Just coast­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY AN­DREA SACHS

Hop on a sled and whoop it up down the moun­tain.

Stand­ing on the side­lines of the Nor’easter Moun­tain Coaster at New Hamp­shire’s At­ti­tash ski re­sort, I quickly un­der­stood the ef­fect of speed on one’s brain, body and soul: A young boy bar­rel­ing­down­the track screamed like a teenage girl in a slasher flick, then made the sign of the cross. As he slid to a stop, he cracked a frozen grin that looked as if it would take hours to thaw out. Or, with a full sea­son of coas­t­er­ing ahead, make that months.

The alpine coaster, a twisty whirl down a course in a fiber­glass sled, is the new­est adren­a­line rush to ap­pear at ski re­sorts na­tion­wide, pro­vid­ing win­ter thrill-seekers with an­other rea­son to brave the el­e­ments. It’s wilder than a chair­lift and more high-fly­ing than snow tub­ing and, un­like the alpine slide, it op­er­ates year-round. Speeds can reach 25 mph, and brak­ing is op­tional.

“It’s like a roller coaster on the top of the moun­tain,” said Larry Hays, vice pres­i­dent of North Amer­i­can sales for Wie­gand, the Ger­man com­pany that has built more than 150 alpine coast­ers world­wide, in­clud­ing nine in North Amer­ica. “It’s grav­ity all the way down.”

Ea­ger to whip around the moun­tain pow­ered by New­to­nian law, I headed to the only state in New Eng­land that is bi-coaster: the North Con­way re­gion of New Hamp­shire’s White Moun­tains. In late Novem­ber, the re­sorts of At­ti­tash and Cran­more un­veiled their ver­sions of the at­trac­tion. With only 10 miles sep­a­rat­ing the two, I could eas­ily dou­ble up on the ver­tig­i­nous ad­ven­ture. (Else­where on the East­ern Seaboard, the coast­ers are more widely scat­tered: There’s one at Mary­land’s Wisp, at Oke­moinVer­mont and at Jiminy Peak in theMas­sachusetts Berk­shires.)

“ They’re re­ally so dif­fer­ent. I’m ex­pect­ing peo­ple to come ride both of them,” said Cran­more Pres­i­dent Ben Wil­cox, who re­cently met a fam­ily of roller coaster buffs who suc­cess­fully checked Cran­more off their list.

The naked stain­less-steel frame is in­te­grated into the land­scape, trac­ing the lay­out, con­tours and nat­u­ral fea­tures of the moun­tain. At­ti­tash’s ride as­cends 1,420 feet, de­scends 2,880 feet and rib­bons through a serene for­est with bab­bling brooks, an un­kempt gar­den of gran­ite boul­ders and rac­coon prints pressed in the snow. To­ward the bot­tom, it crosses over a trail marked by phan­tom skis. Cran­more’s coaster trav­els 1,300 feet up and 2,400 feet down and par­al­lels a 10-lane tub­ing park. Af­ter ex­it­ing a woodsy sec­tion, pas­sen­gers can catch a glimpse of Mount Washington be­fore it fades into the hori­zon.

“A lot of the ex­pe­ri­ence is about the view and the ter­rain,” Hays said. “We don’t want you to ride one on the East Coast and one on theWest Coast and feel like you were on the same ride.”

Un­like ski­ing and snow­board­ing, coas­t­er­ing re­quires no se­ri­ous time com­mit­ment and in­spires no guilt if you quit af­ter one down­hill. The ride costs a frac­tion of the price of a ski-lift ticket ($12 at At­ti­tash, $9 at Cran­more) and takes less than 10 min­utes to­tal. If you’re re­ally in a rush, skip the brakes and shave three or four min­utes off the clock.

“You have to go down a few times to get a feel for it,” ad­vised Bos­to­nian Kristin Don­ahue, who watched her hus­band, seven kids and grand­fa­ther zoom down At­ti­tash’s coaster. “Once you get more com­fort­able, you will brake less.”

Men­tally ready for my inaugural run, I climbed into one of the Nor’easter’s bright blue ves­sels (each sled is as­signed to a solo driver or two rid­ers whose com­bined weight is no more than 350 pounds). I was at­tached only to the track, a lone car in a dis­as­sem­bled train. An at­ten­dant clicked in the seat belt and pro­vided a quick tu­to­rial: To ac­cel­er­ate, push for­ward on the levers along­side the sled; to brake, pull them back. Then, with an un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous shove, I was off and chug­ging.

A pul­ley sys­tem drags the in­di­vid­ual sleds up the in­cline, giv­ing you time to ad­mire the sur­round­ings. A cro­cheted blan­ket of snow art­fully cov­ered nubby patches of ground. Two rows of ever­greens raised their branches in salute. A man stand­ing be­neath the tracks shouted out pleas­antries. “En­joy! Have fun,” the wood­land crea­ture shouted to my re­ced­ing fig­ure. When I reached the top, yel­low signs warned me to keep my dis­tance from the other par­tic­i­pants (80 feet, or 120 when wet) and, in a self-em­pow­er­ing tone, re­minded me that I was in con­trol of the speed.

And so I was — in the­ory. The cart rolled down, then banked around a wide hula-hoop. On the curve, I in­stinc­tively de­cel­er­ated, which turned out to be a bad idea: I felt as if I were stalled on a precipice and could be eas­ily knocked over by a strong wind or a snow­ball.

At this point in the ride, my eyes were tear­ing from the cold and my hat had been blown to a jaunty an­gle. I was a blub­ber­ing, di­sheveled, deliri­ous mess. A few yards from the start­ing point, the ride crawled to a near-stop and eked out a fin­ish. Game over. I hopped out, ex­ul­tant but fully aware of my flaws: I’d been heavy on the brakes.

On the wooden load­ing deck, I talked to some of the em­ploy­ees about their own ex­pe­ri­ences, se­cretly hop­ing that I wasn’t the wee­ni­est rider in the coaster’s short his­tory. Jim Egan, a com­fort­ing grand­fa­therly type, said his fa­vorite part was the lan­guorous climb up. “I’man old man,” he said. “I en­joy the 61/ minute ride through the for­est.” Bernie Cyr is more ex­treme, at­tempt­ing to com­plete the course with his eyes shut tight. His in­spi­ra­tion: a re­cent vis­i­tor who is vis­ually im­paired. “I try ev­ery time to go a lit­tle far­ther down with my eyes closed,” he said. “But I can’t get past the sec­ond turn.”

When I asked Kent Gra­ham, the gen­eral man­ager, for a cri­tique ofmy per­for­mance, he didn’t hold back: “We no­ticed that you were a lit­tle slow com­ing down. You seemed a lit­tle timid.” I wanted to burymy head in the snow.

Un­de­feated, I left At­ti­tash, which closes at 4 p.m., for Cran­more, which stays open un­til 9 p.m. Here, I could prac­tice un­der cover of night.

Be­neath the inky black sky, the yel­low sleds stood out like sun bolts. As my car­riage crept north, I watched the tu­bers spi­ral down the hill. Along the edges, snow­mak­ing ma­chines shot out gey­sers of finely crushed white di­a­monds.

At the peak, I felt the cable dis­con­nect and I started to free-fall. I pushed for­ward on the con­trols, ig­nor­ing any urge to wrench them back.

I sped to­ward what the Wie­gand de­sign­ers call a “ helix” but I named the “flush­ing toi­let,” for its down, down, down sen­sa­tion. I boldly took the curves, tuck­ing my body into a par­tial can­non­ball. I was liv­ing the dream of a pro­fes­sional alpine coaster racer, un­til the fan­tasy ended and I was asked to please step out of the ve­hi­cle. Pumped up, I dashed to the counter to buy an­other ticket.

On my sec­ond trip, I trailed tguys whose leader kept throw­ing up both arms as if he were on a real roller coaster. Ini­tially, they were many car lengths ahead, but I was quickly clos­ing the gap. To avoid a fender ben­der, I yanked on the brakes.

At the end of the run, one of the rid­ers turned back to me and asked, “Did we slow you down?”

“Yes,” I proudly an­swered, “you did.”



At­ti­tash’s Nor’east­erMoun­tain Coaster, top, whooshes through snowy woods at speeds up to 25 mph. Pas­sen­gers on Cran­more’s coaster, above, await take­off.

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