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Snow Flakes


© St. Petersburg Times

SUN VALLEY, Idaho -- SERIES: FOCUS ON WINTER TRAVEL We are little more than halfway into the two-hour snowboarding lesson when I step out of a ski lift for the first time, manage to get both my feet on the snowboard and glide down the tiny off-ramp of snow. Then I fall on my face.

As I struggle upright and before I can get too embarrassed, a teenage classmate -- a surfer from Boca Raton -- glides off the next chair, and onto his face.

The other members of my class, five children about 10 or younger, are also arriving atop this small mountain. All of us, from 7-year-old Tander of Honolulu to 53-year-old Robert of St. Petersburg, are "newbies" -- first-time snowboarders.

Rather than mentally troubleshoot my faulty arrival, I am more concerned with my looming return to the valley. A peek over the ridge where we sit reveals a startlingly steep slope hundreds of yards long.

Then Kevin, our twentysomething instructor, does a terrible thing: Stepping backward over the edge, he stands on his board, facing us with his back to the downhill slope. But rather than fall downhill, Kevin starts talking and stops paying attention to gravity, physics, common sense. He is David Copperfield, disappearing with the snarling tiger. Jackie Chan stepping off a speeding train. Robert De Niro in a love scene with Meryl Streep.

Kevin's activity seems incomprehensible until I stop gawking and start listening to him; then it seems worse.

"You all will be going down the hill this way, or if you prefer, facing the slope. But your board will be sideways to the hill, not pointed down it."

For this insanity, I left warm, soft, flat Florida? Worse, I brought my wife and sons with me: a non-skiing family at North America's oldest ski resort. +

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It had seemed a great lark, many months earlier. I have put dozens of skiing articles in the Times' Travel section the past 10 years, have listened as colleagues and other writers gushed about the thrill of going up the mountains slowly in order to come down them quickly

So why not head to fabled Sun Valley in the winter, my thinking went, to learn why all the ski resort brochures have photos of people looking orgasmically happy as they send a wave of fluffy snow toward the camera?

My wife and sons happily contemplated playing in the snow, ice-skating, building snowpeople, maybe even trying some cross-country skiing or horse-drawn sleigh rides.

Somehow, we all avoided any sort of exercise regimen that would prepare us for more exertion than we were used to, at more than 6,600 feet altitude, where there is much less oxygen in the atmosphere. We did throw ourselves into finding the cheapest cold-weather gear we could. That proved successful; for tips, see the related story on page E. +

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It is late March. Sons Michael, 14, and Ryan, 10, opt for snowboarding rather than downhill skiing for their first lessons, and my wife Dianne dutifully joins in. But it isn't as simple as making snow angels, which comprises much of her previous winter experience

Boards are generally fitted by the user's height, and we visit three shops trying to find board boots and a board short enough for Ryan. By the time the boys and Dianne are fitted, we have spent 85 minutes, $68.90 and some of our enthusiasm to get on the bunny hill.

We regain the spirit, and pay $120 for three two-hour lessons, at the lodge's training hill. Dianne is the first of the Jenkinses to ride her board down the gentle training slope. Consequently, she is the first of the Jenkinses to wipe out.

While I take notes, each of the children also glides and tumbles and then glides again. And tumbles again.

Then their instructor leads the class to a chair lift -- to the top of that killer slope that I will face the next day. Dianne makes it down once, her descent encompassing several falls and all of her energy. "It's great -- for younger people," she says.

Michael also makes it down once, quitting with a sore wrist suffered when he lands the wrong way in a fall. Ryan, the only athlete in the family, has to be dragged from the slope so the rest of us can find lunch and tour Sun Valley's year-round commercial community, Ketchum.

Dianne and Michael turn in their boards; Ryan opts to keep his and venture into the intermediate class the next day. Meanwhile, at a toy store, we score two neon-orange "snow saucers" -- big plastic discs -- and head for the free hill just outside town. Penny Mountain it is dubbed, a joking reference to its size compared to nearby Dollar Mountain and its shorter partners, Half Dollar and Quarter Dollar (our training slope).

The snow saucers coat $16.94 total and provide hours of fun over three days. There is an economics lesson here, but I miss it.

While they frolic, I board the shuttle back to the lodge, where I have an interview scheduled. One of the other passengers is a smiling woman in a screaming-yellow snowsuit. When I tell her I'm from St. Petersburg, she says she's from Naples and is here on her third ski trip. "I broke my clavicle the first time out," she says, smiling.

A few minutes later I interview Andrew Harper, editor of a travel newsletter who moved to the area several years ago. He tells me that he stopped skiing when he reached 50 -- "I realized that if I got injured, I couldn't travel and couldn't do my job."

Injured while skiing? Just the reason I have decided not to take lessons in downhill on this brief trip. Little do I know . . .


At the shuttle-bus stop the next day, we join the line of people who know what they are doing here. Dressed in a variety of form-hugging, one- and two-piece uniforms -- all in brilliant hues from way back in the Crayola box -- they stride toward the bus in an awkward, heel-to-toe gait required by their big ski boots. This will be what it's like when people commute to jobs on other planets, I think

Michael and Dianne head off to scope out a small museum, while I buy Ryan and myself snowboard-clinic tickets. He is hustled off with the intermediates, and I pretend not to care that I am the oldest person in any of the training classes.

For those who have never ridden either skateboards or surfboards, a word on the snowboard. Mine weighs about 9 pounds and is more than 41/2 feet long and 9 inches wide. The binding on a snowboard is custom-fitted to the user, who has the option of putting either right or left foot forward, into the sole binding.

With your front foot snuggled in its binding, your back foot simply hops aboard for the ride, helping you balance. Having listened in the day before as my family took its lessons, I do quite nicely on my downhill effort, remembering to keep toes and heels in the proper positions. Shifting weight on heels or toes controls the board's direction.

I spend the first half-hour becoming as one with my board. If it wasn't a rental, I would give it a name.

I manage most turns without an incident, gradually becoming smoother when stopping. I grow overconfident and, while attempting a turn, fall butt-first on the icy snow. I forget to roll up, so my tailbone takes most of the shock.

As the instructor Kevin heads toward the ski lift and the true downhill clinic, I drag my board, starting to feel winded. "I'm kind of tired," I remark to my 7-year-old classmate from Hawaii. "That's because you're old," Tander replies. The truth hurts, I think. Almost as much as my butt does.

Atop the training slope, Kevin reminds us that as he defies death he is merely using toes-or-heels pressure on the board edges to make it stay still or to control its glide down the hill. Roll up into a ball if you start to fall, he is saying. I envision the size of snowball I would be at the bottom of this hill.

My classmates, one by one, attempt this downhill maneuver, most of them sprawling after just a few yards. Then it is my turn.

At Kevin's direction, we have been sitting on the snow, our knees drawn up toward our chests. From this position I am to use one hand to push myself upright, facing downhill, and immediately control the board's forward motion by leaning more weight toward my heels, on the uphill side.

Something must be wrong with my faithful board, though, because every time I struggle to get up, the board starts taking me downhill. I can stop only by sitting back down. Kevin is now trying to watch at least five of us, so he can't offer me any pointers.

Finally, I do stand and the board starts downhill, quickly. Sunddenly, I am pitching face-first toward the downhill; I tuck my head before I hit and I glimpse my board -- my right foot still in the binding -- outlined against a brilliant blue sky. It is the board's turn to ride me downhill.

I manage to halt my roll. I manage to retrieve my ballcap. I manage to get back up. Far more quickly I manage to again plummet downhill.

Kevin now offers what sounds like an impossible solution to my difficult predicament: "Lie on your back and swing the board over your head, then roll over, so you are facing uphill. Then get up on the board and go downhill heels first." In other words, face uphill and snowboard backward.

I roll onto my stomach and stand up, as Kevin cautions: "Remember to use your toes -- press them down to control the board's progress."

Oddly, it works. By bending my knees and leaning more weight on toes, which are pointed toward the top of the hill, I glide quite well. Steering is the next hurdle: My classmates are either gliding or sprawled around me, and more advanced boarders are sliding through our path.

As I glide, I keep my head turned over my right shoulder, looking downhill and in the direction I am going. Several times I have to work to miss other boarders; most of these efforts result in my falling forward -- what skiers call a face-plant.

Finally, I fall over backward, with board again sailing overhead, outlined by the sky.

It is getting harder to get up after each of these. About 25 yards from the ski lift station I give up and, with the other stragglers, undo my binding and carry my board downhill. At the lift station, some humanitarian has placed benches, and I plop down. Kevin glides up, stopping professionally, and I announce, "I'm out of gas. I'm out of shape and the air is too thin."

"How long have you been in Sun Valley?" Kevin asks.

"Less than 48 hours."

"It takes a while to get used to exerting yourself at this altitude. In another couple of days you could do this easily," Kevin says.

I recall my successes and growing sense of confidence in gliding backwards down a snowy mountain. Maybe, I think, I could come back.

I collect Ryan, who has come down the hill seven times in his two-hour clinic, and we ride the shuttle to rendezvous with Dianne and Michael and to turn in Ryan's board. I carry mine back to Sun Valley Lodge's rental shop and, while the others choose more time on the snow-saucers over ice-skating at the lodge's two rinks, I head off for another interview. It lasts about an hour and as I stand up, I notice my left knee is quite sore. How did that happen?

After dinner that night, my knee is actually hurting. I take a hot bath and two aspirin, and I fall asleep fearing that this injury may have compromised much of our trip.

The next morning, I take two more aspirin and decide to ignore the pain, which has decreased. But I know I cannot try cross-country skiing or snow-shoeing, popular resort activities. Instead, the family spends a few hours this day seeing the world as real skiers do: from the top of a mountain.

We report to the River Run day lodge -- where skiers buy lift tickets, meals, equipment -- and plunk down $120 for four tickets on the Seattle Ridge Non-Skier Lunch Shuttle. We ride four-seater chairs just a few dozen yards above skiers and 'boarders heading downhill. It provides a sense of what this skiing business is all about.

We get off the lift next to a restaurant, grab some hot chocolate and then board a snowcat, a roomy vehicle that runs on caterpillar-style treads. Ours has a sound system, a VCR and lots of room. After a 20-minute ride along Seattle Ridge we stop atop Bald Mountain, 9,150 feet above sea level. All around us, skiers and 'boarders are gliding off lift chairs, picking a trail and stepping off the mountain.

It's a lovely sight, exhilarating to think of them heading down with the wind in their ears, as their knees, hips and arms piston in a choreography to nature's melody.

Inside the day lodge we have lunch. The horror stories of high prices for the trapped skiers is true: hamburgers are $7.75; our four lunches cost $48.20.

We decide to ride a "high-speed" quad back to the valley, taking a different route. The fun of the ride is tempered as the lift rushes through the 30-degree air. The cold makes it painful to keep my eyes open, and I realize why skiiers wear goggles. The next day the boys and I head for an indoor rock-climbing gym. The friendly owner helps us with equipment and terminology, and for two hours I act as the belayer -- the person on the ground who helps keep the overhead rope taut as the climber hauls himself up a wall studded with randomly shaped projections. Michael and Ryan put aside any sibling rivalry and get into the spirit of belaying for each other. It's a wonderful experience, and my sore knee doesn't hamper me.

Our last day at the lodge we contact an outfitter and have a cab drop the four of us outside town in a wide mountain valley. Greg Hanson, who works summers for the U.S. Forestry Sevice, waits next to three snowmobiles.

Greg finds helmets for us and gives the briefest of instructions: "Push this throttle with your thumb to speed up, squeeze this handle to brake. Remember: You're on snow, so when you brake or turn, it will slide some."

Dianne and I each straddle one of the machines, Michael gets on the cushioned seat behind me and Ryan behind Dianne. None of us has ever been on a snowmobile, a motorcycle or a Jet Ski.

Greg takes off, in the lead, and for the hour and 50 minutes, with just two rest stops, we bound over the crusty snow. We bounce along, sometimes using the groomed trails shared with cross-country skiers but more often jolting across meadows and up steep slopes.

There are no seatbelts, so the driver has to hold tight to the handlebars, which provide for direction as well as speed and braking. The boys are gripping handles on the sides of the 400-pound machines.

The ride turns out to be different but not always fun. The boys tell us during the rest stops that they cannot see over the backs of the drivers. Dianne puts Ryan in front of her, but then he has nothing to hold on to. Once, when we hit a bump, Ryan loses his grip on the handles and becomes concerned. Michael complains that we were traveling too fast, though I am only following the others, at speeds between 22 and 40 mph.

The mountain scenery is spectacular, but the fumes from the engine drift under my visor; with the visor up, snow and cold air sting the face. The constant noise, akin to a motorcycle's, makes it difficult to communicate with the passengers.

Near the end of the ride, I narrowly avoid a catastrophe.

The problem with this trip is that we crisscross a two-lane state highway. Greg always hops off to motion us across when the road is clear of car traffic. But to reach the other side, we must cross down the plowed bank of snow, across the clean asphalt, which provides little traction for the snowmobile, and back up the plowed bank of snow on the other side. The only paths through the snowbanks are narrow, made by previous snowmobilers. It is tricky going.

Greg has warned us that if we start to turn over, to never put out a leg to halt the fall, as you might do on a bicycle: The weight of the snowmobile could easily smash your leg or hip, depending on the angle of the fall.

Dianne has almost tipped as she made an uphill turn. I start to go over as I finish one of the highway crossings -- and sure enough, I throw out my leg to halt the fall. The machine rights itself, and I don't realize how serious the incident is until Greg comes running up and asks, "Are you all right?" After we finish, Dianne says she loves the experience and that, "Next time, we'll go without a guide, so we can stop and enjoy the scenery more."

The boys allow as how there will be no next time for them.

We finish off our snow-country time with more trips down Penny Mountain. Signaling the end to our trip, the boys leave their snow saucers stacked against a rail fence at the foot of the slick slope, for others to use. We board the shuttle bus back to the lodge. If you go

There are no direct flights to Sun Valley, Idaho, from Tampa. Best connections are through Salt Lake City. If you fly from Tampa International on a Continental flight that stops in New Orleans, head for the terminal and the Cafe du Monde shop, where you can buy beignets to gobble the rest of the trip.

Sun Valley Lodge, which begins its 61st year this December, has been voted the No. 1 ski resort in the United States by Ski Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler. On Bald and Dollar mountains, it offers 78 runs (downhill paths), a ski lift capacity of more than 28,000 people per hour and a 3,400-foot vertical drop from the summit of Bald Mountain to the base. It also boasts indoor and outdoor skating rinks -- this is where Sonja Henie glided in that kitschy 1941 jewel, Sun Valley Serenade -- and cross-country trails for adults and children.

When I asked the concierge for help in finding activities, she went through the helpful Sun Valley Guide magazine and tabbed pages marked fly-fishing (yes, in the winter), dog-sledding, snowmobiling, museums, antiques, shopping and art galleries. Even if we had had enough stamina, we would not have had enough time.

Since he bought the resort and land in 1977, oil-magnate R. Earl Holding says he has spent more than $120-million to update and add accommodations and outdoors facilities. Rooms range from those in the original lodge to condos and apartment units. There is a wide range of room rates, depending on type of accommodation and time of year, and packages are also offered. For more information, call (800) 786-8259 or visit their Web site (http://www.sunvalley.com).

There are several motels and rental condos just off the Sun Valley property. For information on these or on Ketchum, call (800) 634-3347 or visit their Web site (http://www.visitketchum.com).

We used Mike Mulligan Snowmobile Tours and paid $65 per vehicle for two hours' use. Mulligan's start point is just 15 miles from Ketchum; two other, more-distant services, charge $100 a day for one rider, $159 for two on a machine; guides are included.

For a fun but informative look at snowboarding, write to Burton Snowboards, P.O. Box 4449, Burlington, VT 05406-9976, and ask for "The Virgin Book," a clever pamphlet.

Do take the time to be properly fitted for your board. Three of us used Sturtevants, in Ketchum. The fellows fitting us were immensely helpful and patient, since the process involves rental boots and boards. You be patient, too. Another shop to consider is the Board Bin, a temple where 'boarders gather to worship and buy neat decals for their board. I was fitted at the Sun Valley Lodge's rental shop and did not get the same quality attention I saw at Sturtevants. Rental prices at all three places were about the same.

Originally published October 5, 1997

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