IT'S THE WEEKEND: Hitting the ski slopes...of Gwent
11:12am Sunday 8th December 2013 in News
Reporter Laura Lea receives a Skiing Lesson from Instructor Gareth Thomas at the Dry Ski Slope in Pontypool. The stopping technique called the Snow Plough being demonstrated by Gareth. (2629301)
If you’re planning a winter get-away or simply wish you were, LAURA LEA finds that’s Gwent’s only dry slope is more than a second-hand substitute.
The last time I was at a dry ski slope, the person I was with ended up in a double cast with two broken thumbs, so it’s safe to say that I headed to the Pontypool ski centre with a certain level of trepidation.
I’ve been skiing a number of times but it’s been at least four years since I was on the snow, so I was excited to get the skis back on and see what I could remember. Nestled in the heart of Pontypool Park and flanked by picturesque woodland, with a sprinkling of snow you could almost be in the French Alps.
My instructor for the afternoon, Gareth Thomas, has been teaching for six years. Based in Pontypool, Gareth is one of the few people working as a ski instructor in South Wales.
The 22-year-old had his first taste for skiing and boarding on the dry slope and has been teaching since he was 16. The work is still seasonal and in the six months of the year the slope is closed, he is a landscape gardener.
For complete beginners, the centre insists on three lessons before you’re given free rein on the slope unattended. The first is straight-lining, the second stopping with snow plough and the final, snow plough turns.
This minimises most risks of accidents.
“The worst I’ve ever seen here is a broken finger,” said Gareth.
Gareth takes me on a crash-course through these three stages to get my ski legs back. The bottom part of the slope has a gentle incline and is used as the beginner area.
Honestly this was portably the most tiring part of the lesson as it involved me having to side step up back up the hill after each run.
Satisfied with the damage limitation, it’s time for the poma lift, which pulls you all the way to the top of the hillside.
One of my earliest memories of skiing is a feeling of dread while queuing for this particular lift. So let me assure you, dry slope prepping is not only for the skiing itself but the quirks that come with it and can take some getting used to – especially for little ones.
“I would recommend anyone have a few runs on a dry slope before going skiing or boarding. It makes such a difference and means you can get on those blues and reds quicker once you get out there,” Gareth said.
“You pay so much for the lift passes you want to be able to use it for the time you’re paying for and not just be stuck on the baby slopes. “
After a couple of runs and some attempts at parallel turns, Gareth soon identifies some problem areas for me to work on - all of which seem to centre around me leaning back into my skis.
“You should never feel the backs of your legs pushing against your boots. What you think is relaxing – is actually working your legs a lot harder.”
It’s true – my thighs are burning.
“You often get skiers who have learnt on the dry slope coming back from the snow with bad habits they didn’t have before,” Gareth said.
“You can get away with more on the snow.”
One exercise – isolation - gets the skier to use just the bottom half of the body. As you turn down the slope your torso must remain leaning forward and facing straight down the fall line, hands outstretched in front. This stops you using your poles or waist to turn your skies.
A couple of runs of this and we’re ready for the next challenge.
“This is the best exercise in the whole world,” Gareth said grinning.
“This is the first thing I do when I get on the snow. A couple of runs of this exercise to get you back into it.”
Designed to ensure even weight distribution, you simply have to hold your arms out in front of you with ski poles grazing the ground and make sure they stay in contact with it for the whole run.
On each turn, I find myself have to consciously push down my outer pole, as my body tilts too much into the slope. Such a simple exercise is surprisingly difficult and forces you to correct your technique quickly, so I can see why it’s such a favourite for Gareth.
About an hour later I’m feeling far more confident. I’m amazed that with a bit of direction I’ve actually made improvements in such a short period of time.
Fully floodlit, the course is in use throughout the winter nights and hopes to remain open through the worst of the chilly weather, as it was able to last year. Competitive skiers also practise at the slope, including welsh teams who take part in the Celtic Cup and school teams who hold races.
“We can only stay open if an ambulance can reach us,” Gareth explained. So as long as they can keep the access road clear and safe the slope will be open, rain, snow or shine.
So – the big question: skis or snowboard?
“Ah I couldn’t say. With skiing there’s definitely a gentler learning curve. You can get to an alright level reasonably quickly but then it’s difficult to get really good. But with boarding it’s just really tough the whole way. I love both.”
The centre provides all the equipment as part of session prices and is reassuringly authentic with its wood-cladded lodge and whiffy boot room.
If skiing and boarding sound like too much effort and you’d rather just sit down, you can always try a Ringo. This is basically a rubber ring you sit in and hold onto for dear life as you go flying down the hillside. Unsurprisingly, these half hour sessions held on Saturdays are very popular with kids.
Full of adrenalin and buoyed by Gareth’s enthusiastic encouragement, no sooner had I got home I was searching for January ski breaks. I most certainly got my ski legs back.
Individual lessons start at £13 for juniors and £17 for adults, while recreational sessions range from £9 to £12. Family rates are available.
For more information call 01495 756955 or visit www.tofaenleisuretrust.co.uk
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