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Contests in the Cold: Winter Adventures, from Mellow to Manic



— February 6, 2020

Contests in the Cold:
Winter Adventures, from Mellow to Manic

By Christine Yu

When all its elements are in place, winter is a season of ravishing beauty. Nature-made sculptures of ice, snow that glimmers in the light as it falls, and snow-capped tree branches can be enjoyed from a large bay window like art pieces in the cozy wing of a museum.

For many, however, the season is something to immerse oneself in physically, at various levels of exertion. On the following pages, we’ve identified 11 winter activities, from mellow to manic, pointing the way to a challenge in the cold for everyone.


Photo: Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce

1. Building Snowmen

Building a snowman is a timeless winter activity. But constructing the world’s tallest snowman takes more than child’s play. Just ask residents of Bethel, Maine, who built the world’s tallest snow person—twice! In 1999, a team constructed a 113’7” snowman and in 2008, residents bested their record with a 122’1” figure named Olympia SnowWoman, after former US Senator Olympia Snowe. 

Snow was made on site around the clock and lifted by cranes into frames to create four-foot layers. “Volunteers shoveled and stomped the snow to pack it down,” says Robin Zinchuk from the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce. Then, the next layer was arranged, slightly smaller in diameter. Everything from the buttons (five-foot tires) to eyelashes (skis) to two 25-foot tree arms were anchored down. The project took 750 people six to seven weeks to complete and a total of 8,000 tons of snow, which finally melted six months later.


2. Fat Biking in Snow

While most mountain bikes collect dust during the winter, fat biking lets you extend your season year-round and is a fun way to get outside (and off your indoor trainer). Bikes are equipped with super-fat tires, typically four to five inches wide, which lets you ride in snowy, off-road conditions. It feels like you’re floating across terrain.

Fat biking is also a good way to get into mountain biking, especially if you’re worried about wiping out. “When you’re riding on snow, you’re not going fast so if you fall, it doesn’t hurt,” says pro mountain biker Sonya Looney. You don’t need the same level of technical skills as you would bombing down a mountain bike trail in the summer. But the conditions have to be good. “If the snow is too soft, you end up pushing your bike a lot,” says Looney. So look for groomed trails. Keep tire pressure low too, around 5 psi. “You want them to be squishy so you have more traction,” Looney explains. 


Photo: Okamoto Studio

3. Creating Ice Sculptures

Carving the kinds of elaborate, shimmering ice sculptures we’ve all seen at weddings or corporate holidays is a cross between traditional sculpture and performance art. Artists stack 300-pound ice blocks fused together (thanks to added water) and get to work either inside or outside a freezer. They use a combination of power tools like chainsaws, band saws and drills—some modified off-the-shelf tools you can get at your local hardware store—plus hand tools and computers to bring the sculpture to life. “Power tools are more aggressive and faster,” good for removing big chunks of ice, says Casey Lee Conner, founder of Ice Lab in Baltimore. Hand tools allow artists to create details and different textures on the surface.

Ice is an “under-appreciated, under-investigated material,” says Shintaro Okamoto, founder of Okamoto Studio in New York City, but it can be tricky material to work with and physically demanding. “It’s big, heavy, slippery, wet and dangerous,” says Okamoto, who notes that since you’re working with dangerous power tools, you have to stay alert to avoid hurting yourself.


Photo: Angel Fire Resort

4. Shovel Racing

We’ve all careened down a snowy hill on a makeshift sled (cafeteria tray, anyone?) so it’s no surprise that back in the 1970s, lift operators at New Mexico’s Angel Fire Resort rode their shovels down the mountain at the end of their shift. These post-shift runs turned competitive and Angel Fire now hosts the World Championship Shovel Races, open to anyone ages six and up.

The premise is simple: Sit on your waxed-up shovel, point your handle downhill, lift your hands and feet, and go! “It’s kind of like luge,” says Nadia Gonzales (, 29, who grew up in a shovel-racing family. She began competing as a “little scoop” at the age of six. “I’m an extreme skier but the rush I get from shovel racing is a whole other level,” she says. Gonzales, who lives in Denver, won last year’s World Championship title and was clocked at 64 mph. (Her sister took second and her brother claimed the men’s title.)


5. Ice Boating

Sure, most of us would rather bundle up inside next to a cozy fire when it’s cold and windy, but ice boaters anxiously await these blustery winter conditions. That’s when they “set sail” on frozen lakes in sleek boats fitted with runners that glide across the ice like skates. “When you’re six to seven inches off the ice and going 30, 40, 50 mph, there’s no other feeling that gets your adrenaline going,” says Chad Atkins, 42, a life-long ice boater from Jamestown, Rhode Island. “You’re harnessing the power of the wind.” While the Dutch used ice boats (or ice yachts) to transport cargo over icy canals in the 19th century, the sport is a mainstay in the “Ice Belt,” from Montana through Canada to Maine and down to Indiana and Ohio.

But it’s a dangerous sport and not just because of the high speeds. “Ice is never 100% safe,” says Deb Whitehorse of the Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club in Madison, Wisconsin, so never sail alone. Join a club where people know and understand the icy conditions. Whitehorse always wears an ice pick too, just in case. “If you run into trouble, it will help you get out of the water,” she says. 


Photo: Skijoring America

6. Skijoring

What do you get when you cross skiing and rodeo? While it sounds like a riddle, the answer is skijoring—“ski driving” in Norwegian— a competitive winter sport complete with a World Championship. “It’s like water skiing on snow,” says Adam Rys-Sikora, president of Skijoring America, the sport’s governing body.

A skier holds a rope tethered to a horse with a rider and is hauled by the galloping animal going up to 40 mph. Typically, courses are short and the skier must make three jumps and collect three rings. The fastest time wins. It’s an incredible rush but also the scariest skiing Monica Thomas has ever done. “You can hurt yourself. When the horse is traveling at that speed, you’re pelted by snow and ice,” says the skijorer from Montana. Looking for a mellow way to experience the sport? Try dog skijoring, which is popular in the Midwest. Strap on your cross-country skis, harness your dog and go!


Photo by Petras Malukas/Getty

7. Snow Kayaking

When the rivers are frozen or the water runs low, what’s a die-hard kayaker to do? Grab your boat and head out in the snow. Some tow their kayaks behind them on ski touring expeditions to ride down unspoiled powder fields while others hitch up to a snowmobile and ride backcountry trails or hills. For Todd Wells (, 27, professional kayaker from Washington, snow kayaking down a glacier in the Wind River Mountain range in Wyoming last summer was the fastest (and easiest) way to reach the headwaters of a river that hadn’t been paddled before. “You get that same flow state. It feels like you’re skiing at times and it feels like you’re paddling at other times,” says Wells. “It’s pretty fun.” 

Kayaks with sharper edges let you carve through the snow like skis or a snowboard, says Wells. Still, the sport can be unpredictable. “You can get out of control and roll over, which isn’t fun. You’re locked into a kayak: You’re stuck inside and can go flailing down the mountain,” he notes. Don’t forget your helmet!


8. Heliskiing

Talk to any skier or snowboarder and there’s a good chance that heliskiing or heliboarding tops their bucket list. A helicopter takes you to pristine powder, untouched backcountry chutes and bowls that you can’t access from a ski lift. “It’s a great experience for those looking for their next adventure on the snow,” says Jen Brill from Silverton Mountain in Colorado, which offers single-run as well as the more traditional all-day and private heliskiing packages. 

But it’s not all peace and zen; loading the helicopter can be chaotic and loud. Plus there are many safety protocols to follow, which can make the experience overwhelming. But once the helicopter leaves you on the snow, it’s calm. (And no, you won’t jump out of a hovering chopper.) “You’re dropped at the top and you have a couple of miles of fresh powder right there. It’s an incredible type of skiing,” says Danny Hassan, 46, from Boulder. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.” 


 9. Ice Climbing

The idea of climbing a frozen waterfall and vertical ice with an ax and crampons may seem like an insane idea but for Matt Horner, it’s his favorite thing to do in the world. Horner, a professional guide with Adirondack Rock and River in upsate New York, says he’s drawn to ice climbing’s adventurous nature. “With rock climbing, the medium is static. Rock doesn’t change and you use the same holds. Ice is a dynamic medium. It’s constantly changing—hour-to-hour, day-to-day, year-to-year,” he says. “You constantly have to reassess the conditions—What’s climbable and what’s not climbable? What’s safe and what’s not safe? You have to be honest with yourself.” The sport presents unique dangers: falling ice, avalanches, maneuvering sharp tools and, of course, falling. 

Horner says that experience is key to mitigating some of the risks inherent in the sport; find a good mentor or hire a reputable guide. While it can be miserable and cold and scary at times, at the end of the day, he says that it never fails to feel like an accomplishment. 

10. Cold-Water Surfing

Northern Michigan is known for its harsh winters—not exactly where you’d expect to find a growing surf scene. But for diehards like Dan Schetter (, when the winds whip across the Great Lakes, surf’s up. He can often be found surfing Lake Superior in the winter, complete with ice beard. The sub-zero temperatures and frosty conditions don’t faze Schetter, who grew up ice fishing and hunting. He just wants to connect to the water and waves. It’s healing for him. 

But don’t be mistaken: Paddling through slush and chunks of ice isn’t for beginners or the faint of heart. You’ll often need to traverse snow-covered beaches or icy piers while sporting a thick wetsuit, neoprene booties, gloves and a hood to ward off hypothermia. Ever-changing currents, winds and swell can make conditions dicey too, and you’ll likely sport an epic brain freeze. Still, surfers are chasing cold-water waves across the Great Lakes and in places like Alaska, Norway and Iceland in search of endless “summer” waves. 


11. Ice Diving

When we think of scuba diving, we often think of tropical waters and brilliantly colored schools of fish. But for some, the ultimate underwater experience is ice diving. “Diving in
cold water and alongside icebergs is absolutely unique,” says Franklin Braeckman from Oceanwide Expeditions, which leads trips to Antarctica and the Arctic region. The combination of water, sunlight and ice creates ever-changing colors, patterns and textures that you don’t get in warmer waters. You may also encounter marine life you won’t see in other parts of the world. (Penguins!)

Traditionally, the sport involves diving underneath a solid ice slab or layers of broken ice. Divers are tethered to a rope, which serves as both a safety and communication line, while their safety team remains on the surface.

But these expeditions aren’t for inexperienced divers and you’ll need specialized training like PADI’s ice diver certification. Conditions constantly shift and ice and underwater icebergs can move, potentially closing off your entry and exit points, says Braeckman. The frigid water can shock the system, requiring divers to suit up in insulated undergarments and a dry suit and to stay vigilant to signs of hypothermia. The freezing temps can make performing simple tasks underwater much harder. You’ll need special cold-water, freeze-resistant regulators, too, to safely regulate your oxygen flow. 


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