My own skiing career started off on a dry ski slope in the South East of England when the sport was growing at its fastest ever pace. I could only dream back then of a time, in the country I was born in, that we would be able to ski on real snow. That is now a reality in many countries around the world that have built vast indoor complexes with ski slopes that are often hundreds of metres long. In the UK alone there are now 6 indoor snow centres, with the latest being the 2 year old ‘Snow Centre’, in Hemel Hempstead.
I decided to pay a visit to The Snow Centre and see how things were developing since opening up in 2009. I remember the old dry ski slope which was situated in exactly the same spot before the enormous and modern looking Snow Centre building was erected in its place. I was keen to get my skis on and try out the real snow as soon as I could. The slope, which looked moderately busy for a mid week lunchtime session, suddenly cleared and the dedicated womens clinic that was being held had come to an end. I changed clothes in the convenient changing area and placed all my valuables into the handy lockers before getting a pair of skis from the rental area. All pretty easy and seamless and there was a great buzz around as the women were talking about their lessons and were ready for some coffee upstairs.
The first thing I noticed about the slope was the quality of the snow. The Snow Centre do sell their snow as the best quality ‘this side of The Alps’ but I have experienced indoor slope conditions before and they can be of varying quality. I was really impressed with how the snow felt under my feet, and although I had a set of hire skis on (not the kind of ski I’m used to skiing on) I could not fault the snow quality at all.
At 160 meters long, the main slope is served by 2 drag lifts on either side. There is also a learners slope which is 100 meters long making it the largest in the UK. The main slope is 30 meters wide which makes it feel extra spacious and great for practising longer radius carving turns. Although I chose to wear a helmet, they are not compulsory, but many other skiers and snowboarders were wearing them.
I caught up with a couple of the slope patrol staff, Gareth and Ross, who were on duty at the time. Their role is to ensure slope users are safe and getting the most out of their experience at the centre. Both of them were already qualified BASI 1 grade instructors and saw the job as part of a career in snow sports instruction. I got the impression that they were there to help and not to impose any draconian rules onto the customers, but at the same time made sure that the basic regulations were adhered to. In a relatively enclosed area skiing or snowboarding at high speeds, out of control down the slope just would not work. A certain level of proficiency is required for skiers and snowboarders to use the slope and anyone who falls under this level must take lessons with an instructor.
I met up with Tony, one of the instructors who had just finished a lesson and was giving some extra tips to a client. I knew the reputation of the ski school was excellent and overseen by Pete Gillespie, a well know and well respected ski teacher and coach with over 20 years experience in the industry. I knew Pete and had skied with him before and had a great deal of respect for his professionalism and passion for the sport. Certainly Tony spoke in high regard of him and the training that they received on top of their formal qualifications which they all have. Tony had worked at another indoor snow complex previously to The Snow Centre and he had no doubts that the snow conditions and the structure in place within the ski school were exceptional in Hemel. I’d say that Tony was a slightly more mature instructor than the average, but he taught with enthusiasm and skill which had obviously been honed over his winter season in Austria and previous teaching experience. All instructors at The Snow Centre are qualified to a minimum of BASI level 1 standard and many have higher certificates from either BASI or other equivalent governing bodies.
The great thing about indoor snow centres in the UK is that they can cater for all levels of skiers. Beginners can learn to ski before a holiday, saving time and therefore money, on real snow. So when you turn up in a resort, the concept of skiing doesn’t feel so alien. There are coaching clinics for more advanced skiers and school holiday courses for children at all levels. For aspiring instructors, there are coaching sessions on Tuesday nights which assesses your level and guide you through the process to the first stage of qualifying as an instructor.
There are currently 250 instructors on the books, although most of these are part time. Even Sir Steve Redgrave has been through the instructor system and is qualified to teach at The Snow Centre!
I’m looking forward to my next snow fix already and I know when the sun is baking outside and the beaches are crowded, there will be a quiet corner of England glistening in the snow.