Sunday, February 13, 2005

Test (tube) pilots

Friday night, Gail and I went over to Montage Mountain to go snow tubing. (See Gail's account at Snowtubing Postmortem). It's just 4 miles from our house; kind of smallish for a ski slope, but very convenient to have nearby. We haven't skied in a while, and I had never snow tubed - so we figured our marked lack of experience would be entertaining.

If you've never been, the idea is to travel down a snowy incline after the manner of a sled, riding on an inflated truck tire tube.

Since the tube is round, it has no particular stem or stern, and will travel freely in any direction.

Since it is elastic and filled with air, it will transmit shocks from the irregular terrain to the rider, so as to eject said rider in a random direction.

Since it is smooth on the bottom, the coefficient of friction over the packed, icy snow on the ramp is quite low and provides a startling terminal velocity.

In short, great fun. Unlike skiing, where instruction is available and encouraged, anyone can go out and tube with no lessons or safety briefings of any kind. In this state we bought our lift passes and went up the hill.

There is a cable tow to pull you up the hill; a little awkward to mount and dismount the tube, and it made me feel a little lazy. Our first time up, confronted with the steep ramps before us, we cautiously seated ourselves on the tubes and let go. (You can ride upright, prone, or any weird position you like; again, no instructions!)

Off we went into the frigid night air - picking up speed fast. With my feet in front, I put my boots down to brake a little; instantly I was showered in the face with a spray of ice from my feet. OK, that's better; what I can't see can't hurt me, right? Spinning around, bouncing along faster...

Rather than teach the patrons to stop, the management found it expedient to simply stretch a broad net across the slope, to catch anyone who would otherwise shoot off the ramp and continue on down to the Interstate. It caught me; a moment later, it caught Gail, in grand fashion. She hit hard, so hard that the tube shot straight up and came down on her! But we were laughing, damp but undamaged, and we got in line for another try.

On my third run I switched to prone position, going down headfirst on my belly; the best way for speed and visibility. You have a modicum of control by dragging your toes on one side or the other, or both at once to slow down. Each time we went down, I got a little more confident, and a little faster, once I knew how much stopping power I had. Gail switched to headfirst, too.

It was getting colder, and we took a break to warm ourselves by the bonfire with some hot chocolate. When we resumed, the line was much shorter, so our runs came closer together. I noticed that the braking action was wearing the polish off the front of my leather boots! But by now I was hooked, and bent on raw speed. I could be almost airborne by the second steep section, really moving, and still stop in a shower of ice at the bottom.

We managed to squeeze in ten runs before the lift closed at 10:00, so we figured we got our money's worth from the lift pass. We were chilled to the bone, but it was a blast; we cranked up the car heater and headed down the mountain. Back home, we thawed ourselves with a hot shower, and settled in for a movie; but I was spent, and was asleep before the first hour.