With the winter Olympics in full swing the British freestyle skiing and snowboarding teams have never looked more promising. We’ve managed to leave the more ‘geographically gifted’, lets say, competitors wondering where on earth we’ve come from? And how have we got to such a high standard in a land of no (significant) snow!? The answer, dry slopes and indoor facilities such as the Snow Centre at Hemel Hempstead, which build freestyle features on a weekly basis. To go and see what all the fuss is about, we took a lucky few of the equipment sales team from London to go and give it a shot.
Slopestyle is the term given to performing tricks on snow over a downhill course made up of jumps, boxes and rails. In a competition there are no concrete rules, which makes the (relatively) new sport so exciting; You get three runs, the best one of which counts, and you score points for the difficulty of the tricks you perform and the style with which you do them.
To level the playing field before we begin, although all of us have extensive ski or snowboard experience, none of us had skied indoors before, and only a couple of us had any real freestyle experience.
Skiing inside is as odd as it sounds. Firstly, it looks a lot steeper from the bottom than I thought it would. The run is broken up into three areas. Looking up from the bottom on the right is a short, slightly shallower beginners area. Taking up the majority of the space in the middle is the main run (estimated at blue/red gradient) and off to the left is the freestyle area. It’s a lot colder than you think it’s going to be too. Although I’d been lent a brand new Oakley jacket and trousers to play with while there, a mid-layer under your jacket is a sensible idea. One of the staff told us they keep the inside at a chilly -5 or -6 to stop the snow from melting.
Then there’s the snow itself. Obviously, it’s hardly going to trump Japanese powder, but we were all surprised at how fast and realistic the snow felt. At slower speeds and toward the sides and the bottom of the run where snow had accumulated it felt a little like wet sand, but it beats skiing on dry-slope any day.
Freestyle nights are run Thursday and Friday nights every week, two sessions per night (each two hours long). We went on a Friday late session – 8pm till 10pm, having had to get out of central London at rush hour (trains run out of Euston run every 15 minutes and cost around £20 return). The park the team builds on Fridays is slightly smaller, we found out later, than the ones they build on Thursdays. From the top it consisted of a small rail, a kicker in the middle with a long/short take off, and a box at the bottom. Perfect for getting to grips with the basics of freestyle.
After a few warm up runs to dust off a few of the cobwebs from not skiing as regularly as we’d like, we lined up at the top of the park. Being the most experience in the park I went first. I’d not hit jumps or rails for a couple of years following knee surgery, but the size of the course was just right to help me find my freestyle feet again. For Anne and Marcus, this would be their first time skiing on anything but a groomed run, or in Marcus’ case, a slalom racetrack. They both agreed that the advice given by the snow center of having a good level of skiing before entering the park is essential, but that translatingprevious skiing experience into park skiing is actually not too difficult. That is to say that the bigger features you get in alpine resorts are still for those with senior ability, but for the purpose of getting more people involved in this new and exciting sport, the features seemed spot on.A few laps in and with a couple of not so neat landings (and a couple more wipeouts), it is easy to say freestyle skiing is still by far my favorite discipline in the sport. I can’t decide which is more enjoyable, the chilled out and friendly atmosphere amongst the other people using the park, or seeing people get improve over the course of a couple of hours right in front of your eyes. James from the snowboard department in our Covent Garden store has slightly more park riding experience than Anne or Marcus; he said that more than anything it’s a great way to keep your own ability ticking over throughout the season. You could go a couple of times between trips, for example.