Alexandria's 'Coolest Hill' Is Where Many Sledders Head

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2005

At noon, the manicured terraces of grass surrounding the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria were empty, a solitary haven to watch the snow gently covering Old Town.

But an hour later, when the last patches of green were covered with snow, a steady parade of SUVs disgorged their tiny passengers of bundled-up hyperactivity and the grounds transformed into a playground where speed, smooth plastic and Gore-Tex ruled.

Soon, the monument area began living up to its reputation as "coolest hill around."

"We heard it's a hot spot for sledding and there are no good hills in Kingston," said Heidi Gallegos, who had schlepped three excited girls with three plastic snow tubes to the monument, just north of the King Street Metro Station. With three shrill screams and a running start, the three plowed down a slope, landing into a pile of giggles and yelps of delight.

Before long, the whole hill echoed with screams and laughter and barking dogs and even fully grown adults who could not resist yelling, "Whoo-hoo!" as they flew down the hill.

There were separate sections for beginners and families -- and for "extreme" riders, who tackled the snow-covered steps and steep inclines in front. Most of the action was on a triangle of a hill at the intersection of Park Road and King Street. It was as if it were designed for sledding: steep enough to get some speed, but not so much that sledders end up in the middle of King Street.

"Oh, it's the best one," said Liam Malakoff, 11, who lives a few blocks away. He said the rhythm of the hill is determined first by the snow, then by the street plows that make it easier for parents to get their kids and equipment to the hill.

Sledders descended on the area quickly.

At lunchtime, no one was around. As seen from the observation deck of the 330-foot monument, the grounds were beautifully serene. By 2:30, there were a little more than a dozen people. And by 3 p.m. nearly 100 blurs of wool hats and plastic sleds were scooting down the white hills.

Malakoff offered a primer on how best to get down the hill. "Take a running start and aim to touch down on a smooth patch," he said with the analytical seriousness of a nuclear scientist.

It worked.

Nearby, the Haggett boys prepared to take a turn. Blair, 15, and Brennan, 13, set up their black "X-Factor" ramp three-quarters of the way down the hill.

For the rest of the afternoon, it served as a magnet for boys of a certain age, who aimed to outdo each other by the height of their jumps and the intensity of their bone-jarring wipeouts.

As young sledders separated into areas by levels of skill and daring, parents also seemed to separate into roles. Moms were at the top of the hill making the final safety check, dads at the bottom, shouting encouragement and keeping their children from sliding into the middle of King Street.

Even the dogs had their day. A excited golden retriever named Jake was able to run full-speed down the hill, wagging his tail all the while.

In the front of the memorial were the oldest sledders.

"You make the jump to over here at around age 12," said Malcolm Squire, 16, of Alexandria. He and his pals, Pat O'Brien and Phil Cooney, also 16, tried their hand -- or their behinds -- going down the granite stairs.

That didn't work. So they took turns flying down the four terraces in front of the monument -- a ride that can make sledders see stars on the way down and cause them to have trouble catching their breath on the way up.

One couple wasn't going to leave all the fun to the kids.

Charlie Delph and Carrie Plummer, both 24, planned for this. The Alexandria couple wanted to buy a pair of adult snow sleds, but Delph could find only one "Snow Comet" left at the sporting goods store.

"So when I came home, she said, 'I get the thing and you get the box,' " he said with a laugh. But she wasn't joking about the box. He came to the hill holding a ripped up Lillian Vernon box.

It didn't work very well -- three yards and a cloud of snow.

But the day was beautiful, everyone was smiling and laughing, and it seemed as if anything was possible.

"She's going to get a cookie sheet!" Delph said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company