2009 Ski issue

In Lynchburg, a skiing adventure, minus the snow

Skiers can hit the synthetic slope year-round at Liberty University's 5,000-acre mountain in Lynchburg, Va., which offers the only Snowflex Centre in the United States.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Well, this is an inauspicious start.

I'm lying on the ground under the rope-tow lift on the slope at Liberty University's Snowflex Centre in Lynchburg, unsure how to get back up. It has been about a decade since I last skied, and I'd thought that giving it a go on an artificial surface would be a great warm-up before graduating back to the real stuff. Except the only thing that feels warm at this point is the raw abrasion on the palm of my hand. (I later learn that "Snowflex burn" is a well-documented injury among those who scrape their exposed skin along the slope.)

After I make a few failed attempts to right myself, the tow-lift operator has no choice but to shut off the infernal machine as she helps me out of my skis. A line of about a half-dozen people has backed up behind me.

And to think I'd assumed that my greatest challenge would be the actual skiing.

Sympathetic to my plight, a woman explains the keys to mastering the lift: Skis parallel to the cord. Poles dragging at your side. Let a few grip bars go by before grabbing if you have to. "We skiers have to stick together!" she declares as she walks away.

A mixture of pain and mortification keeps me at the bottom of the hill for a few minutes longer. Then I can delay no more. With an almost reckless disregard for the way my arms feel as if they're being pulled from their sockets, I finally succeed in grabbing one of the orange boomerang-like bars and ride it to the top. There, a familiar sense of trepidation comes over me.

Below me stretches the slope of Snowflex, a crunchy white surface (think AstroTurf with bigger blades) dotted with misters and laid out in panels, meant to imitate the real stuff. I push off and almost instantly revert to my fallback snowplow position, which I realize is a little less useful when there's no snow building up around your skis to stop you. In the moments when I'm not fighting off panic, I'm pretty impressed by how I unconsciously begin to respond in the same way that I'd learned to move on real snow.

I don't trust my own opinion, though. It's been so long since my last time on snow that I might have been just as impressed with a hill of Marshmallow Fluff.

I consult with Joey Cunningham, a University of Virginia student who has been snowboarding since age 12. He looked pretty good on the slope despite having left a few artistic-looking blue streaks behind as his jeans hit the wet Snowflex.

I ask him how it stacks up against real snow.

"It's not the same," he says, particularly in cutting turns. "But when it's hot out, it's the best you're going to get."

Liberty student and snowboarder Kevin Manguiob is effusive. He's on the slope almost every day and as a New York native is accustomed to the powder in his home state and Canada. "It mimics it very, very good," he replies to my inevitable request for his take on Snowflex vs. snow.

Liberty opened the Snowflex Centre in August as a year-round attraction for its students and the public. It sits atop the university's 5,000-acre Liberty Mountain, with views of the rest of the campus. The facility's acting general manager, Bryan Evans, is still a bit in awe of how quickly it has caught on. People have come from such far-flung places as Canada, Vermont, Florida and California to try the only such slope on this side of the Atlantic, he tells me.

Snowflex is more common in Europe, where it was invented by British engineer Brian Thomas. Having just helped Liberty add 30,000 more square feet to its slope (on top of the original 40,000), Thomas, when I chance upon him, is trying to figure out where to install a 30-foot rail for the more intrepid ski and snowboard enthusiasts who launch into the air to do tricks.

I confide to him that I am a little intimidated by the steepness of the hill. Yes, he says, it's steeper than he would have liked, but there's only so much you can do when you're chipping a slope out of a mountain. Plus, he adds with a crinkly smile, Americans like things fast and crazy, anyway.

I stand at the bottom of the hill, and every time someone wipes out -- which is pretty frequently considering the flips, dips and spins being attempted -- I cringe. Evans says he's used to the sound of falling bodies, a sort of thud followed by scraping. Thomas notes that a shock-absorbing layer he included to distribute people's weight more evenly across their skis had the convenient extra benefit of making falls much less painful.

Jonathan Vandegriff of Lynchburg agrees. He's a longtime snowboarder who tested a Snowflex facility in France as Liberty's was being planned. He has taken spills on hard pack that have knocked him out for the rest of the day. Here, he gets right back up and does it again.

I, however, am somewhat less resilient. My arms and legs are aching. The energy boost from my lunch at the downtown Hot and Cold Cafe (appropriately named for this endeavor) has long since worn off, and I think it's about time to pluck my husband from watching football in the cozy lodge at the base of the slope.

We unload at the Carriage House Inn Bed and Breakfast, an 1878 Italianate mansion typical of the kind of jaw-dropping houses in the city's historic neighborhoods. I barely have time to look longingly at the original pedestal tub in our bathroom before it's time to scurry downtown for our dinner reservation at the newly reopened Shoemakers American Grille.

The next morning, only with difficulty can I lift my arms above my shoulders, and not unexpectedly, I find my legs a bit sore as well. Lynchburg's moniker, the "city of seven hills," now seems like some sort of cruel joke. My earlier inclination to traverse the terrain in search of old houses is not an option.

Innkeeper Kathy Bedsworth, who owns the Carriage House with her husband, Mike, solidifies my interest in visiting Percival's Island Natural Area, a 1 1/2 -mile-long strip of land in the middle of the James River. "It's flat," she says.

The former railroad bed has been paved and is part of the larger network of paths that compose the James River Heritage Trail, which begins at the city's Blackwater Creek Trail and concludes with an additional 1 1/2 miles along the James in Amherst County. With fair weather and a good number of shops and restaurants closed in town on Sunday, the trail proves an especially appealing attraction. We have lots of company.

Before we grab lunch and leave town a mere 24 hours after arriving, we head back toward the Snowflex Centre to poke around the surrounding area. I catch a glimpse of the slope up Liberty Mountain, unchanged despite the unrelenting sunshine. If only my muscles were that stoic.

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