It is never too early to put kids on the ski slopes. Why should babies of one, two, and three have to spend their days in some stuffy day care center while parents and older siblings enjoy the thrill of a downhill 'schuss'? So when my wife and I arrived in Steamboat Springs last March, the first thing we did was to buy a pair of 70cm skis for our one and a half year old daughter Eve.
There was only one problem. Even on the smallest setting the simple bear trap style bindings were too large.
Plan B was quickly put into effect. If Eve couldn't ski under her own power, she would ski with me. Or to be more precise, on me.
I put on the Gerry babypack ordinarily used for walking and hiking, bundled her in it, and headed for the mountain.
She loved the ride. For hours she sat contentedly strapped to my back, fearless, revelling in the motion and at the sight of Steamboat's ubiquitous balloons. Steamboat's many intermediate trails, particularly those beginning at the 10,300 foot Sunshine Peak, were our stomping grounds. They offered gentle grooming, excellent spring skiing conditions, and the two most important ingredients cloudless sunshine and warm temperatures.
We were quite an item on the mountain. In an era when amputees and the blind are strapping on skis, I counted only two other backpacking parents during our seven day stay. More than one skier would eye us nervously before exclaiming that skiing with a baby was crazy. Most however were more than a little envious that someone so young had the opportunity to be introduced to the sport and was so obviously enjoying it. There was no shortage of people willing to help in liftlines or to spend a fifteen minute chairlift ride with us.
Skiing with a baby or young child can be a tremendous experience for both parent and child, if it is handled intelligently and prepared for thoroughly. A few common sense precautions will help insure a good, safe time for everyone.
Backpacking a child on the ski slopes is not for everyone, but you don't have to be Jean Claude Killy either. Skiers who are themselves beginners or who are at all lacking in confidence in their skiing ability should ski solo.
There is no reason why sturdy intermediate skiers who can consistently negotiate intermediate trails without falling, avoid erratic skiers, and remain calm in the face of an occasional patch of ice should leave junior in day care. Make a few solo runs before you head out together, to scout out the terrain and polish up that snowplow stop.
Experts who routinely ski the bumps or deep powder, and who are not fazed by New England boilerplate should have few problems adjusting to the additional load, as long as they remember to ski conservatively. Don't be too embarrassed to snow plow. Be content with easy, slow turns. When you want to boogie do it with friends†d† your own age.
When to ski
Next to expertise, weather is the most important consideration. Stay out of the freezing cold, snow, and rain. The last thing you want to do is to have your child's first skiing memories associated with pain and discomfort. Remember while you are working up steam skiing your child is a passenger, at rest, with a system that has difficulty maintaining warmth under the best of circumstances.
Spring weather, when temperatures permit skiing without parkas, and hats don't have to be worn, is both the safest and most enjoyable time of the season to ski together. Babies stay warm and happy, and the large cumulus clouds of March and April give you both something to talk about on the chair.
Equipment and Clothing
Skis should be equipped with bindings and brakes which don't require and bending to enter or remove. Outer clothing should minimize bulk to insure a comfortably fitting backpack. Hats have a tendency to be yanked off by excited children. Sunglasses should be worn with a retaining strap.
There are a number of child carriers on the market suitable for use on the slopes. Features to look for: padded shoulder straps, a waist strap, secure tie-ins for your baby, and the ability to stand upright unattended. I did see one child sitting in a regular rucksack -- an arrangement which offers increased warmth and protection but which lacks the security offered by dedicated child carriers. Before skiing try to put the loaded carrier on and take it off unassisted. You should be able to reach around to your child's arms, legs, and face as well as to kneel down [to pick up a handful of snow for example].
It is vital that your child be protected from the sun as well as cold temperatures. Sunscreen and sunglasses are standard equipment. Hats can be dispensed with if the day is warm enough. Eve wore a baseball cap, with a string attaching it to the carrier. A helmet like those worn when bicycle riding is an added precaution.
Try to minimize the bulk of your child's clothing. A one piece snowsuit eases the task of getting in and out of the carrier and is no doubt more comfortable when sitting than layers of clothing. Winter shoes should be snug. You don't want to lose one while skiing. If the weather warrants, use mittens or a pair of woolen socks to protect the hands. Eve was content to place her bare hands inside the carrier, taking them out only to reach for an occasional handful of snow.
A pacifier, tied by a string to the carrier, saved the day when Eve tired of waiting in liftlines. And, as usual, it helped her sleep when the time was right.
Where to Ski
Avoid deep powder, ice, expert, narrow, or crowded trails. To make sure that you and your baby are compatible, it makes good sense to begin on the 'baby' slopes -- those with the shortest runs closest to the base lodge. I didn't think that Eve and I would progress beyond these easy runs. But Eve was having such a good time that we were soon traveling all over Steamboat's three peaks and up the new 'Silver Bullet' 8 passenger gondola.
When skiing with a baby, it is more important than usual to ski under strict control. Ski defensively, particularly on beginner slopes full of inexperienced skiers. Don't be embarrassed about skiing slowly or reverting to a snowplow or stem christie. Keep to wide, rolling trails which are groomed daily.
During our stay I fell once...and was back on my feet before Eve knew what had happened. If you ski conservatively and your equipment is in tune, your falls, when they occur, will be manageable ones. Skiing with an extra twenty pounds on your back does take some getting used to. If you find yourself tiring, or working too hard to make turns or to maintain moderate speed, take a break.
Riding the Lifts
Every lift, from the lowly ropetow to the gondola can be used by a child-carrying skier. Eve loved to romp around our otherwise empty gondola during the trip to Thunderhead. Chairlifts pose the greatest challenge. Steamboat's lift operators were familiar with our situation and had devised a simple procedure, but you may not be so lucky. With an attendant's assistance,
I would take the carrier off my back and hold it to my chest with Eve's face toward me. One of my arm's was wrapped around the carrier. The other grabbed the chair, which had been slowed to a crawl. Another skier could always be found to take my poles for the ride up the mountain.
I also experimented with simply skiing onto the lift with the carrier in place. It is an easier way to get on the chair, but you are forced to sit forward to make room for the carrier and you have no easy access to your passenger. The pack-off-your-back option is to be preferred.
Most chairlifts out West lack safety bars, unlike their Eastern counterparts. For ten or fifteen minutes you can find yourself concentrating on keeping your child close with one hand while the other is locked around the chair itself. If at all possible, find a partner to share the ride. He or she can hold gloves, lotion, and treats while you organize yourself and keep your bundle occupied.
Getting off a chair is a breeze. Be sure to signal the operator to slow down the lift before you glide down the ramp. Retrieve your poles, refasten the carrier on your back and off you go.
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