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Airboarding provides relaxing rush

Jon Maletz
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times
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Face-first is the way to go.You barrel down a hill on a bodyboard built for the snow, your face 6 inches off the ground. You hold onto the rubber handgrips as powder sprays you in the face. You can try to hold it in, but smiles and cackling invariably follow.The sport is Airboarding, and Erik Skarvan, Sun Dog Athletics owner and instructor, can’t get enough.”It’s like a flying position, and you feel like you’re floating,” Skarvan said during a hike and board adventure Tuesday. “Sometimes I take my arms and hold them straight out. You feel like Superman.” It’s been almost a year since Skarvan first introduced his snowshoe and Airboard adventure to the public – just one more arrow to “pull from the quiver,” he said. It is the only guided tour of its kind in the United States.He insists that biking is his true passion, but you’d think otherwise as Skarvan, 44, preps for an afternoon snowshoe trip into the Hunter Creek wilderness. His excitement is palpable as he pulls one of the Swiss-made contraptions out of the back of his tan Suburban and lays it on the gravel. “The Swiss really know how to do it right,” he said.Weighing 6 pounds, the nylon Airboard is nearly 3 feet long. Affixed to its bottom are rubber and polyurethane runners, which slide over the snow at any speed. No matter how hard he tries, Skarvan said he has yet to scratch the board. It glides over rocks and other natural objects like a river raft.After supplying snowshoes, a backpack to carry the deflated Airboard and a fanny pack complete with supplies, Skarvan leads us away. His Labradors, Sundog and Racer, lead the way up the singletrack.It is a route he has taken often. Skarvan leads hikes near Two Creeks on Snowmass, the Maroon Creek trail and Richmond Ridge on the back side of Aspen Mountain.

“My whole reason for introducing Airboarding was to eliminate the obstacles and restrictions of ski areas, and go where I think it’s safer,” Skarvan said. “Beginners don’t need to be near lift towers or ski traffic. It’s nice to take a day and do something different and get into the beauty of the mountains.”As we continue to climb, Skarvan talks, pausing briefly to point out his Airboard tracks from the previous day. He motions to where he hit a jump and where he made a wide turn on the snowbanks lining the trail.

A native of Milwaukee who fell in love with the valley during family vacations to Snowmass, Skarvan told his parents when he was 14 that he intended to move west after college. “I turned to my mom one day and said ‘I’m moving out here,'” Skarvan remembers. “She said, ‘Good for you.'” Skarvan’s mother was a ski bum in Aspen in 1958 and became head maid at the Boomerang Lodge. Skarvan, who moved to Aspen in 1984, managed the Sardy House, and then sold high-end memberships at the Aspen Club for four years. It was there that Skarvan, an accomplished cyclist, was approached by clients looking for someone to train them on the bike. He found a possible career opportunity.”I was thinking to myself that this could be a business,” he said. “There was no such thing in this part of Colorado. This was something that could keep growing and get me outdoors to share my passions.”You have to go for it, you have to take a risk,” he added. “This is what it’s about. I’m living the life.”The legs are aching. The lungs are burning. Halfway to the Four Corners, Skarvan decides we have climbed far enough. High above the valley floor, we unclip our snowshoes, stash them in our packs and pull out our Airboards.

“The exercise component to this is nice, too,” Skarvan said as we struggle to pump our boards to full capacity.After a quick break to drink some water and take in views of the Maroon Bells, the anticipation is over. After a workout of almost two hours, it’s time for the endorphin rush.Skarvan gives us a crash course on body position and turning technique. He takes off, jogging down the hard-packed road, board off to one side. In one fluid motion, he drops the board and lands softly on top of it. Sun Dog and Racer, for the first time all afternoon, struggle to keep up as Skarvan heads directly downhill. I take a running start, then plop down on the soft board. I quickly pick up speed as the board glides over the uneven surface. The air cushions my entire midsection. Powder kicks up in my face as the landscape rushes by. It takes only 20 seconds. I am a kid again. We continue the process all the way down, stopping only to cross the flat spots we encounter. A group of cross-country skiers stops to watch as I speed down the hill, coming to rest only after burying myself in the powder of the bank. One snaps a picture.”Most of the time, adults say they are just here to watch,” Skarvan says. “I always offer to give them my helmet and my board. I know that if I get people on the hill, they’ll be the ones holding the board over their heads at the bottom.”

Skarvan said he struggles to squash the initial concerns some people – even a few accomplished mountaineers – have about the sport’s safety. While the decision to offer Airboarding doubled Skarvan’s liability insurance, his safety record speaks for itself: hundreds of guests, no injuries.”Because you go head-first, I look at slopes a little differently than a skier or snowboarder,” Skarvan said. “I look for locations that are fun and beautiful, but safety is always dialed in.”Before we call it a day, Skarvan introduces us to his ‘secret run.’ It’s steeper and narrower, and it offers a true glimpse of the board’s capability. I speed down the course, negotiating sharp turns, pushing up with one hand and down with the other. The rush was unlike any other I had experienced. After a strenuous hike, it was the perfect payoff. When I reached the bottom and looked at Skarvan, I knew instantly we were on the same page. We headed back up the hill for one last ride. “This is living,” Skarvan said.My sentiment exactly.Jon Maletz’s e-mail is jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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