Last year was the warmest year on record in the United States, and the Mid-Atlantic is in the midst of the longest stretch without a major snowstorm since the 1800s. That's not good news for local ski resorts, many of which have been getting rain and high temperatures close to 60 degrees. But there's one slope where that doesn't matter — where, actually, rain makes for better skiing.
At Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre, at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., a rainy day is like a powder day at most ski areas. Rain lubricates the plastic bristles that make up the ski slope, sending skiers and snowboarders gliding downhill at top speed.
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; closed only for holidays. Mother Nature is almost irrelevant — the weather is just sort of a backdrop.
"It doesn't affect us," says general manager Drew Sherwood. 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?
Local writer Matthew Graham has been skiing in the Mid-Atlantic for the past 20 years and he's a regular columnist for the website DC Ski. Last weekend he and his wife headed up to Snowshoe Mountain in Pennsylvania to do some spring skiing — in January.
"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," he says. "Christmas week was always guaranteed good snow. There's still an occasional cold winter, but the trend has been warming and less snow."
The season has been up and down so far for ski resorts that still depend on snowfall, or at least cold enough temperatures to make snow. Tim Prather, general manager of Wisp resort in western Maryland, says even if winters are getting warmer permanently, resorts like his are at higher elevations will be okay.
"We've always been a business that's kind of at the whims of the weather. I say we're kind of like farmers, hoping that it rains, and then hoping that it doesn't rain. Hoping for snow, and then hoping that it doesn't snow."
Drew Sherwood, at the Snowflex Centre, 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.
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.
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