It is never too early to put kids on the ski slopes. Why should babies and toddlers have to spend their days in some stuffy day-care center while parents and older siblings enjoy the thrill of a downhill schuss? When my wife and I arrived in Steamboat Springs, Colo., last March, the first thing we did was set out to buy a pair of 70-cm. skis for our 1 1/2-year-old daughter Eve.
There was only one problem. Even on the smallest setting the simple bear-trap-style bindings were too large.
Plan B was quickly put into effect. If Eve couldn't ski under her own power, she would ski with me. Or, to be more precise, on me.
I put on the babypack ordinarily used for walking and hiking, bundled her in it and headed for the mountain.
She loved the ride. For hours she sat contentedly strapped to my back, fearless, reveling in the motion and at the sight of Steamboat's ubiquitous balloons. Steamboat's many intermediate trails, particularly those beginning at the 10,385-foot Sunshine Peak, were our stomping grounds. They offered gentle grooming, excellent spring skiing conditions and the two most important ingredients -- cloudless sunshine and warm temperatures.
We were quite an item on the mountain. In an era when amputees and the blind are strapping on skis, I counted only two other backpacking parents during our seven-day stay. More than one skier would eye us nervously before exclaiming that skiing with a baby was crazy. Most, however, were more than a little envious that someone so young had the opportunity to be introduced to the sport and was so obviously enjoying it. There was no shortage of people willing to help in lift lines or to spend a 15-minute chairlift ride with us.
Skiing with a baby or young child can be a tremendous experience for both parent and child, if it is handled intelligently and prepared for thoroughly. A few common-sense precautions will help ensure a good, safe time for everyone.
Expertise Backpacking a child on the ski slopes is not for everyone, but you don't have to be Jean-Claude Killy either. Skiers who are themselves beginners or who are at all lacking in confidence in their skiing ability should ski solo.
There is no reason why sturdy intermediate skiers who can consistently negotiate intermediate trails without falling, avoid erratic skiers and remain calm in the face of an occasional patch of ice should leave Junior in day care. Make a few solo runs before you head out together, to scout out the terrain and polish up that snowplow stop.
Experts who routinely ski the bumps or deep powder, and who are not fazed by New England boilerplate, should have few problems adjusting to the additional load, as long as they remember to ski conservatively. Don't be too embarrassed to snowplow. Be content with easy, slow turns. When you want to boogie, do it with friends who are a bit older.
When to Ski Next to expertise, weather is the most important consideration. Stay out of the freezing cold, snow and rain. The last thing you want is to have your child's first skiing memories associated with pain and discomfort. Remember that while you are working up steam skiing, your child is a passenger, at rest, with a system that has difficulty maintaining warmth under the best of circumstances.
Spring weather, when temperatures permit skiing without parkas and hats, is both the safest and most enjoyable time of the season to ski together. Babies stay warm and happy, and the large cumulus clouds of March and April give you both something to talk about on the chair.
Equipment and Clothing Skis should be equipped with bindings and brakes that don't require any bending to enter or remove. Outer clothing should minimize bulk to ensure a comfortably fitting backpack. Hats have a tendency to be yanked off by excited children. Sunglasses should be worn with a retaining strap.
There are a number of child carriers on the market suitable for use on the slopes. Features to look for: padded shoulder straps, a waist strap, secure tie-ins for your baby and the ability to stand upright unattended. I did see one child sitting in a regular rucksack -- an arrangement that offers increased warmth and protection but lacks the security offered by dedicated child carriers. Before skiing, try to put the loaded carrier on and take it off unassisted. You should be able to reach around to your child's arms, legs and face as well as to kneel down (to pick up a handful of snow, for example).
It is vital that your child be protected from the sun as well as from cold temperatures. Sunscreen and sunglasses are standard equipment. Hats can be dispensed with if the day is warm enough. Eve wore a baseball cap, with a string attaching it to the carrier. A helmet like those worn when bicycle riding is an added precaution.
Try to minimize the bulk of your child's clothing. A one-piece snowsuit eases getting in and out of the carrier and is no doubt more comfortable when sitting than layers of clothing. Winter shoes should be snug. You don't want to lose one while skiing. If the weather warrants, use mittens or a pair of woolen socks to protect the hands. Eve was content to place her bare hands inside the carrier, taking them out only to reach for an occasional handful of snow.
A pacifier, tied by a string to the carrier, saved the day when Eve tired of waiting in lift lines. And, as usual, it helped her sleep when the time was right.
Where to Ski Avoid deep powder and ice, as well as expert, narrow or crowded trails. To make sure that you and your baby are compatible, it makes good sense to begin on the "baby" slopes -- those with the shortest runs closest to the base lodge. I didn't think that Eve and I would progress beyond these easy runs. But Eve was having such a good time that we were soon traveling all over Steamboat's three peaks and up the new Silver Bullet passenger gondola.
When skiing with a baby, it is more important than usual to ski under strict control. Ski defensively, particularly on beginner slopes full of inexperienced skiers. Don't be embarrassed about skiing slowly or reverting to a snowplow or stem christie. Keep to wide, rolling trails that are groomed daily.
Falling During our stay I fell once ... and was back on my feet before Eve knew what had happened. If you ski conservatively and your equipment is in tune, your falls, when they occur, will be manageable ones. Skiing with an extra 20 pounds on your back does take some getting used to. If you find yourself tiring, or working too hard to make turns or to maintain moderate speed, take a break.
Riding the Lifts Every lift, from the lowly rope tow to the gondola, can be used by a child-carrying skier. Eve loved to romp around our otherwise empty gondola during the trip to Thunderhead. Chairlifts pose the greatest challenge. Steamboat's lift operators were familiar with our situation and had devised a simple procedure, but you may not be so lucky. With an attendant's assistance, I would take the carrier off my back and hold it to my chest with Eve's face toward me. One of my arms was wrapped around the carrier. The other grabbed the chair, which had been slowed to a crawl. Another skier could always be found to take my poles for the ride up the mountain.
I also experimented with simply skiing onto the lift with the carrier in place. It is an easier way to get on the chair, but you are forced to sit forward to make room for the carrier and you have no easy access to your passenger. I preferred the pack-off-the-back option.
Most chairlifts in the West lack safety bars, unlike their eastern counterparts. For 10 or 15 minutes you can find yourself concentrating on keeping your child close with one hand while the other is locked around the chair itself. If at all possible, find a partner to share the ride. He or she can hold gloves, lotion and treats while you organize yourself and keep your bundle occupied.
Getting off a chair is a breeze. Be sure to signal the operator to slow down the lift before you glide down the ramp. Retrieve your poles, refasten the carrier on your back and off you go. Geoffrey Aronson writes on international affairs and is a former ski patrolman.