The rainy season in the U.K. was abusing its privilege in September. Buckets of water were falling on Glasgow. Peggi and I (managing editor and editor of OTS respectfully) were on holiday, as they say in these parts, vacation as they say at home in Arizona. It just didn't seem like a very good day to hop on and hop off the tourist bus.
So, I went skiing. Peggi headed to the SNO!Bar to sip espresso and absorb the strange September scene.
We had taken a very short cab ride from our city center hotel and were deposited in front of Xscape Braehead, described as "Scotland's New Exciting Entertainment Destination" in mid-morning. The description is perhaps an understatement.
I was intent on skiing for the first time in one of the indoor snow domes that have become so popular in Europe and Asia and are making a ruckus about expanding soon to the New Jersey Meadowlands, Las Vegas, and North Carolina in the U.S.
There were plenty of choices in this giant entertainment complex if skiing hadn't been on my agenda. I could have played soccer interactively, gone bowling, scaled massive climbing walls, played adventure golf, gotten involved in extreme sports, tried the RoboCoaster, chosen among 19 screens to watch a movie, or dined in one of 12 restaurants that ranged from American chains like Tony Roma's and Friday's to the ubiquitous Costa Coffee.
We also could have shopped in seven trendy sports stores from Billabong to Gravity, or walk next door to the Braehead Shopping Mall. There was even a conference center had Peggi and I needed to have a meeting outside the SNO!Bar.
We followed the "REAL Snow" signs all through the complex, up an escalator, and there it was: SNO!zone Scotland.
SNO!Zone opened in 2006 and is the biggest indoor "real snow" venture in the U.K. This company also has indoor skiing operations in Castleford, near Leeds, England, that opened in 2003, and another in Milton Keynes, north of London, dating to 2001.
The Glasgow operation has attracted more than two million visitors to its slopes to date, more skier visits than all five of the traditional Scottish ski areas combined.
Here's the best part: Skiers and boarders can access the slopes 364 days a year (closed only Christmas Day). It's open from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. all year round, but you get an extra hour tacked on (until 11 p.m.) during the winter season. It takes a total staff of 300 to keep the place humming.
Is it really skiing? Oh, yes. Much better than I ever would have anticipated, being a habitué of the outdoors for the sport, of course. But, I confess to enjoying Major League baseball once in a while in air-conditioned indoor comfort in Phoenix, so the concept of skiing indoors was certainly intriguing.
The "ski weather" hits you in the face the moment you enter the enclosure. It's maintained at levels from 0-3 degrees Celsius (32-37 degrees Fahrenheit). Sure beats New England in January, doesn't it? The main slope is 200 metres long (656 feet). The pitch at the top is 15 degrees, becoming gentler to 10 degrees as it heads downhill. There's a small area near the bottom for tobogganing and tubing.
There's a dedicated lesson slope going up the other side from where the main slope ends. This is where beginners learn enough technique and master enough skills for them to graduate to the main slope. The lesson slope can accommodate up to 100 students at a time. Some 500 lessons are given during the weekends, with about 1,000 given on peak weekends. Skill sessions are offered with specialized coaches for those wanting to get to the next levels.
SNO!Zone also offers adaptive skiing and lessons and is affiliated with Disability Snowsport UK, funded by the National Lottery. There are about 135 disabled persons in the program, ages 11-25, and SNO!Zone stocks an impressive array of adaptive equipment. Adaptive lessons are one-on-one, always available, and 52 staff, mostly from the Glasgow-Aberdeen area, have experience in adaptive instruction.
The snow was comfortable, and very well groomed; neither too soft, crunchy, nor icy. The slopes are covered with 1,700 tons of machine made snow shot from 18 cannons, mostly overhead. Some 15-20 tons of snow is recycled every night and there are no chemicals involved. These machines are smaller than what we're used to seeing on outdoor slopes, but they work the same way and are obviously effective.
High quality Rossignol skis, boots, and poles and snowboards are included in the lift ticket price, as are helmets (mandatory for kids). The equipment line is changed out each year. Nobody has to drag their gear from home if they don't want to do so. Some do, and they're welcome to do so.
Pants and parkas from Trespass, fairly stylish for parkas and trousers having to fit all sizes, are available for hire (rent) for £5 (about $9). You do have to bring your own gloves (hygiene, don't you know) or purchase a pair.
The place rocks out most weekend nights with plenty of special events, concerts, freestyle shows, corporate events, and much more. Weeknights are designated for race training, student sessions (including food and equipment), and two freestyle nights on ramps, rails, and kickers. Supervised SNO!troopers sessions are for kids 7-15 years old.
Adult recreational skiers and snowboarders can buy their fun by the hour (£16 pounds off peak - about $29; or £21 peak - about $39). Remember, all equipment is included. Two-hour sessions are £10 pounds (about $18) more. There are family packages for adults and children that save more money, and even discounted recreational sessions that bring the price down to £7 pounds (about $13) per hour.
There's only so much up and down (yo-yo) type skiing and snowboarding that one will want to do, so one- or two-hour sessions are about right for fun, getting legs ready for a ski holiday, or learning to ski or ride.
The main slope lift is what the locals call a "button," but most Americans will call a Poma. It's a far more familiar piece of uphill transport in Europe than most North Americans encounter. The easy-off landings are about halfway up and at the top. There are lift attendants observing the button grab at the bottom and watching the off-getting on top.
This dreary, rainy outdoor morning drew four skiers and four snowboarders to the main slope for the hour I skied, while an adaptive lesson was in progress on the lesson slope. An older gent stopped by me as I was resting a moment at the bottom (hey, first day on skis for the year - I'm entitled).
"Nice in here today, isn't it?" he said, with a heavy Scottish flavor. "Yes, not very crowded," I opined. "Don't you just love it this way?" he laughed as he strode onto the Poma. At least he didn't call me "Laddie."
Read Paul Doherty's A Map To the World's Indoor, Dry Ski Slopes for more information on indoor ski slopes, details on dry ski slopes, and links to relevant stories.