BARTLETT, N.H. -- Andrew Johnson has dropped into massive halfpipes and ridden high over their solid walls. The 17-year-old Rochester rider finished a respectable 22d in last month's US Snowboard Grand Prix in Park City, Utah.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Johnson was in the terrain park on Thad's Choice at Attitash Bear Peak, among the 40 or so skiers and snowboarders taking turns launching onto a 10-foot piece of steel, about 3 feet high and 4 inches across, during a rail jam.
"The thought of falling on a piece of steel is more scary than falling on snow," he said.
Riding the rails has taken on new meaning. To old-schoolers, riding the rails recalls a time of wooden skis. The snowboard, along with the microwave and MP3 player, hadn't been invented yet. Ski trains from Boston and New York whisked skiers to the slopes of North Conway, Rangeley, and Stowe.
For new-schoolers, riding the rails is a grind. With maybe a bump thrown in if things don't go well. Do the trick, take off the board, hike back up, and do it again.
While mom, dad, and the grandparents are on the slopes in pursuit of the perfect turn on corduroy carpets, the kids are in the terrain park. It's not just a place for huge mounds of sculpted snow anymore. Pieces of molded steel have entered onto the scene.
Dave "Hooter" Van Houten has watched the development of terrain parks and halfpipes. He's the terrain park manager at Stratton in southern Vermont, home of the US Open, and also runs his own terrain park and halfpipe design company, SnowPark Management Limited, which has worked with mountains like Wachusett, Cannon, and Pats Peak.
"Kids will spend money on a lift ticket and then hike one rail all day," he said.
Skateboarding gave birth to rail riding, according to Van Houten. Regular rails for staircases were a beacon for street skaters on concrete. Skaters-turned-snowboarders in winter started showing up at ski areas and did tricks on the rails around the resorts. That didn't sit well with management. Trying to control a potentially dangerous situation, they gave them what they wanted, and rails started to appear in terrain parks, a magnet for courageous young skiers and snowboarders. Eventually, rails started making it to high-level competitions.
Rails come in all shapes and sizes, rounded and flat. Straight rails, semi-circular rainbow rails, trapezoid-like battleship rails, box rails, step-down rails, kinked rails, and S-rails are but a sampling. Then things get fancy, and features from rails can be combined, like a dropped rainbow rail. There are companies that manufacture rails, or ski areas can make their own if they have a staffer knowledgeable in welding. Rail kits can start at around $375, while finished rails start at about $500. Rails also need to be maintained to ward off rust and burrs, a rough edge that can cause a painful change in a slider's flight pattern.
Ability dictates height and length of the right rail to try. A beginner might start out on a 10-foot-long straight rail a foot off the ground. But they get longer and higher. During the rail contest at Attitash Bear Peak, skiers and snowboarders took off from snow to steel, sometimes switching. They tried 180-degree spins, 270-degree maneuvers, and tail grabs. Snowboarders had one foot in the binding, another out. Some looked smooth, graceful. Others slid and fell, a grind then a bump.
They spoke of flight, fun, variety, and challenges. But that steel was always on their mind.
"Keep your legs closed," advised skier Jake Dube, a 19-year-old University of New Hampshire construction management major. "I've never straddled a rail. I'm very afraid of that."
Boards and steel also can do a number on the bottom and edges. Like skiers who have rock skis for times when snow is not at a premium, there are those who have boards just for rails. A handful of ski and snowboard manufacturers are coming up with rail-specific boards, as well.
High school senior Eric Page, 17, of Pelham, N.H., flipped over his skis to expose the mangled edges. "The metal edges are ruined," he said. "I go through a couple of boards a season."
Not all young skiers and riders are fearless. Veteran snowboard coach Dave Paulger was watching the contest from the sideline with his students, ranging in age from 8 to 12. A few of the kids, he explained, woke up and signed up for the contest. Then they got closer to the rails, watched a while, and opted out.
"The rails are probably the scariest things to do," said Paulger. "When you make a mistake, it hurts more. The halfpipe is relatively easy and there are no big metal things in the way."