The first time I attempted to ski, on the bunny slope of an unimpressively sized mountain in Massachusetts, I pointed my skis straight down the hill and took off. Within seconds, I realized I didn’t know how to stop. I screamed as I barreled down what felt like a huge hill, tears streaming off my face, until I reached the bottom and my father scooped me up. My sister, who had been standing next to him, decided at that moment to never take up the sport.
So you can imagine my trepidation, 20 years later, when I stared down the face of a much more imposing descent at the Sunshine Village ski resort in Banff National Park, Canada. Only this time, I was straddling a snowbike.
I was there with an instructor and about six other people — all adults in their 20s, 30s, and 40s — learning how to ride the contraption. A snowbike, sometimes called a skibike or skibob, consists of a basic bike frame that’s built low to the ground. Instead of wheels, snowbikes have short skis; riders also wear boots with little skis attached to the soles. Our sprightly, middle-aged instructor, Dan Joja, told us to head down the mountain in a serpentine motion, just like a skier or snowboarder would. To move right, he explained, we’d simply press down on the handlebars with our right hands and lift our right legs off the ground. If we wanted to stop, we were supposed to turn up the hill and dig in. He also urged us to keep our legs close to the bike; sitting with your knees apart can make you tip over. Of course, I ignored his instructions the second we started doing practice drills. Stretching my legs out and using my feet like training wheels made me feel safe — wobbly, but safe.
Then it was time to actually head down the trail. The group took off, but I lagged behind, awkwardly plowing as wide and slow a path as I could. Families on skis stopped to watch our oddball group slide by. When I reached the final descent, I noticed the hill was crowded and realized that the only way to avoid a collision was to head straight down. I swallowed hard, recalling that harrowing afternoon on the bunny slope years ago, and went for it. As I picked up speed, my fear changed to cautious enthusiasm, and then finally exhilaration. The snowbike was surprisingly stable and easy to control.
It took only one more trip down the mountain before I was completely transformed. I started cutting across trails at full speed. I attacked moguls recklessly, laughing like a maniac. Rather than obsessing over my technique (which I do whenever I snowboard, a sport I’m terrible at), I let loose and actually had fun. And I didn’t fall once.
As a snowbiker, I felt the way snowboarders must have in the mid-eighties. I got a lot of strange looks around the mountain, although most of them were followed with comments like, “That looks fun. We should try it.” Using the lift was clunky — I had to angle my handlebars through the outside of the chair so that the bike could dangle without falling (scary — I gripped it desperately during the entire ride). But I’m sure the lift situation will continue to get better as snowbiking catches on. And it will catch on — not only is it easy to learn, but it’s also ridiculously fun, and it’s a sport that people with back problems, weak knees, and other health issues can enjoy.
During my last run, giddy and overconfident, I rounded a corner too fast and nearly slammed into a group of snowboarders who had stopped to talk. Finally heeding my instructor’s advice, I turned my bike up the hill in one rapid motion, spraying a wave of powder at them. They looked at me quizzically. I felt like I needed to say something, so in a moment of unbridled gusto (and dorkiness), I yelled, “EXTREME!” Then I pointed my bike straight down the hill again, and took off.
Where to Snowbike
Ready to get “extreme”? These eco-friendly North American ski resorts are among those that teach snowbiking.
Sunshine Village, Banff National Park
Alberta, Canada (skibanff.com)
Because it’s part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sunshine has strict environmental stewardship programs in place. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep during the drive up.
Vail, CO (vail.snow.com)
Vail’s green initiatives include purchasing wind-power credits to offset 100 percent of its electricity use.
Warren, VT (sugarbush.com)
Sugarbush has partnered with local environmental groups like Friends of the Mad River to help preserve natural resources and the surrounding wildlife. Much of the resort’s heavy machinery runs on biodiesel, and low-energy nozzles on the snowmaking machines reduce CO2 emissions by 65 percent.
Telluride Ski Resort
Telluride, CO (telluride.net)
Telluride’s water-conservation and energy-efficiency programs have earned the resort several environmental awards. It’s currently phasing in the use of biodiesel for much of its equipment.
Story by Christine Richmond. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.