MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to "Metro Connection." Our theme this week is Out in the Cold. But, as you may have noticed, it hasn't really been all that cold around these parts of late. At least not consistently. Last year, 2012, was the warmest year on record in the United States. And in the mid Atlantic, we're experiencing our longest stretch without a major snow storm since the 1800s. Not exactly good news for local ski resorts, many of which have been getting more rain lately than snow.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But there's one slope where that doesn't matter. Where, actually, rain makes for better skiing. Jacob Fenston has the story.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
It sounds like snow.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
And kind of looks like snow if you squint. And it sort of feels like snow under your skis.
MR. BRENT WASHBURN
Like you're sitting down in a chair, weight back on the back of your, like, calf and your boot.
I'm at the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. My instructor, Brent Washburn, is taking me up to the top of the slope. He warns me it's a little bit different than skiing on snow.
It's similar. It takes a little getting used to just because the stopping edge isn't as effective as snow and it is a little higher in friction than snow. So it looks more intimidating than you're going to be -- you're not going to be going as fast as you would if it was, like, ice or snow.
The snow here is actually plastic, big sheets of bristles, stitched together across the mountainside.
MR. DREW SHERWOOD
Everybody's first reaction is, that's going to hurt and it's going to take your skin off.
Drew Sherwood is the general manager here.
Well, you're not going to lose your skin. I can promise you that, as long as you're covered up.
The Snowflex Centre opened up in 2009, the first, and so far, only, ski slope in North America using this fake snow. While many ski areas in the Mid-Atlantic were forced to open late this season because of warm weather, the slope here is open about 360 days a year. Mother Nature is almost irrelevant. The weather is just sort of a backdrop.
It doesn't affect us. If it snows here, we are open, we can go skiing, we can go snowboarding. If it's icing out, if it's raining out, if it's a hundred degrees out, we can still ride here.
So is plastic the future of skiing? Matthew Graham has been skiing in the Mid-Atlantic for the past 20 years. He's a local writer and regular columnist for the website DC Ski. Last weekend he and his wife headed up to Snowshoe Mountain to do some spring skiing in January.
MR. MATTHEW GRAHAM
You know, 65 degrees, and you're skiing, and you're just in your loose coat and zipper's open and everyone's smiling and it's sunny.
Graham says this kind of weather weirdness has gotten much more common over the past few decades.
Fifteen years ago, Snowshoe Mountain would be open for Thanksgiving. Christmas week was always guaranteed good snow. There's still an occasional cold winter, but the trend has been warming and less snow. So the resorts that have keyed in on the fact that they need to make snow whenever there's cold weather are doing well.
But sometimes there's just not enough cold weather to make snow. I called up Tim Prather, general manager of Wisp Resort in Western Maryland, typically one of the more snow-endowed ski centers in the area.
Oh, can you hear me?
MR. TIM PRATHER
Okay, great. How's the season going so far? What's the snow out there like right now?
It's up and down.
So far a lot of rain and a lot of 60-degree days.
Whether this is a trend or an anomaly, there's a lot of debate about, but we've always been a business that is kind of at the whims of the weather. I say we're kind of like farmers. We're hoping for rain and then we're hoping that it doesn't rain. Hoping for snow and then hoping we don't get too much snow.
Back at the Snowflex Centre, Drew Sherwood says businesses from around the country have been calling him up, curious about his all-weather plastic slope. He says some resorts are considering augmenting real snow slopes with plastic so they can extend their season.
We've had anybody from California, Texas, Minnesota, up in New York, all the way down to Florida, even in South America.
Liberty University spent more than $6 million building the slope in Lynchburg, a price tag that could be unaffordable for commercial resorts. But in Europe, there already are dozens of synthetic ski slopes and they've been around for years. Sherwood says people are closely watching Liberty to see whether snowless skiing will take off here in the states.
So this is the beginner slope?
In the meantime, down I go. My first run on plastic. I'm Jacob Fenston.
Want to see a video of what it's like to ski on plastic snow? You can find one on our website, metroconnection.org.
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