Hitting The Slopes, Minus The Snow, In Virginia (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Hitting The Slopes, Minus The Snow, In Virginia

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
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

00:00:37
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

00:00:44
It sounds like snow.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

00:00:48
And kind of looks like snow if you squint. And it sort of feels like snow under your skis.

MR. BRENT WASHBURN

00:00:52
Like you're sitting down in a chair, weight back on the back of your, like, calf and your boot.

FENSTON

00:00:57
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.

WASHBURN

00:01:10
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.

FENSTON

00:01:26
The snow here is actually plastic, big sheets of bristles, stitched together across the mountainside.

MR. DREW SHERWOOD

00:01:32
Everybody's first reaction is, that's going to hurt and it's going to take your skin off.

FENSTON

00:01:36
Drew Sherwood is the general manager here.

SHERWOOD

00:01:38
Well, you're not going to lose your skin. I can promise you that, as long as you're covered up.

FENSTON

00:01:43
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.

SHERWOOD

00:02:03
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.

FENSTON

00:02:14
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

00:02:31
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.

FENSTON

00:02:38
Graham says this kind of weather weirdness has gotten much more common over the past few decades.

GRAHAM

00:02:43
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.

FENSTON

00:03:02
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.

FENSTON

00:03:14
Oh, can you hear me?

MR. TIM PRATHER

00:03:15
I can.

FENSTON

00:03:16
Okay, great. How's the season going so far? What's the snow out there like right now?

PRATHER

00:03:20
It's up and down.

FENSTON

00:03:23
So far a lot of rain and a lot of 60-degree days.

PRATHER

00:03:26
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.

FENSTON

00:03:46
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.

SHERWOOD

00:04:00
We've had anybody from California, Texas, Minnesota, up in New York, all the way down to Florida, even in South America.

FENSTON

00:04:09
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.

FENSTON

00:04:28
So this is the beginner slope?

WASHBURN

00:04:30
Yeah.

FENSTON

00:04:31
In the meantime, down I go. My first run on plastic. I'm Jacob Fenston.

SHEIR

00:04:42
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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