The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

February 10, 2013

It’s a Slippery Slope

Filed under: Wanderings — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 12:16 am

As anyone who has lived in the Seattle area for long enough knows, Winter around here is one of those things that tends to just happen every so often, usually on a “whenever it feels like it” basis.  Aside from some scattered snow here and there that has almost entirely missed Bellevue and Seattle, there hasn’t been much actual Winter weather to speak of around here.  It’s reached the point where the various weather people are starting to discuss the potential for a snowless Winter in Seattle.  Given the fact that any snow we do get around here usually tends to be limited to a handful of scattered winter storms that rarely leave more than a few inches at a time, this wouldn’t be particularly unusual, but at the same time it doesn’t quite feel like a proper Winter around here if we don’t get at least some snow every now and then.  This isn’t to say that Winter is done for (I’ve seen snow happen around here as late as mid-April) but the window of opportunity seems to be shrinking rapidly by now.

Nonetheless, even if the Winter weather in the immediate vicinity isn’t quite to your liking, you usually don’t have to go far to find snow around here.  Even though most of the Winter precipitation around here ends up as rain, when you go a couple thousand feet up in vertical elevation you get most of that in snow.  From here, it’s a relatively short drive up I-90 to get to Snoqualmie Pass, where you can typically find all the snow you can possibly handle.  This weekend, me and my friends took a trip up here to do a bit of sledding.  There are a number of places in the area where one could presumably sled from (as long as you don’t mind plunging off a cliff to an untimely demise every once in a while) but the most popular spot seems to be the Sno-Park  area located next to the Iron Horse Trail at Hyak, where a well-maintained sledding hill attracts a pretty good crowd of people on the weekends.

Owing to the mild winters we have around here and a general disinclination on my part to actually seek out snow, I think this is actually the first time that I’ve actually been sledding since my family moved up here from our former home of Los Alamos New Mexico.  Unlike where we live now, Los Alamos is high up enough in the mountains that it actually gets real Winter weather most of the time, to the point that it would take a pretty serious snowstorm (as in somewhere around 12-18 inches or more) before school would even get delayed.  In fact, the winters in Los Alamos are cold enough that the city operates the only NHL-regulation sized outdoor hockey rink in the State of New Mexico (although to be fair, when it comes to professional sports New Mexico has only one triple-A minor league baseball team to its name, so there probably isn’t much competition on that one.)  Los Alamos happens to be built on a bunch of different mesas, which means that there are all sorts of canyons of various sizes in between.  The house we lived in for a number of years before moving here had one of these little canyons behind it (really more of a gulch than an actual canyon if you want to be technical about it, but we called it a canyon anyway) that our backyard kind of merged into, and we would often go exploring in it.  One particularly odd feature of this canyon was that it had a large concrete structure resembling a dam which presumably served as a structural support of some sort for the road above.  You can see it here:

When the weather got cold enough, this structure (which inevitably got called “The Dam”)  would accumulate snow and eventually ice over.  When it did, it made for what was in retrospect probably a fairly dangerous sled run, but one on which me and my siblings spent quite a bit of time during the Winter when conditions permitted.  Eventually ramps started getting formed at the bottom, and a number of the other neighborhood kids started joining in to see who could get the most air off of this.  Based on the picture here it might not actually have been quite as steep as I remember it being (I seem to recall it was somewhere around 25-30 feet tall, but my recollections of that time are pretty vague)  but it was certainly steep enough that a lot of sane people would probably think twice before sledding down something like that.  On the other side of the canyon across from the dam, there was also a more conventional sled hill that saw a fair bit of use, but was a bit of a pain to climb up and generally a lot more uneven, so the dam was generally the preferred route for most of us.

This, on the other hand, was probably a little bit safer (relatively speaking) than the last time I went sledding, but comes with its own special breed of chaos.  After paying a slightly exorbitant parking fee to get into the place, we come to this uniform, well-groomed sled hill, where some guy at the top of the hill controls the traffic.  Basically, a bunch of people line up at the top, then wait for everyone from the previous sled run to move to the sides to climb back up the hill.  Once the run is cleared, the traffic controller calls for everyone to go…  Which they do.  All at once.  Given the fact that the vast majority of sleds have no steering mechanism and a general inclination not to argue with gravity when it decides where it wants you to go at any given moment, this approach tends to make for a lot of near-misses and a decent amount of chaos along the way down and at the bottom.  A berm at the end of the hill slows you down and stops you, and a catch fence keeps you from flying into oncoming traffic on the road below (although given the results of the day’s sledding, I doubt you’d be able to get particularly close anyway.)

For this particular trip, we opted for the standard disc-style sleds.  I can recall using these back when I was a kid, but I don’t seem to recall them having quite this many safety warnings the last time I used one.  I wonder if it would be more or less dangerous if I used the thing in French?  I’m also pretty sure these things were meant more for kids to be using than adults, which means that there’s kind of no good position to go down the hill in on one of these without looking really awkward.  Oh well, it’s not like I’m ever going to see most of these people ever again…

From the top of the hill it actually doesn’t look too bad (or even all that steep, for that matter,) but it’s still plenty of space to get a pretty decent amount of speed going.   There’s also plenty of space to end up doing a decent amount of involuntary spinning on the way down.  In order to demonstrate some of the chaos inherent in the sled run, I decided to try recording a run down the hill on my cell phone.  This probably wasn’t the best idea I’ve had today, but I figure if anything bad happens at least I’ve got the equipment protection plan on my phone, right?

In the course of roughly 20 seconds of sledding down the hill there was one near-miss and a collision with a couple of random strangers at the bottom of the hill.  Of course, even if you’re on the sled you’re probably not going to see most of this, since you pretty much have zero control over which direction you’re facing in.  If you’re lucky you’ll manage to get through the run without crashing into anything or anyone, at which point you’re rewarded with a nice little walk back up the hill to do the whole thing all over again.  All in all it’s probably not the safest way to spend a Saturday no matter where you’re doing it, but if it was safe, it wouldn’t be fun, would it?

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