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RELUCTANT NOVICE

Doggin' It on the Slopes : A new invention combines skis, skates and snow. But some fancy footwork is also required.

March 10, 1995|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a lot like the first time I went skiing. I got on the ski lift, rode to the top of the mountain, pushed off the chair and fell face-first into the snow.

And they say you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

"You're doing great," my instructor said. "Here, let me give you a hand."

These were not skis I was stumbling around in but snow skates. Excuse me, Sled Dogs--the name given to the latest invention of skiing's counterculture by the Minnesota-based company that manufactures them.

Seems like as long as we have snow, the ski industry will keep coming up with new ways to frolic through the frozen, powdery stuff. A few years ago, it was snowboards. This season, it's Sled Dogs. Actually, the two have a lot in common: I fall down a lot on both.

Sled Dogs are ski-boot look-alikes with a foot-long ski attached to the sole. And the brand-new, $249 top-of-the-line pair of "SD-200s" that I had strapped on felt just like a new pair of ski boots.

Snow skates were first conceived in the 1970s by Swiss inventor Hannes Jacob, who as a boy would remove the heels from his shoes and slide down a hill near his home to school. But not until the late 1980s did Jacob license the manufacturing rights to a boot maker in Italy.

In 1993, the Sled Dogs Co. acquired all patents and manufacturing rights to the product, which is becoming increasingly available at ski shops throughout the country.

Scrambling to my feet at the summit of Bear Mountain Ski Resort in Big Bear, I discovered these were more than just boots--or anything else I had ever worn on my feet. The snow felt like marbles beneath my feet, and I struggled to maintain balance. Like it or not, I was beginning to move. And I hadn't even uttered "Mush!"

"Am I skiing on skates, or skating on snow?" I asked.

"Both," said Jerry Tyler, a professional ski instructor and my self-described "guide dog" for the afternoon. "You'll find a rather immediate transition from skating. A lot of things, like spins and footwork, are very similar between the two sports."

Easy for him to say. Tyler, along with fellow guide dog Karl Vogel, was an accomplished in-line skater who had appeared on the KCAL-TV series "Blade Warriors," an "American Gladiators"-type program in which contestants donned in-line skates.

Me? I have never learned to skate, on ice or concrete. And the idea of "skating" on the side of a mountain made me nervous. All I could think of while driving to the resort was the infamous image of that poor guy tumbling off the ski jump at the beginning of "Wide World of Sports."

The agony of defeat.

Now, here I was at the top of the slope, faced with the cold, hard fact that it was all downhill from here.

Jerry and Karl took turns barking instructions while doing pirouettes, jumps, even skating backward downhill.

"Try this," Karl said, taking a spinning leap from a mogul.

*

I tried. I fell.

"That's it," Karl said.

"You know," I said, picking myself up again, "I really am a good skier."

Really, I am. And so, I began to act like one, traversing the slope from side to side. I started to maneuver successfully. Wearing Sled Dogs, I found that I was able to change direction on a dime, almost effortlessly. No crossing of the skis, no poles, just a swivel of the hips. I fantasized how much better I would be at this if I knew how to skate. Falling down was still a problem, but getting back on my feet was not.

"Hey," I said, "I think Hannes has something here."

*

"It's all in maintaining your balance," Jerry said. "If you're too flat-footed you're going to dig your toes in and fall. You have to lean back a little on your heels."

As long as I pretended I was skiing, I was fine. And I enjoyed myself. The second I tried to spin or entertain any images of skating, I took a spill. I told myself that if I could just remember that, maybe I could make it down the mountain unharmed.

But Karl continued to challenge me.

"Try this," he said. He skated toward me, spun 360 degrees in the air, landed perfectly and continued downhill. He stopped and motioned for me follow.

I brushed aside the image of the guy on "Wide World of Sports" and gave it a whirl. Halfway into my spin, I tumbled and began to roll uncontrollably like a snowball. I think I rolled right past Karl, but I can't be sure.

All I know is that I somehow rolled back onto my feet and continued skating. Er, skiing. Whatever.

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