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Kids Conquer the Mountain

Blue Angels program offers transportation, lift tickets and lessons for young skiers and snowboarders.

January 15, 1998|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"You haven't lived till you've ridden powder," said Joe Rowles, 18, of La Crescenta. "There's nothing like a board in powder."

To Rowles, an avid snowboarder, any day carving up the fluffy white stuff, leaping off a mountain and floating with the clouds is a good day.

From a kids-eye view in Los Angeles, the snow-topped mountains are a tantalizing sight. A kid in snow is almost as natural as a kid in a sandbox. The difference is that the snow is a little harder to get to.

Rowles and his buddies are of driving age and can pack their gear and head up to Mt. Waterman or Snow Summit or Bear Mountain on their own. Younger kids coax their parents to drive when they can, or take shuttle services like the Mountain Express. If they're age 6 to 16, they can join the Blue Angels.

Working in conjunction with city parks and recreation programs from Seal Beach to San Marino, Blue Angels, for about $89 a day, provides transportation up the mountain, lift passes, about six hours of ski or snowboard instruction, chaperons and front-of-the-line privileges. Run by Kristina Ashby, a former Bear Mountain ski instructor, Blue Angels has been in business six years.

For families like the Webbs of San Marino, the program has been a godsend. Although John and Janet Webb have a "skiing family," making a habit of trudging their five children and all their equipment up the mountain could be a logistical nightmare.

"I dream of all these skis, poles and equipment falling out the back of the car," John Webb said.

The Webbs signed up three of their children last season--Philip, 15; Wes, 13; and Katie, 8--through San Marino's Recreation Department. The city contracts with the Blue Angels so that "we can offer something that, as a small department, we wouldn't otherwise be able to do," said Nancy Matthews, director of recreation. "I don't know of any other program like this."

For Brian McCormick and Jennifer Siegel, ski instructors who contract with the Blue Angels, the program is a great way to get more kids to the mountain. The program also lets the students have the same instructor each time, providing the skier or snowboarder with a consistent style of instruction.

For five Saturdays starting Jan. 24, parents will pack up the kids at the break of dawn and drop them at pickup points around Orange and L.A. counties. After a full day on the mountain, the kids will return to the pickup points about 6 p.m.

By week five, McCormick said, the students could be skiing the intermediate runs, riding the chairlifts, using ski poles and possibly starting to parallel ski.

The program differs from the lessons offered to skiers in typical one- or two-hour sessions. Blue Angels not only coaches the students all day, they also take breaks and eat lunch together.

It's great for parents, said John Webb, because by the time his children arrive home, "they have soup and go to bed."

This year, the Blue Angels will ski Snow Valley, where the catch phrase of the season is "Mountain of Youth," a welcome sign for the Blue Angels and for families with young children.

It was just a few years ago that youngsters on snowboards got a bad name. But now, the sport has attracted the Generation-X crowd and is an accepted alternative at local ski resorts. Most resorts have snowboard areas, such as Bear Mountain's Outlaw Snowboard Park and Snow Valley's Mountain Sports Terrain, where special terrain and half-pipes challenge daring snowboarders. Ashby, who says it costs about the same for ski and snowboard equipment, recommends that young children learn to ski before they try to snowboard.

"At 6 or 7 they have a harder time snowboarding," she said. "With snowboarding, you need to understand more about balance."

With the recent skiing accidents that killed Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono, the question of safety on the slopes is on the minds of a lot of parents. Janet Webb, a former parks and recreation director, believes that her children are in good hands with Blue Angels.

"The buses are nice, there is something like one counselor for every seven or eight kids, plus it gives them independence," she said. "We're not concerned at all."

Colette Taormina, who has five children enrolled in the Blue Angels program, some who have been with the program all six years, agrees. "It's very controlled," she said. "With the younger kids, they don't let them out of their sight. . . . They're very good at putting them in groups."

Taormina has had a few close calls. She got a phone call one year from the ski patrol when her son Vincent, then 9, took a bad fall. He was brought down the mountain in a ski patrol basket.

"It's very scary when you get this call and here we are, three hours away," said Taormina, who lives in Orange County. "But they handled it very well. They told us to stay where we were, that he was OK. He rode home on the bus."

Having the proper equipment can be a key element to ski and snowboard safety, said Rowles, who, as an employee for Sport Chalet, often helps parents choose boards for their children. The skis or snowboards should be in proportion to a child's height and weight. Lessons are a good idea for all skill levels, he said, and he also recommends helmets and wrist braces for "little grommets" (beginning snowboarders).

Philip and Wes Webb won't even touch skis since they discovered snowboards; four of the Taormina children snowboard.

"There's more stuff you can do," Wes Webb said. "There are tricks and jumps and stuff. . . . It's an adrenaline rush."

BE THERE

Blue Angels pickups, five Saturdays starting Jan. 24, from Orange and L.A. counties to Snow Valley. Packages vary. Information: (714) 759-7669. Mountain Express, shuttles and lift tickets only, $55. Pickup on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, weekends to Snow Summit. Information: (626) 564-9227.

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