Monday, March 30, 2015

Texas Ski Ranch

Howdy! Everything is big in Texas. Except maybe the ski areas. To be exact, there are no ski areas, just a snowboarding hill made of plastic. But, there is still plenty of sunshine, water, speed, and yes, plastic.

I was in a conference in Texas, and had spent a week and a half almost completely inside the hotel. It was time to do something else. Fortunately, my flights home were leaving 8pm, leaving me with plenty of time to explore on Saturday. I googled for skiing, and found nothing. Except for this: Texas Ski Ranch. The ranch is south from Austin, and it would take about four hours to drive there from where I was in Dallas.

But what would I find from the ranch? The ranch sports a small hill covered by blue plastic, cables for wake boarding on a small pond, climbing wall, boating pond, and beach chairs. And of course, friendly Texans and sunshine. Not to mention cowboy hats and boots (on me, at least).

In typical American fashion, the first thing you need to do here is to watch a safety video and sign a release form. But after that it gets more relaxed, no major worries about anything. I was able to use my skis on the plastic hill, for instance, got help with taking photos, the staff kept watering the slope to make it more slippery, and they even offered a bucket of soap to make it more slippery. The slope is relatively small and not very steep. The watering was definitely needed to ski or board down. But it was a fun experience. I suspect that liberal application of soap would increase the speed further.

After skiing and snowboarding, I tried wake boarding. This a new experience for me, and a lot of fun! At the ranch there are two cable tracks to do this: a straight practice cable, and a longer cable system that makes a loop. Both run at around 30 km/h, but the practice cable is easier to start with, as only one person is in the system at one time, and it starts softly. The looping system accommodates maybe dozen people, but starts with a jolt and requires the boarders to know how to make turns.

The practise cable was easy and I found the boarding to be a lot of fun. Surprisingly, I was able to get on the bigger system on the first try, but failed on the first turn. I did not realise I needed to make a broad turn to not lose speed. Instead, I thought I could just board the corner straight, but instead I got a new jolt when my handle started to go the other way. Faceplant to the water!

And when you fall inside the cable track, you have to cross it to swim back to the shore. I felt I really needed to swim faster than I did, with the oncoming boarders zooming past. But I made it to the shore.

I had no time to retry the looping track, as I had to get back to Dallas for my flights. I also had to skip testing the climbing wall and the bar. Maybe next time. It would have been fun to spend an entire day here, now I only had three hours or so. Although it was enough to burn my skin in the sunshine. All the necessary information for a visit can be found from the ranch website. A two hour ticket to any of the activities starts from around 20$, with prices increasing on weekends and for people who need to rent equipment. All activities require a separate ticket. Lessons are also available, as are summer camps for school kids. I can imagine this would be a fun place to spend a week or two in the summer vacation.

Pictures and videos (c) 2015 by Jari Arkko. Tämä blogi löytyy myös suomeksi.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Port del Comte

A crazy idea, at the cost of only 150€. Fly to Algeria for a day trip. To ski. Credit card data filled in, ready to press the button to book these tickets. But then I decide to check the visa requirements.

That was the end of that plan, and time to go to plan B. I was staying in Barcelona and had a day off. Plan B was to drive to northern Spain, near the Pyrenees. There are a number of interesting places here, mostly in and around Andorra, but I had already been there. So I decided to go to a small local hill, Port del Comte. Of course, "local" is relative. It still had a respectable 380 meters of vertical and many slopes spread around the mountains.

And it was sunny. It would have been nice to have a bit more snow, but on the upper slopes there were some forests that were nicely skiable, and completely untracked. Perhaps because these areas were closed due to lack of snow, but with care you could still ski them quite well. In particular, the El Bosquet "FREE SKY AREA" :-) next to the Bófia chairlift was nice. This forest is not too thick, and can be skied if you pay attention to your route. If it gets too thick, veer left to the lift track or right to the piste.

There are also suitable steep red runs, such as El Llop, to the skier's left from the El Sucre chairlift. At the bottom of the El Sucre lift there is a nice hot dog station, by the way. Recommend in sunny weather.

The most interesting views and runs are from the main lift El Querol, however. In particular, the blue run La Rasa Coma turns nicely and runs for over three kilometres.

At the bottom of the main slopes there are multiple hotels, some shops, and the usual cafeteria restaurants. I chose to eat further up at the Refugi Bages. This is a large stone hut at the top of the children's slopes. Their food is basic, but very good, and they gladly served me even when they were closed. (I had to get back to Barcelona, so I could not wait until they re-opened for dinner.)

Lower down, not next to the slopes is the actual Port del Comte village.Here you will find more accommodation, including a spa hotel. However, the spa hotel did not serve food during their closed period, so I did not try that.

The snow patrol apologised for lack of snow when I talked to them. This year has been exceptional even in Spain. Yet it had recently snowed a lot in the nearby Andorra.

At Port del Comte, the whole area of L'Estivella was closed, along some black runs that I wanted to try. But L'Estivella really had no snow. There were a couple of other places that were closed and did have snow, like El Bosquet or Els Galls; the ski patrol was alert, however, and were quick to shout when I skied past closed signs. I didn't stop :-)

A nice, relaxed ski area to visit. You will find more kids and beginners here than experts, but there is also a little bit of expert terrain. And very few other experts to compete for those fresh tracks.

Photos and videos (c) 2015 by Jari Arkko. Tämä blogi löytyy myös suomeksi.

Monday, March 16, 2015


The end is near. Of the winter. My friend Jarne suggested that I visit Meri-Teijo, but the ski area closed just a couple of days before I arrived, due to the spring-like weather we've had for some weeks. This did not stop me from visiting, however.

What I found very interesting. One of my favourite ski areas in southern Finland is Peuramaa, and Meri-Teijo reminds me a lot of that. Both are small, but they have many different runs, all with very different slope profiles. Meri-Teijo has altogether twelve interesting runs, amazing given that it is one of the most southern ski areas in Finland, and right next to the sea.

Some of the slopes go straight down, some that slide through forests in a leisurely manner, some that go around cliffs. And both are surrounded by golf courses. A very nice area, with plenty of good skiing and opportunities to explore the terrain. The vertical difference is 80 meters, which is good for a ski area near the Finnish coast. The longest ski run is 640 meters.

I hiked a couple of times up and down in the sunny weather. There was still plenty of snow to ski. Recommended for good exercise, and I should return to this place next year. In the meanwhile, the ski area (or "Action Park" as they call it) sports also downhill cars, mountain-biking, hiking in the national park next door, paintball, ...

And of course, golfing. It seemed like the green golf course and the golfers were about to take over the white winter.

Photos and videos (c) 2015 by Jari Arkko. Tämä blogi löytyy myös suomeksi.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ski Vacation in Grani

How about a ski vacation in an exclusive village that has generated numerous worldcup skiers? I'm sure it sounds good until I mention the 50-meter vertical difference and rain.

I happened to be home during the ski vacations week, and I thought it would be fun to ski every day. Not full days... I had to work. But at least an hour or two every day. I had also taken my skis to be serviced (to Skiservice in Pitäjänmäki), and decided to buy new racing skis for the faster runs. I very much wanted to try them out.

I had a surprising amount of fun. Pure skiing, not many other things. I was able to use all time for the skiing itself. My skis were always in the car, my ski clothes strategically placed on the middle of the living room floor. I took me three minutes to put them on. Another three minutes to drive to the slope, and then some time to put on the boots. Still, I was in the ski lift ten minutes after making the decision to go.

I also bought a season pass. At 195€ this was as much as a ski pass for a long weekend on the alps. But even if I am not looking at costs, it is an extremely easy solution. I can just show up and ski, no need to queue up or carry a wallet.

Except for the first day, the weather was gloomy, grey and rainy. But even if skiing the full day in rain will get to you, and will eventually make at least some of your clothes wet, in good clothes you do not even notie the rain if you only ski for an hour or two. And you will not get overly tired.

And even if the slope is small, it was fun to ski. One round is about two and half minutes. Two minutes to go up, ten seconds ski down, and some time for entering and leaving the ski lift.

And the skis. I have always had skis that get a bit restless in higher speeds. They start to fidget. But my new skis, Atomic 191cm Race D2 GS skis run like a train on their 27-meter turn radius. Although I wasn't sure if they would be easy to ski otherwise, to make turns other than those fitting their natural form. Perhaps it was a bit harder than on my regular skis, but still OK. Perhaps us older skiers have been trained well in the pre-carving era. (That's 5400 BC for you youngsters.)

But above all, the small hill is fun because there's a special feeling. It is not a commercial operation. It is not from the same mold as all other ski areas. This year, Grani has grown from one lift to three. A new, fast button lift is on the right side for the competitors and training, and a new beginninger rope tow on the left. The slope is full of tiny kids from three or four years upwards. And there are often races, like this Sunday when they held the Suomi-Slalom competition, a national circuit of local hill competitions. Every year 500 kids are trained in the GrIFK ski school. The team has 15 FIS-accredited skiers.

The only potential cause for complaint is that I rarely see adults in the slope. During the week there was only one other (non-teacher) adult, and I think she may have been the mother of one of the kids on the hill :-) And when I bought my season's pass at the Café Alpenhütte, they asked if it is really for me. Oh well. Even us adults can ski this small hill. I take it as practice and exercise. It is one thing to ski every day than to make one trip per year. We should use the possibilities we have!

Finally, did you know how fast you can go on such a small hill? Without trying very hard, I got 75 km/h at the bottom. No turns, and in downhill position, but also not pushing. It should be easy to improve on this result. (By the way, this was measured when there were no other people on the hill. Speed is dangerous. Be careful out there!)

Photos (c) 2015 by Jari Arkko. Tämä blogi löytyy myös suomeksi.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

New Skis

Having come back from the tropics, it feels surprisingly good to be in cold air, on a shiny white ski hill. And particularly with new skis!

Today I took my Salomon Rockers to the repair shop, the last few trips have been really hard on them. I think they can still be repaired, but I've been hitting rocks a lot.

And I finally got myself a pair of faster skis, the Atomic Race D2 GS skis. These are thin and long (191cm) skis with a 27 meter turn radius. They are for the previous, not current official race standards, so they were very affordable. I did not get them for all-mountain skiing, but for the few occasions when I want to ski fast.

And while testing on the Kauniainen ski hill is naturally limited, the skis feel very fast. As the speed picks up, the skis feel like they come alive. I've always had skis that fidget in higher speeds, but these skis just run like a train, unaffected by minor disturbances. I was warned that they might be hard to control or turn, but it did not seem to be too hard. Maybe the years of practice us older skiers have gotten from the pre-historic, pre-carving days helps :-)

I feel excited. Want to take them for more rides in the coming evenings.

Football field next to the Grani ski area:

Photos (c) 2015 by Jari Arkko

Thursday, January 15, 2015

24 hours is on again

The Ylläs 24 hour ski competition is on again in 2015. I was thinking of going, anyone else? Last year we did almost 50 km of vertical. The idea is that the gondola lift runs for 24 hours, and you can ski as much as you can during that time.

Any sleep, not running the few meters to or from the gondola, or taking bathroom breaks will immediately mean that you lose the competition. Still interested? It is a fun competition, but you better be rested!

I am now going for the second time, so I know the drill better. One thing that I was surprised about last year was the rules. I had understood that there'll be no downhill skiing during the competition, as the ski area is open for everybody. Turns out that in practice you have to make at least three turns on each run, and that's not much for the 430 meter (1300 ft) altitude difference! Also, the slopes turn a couple of times in any case.

In other words, the competitors were going really fast. As fast as you can, straight down. I was most scared last year in the early hours of the night, when we were skiing the steepest world cup slope, and the fog and rain moved in. With a visibility down to about 10 meters, I slowed down, but the leaders did not. Amazing skiing, full speed ahead into to the fog.

This year I also will rest better on the night before the competition. Last year I went on a tour in the local bars and slept only five hours. There's clearly room for improvement :-)

After the competition, I was so tired that I went to bed before my evening flights home. Three hours later I woke up to a phone call from the airport. The checkin agent was asking if I will be on the flight, everybody else is already in the place. Nice of Finnair to call me! But I had missed the wake-up alarms, and I was almost an hour away from the airport, so no, I did not make it to my plane. I took a flight the next day, and also had to call the office to say that I will not be there on Monday.

The competition runs in April 11-12, 2015, in Ylläs, in northern Finland. For more information, see See also my live report from last year's competition (myös suomeksi).

Photo (c) 2014 by Jari Arkko. Tämä artikkeli löytyy myös suomeksi.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Sauna im Stubai

My kids follow me on some of my trips. Not only to enjoy the great skiing, but also to learn about culture. For instance, where else would my sons learn about der Sauna, except by going to the Freizeitcentrum im Stubai, Austria?

And clearly, we had been doing it all wrong before. As der Sauna Inspektor pointed out, wir müssen have a towel under not just our butt, but also our feet. And the water bucket was quickly taken away from us, when we tried to throw water to the heater. And then there was the matter of mixed public saunas with mandatory nakedness... clearly, cultural education for all of us.

Although in all seriousness, the Freizeitcentrum was an excellent place. The saunas were hot, and the swimming pools were nice. Very nice. On the first evening I was floating in the warm outside pool, watching snow flakes land slowly. And admiring the silhouettes of the mountains around us. Bliss.

But there was even more bliss during the days in the mountains. I had been to Austria many times, but not skiing near Innsbruck before. I had always thought of the area as small, insignificant ski slopes. Not real mountains. For instance, as we toured the different slopes we found ourselves at the bottom of the slopes at Patschkofelkugelglömderglichtbahnen. (Or some name roughly like that, I've lost track of the consonants after the first five.) In any case, we were depressed, as the morning weather was bleak. Rainy, foggy. And the ski hill looked like a children's practice area.

But we went anyway. A few minutes later the chairlift had taken us through the clouds, and we were standing on top of a 1100 vertical meter ski run in bright sunshine. A ski run where they had held the olympics. Twice. Talk about false first impressions. While this particular ski hill was still smaller than the other ones that we visited, it stands in my mind as the nicest experience of our time in Innsbruck and Stubai valley. Partly because the hill was almost empty. But mostly because that one open ski run - the one with 1100 meters of vertical - was completely on solid, steep ice.

We kept taking the fast lift again and again, and speeding down on that run. It was good. First because of the sound that ski edges make on ice, and secondly, because skiing on ice is so different. With modern skis, you can pretty much do anything, take any turn at any point. The skis will sink into the snow and you can stop and turn as needed. But not on ice. You can still make turns and brake, but they will have a far more modest effect. It is like ... sliding on ice ... your balance and skiing technique becomes suddenly far more important.

But we spent most of our time in the Stubaier Gletscher, a ski area high up on the glacier. The three days we spent here was not enough to explore everything, but I want to note two of the most interesting features:

Wilde Grub'n - a 10 km ski route. This route was the best way to return to the valley. And the only way at the early season time, other than with the lifts. But what a way! You can start your descent from 3210 meters and finish at 1750 meters in the Wilde Grub'n restaurant and afterski spot. On the way the route will provide untracked snow after a snowfall, and has some nice steep sections.

Eisgrotte - an ice cave near the top station of the Eisgrat cabin lift. I had never been under ice, and the solid, see-through deep inside the glacier was a big experience.

We also visited Schlick 2000, a medium-sized but nice and relaxing ski area in the middle of the Stubai valley.

Finally, I just wanted to once again recommend Austria as the place for ski vacations. The mountains are very nice. But in addition the people are very friendly and helpful, food and accommodation is quite affordable, and everything is clean and modern. And the architecture is nice. We stayed in Neustift im Stubai, in Haus der Berge which I can heartily recommend. The apartments are new, spacious, and the owners take good care of you.

Neustift is a small but centrally located village with all services easily reachable. Across the road from Haus der Berge is the Hotel Restaurant Hoferwirt which I can also recommend for dinners. But if you are in one of the mountain huts in the ski areas, whatever you do, do not order the deep-fried calf's head.

Our apartment was next to a church, and the path to the Freizeitcentrum took us through the cemetery:

The reason for traveling to Austria for ski vacations?

One dinner option:

Sauna im Stubai:

Photos and videos (c) 2014-2015 by Jari Arkko and Janne Arkko. Tämä blogi löytyy myös suomeksi.