Low on snow? One ski area tries plastic

What would you say if you ran a ski area and after three snow-skimpy seasons you invested in a year-round ski slope, only to have it buried under a foot of the real thing before you opened? (How about, ''It never snows but it blizzards''?)

Ski area operator Bob Dunn has been philosophic about the short term, and shrewdly optimistic about the long-term potential of his plastic mat covered slopes. Regarding the return of snow, he observes: ''Maybe plastic slopes are a primer. I hope so.''

Mr. Dunn is the first American ski area operator to introduce a year-round ski slope that is already in use at 54 small ski areas in Great Britain and on the Continent.

For a decade, Scots around Edinburgh have been learning to ski on plastic mats. Skiable snow is not one of Scotland's dependable commodities. But at Hillend ski center there, people have learned to ski -- even to ski race -- with nary a flake of snow on the ground.

They have done so on mats of diamond- or square-shaped brushes of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). According to Dunn, even members of the British ski team learned to ski on plastic.

Dunn says for the first four years or so Hillend was the sole capital of PVC skiing. But the idea began to catch on in other regions until now there are three PVC slopes in Northern Ireland, three in the Republic of Ireland -- 37 in the British Isles in total -- with others in Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, and even Switzerland.

With all the troubled news that has come out of Northern Ireland, one of the last things anybody might imagine is an active ski slope in Belfast. Yet children in that area have learned to ski on PVC, then taken relatively low-cost/group ski vacations to such unlikely alpine destinations as the mountains of Romania.

The mats' manufacturer, Dendix of Chepstow in southern Wales, claims in some of its literature that ''in many areas served by the thriving slopes, the thrills and challenges of skiing have led to a significant reduction in the level of vandalism.'' Whether such results can be substantiated may be open to question. But there seems little doubt that these plastic ski slopes have brought skiing ''within reach of thousands of youngsters who would otherwise have been denied this experience,'' another claim of the manufacturer.

Dunn finds the PVC mats excellent for teaching. And although he hopes they will enhance school and recreation department programs at his Boston Hills ski area, he has a more profit-oriented motive for introducing them to North America. He hopes they will fill in the off-season business at his small area on the outskirts of Lawrence, Mass., about a 45-minute drive north of Boston. In the past, Boston Hills has offered ''grass skiing'' and rides on an ''Alpine Slide'' during the summer and fall. (Grass skiing on little skis with rollers requires significantly more strength and skill than snow skiing.)

''I can't see anyone driving over here from Marblehead on July 20 to go skiing (on plastic). But I can see someone doing it starting around August 20, when skiers start to think of the coming season,'' says Dunn, who on completion will have the world's longest PVC slope -- approximately 1,400 feet long by an average 80 feet wide.

Now the United States distributor for the mats, Dunn has changed their name here from ''Snowslope'' to what he hopes is a more marketable ''Perma-Snow.'' Besides their capacity to provide year-around skiing, the mats make an excellent base on terrain that easily loses snow, he says.

But these are not the first artificial ski slopes in the US. A similar product (partially made from steel) was briefly manufactured in New Hampshire several years ago. It has been used to fill in limited but heavily used areas, such as T-bar tracks and exit ramps from chair lifts. Also, short ski slopes made from various polypropylene materials have been used at ski areas in Georgia , Virginia, and in conjunction with ski shops and teaching programs in Los Angeles.

They have not seemed to catch on elsewhere. One reason may be the questionable attraction of skiing on plastic. Another could be the considerable initial investment. In the British Isles, the Dendix mats reportedly cost around that, according to Dunn.

A major factor that has made the British product successful is durability, says Dunn. The PVC brushes are anchored to a stainless steel base, which has resisted corrosion enough that some of the mats installed a decade ago are only now wearing out, he says.

And what is it like to ski down these plastic mats? Fraser Noble, a veteran ski writer and racer from Westminster, Mass., skied on the mats last summer in Cardiff, Wales. He found them an ''alternative for people who never tried skiing before.''

''I think there should be a little water being sprayed on it,'' he said. ''It was dry and therefore rather slow. I found that I was more cautious because I know the stuff is going to be abrasive if you fall. Some of the new mats skied a lot better than some of the old stuff. On a good misty day it should be pretty good sliding.''

Dunn and his ski instructors were able to ski on the new mats before the snows fell, and they found the feeling very much like real snow, except for the slower speed. For teaching purposes, that is ideal, he says.

Anchoring the 6-by-4 foot mats to a slope ranging in steepness from 12 to 25 degrees is a complex process. It's possible to build moguls into the slope, and thermal expansion and contraction does not seem to affect the materials. The PVC is said to allow side-slipping and any kind of ski turn, including even freestyle maneuvers. Gates can be set up, and slalom races run.

As for wetting down the surface, on one of his early visits to Hillend, Dunn found it raining but the slopes crowded with excellent skiers. The good skiers love to come out when it rains, he was told, ''because then they can ski fast.''

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