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Originally published January 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 2, 2007 at 6:31 AM

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Which is easier? Learning to ski or snowboard? Get on board and find out

"Is that them? Is that them? ... Yes, that's them! " That was my wife, Jen, and I a few weeks ago as we floated in midair above our son...

Special to The Seattle Times

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MOUNT BAKER — "Is that them? Is that them? ... Yes, that's them!"

That was my wife, Jen, and I a few weeks ago as we floated in midair above our son, Baker, and his friend, Jacob Hoyos, down on the snowa firma below us, taking their first snowboard lesson. From our passing vantage point of Mount Baker Ski Area's Chair 7, we felt like we were hovering above the boys in a hot-air balloon. We watched as Bake, a month shy of 8, slid down the green Expresso run in good form — knees bent, back straight — skidding on his heel-side, and came to a controlled stop where Jake and instructor Jon Hansen watched and waited. Then Jake hopped up and proceeded down the slope the same way. On a bitter cold (12 degrees), not-a-cloud-in-the-sky Friday, the two second-graders leapfrogged their way down the hill, staying upright for long stretches and taking none of the nasty, surprise spills that I remembered from my beginner days.

They're both active, athletic, skateboarding kids, but we were pleasantly surprised at how well they were doing. I'd always heard how much harder it is for kids to pick up snowboarding than skiing.

If you go


Learning the ropes (and chairlifts)

Where

All ski areas offer newbie drop-in, one-day instruction for skiers and snowboarders of all ability levels. In addition, multi-day and multi-week lessons are worth looking into. Here is a sampling :

Mount Baker Ski Area (www.mtbaker.us): Best for Beginners Ski and Snowboard Package. Two-day program for those 7 and older includes lesson, equipment and beginner lift ticket. Those who complete both days also get a T-shirt. Cost: $45.52 per day. Mount Baker also has ski lessons for kids 4 to 6, and terrain-park sessions for those 10 and older. Check the Web site or call 360-734-6771 for more information.

Stevens Pass (www.stevenspass.com): EZ 123 program for those 13 and up includes three days of lessons, equipment and beginner lift ticket. Cost: $149. Also, three half-day lessons, rentals and lift tickets for skiers age 5 to 6 and snowboarders age 7 to 12, for the same price. Three- and six-week programs start at $79 (lessons only). Information, call 206-812-4510.

The Summit at Snoqualmie (www.summitatsnoqualmie.com): EZ Ski/Ride 1-2-3 for those 10 and older includes three days of lessons, equipment and beginner lift ticket. Cost: $99. Also, many options for young children and teens in the ski area's Consecutive Week lesson program. Information, call 425-434-7669.

Crystal Mountain (www.skicrystal.com): Crystal's EZ Ski/EZ Ride 1-2-3 program (similar to the above programs) for those 12 and older costs $150. Also offers four-week programs starting at $120, equipment and lift ticket not included. Call 360-663-3030.

White Pass (www.skiwhitepass.com): EZ Ski/EZ Ride 123 costs $109 for ages 5 to 12, $115 for those 13 and older. Call 509-672-3100.

Mission Ridge (www.missionridge.com): Easy 1-2-3 for those 13 and older costs $139. Three-pete offers the same (three days of lessons, equipment and lift tickets) for skiers age 4 to 12 and snowboarders age 6 to12. Also, several consecutive-week options for young children and teens. Call 509-663-6543.

"You can have kids taking ski lessons as young as 3 years old, but with snowboarding, 7 is about the earliest you'd want to start," said Dave Beckwith, snow sports director at the Summit at Snoqualmie. "The ability to walk around with a pair of skis is closer to your everyday motion, and small kids are much more comfortable with that as opposed to having both feet locked into a board."

Helping with earlier start

In recent years, adjustments and innovations have made learning to snowboard a bit easier, especially for kids. The American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI) and Burton Snowboards have been advocating the LTR (Learn to Ride) instruction program that's filtered down through ski areas everywhere. Burton has come out with special LTR boards and boots that feature innovations such as beveled snowboard edges that are more forgiving and reduce the likelihood of taking those dreaded surprise butt- and face-plants.

"The LTR message is to get them to use the board more," said Devin Mettler, manager at the Summit Learning Center and himself a snowboard instructor for 12 years. "To get them to do toe-side turns, I'll say, 'Squish the bug with your toes' or 'Push your heel button,' for heel-side. Just let the board do most of the work."

Mount Baker has been snowboard-heavy for years, but even at the Summit, snowboarders outnumber skiers by a 60-40 margin among 18 year olds and under taking one-time lessons. An eye-opening statistic for ski areas nationwide, however, is that of all skiers and boarders who take a one-time, drop-in lesson, only 15 percent return to try either one again.

"It's kind of a disturbing message for the industry," Beckwith said.

The bright side is that those who try skiing or boarding three or more times in close succession will likely become lifetime snow sliders. To that end, local ski areas offer killer, multi-lesson intro deals: the Summit, Stevens Pass, White Pass and Crystal Mountain have three-day programs that include rentals, lessons and lift tickets for reduced prices. (About $150 at Stevens and Crystal; $109 at White Pass; $99 at the Summit.)

When it comes to the Summit's Consecutive Week Programs in which participants take lessons over a four- to 10-week period, the student make-up is 70 percent skiers. "Skiing is just easier to pick up for kids, especially small ones," said Beckwith. "Parents want to know they're signing their kids up for something that they have a better chance of succeeding at." Thus, it's not likely that anytime in the near future, ski areas will have nothing but snowboarders.

Wasted no time

When we arrived at the Mount Baker Ski Area, Bake and Jake sprang from the car to run and slide on the parking-lot ice. My initial reaction was to rein them in — parking lot, you know; cars and all; someone else's kid, etc. — until I remembered what Gwyn Howat, the ski area's spokeswoman, marketer, photographer and all-around ski area everything, had told me earlier.

"A big part of the first day for kids is figuring out whether they're goofy [right foot forward] or regular [left foot forward]," Howat said. "A great way to figure that out is by having them run and slide on the ice and watch which foot they put forward. For 75 percent of the kids, that's generally accurate."

(The majority of riders are left-foot forward, thus it's called regular. Goofy is a playful term for the minority who ride with their right foot forward.)

Making sure they had a clear sliding area — no problem as it was a surprisingly dead Friday morning — they took turns sliding. Verdict: Jake was normal, Bake was goofy. (In a manner of speaking; Jake and Bake are pretty much two peas in a pod.) And even though Bake skateboards goofy, it wasn't a no-brainer that he'd be the same on a snowboard; there are snowboarding pros who skateboard one way but surf the snow the other.

Fitted with gear, which can take some time, especially on busy weekends and holidays, we headed outside where we met up with instructor Hansen, a tall, amiable sort from Bothell. On a wide, slightly downhill pitch, just outside the ski area's lower White Salmon Day Lodge, he worked to get the boys comfortable with having their feet strapped into flat, wide planks of wood almost as long as they are tall.

"Pretend you're a quarterback waiting for the snap," Hansen instructed, standing with his knees slightly bent, back mostly straight, if slightly tipped forward, and hands up, like he's just about to receive a football. "Now, let's hear your football player grunt: 'Huh! Huh!' "

With that, the boys took turns sliding downhill for about 75 feet, fearlessly gathering speed until a slight lean caused their board to turn, throwing off their balance and depositing them in the snow. Getting up, laughing like fools, they recounted how fast they'd been going (maybe walking speed) and how awesome they were.

"That's right, but try to do it without scarecrowing," (locking your knees and sticking your arms straight out to the side to catch your balance), Hansen said.

After working on heel-side and toe-side sliding, Hansen introduced the boys to skating — the ungraceful one-foot-in, one-foot-out form of locomotion snowboarders have to resort to in flat spots and when they're approaching a lift. (Skating seems an unlikely term for it; to me, it looks like the way you'd walk if you were trying to get away from an animal that had sunk its teeth into your ankle and wouldn't let go.)

Then it was on to Chair 7. They boarded the lift without incident and as they floated higher and higher, Jen and I realized after an eight-year (or so) hiatus, that part of our lives that focused on sliding down snowy mountains might very well be returning to us.

(Up until now, Bake's been mostly indifferent to skiing and snowboarding and we weren't about to foist it on him.) We'd likely become a snowboarding family.

"Was that them heading up the mountain? Was that really them?"

We couldn't believe it.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of several guidebooks including "Insiders' Guide to Bellingham and Mount Baker" (Globe-Pequot) and "Day Hike! Central Cascades" (Sasquatch Books). Contact him through his blog at www.mcqview.blogspot.com

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