An old friend of mine who now spends winters in Florida used to ski with me quite a lot. In fact, our families spent many winter vacations and weekends in the New England countryside.
When he turned into a snowbird and headed south for half the year, I asked him, “What about skiing?” Would he go up to the Rockies (as many Florida skiers do) for a winter vacation? Wouldn’t he miss the regular skiing weekends that seemed to tie our winters together in a way that made me, anyways, dread the melting season, the appearance of green soft patches on the slopes?
He said, “No, I think of skiing as just an activity that gets Northerners through winter.”
Oh, the heresy! The outrage! And all these years I thought this guy was, like me, a lifelong ski nut.
One winter when I was in New Zealand about my publisher’s business, I did get to the mountains of the South Island, where skiing was rip roaring in the middle of July. It occurred to me that ski racing teams were somehow living charmed lives because they got wintertime and skiing year round — just like that surfing movie “Endless Summer.”
For the past few decades, the ski industry has not been competing with itself — ski resorts strategizing to steal market share from one another. A growing interest in sunshine vacations — beaches and boats — has become the developing rival for vacation dollars from Northerners.
In response, resort owners are countering with all kinds of recreation to fill the void when the skiing becomes marginal. Having paid dearly for all that resort time, skiers feel justly deprived when they can’t do the only thing they can’t do at home, or in Costa Rica, or on a Carnival ship.
Check out Jay Peak’s mega indoor waterpark, the Pump House, complete with a surfing wave and a four-story vertical drop into a pool. There’s also a waterpark at Great Wolf Resort in Fitchburg, Mass., near Wachusett.
Then there’s the recreating of The Balsams in Dixville Notch, N.H., where Les Otten and his company are erecting a whole world of non-skiing goodies, including a several-day course in gourmet cooking. “No one’s going to go skiing the way our parents did,” says Otten. “We have to rethink the whole experience that a new generation is looking for.”
All of this is a very worthy attempt to fight for an industry that has made decades of remarkable advances in snowmaking, grooming, uphill transportation and even comfortable ski boots, all to move the needle on the pain/joy meter in favor of the consumer.
But there’s something else coming, called, in commercial title, Neveplast NP30. The first area in the country to use Neveplast is Buck Hill in Minnesota. At Buck, when the snow melts and the slopes turn green, you keep right on skiing, all summer into fall, until the snow falls again.
Buck Hill is a small ski area — 306-foot vertical — close to an urban population (Minneapolis). It has given the world skiers such as Lindsey Vonn and six-time World Cup race winner Kristina Koznick. Now, Buck Hill skiers are schussing in summertime on its new green surface that looks and feels like a modern artificial football field.
Like many synthetics, Neveplast is derived from other products — in this case, ground-up traffic cones. The surface consists of bristles that the ski or board edge can bite in, giving a consistency that feels like packed powder, say many of those who have tried it. I have not skied on it, but have seen it and heard from some who have, and the reviews are pretty positive.
A video shows skiers descending a slalom course, and snowboarders going through a series of terrain park features looking pretty much like they always do and making the same range of moves.
Buck Hill race director David Solner hopes this allows his racers to expand their season from four months to the whole year in order to compete with the big areas in the Rockies where skiing has a much longer season. Even though Neveplast allows skiing in warm weather, forget the shorts and Hawaiian shirt — a fall on the stuff feels like falling on hard-packed snow, says Solner. And when it snows? Just ski on the snow instead, with the same equipment.
Could this be a game-changer for the New England ski scene, especially if global warming will, as some predict, begin to ravage the sport later this century? Aren’t there already ziplines and alpine slides that let you zoom down mountains in summer? There are all kinds of ways to descend vert as fast as you dare in the offseason, just not on snow.
The joy of skiing is not only sliding downhill but also mastering the athletic form it takes to make a carved turn. And so far, the Neveplast experience looks to be about the same set of body motions as on snow.
There is the question of winter ambiance that always makes skiing look somehow like glittering magical stuff on postcard settings and heavy doses of nostalgia. But to save the sport in the future, or even expand it to places outside the Snowbelt, maybe this artificial surface — or whatever it might become say 50 years from now — might make it worth our while to watch what happens at this historic little Minnesota hill.