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Airboarding: Surfing the Slopes, Belly-First

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And finally, if the Winter Olympics are giving you fantasies about plunging downhill on a sled, we have a way for you to get that feeling without going all the way to Turin, Italy. It involves a sleek inflatable sled and a cooperative ski resort. Reporter Tom Banse found one in Oregon Central Cascades.

TOM BANSE reporting:

Okay. The intrepid reporter's staring down a steep slope. Slalom gates that he hasn't seen since high school, but we'll give it the college try.

Unidentified man: Racer ready? Ten seconds, five seconds, ready, go.

BANSE: A big puffy sled hurdles me down the mountain. Different from the Yankee Flyer you might have grown up with, this one you can control and handle. If you get going too fast, you can do a somersault like I did, or pivot and skid to a stop like a skier.

Ms. TERRI SMITH: You can throw it in the sled category, but really it's not a sled. And they're starting to now have their own category out there, bodyboards for snow.

BANSE: Terri Smith was offering free introductory rides on one brand among the new generation of high-performance sleds. A Swiss man invented the airboard as a way to stay on the slopes while recovering from ripped tendons. Smith says it's caught on big in Europe, but in the U.S. it remains an eye-catching novelty. Over and over the (unintelligible) rep answers, what is that, next to her pile of gray airboards.

How many people have died on these airboards?

Ms. SMITH: No. No one has died on an airboard.

BANSE: Snowborder Shane Behornsted(ph) decides to try out the new toy, egged on by a friend. Smith issues the tall fellow a mandatory helmet and sends him and his buddies to the top of the slalom course.

Mr. SHANE BEHORNSTED (Snowboarder): I might give up snowboarding for airboarding, but we'll see how I do here.

BANSE: What was your first reaction when you saw these things?

Mr. BEHORNSTED: It looks like fun and hopefully it's not as dangerous as it looks.

BANSE: One by one the twenty-something man and his friends take a short running start and flop headfirst onto the course. They quickly get the hang of carving turns by shifting weight or dragging a foot. A handful of ski areas nationally embrace the new ride, but it's unwelcome elsewhere just like back in the days when snowboarders were considered out-of-control menaces. The airboard company won over Hoodoo Ski Area general manager Matthew McFarland partly because McFarland loves to sled.

Mr. MATTHEW MCFARLAND (General Manager, Hoodoo Ski Area): They brought me a sled that they claimed was super maneuverable. People do that all the time; oh, we have this sled that's so maneuverable. It's the best thing in the world. You can stop it on a dime. Will you allow it on the hill? And I always tell them, yes, I'd love to test it; and then, you know, it never works. Well, luckily, to my surprise, the airboard works.

BANSE: Hoodoo is a smaller ski area in its third year renting and selling airboards. McFarland hopes it increases the resort's family appeal; for example, to parents with tired knees. He's frequently asked if high-performance sledding is the next big thing. The GM is skeptical.

Mr. MCFARLAND: People love it, but with resorts being tentative towards letting people do it everywhere, you know, it's hard to sell. Hard to tell people to go out and pay, you know, $280 to buy an airboard when you can't go use it anywhere.

BANSE: At least if you want a chairlift ride uphill, Hoodoo is the only U.S. resort to give the low-to-the-ground riders full mountain access. Others restrict the boards to certain nights or runs. Later this month the Oregon resort hosts a downhill race where thrill seekers can attempt to break the American speed record on an airboard. The pace to beat is 62 miles per hour.

For NPR News I'm Tom Banse near Satheum(ph) Pass, Oregon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Banse covers business, environment, public policy, human interest and national news across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be heard during "Morning Edition," "Weekday," and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.