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.