The hills are alive with daredevil kids Sledding: The powdery Blizzard of '96 has been the adventure of a young lifetime for boys and girls and their tubes and saucers and sheets of cardboard.

January 15, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

The sign says: "The Baltimore Country Club believes sledding on these hills to be dangerous. We neither permit nor condone sledding."

Yeah, yeah, thinks Earl Hartman as he surveys the perfect winter vista that stretches below to Falls Road. He flops belly first onto a snow tube and lets fly from the top of what is known as Suicide Hill.

"Yea, Earl!" his buddies cheer as the 14-year-old Boys Latin student bounces rudely down the rutted slope.

Since the blizzard struck, 20 chums from Boys Latin, Gilman, Loyola High School and Roland Park Country School have gathered daily to flirt and to goad one another into death-defying flights across the former golf course. "We've been down here all week," says Christina Smith, a 15-year-old student at Roland Park Country School.

No wonder. Sledding like this comes once in a childhood -- if you're lucky.

Ordinarily, snow in these parts is a shallow gift that might arrive once or twice a winter. When it does, kids urgently grab their sleds and make as many runs as possible before meltdown.

But this winter, bounteous, lavish, abundant snow has shrouded the state. Snow that allows sledders the luxury of perfecting techniques, testing new snow toys, choosing optimum hours to hit the slopes in between gulps of hot cocoa.

From North Charles Street to Millersville to Columbia to Chinquapin Middle School to downtown Baltimore and beyond -- wherever there is a hill, a slope, a hollow or even a stairway packed with snow -- there are kids whooshing in a powdery spray of exultation.

"This is the first blizzard I ever really lived through," says Blake Foster, an 11-year-old who has been alternately sledding in his Annapolis backyard and on the backside of St. John's College.

Blake takes a scientific approach to breaking land speed records on his black plastic sled. "Nobody can figure out how I go so fast," says Blake, a student at St. Mary's in Annapolis. "The main key is just being able to position your weight in the right place at the right time."

That advice is key when Blake and his friend Charlie Struse, 10, who goes to the Key School, try not to wipe out while steering their sleds down a ski jump built by St. John's students.

His cheap black sled rides just as fast as saucers and toboggans, if not faster, Blake says. "They can't give you as much of the feeling that you're on the Jamaican bobsled team."

Each sledding spot spawns its own downhill tricks. At St. John's, sledders cover themselves in garbage bags and leap. "It's called the human bobsled," Blake explains.

In hilly Cape St. Claire in Anne Arundel County, kids hook their legs together in a snow tube train, zoom down their steep road and lift off from the snow ramp below like a haywire roller coaster.

In Baltimore's Wyman Park off of Tudor Arms Avenue, kids practice their luge moves, lying on their backs on plastic sleds and catching a face full of snow as they endure a punishing course of moguls. The sledless improvise with cardboard, plastic and a blue children's swimming pool that promises better than it gives. At least that's what the two dogs who bail out think. Their owners continue a sluggish descent.

While moms and dads perform snow traffic control, one kid careens down in a plastic sled that looks like a baby's bathtub or maybe a tiny coffin. Some local teen-agers maneuver snow boards while sullen girlfriends smoke and watch. Johns Hopkins students launch two to a tube from the park's peak. With the last big bump, they're airborne while the tube stays put.

Most of the sledders here stick with the tried-and-true: saucers and cheap plastic sleds. Flexible Flyers, another old standby, can't do much in snow this deep. No one turns up with one of the fancy new sleds that are just beginning to hit the market.

Designed for speed and style, the new generation of sleds with names like LagerLuge and SnowBlade offer the same kind of cutting-edge cache as in-line skates and snowboards.

A small number of Snow-Kats, a $119 sled made of steel, tarpaulin and polyethylene, sold out at Princeton Sports.

Still, the store's most popular snow toy has been the low-tech Swiss Bob, an aerodynamically correct plastic sled with handles that resembles the cafeteria trays used by thrill-seeking college kids on snowy campuses. "Over a thousand" Swiss Bobs have sold at $19.95 a piece this season, according to Princeton Sports vice president, Paul Davis.

Whether the sled is high-tech or low-tech, every snowy hill is a powerful magnet for young daredevils. On the short, steep hill that drops to Mount Royal Station at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, a brutal snow bump threatens the vertebrae of all who attempt it. All the more reason to hit it, according to Guy Newton and brothers Gabe and Brian Connolly.

Gabe, 13, demonstrates: He hops on a cheap red plastic sled, flies down the slope, rams the bump and gets air, legs akimbo. Ploof! He lands hard on his back and comes back for more.

It looks dangerous and sometimes it is. The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 33,000 people a year -- more than half of them younger than 16 -- require emergency-room treatment because of sledding accidents.

But so far, no serious sledding injuries have been reported by Baltimore area hospitals, thanks to the powdery, forgiving snow and the difficulty of getting to sledding hot spots, according to spokesmen at Union Memorial, St. Joseph and St. Agnes hospitals.

The teens at the Baltimore Country Club trade tales of past sledding accidents with a shrug. They have seized this snow day with no bruises or contusions. Suicide Hill is littered here and there not with bodies but with the bright debris of shattered plastic saucers, no match for the bumps and rocks that daredevils have hit with deliberate accuracy.

The sensation is more fun than painful, the group agrees.

"It's a combination of both!"

"It's fun pain!"

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