SNÖBAHN: Year-Round Indoor Skiing in Denver

4th June 2017 | Heather B. Fried

Intro drills at SNÖBAHN - ©Heather B. Fried

Intro drills at SNÖBAHN, an indoor ski facility in Denver.

Copyright: Heather B. Fried

A never-ever, an advanced skier, an expert instructor and a racer kid walk into a ski training facility… It’s summertime and about 90° outside, and we’re booting up for a ski lesson at SNÖBAHN, an indoor ski and snowboard center with revolving slope machines. A concept born in the Netherlands and made über popular in Europe, SNÖBAHN comes to Denver compliments of some of the biggest names in the biz. 

“Bode Miller, Erik Schlopy and I have all come onboard as spokespersons and brand ambassadors for SNÖBAHN,” says fellow pro skier, Chris Anthony “We will be involved in a number of ways.” Add SNÖBAHN’s founder, Sadler Merrill, to that list and you’ve got as many ski industry chops as these slopes are long. 

What is SNÖBAHN?

With a mission to have a ski day, everyday, SNÖBAHN is designed to break down skiing’s biggest barriers to entry through pillars of “accessibility, affordability, accelerated learning and creating a sense of community,” according to Merrill. 

How do they get there? Picture a treadmill. Now cover it with soft, white nylon tufts and set a negative incline to the desired slope angle, 8–22 degrees. Wet that sucker down and cruise the infinite run until you’ve skied your fill—30 minutes is said to be equal to 3,300 vertical feet or skiing Vail top to bottom seven times! But not so fast… there’s a bit more to it than that. ­ 

You’ll need some gear, all of which is covered in the cost of the experience—intro is $30 for adults, $25 for youth, with a subsequent single lesson being $45 and $40 respectively, and the more you go, the cheaper it gets. POC helmets, Salomon boots, skis and boards are on hand, but you’re welcome to bring your own helmet and boots. Specialty skis are required, and they’re going to be short by about 20 cm of what you’re used to skiing. This isn’t about ability but turn radius; while the slopes endow endless vertical, they’re rather limited side to side, so shorter skis are a maneuverable must. 

Working with an instructor, all lessons begin by getting a feel for the slope moving under your feet while holding tight to a bar at the bottom and watching yourself in a mirror in front of you. From there, your ability and comfort dictate what’s next; for newbies, that’s likely going to look like any number of fun getting aquatinted drills, equally relevant in familiarizing body and brain with the surface, gear and skiing in general. Otherwise, it’s to the top of the slope you go. 

SNÖBAHN instructor, Nick, demonstrating proper technique. - ©Heather B. Fried

SNÖBAHN instructor, Nick, demonstrating proper technique.

Copyright: Heather B. Fried

The Great Indoors

Krista Crabtree, the expert of our group and an undisputed badass on the mountain, tallied 106 ski days this season before SNÖBAHN, where she spent a good chunk of her 107th day in a wedge. In other words, keep those hips loose, folks, and come prepared for pie. If nothing else, the plow position will serve as a lift of sorts being that it’s the easiest way to provide enough resistance against the fibers to carry you upslope. More than likely, however, you’ll be making quite a few stem-christie-esque turns as you adjust to a few sensations. Among the most notable: the uphill/inside ski rocketing like a piece of wood off a sand belt as you attempt a parallel turn. Literally, a hop turn came easier to Crabtree.   

Meanwhile, over on another slope, our never-ever skier was making off-the-chart progress—linking wedge turns smoothly within the hour. Unencumbered by bad habits or preconceived notions, his progression is proof of SNÖBAHN concept. “This teaches you sound fundamentals, the appropriate technique to actually carve a turn versus slide, skid, break, all the other bad habits,” says Merrill. 

Being that this is, in many ways, harder than skiing, it only follows that the transition to snow—with more space laterally to ride out those carves—will be a successful one. And instead of the usual snow-eating, goggle fogging, traffic suffering, whole paycheck forking intro to skiing, you get a mellow, inexpensive opportunity to have a breakthrough on your first day, no lifts, no lines and fewer falls (the website’s claim is no joke, the instructors really do anticipate and subsequently prevent wipeouts by simply stopping the belt, I can attest!).

“We do feel like this could be the default method to learn more advanced techniques, and we hope that would be the case, because it’s a controlled environment and it’s infinite—you just keep going and keep practicing and practicing,” Merrill comments. “But we’re not trying to replace the on-snow experience, we just want to be a gateway to it, allow more people who maybe haven’t tried it for one of the many factors—it’s expensive, cold, I don’t have equipment, I don’t have someone to go with, the traffic, scared of heights, speed, on and on. There are one-hundred reasons why people don’t ski, we want to overcome those and provide a safe, fun, controlled environment to learn and participate in the sport that we all love.” 

When you do decide it’s time to brave it all, the SNÖBAHN-infused experience will make the real thing all the more worth it. 

For the seasoned skier, admittedly, it’s a bit strange to take a step back. Snow may be more forgiving when it comes to catching an edge, but it also allows us to be lazy. The indoor experience will challenge your technique because there, parallel turning is carving—not something that can be said on snow. Crabtree also liked the good workout for skiers in the summer and the tough task of figuring it out, which she eventually did by focusing on fluidity. Crabtree’s 10-year-old ski-racing daughter eloquently summed up the experience this way: “Harder than skiing but easier to get the hang of.” Regarding her request that Mom shell out $125k to “get one”? That remains to be seen. 

Our newbie toward the end of his lesson, ready to rip already. - ©Heather B. Fried

Our newbie toward the end of his lesson, ready to rip already.

Copyright: Heather B. Fried

Brains Behind the Bahn

In terms of athlete involvement, Anthony will be “creating experiential learning” opportunities, tying his Youth Initiative Project to the facility by bringing kids from schools that would never have the chance to otherwise be introduced to skiing. “He’s so entrenched in the sport in Colorado, Chris is the hardest working guy in the industry, and everyone associates him with sort of the celebrity professional,” Merrill says of Anthony. “He just ties into everything we’re doing, the youth, he also spans to the high competitive level.” 

Sadler Merrill and Chris Anthony, some of the brains behind the Bahn. - ©Heather B. Fried

Sadler Merrill and Chris Anthony, some of the brains behind the Bahn.

Copyright: Heather B. Fried

As part of the face of SNÖBAHN, Bode Miller and Erik Schlopy are also already making contributions behind the scenes. “I missed [Bode] skiing, but I got here right when he came off, and he sat over there—Bode’s already figuring out stuff,” Anthony says, recounting Miller’s immediate attention to gear detail. “He’s like, you’ve got to have this type of ski… that’s how he’s always thinking. That’s all he talked about over there. He was into it.” To that, Merrill adds: “All these guys are so analytical. He was redesigning, reengineering a ski that would be perfect for this. He’s like, oh the tip, the shovel has to be this, we need this sidecut, this flex pattern.” 

Olympic Gold Medalist, Bode Miller, one of the athletes involved in SNÖBAHN. - ©Rachel Olsen Photography

Olympic Gold Medalist, Bode Miller, one of the athletes involved in SNÖBAHN.

Copyright: Rachel Olsen Photography

Schlopy’s also got some masterminding in the works, with plans to help develop SNÖBAHN programs spanning from a new model of ski progression to gamification whereby you try to mimic the athlete who’s image is being projected onto the mirror in front of you. “To match their speed means they’re loading up both skis, their angles, they’re doing everything correctly to do it turn for turn,” says Merrill. “So there’s a long way you can go at the upper end; at the beginning it’s going to take us a little while to develop those programs. But that’s where Erik and Chris will be more involved from that side.”  

Erik Schlopy, 2014 Ski Hall of Fame Inductee, will help develop SNÖBAHN ski programs.  - ©Rachel Olsen Photography

Erik Schlopy, 2014 Ski Hall of Fame Inductee, will help develop SNÖBAHN ski programs.

Copyright: Rachel Olsen Photography

Integrating this type of technology will not only add a fun component to learning, but also assist training, progression and the mastery of different ski skills. “We want to play into that social and competitive aspect with features like the overlay and an online platform,” adds Merrill. “We’ll eventually get RFID, so that you come in with your season pass, plug it in, it knows when you get on the slope, it knows the slope angle and speed, then it’s doing math and saying alright, Chris has skied 600 vertical today.” A leaderboard will display your daily, weekly and monthly stats for tracking and bragging rights.

But even with all this yet to come, you’ve still got a state-of-the-art facility and a completely unique experience at present. One thing you won’t have to wait for is an après ski spot. They already thought of that with SNÖBAR, the icing on a great ski day. 

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