tech aluminum and plastic models has made the sport easier, cheaper and more accessible. As a result, many ski areas now offer snowshoe rentals and guided tours, and some, like Aspen, open their Nordic centers and cross country ski areas to snowshoers at no charge. Telluride has a trail system on top of its mountains, so snowshoers can ride the lift up and then explore the park-like setting. Anyone who can walk can learn to use snowshoes in minutes, and with the wide range of sizes available, they are perfect for everyone in the family. They are also the easiest snow devices to use on your own, with or without a ski resort. Keep a pair in your house or trunk, and just add snow.

There are many other unusual pursuits available on the slopes, and new ones are being developed all the time. Booth Creek's resorts offer the Snowscoot, which combines a snowboard with an old fashioned scooter, allowing the rider, standing upon the base, to steer with upright handlebars and the Skifox, which resembles a barstool, a seat with a shock absorber and a single ski at the bottom. Like snow bikes, Skifox riders wear tiny skis on their feet for balance. Vail offers children's snowmobiling, a snow version of go-carts, powered by lawn mower engines. Aspen Mountain has introduced speed skiing, where adrenaline junkies, after receiving instruction, don helmets and rent speed skis to tear down a groomed course and challenge the radar gun. The world record is over 150 mph.

What will they think of next?

Larry Olmsted lives in Vermont and writes frequently about travel and skiing.

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