To most outdoor-loving Americans winter sports are defined by skis, sleds and skates; but to extreme winter sports enthusiasts, anything short of a frozen near death experience isn’t worth a trip outside. The winter sports of speed riding, snow cycling, ice climbing and ice diving attract a breed of sportspeople who rely as much on their equipment as their personal grit. And each sport demands a watch that is rugged, utilitarian and dependable under the most adverse of circumstances. Leave your Patek Philippe Calatrava at home if you’re entering the arena of these extreme sports this winter.
Speed riding combines skiing and paragliding, allowing the speed rider to literally glide over obstacles that would stop a skier. This recent French addition to a thrill seekers’ repertoire requires solid skiing abilities, a familiarity with parasailing, a nice tall mountain and a helicopter to drop you at the top. The concept of hurtling down a peak like the Eiger at 60 mph becomes an obtainable reality with a parasail literally strapped to your body.
The sport was invented by 2003 by a group of French paragliders who sought to fuse the thrill of sports like BASE-jumping (BASE is an acronym that stands for the four categories of objects from which one can jump; building, antenna, span, and earth) with the (relative) safety of skiing. Speed riding provides air with a cushion of safety.
We knew that the chance to fly fast and close to the snow would be very exciting, says Francoise Bon, a former member of the French national paragliding team and one of the developers of the sport and the speed-riding canopy. To participate you’ll need the right gear that allows for flexibility, comfort and safety.
Paragliding Helmet: Opt for a full-face design like this Charley No Limit Helmet: 259 EU. see charly-produkte.de
Ski armor: Don’t take any chances with rocky close encounters! UFO Plast offers a complete line of body armor to protect your shins, forearms, chest and back. Wear it under your ski suit. Prices vary depending on piece; ufoplast.com
Avocet Vertech II Ski Timepiece: As tempting as it might be to strap on your Rolex Explorer II or similar general sports watch, there is simply no substitute for a dedicated technology driven timepiece on the airborne slopes. The Vertech ($160) is a product of Avocet, a name well known in cycling circles and a leader in making ski specific watches since 1993, before giants like Casio and Suunto got into the altimeter/barometer game. The Vertech is worn over your ski jacket and measures (gained or lost) altitude, tracks barometric pressure and features a chronometer, alarm, countdown timer, maximum altitude, rate of descent and clocks your number of ski runs. See avocet.com
Most motorcyclists live by the 50-degree rule: when the temperature drops below 50 they cover their bikes for the winter; Winter sport cyclists gas up their bikes and fire up their grip warmers.
Winter riding demands far more than a tolerance for cold because of the effect of the cold on a motorcycle’s tires (less traction), engine (performance shortfall) and suspension (diminished response). Winter motorcycling activities range from rally bound highway cruising to off-roading in the snow and professional ice racing, which is literally moto-cross on ice.
We find that many of our riders live for winter cycling; there’s a satisfaction to the challenge of testing skills and equipment; of seeing what the bikes can do when put to the test, says Mike Abt of Countryside BMW, a hub for the Midwest BMW motorcycling community.
The key to mastering winter sport cycling lies in knowing what to embrace and what to avoid. Ice and snowstorms are dangerous no matter what your driving skills.
Ready to challenge the weather? The right gear will get you on your way.
Helmet: Nolan N90N, ($269), nolanhelmets.com
BMG Challenger jacket, ($279) britishmotorcyclegear.com
Stompers 4 oz 505 style leather jeans: The best fitting leather jeans made. Find your inner Terminator. ($425)
Wesco Boss Boots: Simply the toughest cycle boots on or off a bike: ($448) Both from stompersboots.com
Kobold Phantom Tactical: Kobold’s signature watch is now proudly made in the US and carries Pittsburgh, its city of origin, on its dial. Its PVD-coated surgical steel case houses an ETA 7750 movement; water resistant to 1,000 feet. Red lacquered seconds hand for sniping accuracy! And it’s designed to be operated with gloves, perfect for that jaunt around the world on your BMW GS. ($5,250) koboldwatch.com
Take one challenging vertical rock formation, add ice and any kind of precipitation that catches your fancy and you’ll be enjoying all that ice climbing has to offer. Ice climbing has been around for years, well before Clint Eastwood used it as a vehicle in The Eiger Sanction in 1975. The sport’s roots trace back to 19th century European mountaineering. Today a series of innovations propel the sport from the ranks of hard-core adventurers into the mainstream.
Ice Climbing demands equipment for ascending and descending various types of ice formations, from Alpine (frozen mountains) to water (frozen water flows). The climbing itself is conducted with an array of tools that could easily double as props for the Saw movies: ropes, pulleys, ice screws, harnesses, spiked boots and picks. The sport has a language all its own, with techniques like tying in, belaying, leading, abseiling, lowering and slopes rated from W12 (Low angled, climbable with one axe) to W17 (near mythical).
While demanding focus, conditioning and training, ice climbing is nonetheless touted for its therapeutic affect, as evidenced by this observation by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and developer of several significant pieces of ice climbing kit.
How could one ever be bored with so many good things to see and feel, he says. This unity with our joyous surroundings, this ultra-penetrating perception gave us a feeling of contentment that we had not had for years.
Grivel Reparto Corse Carbon Force: Don’t skimp when it comes to the pick you may be hanging from. ($749) grivel.com
Black Diamond Cyborg Pro Step-In Crampons with ABS Plates: These alien-looking devices enable you to become Spiderman: ($199) blackdiamondequipment.com
Suunto Core All Black: A virtually indestructible watch designed with climbers in mind. Features a switchable altimeter/barometer, compass, depth meter, digital thermometer and sunrise/sunset times for most of the places in the world where you’d find yourself. ($299) suunto.com
Ice Free Diving
The sport that truly separates men from Aquamen is ice free diving, which makes polar bear clubs look like a weekend splash in a backyard tub. Ice free diving is self-explanatory: it’s the sport of free diving through a hole in the ice on a single breath of air; the challenge is to reach your depth and return before you drown. The world’s first under-ice free diving competition was held in Oslo in 2008 with French free diver Guillaume Nery taking the title with a dive to 170 feet.
Ice diving requires incredible conditioning and an ability to hold your breath between three and five minutes in cold conditions, and upwards of ten minutes on land. The extreme temperatures encountered add additional stress to a diver and quickly alter environmental perceptions. According to Nery, When you dive, the light fades almost immediately. You can feel a very intense chill through your body. All your reference points fade and it is a very strange and sort of interesting feeling. You suddenly become very conscious of a sense of discovery, as if you are in another dimension.
The most important pieces of equipment that you carry in ice diving are your brain, your body and your watch; in the cold, black depths, nothing else really matters.
Watch: Ball Engineer Master II Diver TMT: Cold temperature endurance to -40, an illuminated thermometer and inner bezel make this the natural choice for ice divers. A 42mm DLC titanium case, water resistance to 300 meters and 53 gas tubes make this tough watch easy to see in the cold depths. ($3,499) ballwatch.com
Pinnacle 7mm Tempo Merino Elastiprene Super-Stretch Jumpsuit / Wetsuit: merino lining retains heat without adding too much bulk. ($329) pinnacleaquatics.com