4 ultra-cool winter activities in the United States
Are you a “winter rocks” type?
Or are you too busy online shopping for a heated windshield scraper and looking into flights to the Caribbean to answer that?
Before you hit the “buy” button on that Aruba trip, read on. The following game-changers might just warm your view of the season and prove that “winter fun” is no oxymoron.
Ice climbing in New Hampshire
When it’s winter in New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley, it’s winter.
Not the mild, damp kind. Not the cold-but-arid variety.
We’re talking the snow-swirling, window-cracking, toe-numbing, hot-buttered-rum-swilling, icicle-on-the-beard-forming Robert Frost version.
You know, winter winter.
Home of the White Mountains’ Presidential Range and a glassy landscape filled with gorgeous ice-covered cliffs and frozen waterfalls, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley may be the best place between Patagonia and the North Pole to give ice climbing a whirl.
“A lot of places you visit, you might wonder if the right conditions are going to be there or not, but the Mount Washington Valley offers extremely reliable and accessible ice-climbing conditions every winter,” says Charlie Townsend, manager of New Hampshire-based Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) climbing school. “You can practically belay right out of your car.”
Just how leery should your average winter-novelty-seeker be about stepping into a pair of rental crampons, shouldering an ice axe and spidering up a vitreous, blue wall in sub-zero temperatures?
“If you can go up the stairs two at a time then you’ll probably do fine as an ice climber,” says Townsend, referencing a pair of single-day novice courses, Winter Climbing 101 and Ice Climbing 201.
The popular combo package covers the essentials of ice climbing (gear, crampon and ice axe use, self-arrest techniques, climbing on moderate angled snow) before safely testing your footwork and belay skills with a certified pro on the area’s steeper slopes and frozen waterfalls.
“People think it’s all brute strength and bashing into things and doing chin-ups, but it’s really not that way at all,” says Townsend. “It’s not unusual for new ice-climbers to be spidering up steep walls on their first day, if that’s what they’re gunning for.”
Eastern Mountain Sports; +1 800 310 4504; most classes US$150 and last about eight hours; www.emsexploration.com
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Sledding on an Olympic ice track in Utah
Like astronauts, Winter Olympians benefit from years of training to experience stuff that the rest of us watch from the safety of a sofa.
Nordic jumping. Halfpipe Double McTwist. And similar feats of wintery derring-do.
Maybe we’ll give all of these things a whirl in another lifetime.
But there’s one chilling Winter Olympics activity you don’t need overachieving athlete status to try for yourself.
Skeleton. Also known as blasting down a frictionless surface atop an undersized sled like a human missile with your head three inches from a blur of hard ice on an official Winter Games track.
Turns out this under-appreciated sport is actually open to skeleton dabblers on select Fridays, Saturdays and holiday weekends at Park City’s Utah Olympic Park.
“It’s an adrenaline rush like you’ve never felt, and better than a roller coaster because you’re the one doing the driving,” says Cassie Revelli, a five-year U.S. Skeleton Team member and coordinator of an Olympic Park program that lets visitors test out the same track used by all of our favorite skeleton athletes, whose names presently escape us.
“Skeleton doesn’t get much mainstream coverage,” says Revelli. “So this program has really been designed to help familiarize people with what it’s all about and give them a thrilling little taste.”
The two-hour program begins with an orientation of Utah Olympic Park’s 1,335-meter luge/bobsled/skeleton track and a briefing on the history of the sport.
Proper skeleton technique is discussed -- good foot position, proper weight shifting, the importance of breathing. Helmets, shoulder and elbow pads are donned. Last minute advice is dispensed (“a little pressure on the runners is all it takes”). And you’re off.
The solo slide starts at Curve 11, about three-fourths the way down the track, lasts just less than a minute and reaches speeds of 72 kph.
“People have this fear of going headfirst,” says Revelli, “but once they relax, point their nose and their toes they can really get the hang of it in one or two rides.”
Want more? Enroll in a multi-day skeleton school at the facility (future dates pending). Or try the Bobsled “Comet” Ride -- a three-passenger, 129 kph, 5G journey from the top of the track manned by a certified bobsled pilot.
Utah Olympic Legacy; +1 435 658 4200; G-Force Driving School (US$600); www.utaholympiclegacy.com
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Dog sledding in Alaska
Sure, it’s also done in some select states in the Lower 48. But make no mistake. Dog mushing is an Alaskan thing.
It’s Alaska’s official state sport (sorry, snowmobiles) and remains as vital to the area’s winter recreation scene as March Iditarod Madness implies.
Any greenhorn can learn the ropes of whooshing through Alaska’s wild interior behind a willing team of huskies and Malamutes.
Just bring some serious thermal underwear, an open mind and leave that cutesy voice you use for your cocker spaniel at home.
“We get a lot of people from Texas, California, Australia and other warm places who come up here to enjoy that famous arctic winter the way it should be experienced -- behind a dog team,” says Leslie Goodwin, owner of Fairbanks-based Paws for Adventure, which runs half-day and customized mushing classes and dogsledding overnights.
“Understanding what it means to travel by dog team through the wilderness is a skill you can keep perfecting for your entire life,” says Goodwin. “But mushing newcomers can learn a lot in a day or two. Generally, they’re pretty amazed by the whole experience.”
Goodwin’s mushing school starts with the basics, teaching how to safely “establish a working relationship” with a three- or four-dog team, how to harness them, snow hook and ride the runners -- and understanding what all that stuff means.
“It’s a lot more involved than people think,” says Goodwin. “Adventuring with sled dogs takes balance and coordination and is a real joint effort. It’s not just the dogs doing all the work. You’re part of the team.”
After some on-site training at the Paws for Adventure grounds, mushing students partake in a 16-kilometer “Fun Run” through wild, spruce-lined trails in the Chena River Valley. A three-day beginner’s tour includes a 40-kilometer dog sledding overnight in the Alaskan bush.
“It’s really an experience like nothing else,” says Gib Egge, an Outdoor Pursuits instructor at Illinois’ College of DuPage, who has brought several of his students to Goodwin’s class. “No people, no hums of snowmobiles. You’re out on the trail with this team of dogs. Nothing but jingling collars and the faint sound of a sled cutting through the snow. And suddenly it hits you: Wow, I’m actually dog sledding in Alaska. This is unreal.”
Paws for Adventure; +1 907 378 3630; three-hour mushing school US$275, three-day beginner’s tour from US$950 upward; www.pawsforadventure.com
Surfing in Hawaii
Since when did Hawaii belong in a getting-your-winter-thrills article?
Actually, like New Hampshire, Utah and Alaska, the Aloha State gets its own wild version of winter.
Sixty-four kilometers northwest of Honolulu International Airport on Oahu’s North Shore, the largest North Pacific storm-fueled swells hit those fabled breaks -- Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, Banzai Pipeline -- just in time for some of the biggest annual surfing competitions.
But never mind the Kelly Slater scene. Is there anywhere out there for you -- a North Shore snowbird with dreams of riding a wave (maybe even your first) in one of the world’s most famous surfing meccas?
“Everyone comes out to the North Shore in the winter to watch the pros compete on those huge, exotic waves, but it’s not all Banzai Pipeline,” says Hans Hedemann, a pro-surfing champion and founder of the Hans Hedemann Surf School. “You can be checking out guys doing eight-meter waves at Waimea Bay in the morning, then sign up for a lesson with us and get in your own dream session in another perfect spot on the North Shore."
Hedemann's school is geared for intermediates who want to step it up a notch to total beginners.
Classes range from “Go with a Pro” private sessions on challenging North Shore breaks (the school also has a second location in Waikiki) to two-hour group lessons for boardless beginners in carefully selected sites which run through all the basics.
These include an assurance that, yes, you will be on your feet riding a wave in the North Shore by the time class is dismissed.
“We get folks with reservations about taking their first surfing lesson here given the area’s kind of fierce reputation, especially at this time of year,” says Hedemann. “Then they’re out there surfing and having a total blast in some gorgeous sheltered cove, and you can see that instant, that look on their face, when their whole attitude has changed -- about everything. I love that moment, and so do they.”
Hans Hedemann Surf; +1 808 447 6755; group lessons from US$78 per person, private lessons from US$157 per person; www.hhsurf.com
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