The first time Kate Duncan rushed down a mountain on an Airboard, she liked it so much she bought her own ’board the next day.
This past Christmas vacation, she and her sisters got Mom to try it, too. One “Oh, God” and an expletive later, 51-year-old Eliza Duncan slid head first on her 4-foot-long, 9-inch-thick air cushion into a powdery snowdrift as her family cheered.
“A lot of my friends wouldn’t do it,” she said on a clear, sunny day on gentle slopes on a public trail, not far from the Snowmass ski resort near Aspen. “I thought it was fun. I just didn’t like losing control.”
From tubing to Airboards to snow bikes, mountain resorts and guides keep looking for excuses to get people outdoors and for new diversions to keep them entertained. Reviews are mixed on whether the Airboard can bolster ski visits the way snowboarding has, but fans promote it as a niche snow sport that doesn’t stress the knees.
An ‘endorphin adrenaline cocktail’
Some say riding an Airboard is like ultimate sledding. People who ride the six-pound Swiss invention slide down snowy slopes face first on polyurethane air cushions that look like blowup rafts with handles and a ridged bottom. Riders have been known to reach speeds of more than 80 mph.
“I call it the endorphin adrenaline cocktail,” said Sun Dog Athletics owner Erik Skarvan, the only guide in Colorado to offer airboarding.
Airboards got their start in Europe, where Swiss engineer Joe Steiner spent 10 years perfecting their design. So far a handful of U.S. resorts — including California’s Sugar Bowl, Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain and Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont — allow airboarding at certain times.
Hoodoo Ski Area in Oregon started allowing snow bodyboards three seasons ago as something new. Of the 869 season passes the ski area had sold by mid-December, two were for people who only do snow bodyboarding, general manager Matthew McFarland said.
“I think airboarding is going to be a small niche market. It’s never going to be like snowboarding,” said McFarland, citing complaints from skiers and snowboarders reluctant to share the mountain or who think it’s an activity for kids.
Still, it’s a fun pastime for families with one person who doesn’t ski or snowboard, or for people with weak knees, McFarland said. In Aspen, more than half of the winter visitors don’t ski or ride, making airboarding a more inclusive activity, Skarvan said.
“If we get 5 percent of our business from it, that could be the difference between bankruptcy and having a good thriving business,” McFarland said.
“It’s like snowboarding. Twenty years ago, everybody thought snowboarders were the devil,” he said. “Now everybody’s saying hallelujah for snowboarding or we’d be out of business.”
A craze that’s spreading
Interest is growing. Emo Gear, the only licensed distributor of the Airboard in North America, started with five U.S. retailers in its first season in 2003. This year it has 90 in the U.S. and Canada, and president Ann-Elise Emerson says this is the first profitable year for the Berkeley, Calif.-based company.
Canaan Valley Resort in West Virginia began offering 18 rental Airboards this season and has sold out a couple of days, spokesman Bryan Brown said.
“We hope that by offering guests one more winter activity that they’ll be more inclined to come to Canaan Valley,” he said. “It’s new, exciting, anybody from 6 to 66 can do it. Unlike skiing or snowboarding, the learning curve is not as steep.”
Kids’ models cost about $149, with the Airboard Classic running about $269.
This past December, Kate Duncan, her 16-year-old sister, Lillian, their parents and a 12-year-old cousin, Garrett Marsh, slung black bags carrying Airboards on their backs and snowshoed up a public trail with Skarvan as their guide.
They pumped up their Airboards within minutes, donned helmets and got pointers from Skarvan to lean their bodies in the direction they wanted to turn and to turn perpendicular to the slope to stop.
Their dad, Johnny, turned with ease on a groomed slope and even experimented with sitting upright and crosslegged on an Airboard.
“It’s a rush. It’s not something you get from skiing,” 25-year-old Kate Duncan said.
Eliza Duncan paused when asked if she would ride an Airboard again.
“I’ll tell my friends to take their kids,” she said, “and watch them.”