Slopeside with James Patrick: For high-flying tubers, landing is in the bag
Klink puts his arms above his head in a big circle, telling Grady the run is open. Grady nonchalantly waddles ahead on his snowboard and begins sliding down the mountain. What happens next seems anything but routine.
Grady launches off a jump, formed of rock-hard snow. The jump, angled at about 40 degrees, launches Grady into space. He leans back and poses in midair until his snowboard hits a giant airbag with a satisfying thump.
Just another day on the mountain for the teenage student at Cardigan Mountain School.
The airbags are the latest must-have item for New Hampshire ski resorts hoping to train competitive snowboarders and skiers.
Mount Sunapee's airbag is 50 feet long by 50 feet wide. With only air filling its two chambers, the airbag stands about 10 feet tall. The soft landings the bag all but guarantees make it possible for Grady and his classmates to make the impossible seem possible. They get confidence in their ability to do tricks by practicing where the landings don't really matter.
"You don't have to worry about the part that hurts," said Curt Gebo, a Sunapee terrain park employee.
But you don't have to be a teenage thrill-seeker to get into the airbag. While other resorts have the airbags for skiers and snowboarders, Sunapee caters to those who are less bold. Sunapee has built a snow tubing track next to the ski jump. It costs $6 for one tubing run into the bag and $15 for three. It's money well-spent for a quick thrill.
It's a winter version of going down a waterslide. You walk about 100 yards up the mountain. Gebo stands atop the run and signals down to Klink, asking if it's OK to send someone down the run. It is. Keep your hands, feet and posterior off the ground and hold on to the tube, you're told.
It's a helpless feeling, especially when the tube spins a little and you're going down a chute of ice backward. The tube launches, you briefly get a nice view of everything around the airbag, and you land. As long as you don't land awkwardly, it's about as easy as jumping up and landing on a soft bed.
The idea is to make landings easy for people doing tricks. Loon Mountain, Pat's Peak and Gunstock also have an airbag. Sunapee has around 400 kids in its weekend ski program and needed an airbag to keep up with the competition. The ski club, ski team parents and the resort pooled resources to buy the airbag. The bags typically cost between $30,000 and $35,000.
"The main trick people try to learn is backflips," Gebo said. "The thing is, people lack confidence. If they try it on the mountain, they lean back but then try to go forward again and it ends up in a taco.
"With the airbag, it lets you try things like that for the first time."
Buying the bag is the hard part. All it takes to run the bag are a couple of employees - Klink and Gebo - and three industrial fans.
The bag is open only for ski team training on weekend mornings. On weekend afternoons, it's open for skiers, snowboarders and tubers.
"Around 2:30 or 3:30 in the afternoon, people see a crowd and come over," Klink said. "It's a big hit."
And for $6, relative to the price of lift tickets, it's a cheap thrill.
James Patrick's ski column is a weekly feature of the Union Leader.