It’s late November and you’ve been staring at your new skis and snowboard for over a month. You remembered to buy your lift pass before the pre-season deadline and you even went to a couple of the winter sports classes at your health club. You’re are all set for another winter in the Garden City.
But what about those other winter sports? You know, the ones you did before you could afford all those cool toys? Back when you were a kid? For a good time this winter, dig into the cellar of your childhood and rekindle your love affair with sledding.
Picking out a snow-sliding vehicle is the first thing you’ll need to do. It can be anything from a plastic tray to a 3-ski, steering-wheel-enhanced super GT Snowracer. This is the most important decision you’ll make, and it will likely determine how much fun you have. The Snowracer offers a lot more control and even braking capabilities, but it’s heavy and can only carry one person. If you go down, this metal sled isn’t the sort of thing you want to be tangled up with. Your cheapest option is the saucer, a vomit-inducing item, made to spin exactly 180 degrees and stop, facing the rider uphill for the rest of the trip down. This is sledding on a budget. With a saucer you’ll probably only take a couple runs before deciding to check out the interior of your car. Also, there’s a pretty good chance that mint Schnapps will make an appearance at some point during the day. Since boozing usually leads to bruising, smart money is on the inner tube. It doesn’t offer much for steering or braking, but it’s inexpensive and full of air.
Once you have your sled, pick up some acid-washed jeans, earmuffs, and gaiters. If they have some winter boots, great, but most true Montana sledders just wear old tennis shoes. Also look for a couple beer cozies, fingerless gloves, and maybe a scarf to finish out your outfit. No one will ever guess that this is your first time sledding since you were ten.
Don’t know where to go? When we get snow in town, most people pack their sleds up to Blue Mountain (Drive south on Highway 93 and turn right just past the circular athletic club on your way to Lolo. Follow the signs for Blue Mountain. You’ll know you are in the right place when you recognize the same trucks, inner tubes, mullets and Budweiser cans that you saw all summer on the Blackfoot River). This hill is popular because it’s steep, has a great run-out, and you can park right at the bottom. This is a bonus for your non-sledding, cooler-guarding friends.
However, If you are serious about getting in some quality runs and don’t want to be in a crowd, you may want to try something different. The Rattlesnake area has a good hill, not as steep or long as Blue Mountain but more open and more private. (Drive up the Rattlesnake, take a left on Sawmill Gulch road and drive until you reach the gate, park here. The hill is just past the gate about one city block up the road to you left.) Or try my childhood favorite on Farviews hill. (Start up Pattee Canyon, take your first right on Whitaker, then a left on Westview. The street will curve up and to the right, when it flattens out, find a place to park.) Look to your left across the gully, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Halfway down the slope there should be a pile of snow and some kids wandering around beneath it. They are looking for the teeth they just knocked out on their jump; that’s right where I lost most of mine. This spot offers long rides and is relatively undiscovered so you won’t have to worry about crowds.
All through history, hot-shot sledders have eventually progressed to standing up on their sleds. If that hot shot is still in you, maybe this will get your attention. Get a hold of someone’s old skateboard and lather up the bottom with some ski wax and an iron. Be sure you take off the trucks and wheels first or you’ll have a hard time, and forget about that rocket science degree. One of the best places to try this is Whitaker Park, also up on the South Hills. (Go back to Pattee Canyon and turn again on Whitaker. This time go past Westview and continue uphill towards Shadows Keep restaurant. About halfway up you’ll see it on your right.) This grassy area has a good shallow slope that gives you just the right amount of speed for good balance. Sound silly? If you’d thought of this 20 years ago you might be the millionaire who invented snowboarding.
Winter seems to have changed from a calendar season into ski season. Remember there is plenty of fun to be had this winter. Take a minute to reminisce about what it feels like to be on a sled atop a hill the moment you let yourself go. Amusement parks make a fortune off that moment, and winter offers it to us for free. All we need to do is keep praying for snow.