Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Jay Panther is a current member of the U.S. Olympic freestyle ski team. Panther was a team member in 2010 and 2011 but missed most of the 2012 season because of an injury. This version has been corrected.
It looks like God’s country from high atop the hill they call Liberty Mountain, with sunbeams slicing through puffy clouds overhead and the school that Jerry Falwell built nestled at its foot.
But the hill itself seems to be more of a deal with the devil. Because it’s August. In Virginia. And despite scorching heat, skiers and snowboarders and tube-riders are swooshing down a white slope like it’s winter in Vail, Colo.
If there’s anything in Leviticus against planting one foot in summer and the other in winter, the pious souls at Liberty University have turned a blind eye.
“We were water skiing in the morning, and now we’re snow skiing in the afternoon,” marveled Jim Gooding, 43, who works in the District as a government contracts administrator. He had just taken his first few runs down the synthetic ski slope at the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre.
Blanketing 11 / 2 acres of steep hillside above the university is Snowflex, a $150-per-square-foot material that looks like a bristly plastic doormat and mimics the “slip and grip” of snow. Liberty is the only place in this hemisphere to build a ski resort out of the stuff, which was invented in Europe and has caught on more there.
That has made Lynchburg, which at the height of winter averages less than five inches of snow a month, the only place in North America besides Mount Hood where it’s possible to ski in the summer. The town has even become an unlikely stop on one professional skier’s globe-
trotting training itinerary.
“I’ll be honest with you: This is not snow,” said Drew Sherwood, the center’s general manager. It would have been an obvious truth on a hot August afternoon if it weren’t for the skiers rushing past.
“We tell people — we’re honest — it’s never going to be as good as snow,” he said. “And the feeling of snow, when you’re out on a fresh powder day, riding through snow — it’s never going to be like that. But when you’re talking spring, summer and fall, when 99 percent of other ski resorts are closed down, it’s the best feeling you can have.”
That’s true even if it means donning snow pants, boots, gloves and long sleeves during some of the hottest summer days on record. The gear gives athletes the feel of “real” skiing as much as protection from painful rug burn if they fall.
“You do get dehydrated quickly,” said Philip Ruffini, 16, knocking back water in between runs on his snowboard on a humid, 90-
degree day. A competitive snowboarder from Downingtown, Pa., Ruffini discovered the slope while searching online for a snowboarding option cheaper than flying out to Oregon. With his parents and a friend, he had traveled six hours from Pennsylvania to spend two days at the slope.
“I thought it was going to be indoors,” said the friend, Kyle Boileau, 15, of West Chester, Pa. “He said, ‘There’s this place you can go snowboarding, and it’s fake snow.’ ”
Both teens were enjoying themselves, though Boileau was frustrated by the “grippy” surface. A series of in-ground sprinklers mist the Snowflex, but in the heat of the day, the water dries more quickly. Boileau was looking forward to sundown because the surface would be slicker. The heat wasn’t bothering him. He was sufficiently soggy — from falling on the wet surface and sweating — to feel cool.
“You get wet. It’s almost like going down a water slide,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s sweat or water; it cools you down.”
Liberty created the slope three years ago this month as an outlet for wholesome campus fun and as an enticement to prospective students. Open year-round and to the general public, it draws about 125 people a day.
It is billed as a good place to learn to ski and practice advanced stunts because there is a springy, 21 / 2-inch “shock pad” beneath the surface. It’s also cheaper than conventional skiing. It costs $7 an hour on weekends, plus equipment rental, which is a flat $12 for ski and snowboard sets, and a flat $5 for tubes. (Liberty students get to use the facility and equipment for free.)
The place has gained a following with some competitive skiers and snowboarders. Jay Panther, a former member of the U.S. freestyle ski team and a 2014 Winter Olympics hopeful, discovered the place last year and in December signed a deal to make Liberty his title sponsor.
“We travel the world chasing the snow. Wherever the snow falls is where we go,” said Panther, 27, who trains in Park City, Utah; Zermatt, Switzerland; at the Apex resort in British Columbia; El Colorado Ski Center in Chile; and Perisher Blue resort in New Zealand.
Lynchburg got added to that list after Panther heard about the facility by chance. While visiting family in Louisville last summer, he met the new pastor at the Bible-based church he attended while growing up. The pastor was a Liberty grad, and he mentioned the slope. Panther traveled there soon afterward and was impressed.
Liberty’s compact layout and rope tow make training there very efficient, Panther said. He can get in 30 jumps in an hour — twice as many as he can manage in Olympic Park in Utah, where the elevation and walk back to the top sap a lot of energy.
He trains at Liberty on and off throughout the year, but he still needs practice time on real snow because that’s the surface he competes on. Liberty has the jumps and rails he faces in competition, but it has no moguls.
He finds the synthetic surface less forgiving than real snow, but that just forces him to use good form.
“It’s the ideal training ground,” Panther said. “You have to be perfect on that surface. You can’t cheat that surface.”
This article has been updated since it was first published.