Sports journalist and ski instructor Bruce Pope looks at how people in the UK can get into winter sports more easily than they might imagine.
Have you ever fancied trying skiing or snowboarding but never quite got round to it?
Maybe you’ve never really thought it was for you, although you loved watching the Winter Olympics and you have Ski Sunday on series record. What a shame, you really are missing out on a big slice of fun and fitness, but I understand why, as I’ve heard all the contentions before:
“It’s too expensive. I’ll need lots of strange, fancy equipment. It’s too far to go just to try something I might not like. It’s a bit posh isn’t it, not for someone like me. It looks a bit dangerous!”
Well you might be surprised to discover how close your nearest centre is in the UK, how inexpensive it can be to learn, and how these same facilities have helped produce some of Britain’s finest Winter Olympians. Jenny Jones wowed the snowboarding world in 2014 when she won bronze in the women’s Slopestyle competition in Sochi. That was Britain’s first medal in an on-snow competition in the history of the Games, yet Bristolian Jones might never have taken up the sport if she hadn’t had the dry ski slope at Mendip Snowsport Centre nearby. “I went there when I was about 16 for the first time with my two brothers and there was the opportunity to try snowboarding, and there was a free half-hour lesson,” said Jones. “We didn’t learn a lot in half an hour but we had such a good time and I felt as though I’d found this cool, different sport – I’d done a lot of athletics and gymnastics before – and wanted to keep doing it. So we came back, kept practising and having lessons on the dry slope and… I didn’t want to stop there. If it hadn’t been there to try I wouldn’t have done it… I really don’t know if I would have got into snowboarding if this wasn’t here.”
Current Great Britain Park and Pipe ski squad members James Woods and sisters Katie and Molly Summerhayes learnt their early skills at Sheffield Ski Village, now sadly destroyed after a fire, while Halifax Ski Centre is proud to have nurtured the early talent of snowboarding cousins Jamie Nicholls and Katie Ormerod.
We can’t compete with the choice of mountains (or the snow to go on them!) boasted by the likes of European neighbours France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy – where the majority of Brits take their winter sports holidays. There are five main recognised Scottish resorts, plus a handful in the Pennines and Lake District that operate when it’s really snowy. But unless you’re lucky enough to be within striking distance of those areas when winter hits, the UK does offer a network of more than 60 artificial slopes – with the added bonus that these are open all year.
Leading the way are six indoor snowdomes – in Glasgow, Castleford, Manchester, Tamworth, Milton Keynes and Hemel Hempstead – that use snow cannons to create a surface as close as you can get to the real thing. With main slopes ranging in length from 160-200m, there is enough for all comers – from those putting in their first turns, right up to racers honing their slalom technique. Like the one in Mendip, the bulk of ski centres in the UK are outdoor ‘dry’ slopes that use man-made matting designed to mimic the grip and feel of snow, while a relatively new innovation has seen centres open using revolving mats to provide a space-saving skiable surface indoors.
The websites of Snowsport England, Snowsport Scotland and Snowsport Cymru Wales – the winter sports governing bodies in the UK – plus the Ski Club of Great Britain have pages listing your nearest centre or club.
“There are way more than you are expecting and it’s worth checking out what is in your local area to come and try it, because when you’re first learning you don’t need a lot of slope to perfect what you need to do,” Jones added. If you look at that, it’s the same sort of facilities that are available now – you’ve got the dry slopes but you’ve got so many indoor snowdomes as well. They’re amazing places to initially try the sport and also to progress in freestyle as they put out jumps and rails. Some of the guys on the team now, they all started their rail riding in domes and are at such a high level because of that. Of course you can then look to go out to the mountains but initially I think they’ve got everything you want to try skiing or snowboarding – and it’s way less expensive than hopping to the Alps which a lot of people can’t do!”
One thing the UK can offer is affordability and no hidden extras, thanks to initiatives such as Go Ski Go Board, which Snowsport England launched in 2013.
Go Ski Go Board offers low-cost taster and improvement sessions inclusive of lift pass, instruction, equipment and usually clothing as well, and has proved so popular – with well over 100,000 people taking advantage since its launch – that it has now expanded into Wales and Scotland.
An off-shoot of that saw National Schools Snowsport Week sponsored by Visit Andorra running at 21 slopes across England last April, with the free or discounted sessions designed to encourage more schools to introduce their pupils to snowsports.
The programme – which saw more than 1000 children from 149 schools take part – offered a range of events including taster ski and snowboard lessons, alternatives such as tobogganing and tubing, and also freestyle or racing taster sessions at some slopes.
Another junior initiative is Snow-Camp, a youth charity that aims to use skiing and snowboarding to support inner-city young people. Snow-Camp, which numbers Jones and fellow Olympians Graham Bell, Chemmy Alcott and Sir Steve Redgrave among its patrons, does more than just offer the chance to experience snowsports as it aims to blend life skills with opportunities to progress to a possible career in the industry. Since being established in London in 2003, Snow-Camp has grown to the point of adding programmes in Scotland, Yorkshire, the Midlands and Bristol.
“We’ve been at maximum capacity in London now for three or four years… and the idea now is that we replicate the full journey of programmes in Scotland and Bristol, and we’re looking towards Birmingham next year, then Leeds and Bradford to follow that as well,” said Snow-Camp Community Manager Dan Keeley.
If you get the taste for snowsports, there are also programmes in the UK that cater for the more advanced end of the spectrum if you want to release your competitive animal. There are plenty of clubs that offer the opportunity for all ages to try ski racing, or to hone your Slopestyle skills.
Promising young skiers could catch the eye at events such as this year’s Ambition GBR Alpine Race Series – all taking part on UK slopes. UK slopes have so many advantages, allowing you to learn to ski or snowboard for a reasonable cost, in a controlled environment that is often just a short drive away.
But there’s no doubt that the whole point of learning is to graduate to the mountains.
Most of the major tour operators, including Crystal Ski, Inghams and Neilson, offer specific beginners packages – often at very attractive rates – which aim to take you to a resort that’s going to be more suitable for your level.
So if you had dismissed the idea of giving skiing or snowboarding a go then think again.
You might not go all the way to the Olympics like Jenny Jones, but you might just like it.
Learn to ski in Glasgow
Snow Factor in Glasgow is a great place to learn to ski and they have various different packages available and we’ve listed some ideal beginner’s options for you
Five lessons taken over five weeks with the condition that you can attend the class at the same time on the same day each week. This covers all the skills needed to ski competently and comes with the added bonus of a £5 annual membership upon completion. Costing £129 per adult and £109 per child (7+)
Fast Track (for 11 years +) : 4 hour lessons that cover two skill levels per lesson – the first one covering skills 1 and 2, the second covering skills 3 and 4. This leaves you with one level still to complete before we sign you off completely. These can be taken over 2 days, two weeks or whatever you choose.
Costing £89pp. Learn in a Day (16 years +) : 8 hour intense course taking you through all our skill levels in one go, this course runs exclusively Sundays and Mondays Costing £159pp.
The Snow Centre,
The Snow Centre is a popular place to ski for people within the London and South East region – they have some very good courses for all levels of skiers and snowboarders, including complete beginners
The Snow Centre offers a range of specially designed group and private ski or snowboard lessons for adults (17yrs+) and juniors (4-16yrs).
Beginner adult two-hour lessons from £27, junior group lessons from £18 (off peak). Annual Membership is available from £90.
National Schools Snowsport
During April 2017, Schools will have the chance to take part in a week of activity to give schoolchildren a taste of snowsports. For some, it will be their first time on skis or boards whilst for others, it will be a chance to try racing, freestyle or skicross. Slopes and clubs across the country will offer taster sessions throughout the week to schools with qualified coaches and instructors. The aim is that hundreds of children will take up snowsport as ‘their’ sport and enjoy training and developing their skills throughout the year.
24th -30th April 2017 at slopes across the country.
Go Ski Go Board
For anyone thinking about getting into snowsports for the first time then the national snowsports participation campaign, GO SKI GO BOARD, is a good place to start. The campaign is still going strong as it enters into its fourth season, with thousands of participants already benefitting from the great value lessons available. Run by Snowsport England, GO SKI GO BOARD offers taster sessions at indoor and dry slopes across the country.
The website www.goskigoboard.org.uk is a one-stop shop to find your nearest ski, snowboard or nordic session.