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The extreme winter survival guide

We'll skip the long-winded adventure babble about "living the life you've always imagined." The bottom line is we're entering the most mentally and physically challenging season of the year. Hit one of these intense spots, and beat the insanity of winter to the punch.

Hike Out of HELL

A climb up 6,288-foot Mount Washington in winter offers technical mountaineering conditions--ice, snow, rock, possible whiteouts, the world's highest-recorded winds--minus the life-threatening dangers of thin air. That's good news if you're a beginner to the sport, but bad news if you plan to write a tell-all book about your harrowing experiences afterward.

The Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School in North Conway, New Hampshire (800-310-4504, emsclimb.com), leads one-day expeditions up the mountain--New England's tallest--with basic instruction on rope travel, ice-ax self-arrest, and the use of crampons along the way. Cost is $210 per person.

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South Teton, Wyoming The Northwest Couloir of this jagged 12,514-foot peak makes for perhaps the easiest climb in the Tetons. It's a great place to learn for the less experienced. Exum Mountain Guides (307-733-2297, exumguides.com) provides one-on-one instruction and guide service for $325.

Lassen Peak, California During a two-day course that ends with an ascent of this 10,457-foot volcanic peak in Northern California, students of Sierra Wilderness Seminars learn the fundamentals of mountaineering: rope travel, snow camping, using an ice ax, and avalanche safety (888-797-6867, swsmtns.com). $450.

Race a Face

Sure, snowmobiles are loud, exhaust-emitting gas guzzlers, but crunchy pedal-power types still give you reason to love 'em because hard-packed snowmobile tracks make for the perfect winter mountain-biking surface. Equipped with studded tires on the wheels and some good maps, bikers have limitless options in many northern climes. In Vermont, for instance, there are more than 5,000 miles of snowmobile trails that meander among the Green Mountains. One popular thigh-screaming ride is up the steep mountain pass that divides Smuggler's Notch and Stowe ski resorts by Mount Mansfield, the state's highest peak. For more information, talk to the folks at the Skirack (800-882-4530, skirack.com) in Burlington. They provide all the information and equipment you need for winter riding in the area.

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Boulder, Colorado A local favorite in the winter is the seven-mile one-way East Boulder Trail in town, which meanders through farmland and beside hilly pine groves. Full Cycle (303-440-7771) has the lowdown on all the area's best rides.

Fairbanks, Alaska Just about any of the town's streets in the winter is suitable for snow riding, but the Fairbanks Cycle Club (fairbankscycleclub.org) knows the most scenic routes and leads tours every Sunday morning. One of the favorites is the rugged 15-mile O'Connor Creek/Moose Mountain loop, which follows mountain roads through the woods and varies in elevation by 1,400 feet.

Shoe a Horizon

Anyone who thinks snowshoeing is only for spazzes who can't ski has never broken fresh tracks in the wilderness at 9,000 feet on snow deep enough to bury an elk. True, snowshoeing technique is a lot easier to learn than skiing--just take a step forward and you've got it. But the sport is about escaping to places where chairlifts can't go. (Did we mention it's a hell of a cardio workout?) To experience snowshoeing at its purest, head to the northwest shore of Lake Tahoe and on to the Pacific Crest Trail near the Squaw Valley resort. This exposed 13-mile ridge-top trek offers expansive views of the lake and the surrounding Sierras and some of the freest powder in North America. Along the way, you can picture what the Donner Party experienced--minus the cannibalism thing--as the route starts in the Donner Pass. (The Back Country in Truckee, 888-625-8444, provides maps and rents snowshoes.)

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Jackson, New Hampshire At the foot of the Presidential Range, cruise spectacular views and 90 miles of trails. The Jackson Ski Touring Foundation (603-383-9355, jacksonxc.org) rents snowshoes.

Hayward, Wisconsin It's got an impressive network of challenging wooded trails that crisscross the lake-filled countryside. Outdoor Ventures in town (715-634-4447, outdoorventureshayward.com) supplies equipment and will tell you where to go.

Surf the Sky

Winter has Its advantages in warm beach locales, too: The season's strong, consistent winds make for prime kiteboarding weather. Kiteboarding is a kind of high-speed combination of windsurfing, wake boarding, and parasailing--and it burns a lot more calories than just reading a John Grisham novel on the sand. Perhaps the top place to learn is among the waist-deep shallows between South Padre Island and mainland Texas. The breezes there are fairly steady, and the land shields the wide channel from excessively high surf. South Padre Island Kiteboarding school (956-z45-8343, southpadreislandkiteboarding.com) offers supervised lessons and rentals (one-half day is $225; a four-day program is $1,400).

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Key West, Florida One of the best schools in the country is operated by Kite Surf the Earth (888-819-5483, kste.net) in Key West, where the winds are a steady 10-15 miles per hour during the winter, the water is always warm, and the nightlife is a bit touristy but always hopping. The five-day program is $840, including equipment.

San Diego, California The sandy beaches lining the protected inlets of the San Diego area make for popular-but not overcrowded--jumping-off points for Southern Californian kiteboarders. West Coast Kiteboarding (866-994-5483, westcoastkiteboarding.com) offers a one-day intensive New Rider program. The cool water means you'll have to wear a wet suit, though.

What You Need

Helmet Vented and tough. Burton Remix, $129, burton.com

Snowshoes Metal teeth and blades. Denali Evo Ascent, $199, msrgear.com

Bike Superior suspension. Specialized Stumpjumper FSR, $1,470, specialized.com

GPS Pinpoints the world. Garmin Forerunner 201, $160, garmin.com

Board Lightweight. Cabrinha Icon, $599, cabrinhakites.com

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