Better off sled

Sledding is free. It provides the same adrenaline-rush of most intense winter sports. There are great locations nearby. What’s stopping you?

Photo By David Robert

Stretched down before me was a steely white descent steeply sloping until it finally leveled out feet away from the Mount Rose Highway, like a frosty slide to perdition. I yelled down to my boyfriend, Raymond, that I was shaking in my Gortex boots. I’d sledded mild hills—those at Bower’s Mansion or McQueen High School or random decent ditches on the outskirts of town—but nothing like this.

I was as concerned about any embarrassment I might suffer as a result of going down the hill almost as much as I was genuinely afraid. I didn’t doubt that I would pee my pants—just a tad, of course—in fear and excitement when I hit the jump that was three-quarters of the way down the hill. At least I was decked out in long underwear and waterproof pants. There were hardly any people around, anyway.

From the bottom of the hill, Raymond yelled for me to stop procrastinating. It would only make it more terrifying when I finally took the plunge.

“I need some more encouragement than that,” I hollered.

“Hold tight onto your inner tube,” Raymond said. “If you let go, it’ll really hurt when you hit the snow.”

This was the only counsel extended to me on my first serious (aka dangerous) sledding excursion. That and: “Head first! On your stomach!” Mr. Gravity and Ms. Sanity told me this was the only way I did not want to go down. Raymond, however, never having met Sanity and only having heard rumor of Gravity, shouted otherwise. He said I would have the most control going down like a whale preparing to beach itself—neck craned, head thrown firmly back, tummy thrust resolutely into the inner tube, legs hanging limply behind as if I didn’t even have them.

The stark winter sun glinted off the snow in the places where it had not been sullied by mud. I sure hoped it was mud. The angle of the incline had to be at least 60 degrees over a course of 60 feet, with a substantial jump at the end, followed by 30 feet of level plane before kissing the road. This seemed enough space to glide to a stop, unless a person were inclined to grease the bottom of her sled with a lubricant à la Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, creating a surface “500 times more slippery than any cooking oil.” Surely thrilling but not recommended, if you ask me.

John Keesee watches out for broken tailbones and dangerous sledding behavior on the slopes at Galena Creek Park.

Photo By David Robert

“I’ll be down in a sec,” I yelled. “I want to wait until my heart calms down.”

“You’re only making it worse.”

Sledders green and seasoned are found at the Mount Rose summit from the first decent snowfall (one foot or more of snow) of the year through the last. If your car doesn’t have the poop to make it all the way up the hill, or if you don’t want to use the gas, or if the road is closed or chains are required thanks to a winter storm, your best bet—your safest, closest-to-Reno bet—is Galena Creek Park. Galena Creek typically opens to sledders in mid-January, but the early dump we had in December meant otherwise. It’s only a 20-minute drive from downtown Reno.

Park Ranger John Keesee has been overseeing the sledding hill at Galena Creek Park for five years. He’s been in the park service for 15 and spends the drier, warmer months at Rancho San Rafael Park. Keeping warm in black rubber snow boots, green snow pants, fat, fleece-lined gloves and a gray denim bomber jacket, he spends most of his days standing at the bottom of Galena’s two maintained sledding hills—one’s steep and straight, the other is moderate and meandering. Keesee’s the sledding equivalent of a lifeguard.

He wears a green park ranger hat and a silver star that says “Washoe County Park Ranger,” so people know to listen when he advises them to behave more safely (this usually means getting out of the way as soon as your sled reaches the bottom of the hill and climbing back up the hill along the side of the slope, not the middle), and they know to go to him when there’s an emergency.

“The thing that people like about this hill is that there are park rangers watching out for sledders, and we are all first responders,” Keesee says. “It makes it great if there’s an injury. We had one lady who broke her tailbone a few weeks back. There are accidents of a similar nature three to four times a year.”

Tailbone and other injuries tend to occur when sledders hit bumps or moguls and lose their tubes or sleds, landing hard on compact snow. Whenever there’s fresh snowfall, Keesee and his fellow rangers smooth out the moguls.

“Sledding is a dangerous sport,” Keesee says, “We’re seeing more kids whose parents are making them wear helmets. The snow gets packed pretty hard. At night it turns into ice, which makes you go faster.”

During winter break, 700 to 800 sledders young and old visited Galena Creek Park every day.

Photo By David Robert

During the holiday break, Galena Creek received 700 to 800 visitors a day, making it the most popular sledding locale in the Reno-Tahoe area. Now that school’s back in session, there are 30 to 40 people a day. Keesee says history has a bit to do with the park’s popularity—"This place has been popular for sledding and skiing since the 1930s.”

Wooden and metal toboggans are not allowed on the maintained slopes, but Galena Creek Park covers about 400 acres, and they are permitted anywhere else in the park. All other sledding devices are allowed on the runs that Keesee supervises.

“We’ve seen modified sleds,” Keesee says. “People have waxed the bottom of their sleds with WD-40 and Pam. I’ve seen people take six-man inflatable rafts down the slope.”

If Galena Creek feels too close and too crowded, there are a variety of other free places to go sledding: Tahoe Meadows (just past the Mount Rose Summit), Blue Lakes (south of South Lake Tahoe), Donner Summit, Little Truckee Summit (north of Truckee, off of highway 89), up the Jumbo Grade road off of Eastlake Boulevard in Washoe Valley (after a good snow), or any other place you can find a decent hillside.

Tubing is also an option—a popular form of sledding that can be found at various ski resorts. Chairlifts transport people to the top of a run, and they then slide down marked paths on modified inner tubes. Tubing fees range from $12 to $15, and the ski resorts provide the tubes. Northstar-at-Tahoe, Squaw Valley USA and Kingvale offer tubing.

I was thankful my inner tube had handles. I looked down at Raymond, who persisted in shouting at me to go. I clutched the rubber grips with faith and white knuckles. As soon as I transitioned from knees to belly, the tube would dive.

Jacketed stomach hit inner tube rubber, and my heart hit my tonsils before rocketing down to my feet, unprepared for the speed. What was probably three seconds felt like 10.

When I hit the jump, the inner tube chose to sever our intense connection and flew out in front of me. It was all I could do to try to pull it back underneath and avoid landing chest-first on compressed snow.

I was only partially successful. The tube broke most of my fall, but the arched curve of my body when it slammed the ground caused a loud crack in my neck, meaning a week’s worth of headaches. But, so what? At least it wasn’t a broken tailbone.

“Whoa!” I exhaled to my boyfriend. “I need to do that again.”

“I know. I told you," he laughed, and we lugged our tubes back to the top.