ALL PHOTOS: Erik Seo
The train rocks back and forth. A young woman closes her eyes and, entranced by the music playing in her headphones, gently taps her fingers on a metal safety bar. In the corner of the car, an elderly gentleman pokes his nose through the Evening Standard. In a week filled with half a million people protesting and rioting in the streets over massive budget cuts, and with the completion of the 2012 Summer Olympic stadium, the upcoming royal wedding leads the day's headlines.
Kate Middleton, the future Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, has chosen her wedding cake. It is the major topic of discussion this evening on the London Underground. In the back of the train, four skiers in oversized t-shirts, outerwear, and triple-XL hooded sweatshirts quietly and patiently wait with their skis, boots, and poles for their stop on the Piccadilly line.
"They're in the wrong place to find snow," the English gentleman scoffs looking up from his paper. "Not looking for snow," I reply. The words are strange exiting my mouth. With a puzzled look, he returns to his paper, a small smirk on his face. I return the smile, look out the window to see some of London's finest graffiti smothering the walls, and hum the song in my head.
Dan Marion, Shea Flynn, Sean Jordan, photographer Erik Seo, guide James Boyes and I are on an 1,100 mile trip seeking out the other "other skiing experience." Joining us is the pride of British freeskiing, James Woods. "Woodsy" as he's known, is fresh off a bronze medal finish in slopestyle at the European Winter X Games. The accomplishment makes him the United Kingdom's first medalist in a Winter X Games ski event. In spite of the seemingly impossible circumstance of skiing in a nation where it rarely snows, the 19-year-old Brit loves it, making him the ideal skier to demonstrate how to tackle Britain's bastard cousin of snow skiing— dry slope. But first we warm up on a surface a little more familiar.
The SnowDome in Tamworth, England, has a pool, health spa, restaurant, and fitting slogan: "Snow, Ice, and Leisure." As we walk past the lift-ticket receptionist, we see the SnowDome's 170 meters of vertical through the window of a coffee shop. One left-turning slope awaits.
Inside we find skiers from all walks of life. A doctor and his wife test skis before a trip to Switzerland. On the wall, hot air balloons painted over the fictional Alps advertise Carlsberg beer to the skiers below. Two brothers in full hipster garb race from top to bottom at maximum speed, their faded Mickey Mouse sweatshirts barely flapping. Thick-framed glasses are fixed to their faces instead of goggles. They make one stopping turn at the bottom, scramble to the magic carpet lift, and repeat, like clockwork, for another three hours.
A small park is on the inner left side of the snow dome, complete with a slightly covered-in-snow carpeted quarterpipe at the base. Marion, a Maine-born veteran of the halfpipe, skates from the top of the slope, slams his skis over the carpet, grabs the top of the quarterpipe and throws his feet above his head, executing a textbook handplant. Two metal rails in the snow dome complete the park. Sean and Shea play a game of S.K.I. on the flat-down rail. Small by any standards, none of the skiers inside makes a peep about the size or conditions. If this is what you are used to, anything better or bigger is unimaginable. Unattainable.
The familiarity and fun of snow is satisfying but like the good doctor and his wife, the indoor ski center is simply our preparation. Tomorrow, we will be skiing in Scotland.
Roughly 60 ski centers exist in the United Kingdom. The Epcot Center-like snow domes are few and far between. Rather, the majority of skiing in the UK takes place at outdoor dry slope resorts. An exact number is difficult to track down because they are consistently opening and closing their lifts. Nylon bristles four to five inches in length are fastened together with a coiled-aluminum base and laid over the rolling hills of cities and slopes on the English and Scottish countrysides.
The Midlothian Snowsports Centre, which claims to be Europe's longest artificial slope, is not unlike many ski resorts in North America. It shares its base with a world-class golf course. The difference, of course, is the links' luscious green fairways extend up the hill and under the nylon-blanketed slopes. Operated by the Midlothian Council, it is a publicly run resort. Facing closure due to budget cuts, a group of high school students created a Facebook page calling for Midlothian to remain open. When they reached 28,000 members, the council abided and sought funds to continue operation.
Scots take their skiing seriously. Due to its publicly owned status, skiing is a part of the local physical education system. "Some are lucky enough to get away with their parents," says Neil "The Mole" Cruickshanks, the do-it-all ski tech at Midlothian. "The whole philosophy of the ski center is that for every child, it doesn't matter what kind of background you come from, the skiing is made affordable."
The Mole and I walk up the hill on an overcast day. A line forms at the T-bar. "We're expanding up the slope," he says enthusiastically pointing to a lush green baseball diamond-sized patch of grass above. A light rain falls. We stop at the kicker, a quarter of the way up the mountain. "A rain day is like a powder day," he says. "It's very fast." A seven-year-old zips by hollering. This place is unreal.
A class of special-needs children is taking a break from the books and learning to ski for their first time. Negotiating down the slope, they pause next to Neil and me just as Woodsy and Sean toss an effortless laid-out backflip and a smooth rodeo five off the adjacent kicker. The North Sea and Scotland's capital city of Edinburgh sit silently on the horizon, as Shea follows with a huge cork 3 to the bottom of the nylon landing, garnering a small yet enthusiastic applause. He skis over to the T-bar. The line is now forty skiers deep. Seo kneels to get the shot. In the midst of shooting, one of the many sprinklers scattered across the hill to lubricate the surface pops up and sprays him. He shakes his head and we laugh. Seo, like the rest of us, is completely out of his element.
I ask The Mole why a kid would want to take up skiing instead of, say, soccer. He pauses for a moment. "For the kids that have never skied on snow before," he says, "they're totally blown away. It really stays with them and then that's it. They're skiers."
At the base, school kids climb trees in their ski boots, throw mud clumps, and enjoy a picnic lunch in the cool breeze. The smell of freshly cut grass fills the air. Unlike the dead of winter, everything is alive in Scotland.
The car pulls into the Bearsden's parking lot the next evening. The tucked-away ski center in the city of Glasgow is an animal house. We walk to the base and Woodsy points out skier Hector Barbour. The 18 year old was a dry slope camper last summer. "He was a first timer and wanted to learn 360s," says Woodsy, as Hector launches a cork 7. "Now he's doing double cork 12s." These kids are good. Bloody good. Bearsden is not a training facility. It is the barracks for a future British freeskiing invasion.
"The Yanks are here," says a voice from inside the lodge. While I put my boots on, a swarm of skiers near the car. Woodsy—a growing legend after his performance at Winter X—is the focal point of the group, collecting praises from his fellow countrymen. He greets virtually all of them by his or her name. It acts as an example of the size and strength of the freeski scene here.
Shea clicks into his bindings and points out a little skier in oversized outerwear. "Look at his swag," he says. Without hesitation the kid opens his coat, gives it two pops, and continues walking. The grom is not intimidated.
A park skier's dream, Bearsden is two takeoffs of snowflex, a carpeted material with a cushiony layer of foam underneath. I size up the big jump, gripping the handle of the towrope. It is no more than 30 feet to the knuckle. The landing extends from the knuckle down another 40 feet and flattens out before transitioning into a 20-foot tall quarterpipe. I ski into the jump, pop off the lip, grab mute, and land on the transition. The landing is pleasantly soft, if not bouncy. I decide that if every jump in the world were dry slope, no one would ever stop skiing park due to roughed up knees.
Standing atop the run, we swap snow stories before dropping in. Fairy tales of powder runs from a far off land called "Utah" and the perfect parks in Colorado are absorbed eagerly. But the Scottish skiers have fables of their own. One skier with the voice of William Wallace and stature of a midget recalls learning to backflip. "During the middle of the night," he says, "I sneak downstairs in my ski helmet, take the cushions off the couch, and backflip off the couch onto the cushions until my parents wake up." He wipes water from his goggles with his sleeve, drops in and launches the living-room-perfected backy. With a stomped landing, he skis to the towrope for another go, and a second Scot skier skates into the jump and hops 180 for a switch 9.
Their parents gather outside on the viewing porch. Aside from the park features, Bearsden also sports a good bar and aptly placed back deck. They look on with equal parts fear, terror, and pride to see their kids skiing out of their brains (in a good way), lapping the park with a ferocious tenacity.
One of their mothers touts the community aspect of Bearsden. "My kids come here everyday. I hardly see them in the summer," she says. "They'd ski all night if I didn't pick them up." We look to the jump to see Sean followed by three local skiers. The four of them have been skiing for hours, showing no signs of letting up.
"Why are you here?" she asks. The stars are out in the Scottish sky. "I wanted to see this," I answer. Out of the corner of my eye, another skier lobs a lazy backflip. A glow glistens off one hundred thousand water droplets on the slope.
"I can't believe this place is real."
In the morning, we tour Stonehenge. The ancient manmade structure is a must-see on our adventure. The rain pours down as we walk the soggy trail and pose for goofy photos. We taste wine made from local flowers, try haggis (sheep intestines), and drink Scotch.
After a tour of castle ruins, we leave Scotland and drive to Sheffield, England. Sheffield gained notoriety as the setting of The Full Monty, the 1997 comedy about factory workers turned male strippers. Today it is better known for a blue-collar attitude, thriving colleges and universities, wild if not eclectic nightlife, and the Sheffield Ski Village. By many opinions, the Sheffield Ski Village is best known for its home grown talent, James "Woodsy" Woods.
Under new management, the Ski Village has seen better days. Once a full Olympic training facility complete with water ramps at the base, the new management filled-in the pools, limited operating times, and turned their attention towards laser tag. Despite the shift in focus, a group of skiers and snowboarders have studied every nook and cranny of the slope, turning the Ski Village into their personal run-down playground. Of all the features at Sheffield, they inform me, hitting the corner of the drop-in to the jump and landing on the down slope of the carpeted cornice is the best air on the mountain. "You have to do it," says one skier in the lodge.
Today is our last day skiing in Great Britain. Seo and I rock jeans, hoodies, and baseball hats—a dry slope gaper day. We meet Woodsy's friend, snowboarder J.P. Preston at the lift. He warns us that rug burn is not the worst of our worries at the Ski Village. "The rabbits shit in between the nylon diamonds," he says plainly. I understand this to mean all of Sheffield is a no-fall zone.
With J.P. manning the T-bar, we exit midway to give the park a good look through. A creaky sprinkler system spurts water, barely lubricating the surface. Graffiti lines the fencing surrounding the park. The expansive city of Sheffield is in the distance.
We ski the park for an hour, airing the best kicker and enjoying the falling afternoon sun. Woodsy assures us there is more to see. Wheat-colored grass and overhanging trees surround the T-Bar and we take it to the soft-surfaced summit. I exit the lift just as the sun is dipping behind Sheffield, casting an orange glow onto the soiled nylon slope—a surreal sight of beauty and strange serenity.
We traverse across the flats to find the unthinkable. Sheffield's secret—a bump run. We exchange looks of astonishment. The four skiers make their way to the top and size up the run. To ski or not to ski, that is the question. They push off together, dipping in and out of the strategically placed moguls, popping up, airing shifties with the fluidity of an aspiring Olympian and style of a seasoned park veteran. We laugh at the absurdity and fun of it all. We take our last runs down the main slope, cheering and spring-loading our skis off of knolls, grass and rabbit shit below our feet.
At the base, J.P. and I discuss the sentiment of empathy for the UK skier. "Some say this looks like torture," I say.
"Why?" he asks with a confident chuckle. "I ride 365 days a year."
The sun finally sets over Sheffield. One skier is on the hill. Woodsy glides through the park, smoothly airing every jump and greasing every rail. When he skis over to us, it is now dark. "Thanks for coming, mates," he says.
The train stops. "Please mind the gap and exit for St John's Woods," rings the intercom. This is our stop. The English gentleman looks up from his paper and gives a wave. The young woman and I catch eyes briefly as I pass exiting the train. I smirk, hop onto the platform, and continue humming aloud. The four skiers duck and weave their skis by bustling busy Brits. "Turn right out the station and go one block," a station employee says pointing up a street. "It's down there." We walk pass brick buildings on our right and a red double-decker bus motors by. Turning the corner, six white dashes appear in the road. The four skiers, skis on their shoulder, stand patiently at the Abbey Road crosswalk. I sing quietly to myself.
Boy, you're gonna carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time.
We wait for the signal, and cross.
This story was first published in the September 2011 (40.1) issue of POWDER.