Slopeside with James Patrick: When they start young, they don't stop
When his dad, Wayne Thompson, stopped in the middle of a blue run at Loon Mountain, West got fidgety. That will happen when a 4-year-old is asked to stop doing pretty much anything he's enjoying.
As Wayne was answering a few hastily considered questions, West slowly slid away from his dad. When told to stop, West briefly considered his options, then hollered, "Let's go!"
"They tend not to like to stop," Wayne said.
They also tend to be pretty amazing skiers. A few hours after the slopeside conversation, West Thompson was dropping off to the sides of a groomed run, gliding over ungroomed snow.
A chairlift away, Kathryn Ventura was zipping around the bunny hill with her sister, Cellà. Kathryn is just 4 years old and had started skiing 24 hours earlier. In ski jargon, she was lapping it. Kathryn would do a whole run and ski straight onto the conveyor belt that would bring her back to the top of the bunny hill.
Why would you ever take a break?
"It's really important if you live in the Northeast to teach them to ski," mother Lizabeth Ventura said. "But it's great to teach them young."
Very young skiers seemingly outnumber very young snowboarders, but Loon Mountain is making an effort to level the playing field. This year, the resort opened a new area just for snowboarders between 3 and 6.
Riglet Park, which is sponsored by Burton, is the least-threatening spot you can imagine for a little kid trying to learn snowboarding. Kids climb up a short platform with a snowboard instructor who will help them slide down a tiny slope. Don't know how to stop? Not a problem. After they go down the slope, snowboarders will ride up a slight incline to stop their momentum. No turning required. They just have to stand on the board.
"It's a low-consequence environment for them to learn in," Loon Mountain marketing manager Kevin Bell said.
Consequences like injured elbows, knees and tailbones can be a huge problem for anybody learning to snowboard.
"From someone who taught himself to snowboard at 7, I was crying my eyes out the whole day," Bell said. "This park changes the game."
Kim Pinkham runs the children's teaching programs at Loon Mountain. She was skeptical when the resort decided to teach 3-year-olds how to snowboard. Some kids she deals with are even afraid to put on their boots.
Pinkham helped develop a curriculum that's low on technique and high on building confidence. The 3-year-olds are only out in Riglet Park for an hour at a time; if the slopes are too intimidating, an instructor will pull young snowboarders across a flat surface with a type of leash.
If the kids' interest or confidence wanes, instructors send them to play on a model train or pet a bear sculpture.
"I wish the skiers could go in it, too," Pinkham said. "I would want to go in it too. Look at all the cool stuff in there."
Skiers already have plenty of help. Visit any resort and you're likely to see parents skiing with a tether around a little one, helping them stand up while they learn how to ski.
At Lake Sunapee a couple of weeks ago, a father was skiing with a pair of his older children while mom led a pre-schooler down the slope. The youngest kid was throwing a tantrum, but he was skiing while he screamed.
Parents will do anything for love ... of skiing.