Sports

It’s All Downhill

Here’s what it’s like to ski on a synthetic slope

Matt Pepin/Globe Staff
Powder Ridge in Connecticut opened its synthetic ski slope on Labor Day weekend.

Before I tell you what it’s like to ski on a synthetic slope, I should first tell you something about myself.

I think there are certain things in life – pizza and skiing foremost among them – that even when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good. It’s an old quip I heard somewhere, and I was reminded of it as I drove to Connecticut Sunday with my wife and daughter to check out Powder Ridge’s synthetic ski slope.

I had braced myself for worst-case scenario – a big crowd on a small slope, a steep learning curve, pain, and my wife and daughter disliking the whole thing and wishing they’d stayed home. But I remained hopeful. With summer over, I’ve been eager for ski season, and I had to go to Connecticut anyway.

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Plus, I have a special place in my heart for Powder Ridge. It was the first place I ever skied, on a school trip a long time ago, and I was eager to see it again, especially since it had been dormant for a time in the last decade. So I’ve followed the progress of Powder Ridge’s plan to open a synthetic slope ever since I heard about it, and when it became reality over Labor Day Weekend, well, I had to check it out.

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Fear No. 1 never panned out. We arrived some 40 minutes after it opened and there was no one else there. We bought four-hour tickets ($18 each) and carried our gear a couple hundred yards up a gentle incline to the base of the synthetic slope, where there were picnic tables with umbrellas to sit at while you boot up.

Powder Ridge offers 8- and 4-hour tickets for its synthetic slope.
Matt Pepin/Globe Staff
Powder Ridge offers 8- and 4-hour tickets for its synthetic slope.

At the top of the magic carpet-style conveyor that takes you to the “summit” of the 500-foot slope, there were spray bottles containing a soapy solution, as well as a trough you could step in, to wet the bottoms of your skis. This was essential, but the solution was nowhere near as good as the can of furniture polish the attendant handed us as we headed up for the second run.

Furniture polish on the base of skis or a snowboard helps reduce friction on the synthetic surface.
Matt Pepin/Globe Staff
Furniture polish on the base of skis or a snowboard helps reduce friction on the synthetic surface.

Our first run was indeed a bit of a learning curve. The synthetic slope surface is like the child’s toy Bristle Blocks, a hard plastic that has a bit of stickiness to it that had me worried I’d stop dead in my tracks, lurch forward, and face-plant. About three-quarters of the way down on Run 1, I did indeed come to a complete stop while pointing straight downhill, but it was a gradual rather than sudden stop.

A close-up view of the surface, called 365 Synthetic Snow.
Matt Pepin/Globe Staff
A close-up view of the surface, called 365 Synthetic Snow.

A healthy dose of furniture polish – repeated before nearly every run – solved that problem, and soon we were getting the hang of it. The best way I can describe the experience is that it was like skiing on that kind of scratchy, icy crust that forms when the winter has a lot of thaw/freeze cycles. It’s not like boilerplate ice – your skis can get a little bite in the synthetic material – but it’s far from the kind of confident grab you feel when you’re on your edges in packed powder, hard pack, or even frozen granular or a frozen-over groomer.

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By the end – we only stayed two hours – all I did was bomb straight down in a tuck, an exhilarating rush on a warm day. My quads felt the first-day-of-ski-season burn, my shins absorbed a little boot bang, and the bottoms of my skis – I brought an old pair I am retiring – were a mess of shredded plastic.

These skis were used for about 12 runs on the synthetic surface.
Matt Pepin/Globe Staff
These skis were used for about 12 runs on the synthetic surface.

As for fears 2 and 3, those didn’t pan out either. Once you get used to the way your skis slip before they catch the edge, it’s just like skiing on a really firm frozen surface. I didn’t fall, either, but was glad they make you wear long pants, long sleeves, and a helmet. Some snowboarders took a few falls, but bounced right back up.

Synthetic slope skiing is definitely not for everyone, and I saw at least two skiers take one run and decide that was enough. Ski snobs will hate it.

But it has its charms. It’s ideal for training – the US ski team had an aerials competition last weekend on a synthetic ramp – and getting those ski muscles into shape. For diehards, it’s just enough of a taste of the winter to come to whet your appetite, and you’re going to love the comments when you post the video you’ll undoubtedly take on Facebook.

It was skiing in September in southern Connecticut, and I’d say that was pretty good.

A run on a synthetic ski slope

Follow Matt Pepin on Twitter at @mattpep15.