Monday, December 26, 2011

Bono, Have You Been to Africa?

During the Christmas time, the radio stations keep playing the old charity song "Do They Know It Is Christmas Time". Bono sings:

"And there won't be any snow in Africa this Christmas time."

Well, duh. First off, there isn't much of a winter anyway when much of the continent is near the equator. But more interestingly, a big part of the continent is on the southern hemisphere. Winter lasts from June to August. Even in areas on the equator, like Kenya, the warmest time is February-March and coolest July-August. It is only far up in the north end where winter comings at the same time as in Europe.

So, dude, there is no snow in Africa because you have the wrong time of the year. And its a damn warm place anyway, you'll find snow only at the far ends or at the highest mountain tops.

There. I feel better now.

Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko and Tero Kivinen. Video credits by YouTube and Mercury Records Limited

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Frost Is Enough

Holiday season decorations at family Arkko

First and Last and Always is not just an album from Sisters of Mercy, but also my approach to skiing on the local hill. In May, I was the last person to ski there. Now I am about to be the first one to ski it this winter. The plan was great: we walked through the slope on the previous evening, and the scenery was absolutely beautiful. An inch of snow on the ground, all plants covered by frost, bright artificial lights lighting up the scene. All I need is grass and some frost. The slope should be skiable

Except that the as we arrived to the hill the next day, the frost was gone. The snow was also disappearing fast, given the rain and the warm temperature. Oh well, the slope would probably still be skiable, even if it was not as pretty as it had been on the previous day.


Janne and I started climbing. Janne, 9 years, wants to lead, and wants to be the first one to ski the hill down this winter. Who does he get those crazy ideas from?

A view of the ski hill in Kauniainen
As we reach the top, it turns that the skiing is not easy. There is too little snow. Hidden in the grass there are recently cut stumps of small trees and bushes. Not to mention rocks, abandoned flower pots, and water lines for snow making. Turning is not easy. And where there is enough snow from the snow cannons, it has formed crusty shapes that are not easy to ski either.

Skiing the grass and everything it hides

We do make it down, however, and return to the top a couple of times.

My friend Jarmo also shows up, not with his skis but to take a few of the pictures in this blog. (He is acting like any responsible ski owner. No sane person would take his own skis to this slope.)

My traditional Christmas skiing session is complete. And my skis are still relatively unscathed. All is well, I'm ready for Christmas and there is still couple of hours left of December 23rd to do all that Christmas shopping.

The lesson? When the conditions are perfect, drop everything else and go skiing. The next day rain or some other reason may make it impossible.

Climbing up

There was more snow near the snow cannons

Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko, Jarmo Ruuth, Janne Arkko, and Olli Arkko

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Snow Machine

The tube that brings the snow

My plan was to go to Nagano, the area for premier ski resorts in Japan, but the webcams looked depressing. A call to a hotel in the area confirmed that there was no skiing, despite claims otherwise on their websites. But my flights were set, so I was to stay the weekend in Japan, snow or no snow. I knew there were several indoor ski halls, but I had already gotten enough from indoor skiing recently in Beijing, Peer, Neuss, and Hong Kong. Desperation sets in. Could I fly to Hokkaido? Are there are any other open ski areas in Japan?

Fortunately, my friend Itsuma came to the rescue. He pointed out a small ski area of Karuizawa, 200 kilometers from Tokyo and 80 kilometers from Nagano. It is open. For real. I make the decision to go.

Of course, going was not that easy. I am carrying almost 70 kilos of luggage, I have no clue about the language, and the trip involves buying tickets, making seat reservations, and changing trains. But Itsuma comes to the rescue again. He prepares a slide set to guide me through the journey, complete with relevant excerpts from timetables, suggested routes through the central station, and pictures. (Thank you!) This is yet another example how nice people are in Japan. Always willing to help and always smiling. What a nice country to visit!

Armed with a printout of the slides and some local currency I find my way through the system and after a few hours arrive at the Karuizawa train station. It is raining, but I can already see the ski slopes!

Karuizawa ski slope

When I manage to carry my heavy load out of the station, I spot Karuizawa Prince Hotel's minivan. Perfect. They can take me to the hotel. I end up using these small cars six or seven times during my visit, usually carrying just me, leaving in a couple of minutes after I ask for a ride, costing nothing, and the guys even carry my skis from the lift to the parking lot. I guess these services are part of my stay at this expensive hotel at 250€/night. Oh well, this is probably still less than I would have paid if I had stayed in a hotel near Tokyo. And I'm glad I'm here only for one night.

Strangely enough, the hotel and town are full of people. And they do not appear to be dressed for sports. It turns out that Karuizawa's main attraction is not skiing but shopping. The town center is one big shopping area, apparently specializing on fashion.

Narrow a course

The Ski Area

The ski area has two chair lifts and two runs open, but the rest of the mountain is completely free of snow. No wonder, given that it is +15 Celsius and raining heavily. But how did they manage to open the two slopes, then? The answer is in the snow machines. Karuizawa does not employ usual snow cannons that require freezing temperatures to operate. They employ gigantic ice machines that manufacture snow no matter what the temperature is outside. The machines are placed in containers around the mountain.

Snow spray
I was not able to determine what was inside the containers, but various cooling and vacuum techniques have been used elsewhere in the world. The vacuum ice maker technology is particularly interesting. It works by exposing cold water to vacuum, forcing some of the water to evaporate and the remaining part to partially froze. The resulting frozen slush can be separated to cold water that can be fed back into the process, while the ice particles can be blown out to the slopes through long tubes.

More tubes
Karuizawa is able to keep two slopes open with this technology. The slopes are small, just 40 meters of altitude difference. Both slopes are served by a chair lift.

I think I understand what they are trying to say

In the winter Karuizawa is a more reasonable ski area, with a 215 meter altitude difference and 11 different slopes. The longest slope is one kilometer, and the steepest slope goes up to 30 degrees inclination.

Sunny day at Karuizawa
More snow


Given that the two open slopes are small, the skiing is not very interesting. But it still feels good to ski outside. The snow making system provides some additional entertainment, as it tends to generate high snow dunes where the tube ends. These forms are fun bases for jumps.

In good weather and during weekends there are long lift lines. When it is raining cats and dogs... not so many lines.

Snow is piling up

A couple of kilometers from the ski area resides the mighty 2568-meter Mt. Asama. This is an active volcano, last erupted in 2009. It would be a tempting ski descent destination for volcano skiers, but can only be done in the winter, if at all. There seems to be very little information about skiing this mountain in the Internet.

Lift lines at Karuizawa
Important Parameters

It feels like spring outside the hotel
As far as I was able to determine, the Karuizawa Prince Hotel is the only accommodation next to the slopes. The hotel exists in two parts, the East and West hotel. The East one is closer to the small slopes that were open and also houses the local spa. I did not visit the East one, but I liked the West one.

The main building at the base of the Karuizawa ski area

On-slope food is available in the restaurant next to the base building. Interestingly, while the kitchen is staffed with waitresses that bring the food out, the ordering process takes place through a machine. A soup costs 500-600 Yen, or 5-6 €.

Press here for food

Two items of ancient technology appeared from the darkness

You can take the high-speed Shinkansen train from Tokyo main station to Karuizawa, the trip takes roughly an hour and is very comfortable.

My train has a bigger nose than yours

Helpful signs make it easy to choose the right style nose for your train

Ski Destination Japan

Japan would be great ski destination, except that I am here too early for the season. The most interesting skiing is around Nagano, the site of the 1998 winter olympics. The area that I wanted to visit in Nagano was Happo One. Alternative, there is good skiing on the island of Hokkaido in the north.


Really. I had a lot of fun in the afterski at the Marron bar at the Karuizawa Prince West Hotel. However, I was all alone. Not recommended. It is possible that there would have been more interesting bars in the shopping center, however. By the time that I realized there is no one in the bar, I was too tired to walk back to the shopping center. Sleeping is good way to spend your evenings, too.

Busy bar scene


I have now skied in 38 different countries or states. As I am writing this, I'm sitting in the Haneida airport in Japan, waiting for a flight that takes me to North America for business and a new state to be conquered on skis. Incidentally, I looked at my itinerary two minutes after Narita Express had closed its doors, and ended up on the wrong airport. Luckily I had enough time for the extra two hour detour by bus.

My transport back to the right airport

One of the many sunrises on this trip

Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko

Monday, November 21, 2011

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Slope Infinity

Practicing skiing on the trainer. This was surprisingly hard.

I am feeling more than a bit silly. A moment ago I was walking in the streets of Hong Kong, carrying my skis, wearing my ski pants and feeling a little bit silly. The outfit did not fit in the hot and humid city streets and it was inconvenient to carry the skis in the crowd. But now it turned out that I can not use the skis at Slope Infinity. And it was also warm, so shorts or other light pants would be have been a better idea than the ski clothing.

Slope Infinity is at 148 Electric Street, Hong Kong

Oh well, I have already gotten plenty of experience from feeling silly and being looked at on the streets. What is that guy doing?

But what is important is that Slope Infinity was open. This is half an hour earlier than they would normally open, but they were kind enough to open it earlier so that I could do a test run and still make it to my flight out of Hong Kong. This was my first visit to Hong Kong, lasting eight hours (including a night). Clearly, the most important thing to do was to try the skiing.

The bottom surface of the skis 
So what is Slope Infinity? As the name says, it is an opportunity to do an infinitely long ski run. I soon found out that my muscles are not trained for infinite use, however. The set up is basically a downward sloping treadmill, a fast moving plastic carpet. This is something that I had not seen before and I thought I had already tried all kinds of indoor skiing. It is an attractive setup because it takes only a small amount of space, needs no refrigeration and can be controlled in various ways to find a suitable speed and steepness for the skiers.

But it is also special in many ways. The feeling is different, like going to a gym instead of the mountains.

More importantly, the plastic carpet sticks harder to skis than snow. The first implication is that regular skis cannot be used. Slope Infinity uses special skis that have minimal friction on this surface. Regular skis would be in danger of melting on these slopes.

The second implication is that your handling of the skis and turns will be different. If you are not careful, the carpet can catch your ski and drag it backwards, making you fall. Turns have to be done very carefully, at least when the carpet is running at a high speed.

Finally, no ski lifts are needed. If you need to go up the slope, put your skis in snowplow mode, or turn sideways to the slope. The moving carpet will take you upwards.

Skiing on the big slope. Skier: Anthony, my instructor.

Slope Infinity has two slopes. At first I thought that the big, main slope was the interesting one. But it turns out that it runs at a relatively slow pace and is at a relatively shallow angle. You can make some turns, but they will be slow. I found the small trainer slope far more interesting. A challenge, in fact. The trainer is a treadmill-size slope where you attach yourself to harness from the roof to prevent falls from taking you to the dangerous end of the carpet. There is a handrail right in front and behind you, so movements will not be big. But the angle and speed of this trainer slope can be adjusted, and at least for a beginner on plastic slopes, it can be made to run very fast. It was a challenge for me to keep myself out of the handrails and not letting the carpet yank skis from me.

I can imagine that skiing regularly on the trainer would improve my skiing. Snow is so forgiving that using the trainer would force me to pay more attention to exactly how I use my skis. Even if the specific moves differ a bit between snow and carpet, for instance on the carpet we do not edge the skis very much.

You can go up with the snowplow technique, stopping the sliding

The big slope has another use, however. It is a good platform for teaching kids and beginners, given its gentle angle and speed. Two small kids entered the slope right after I had left it, and seemed to be learning quite well.

A whopping 2 meter altitude difference

Important Parameters

My half an hour in the slope cost 460 HK$ or about 43 €. This is not cheap, but it is a very special experience and comes with a personal instructor who guides you to the right moves. Compare this price to the cost of renting equipment and a ski instructor. For repeat customers that do not need the instructor, an hour at the training slope costs 290 HK$, which is a very reasonable price.

I am skiing on the big slope

Slope Infinity is at 148 Electric Road, Hong Kong. I stayed the night in the nearby Causeway Bay Empire Hotel at a typical big city hotel price, though in my case I had to stay somewhere during the weekend anyway on my three week long business trip, and the other options were in similar or even more expensive large cities.

The main ski slope - or is this the beginner run?

I had no time to eat anything while in Hong Kong, so I cannot report on what the Hong Kong Goulash index might be. In general, everything else except hotels should be relatively cheap here, however. I'm guessing there is no special after ski, given that almost no one seemed to know about Slope Infinity in the surrounding areas. The hotel staff had not heard about this place, for instance (but they have now).


Slope Infinity is a specialty in the ski world, for sure. But it is an opportunity to ski in an otherwise snow free part of the world. I would come back if I have future trips to Hong Kong. In particular, I liked the friendly staff, the ability to use the trainer for improving your ski technique, and the challenge that makes skiing on the trainer harder than on snow.

Entrance to Slope Infinity 

Taxi ride with skis. This is starting to become a familiar exercise.

Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Opening Tour

My plans for the round the world trip have solidified. Slope Infinity will open their indoor slope earlier than normal so that I can make a visit on my short stop in Hong Kong on November 12th. I will ski in Happo One in Japan on their opening day on Nov 19th. And Alyeska, Alaska on their opening day on Nov 23rd. Fingers crossed that my travel goes without issues and that the areas open as planned.

Opening day at Happo One, Japan

I would also have part of  one day free in Beijing, and could in theory try skiing there. Unfortunately, I've already been twice to the indoor place in Beijing, and it seems that the real ski areas do not open until late November or December. If anyone knows a ski area that is already open, let me know!

Opening day at Alyeska, Alaska

Otherwise, the only question is whether I should take one or two sets of skis with me on this trip. I recently purchased light weight touring skis and boots. My skis are K2 superlights, boots are Garmont Helix's and bindings are Dynafit touring bindings. These are all extremely lightweight, so they are good for going up. But they are good only for that and for a careful descent. The binding release mechanism is limited, so for safety reasons I would rather ski mostly on my regular skis.

The question is, am I likely to find myself in a situation where I need the light skis? Not according to my plan, but ... many things can go wrong on my trip, bad weather could delay the openings beyond my visit, flight delays could change my plans completely, etc. In Alaska I have three days to ski, so it would also be possible that I'll find some off-piste touring possibilities. However, the drawback with dragging two sets of skis around the world is that some airlines may charge for the additional weight. I won't be paying anything on Finnair, but I am less sure about the others. I'll be flying on Cathay Pacific, Dragon Airlines, Japan Airlines, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and British Airways. There will be at least some legs where I have to pay $10 per extra for one kilo of luggage, so getting the weight down will be important. Unless they respect One World Emerald frequent flyers somehow... from past experience with some of these airlines, I'm guessing that is not going to happen.

Resting on the sofa and getting used to the new boots

By the way, the first picture above is about Lonely Planet guides for this trip. I really love these books. I keep buying other books as well, but while the Lonely Planets are short on colorful pictures and they make boring reading from cover to cover, they also have the largest amount of information. Almost without exception there is more information about hiking, skiing, and climbing opportunities than in any other general purpose travel guide.

I bought the Alaska guide almost a year ago, and it is only now that I get to use it. Incidentally, some of the other books that I have about possible future places include Moscow, Turkey, and Iran. Unfortunately, recent news indicates that a military attack against Iran may be in the planning, so traveling to Iran at this time may be too risky, even for me. Too bad. I hope that the situation is better in the future, it would be a great place to visit. For instance, Tochal, a local ski hill near Teheran, has a ski lift that goes all the way up to 3,740 meters.

The new skis

Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko, Alyeska ski area, and Happo One ski area

Saturday, October 22, 2011

38,000 Kilometers for Nothing

Map of my route, courtesy of the Great Circle Mapper

I am about to take yet another round the world trip, a three week and 38,000 kilometer journey. It may be for nothing.

Don't get me wrong. There are important meetings along the way. But when I travel I also want to do some fun things during weekends and evenings. Skiing, if it is at all possible. In the last two years I have been on some kind of a trip almost every week, and only left my skis home on three of these trips. But this time it is very difficult to find skiing. My route is challenging. My schedule is too tight. It is the wrong time of the year. I might complete this trip and not find any skiing at all, or only visit one or two indoor ski places. Or make lengthy and costly side trips only to find out that there are no open ski areas yet.

My route

My route takes me through Beijing, but this time I have no time to visit the local indoor ski place. Besides I was there just a few weeks ago. For some reason, I was able to acquire a round-the-world trip ticket that stops twice in Hong Kong, however, and they have Slope Infinity, a different type of indoor skiing. I hope that the few hours that I have on my first stop will allow me to make a visit.

I also have a day and a half in Tokyo. But weather and ski area opening dates are the unknown factor here. Apparently, some areas might open mid-November. Japan has fast trains and good air travel; it might be possible to reach these places. How would you like skiing in Alts Bandai, Fukushima Prefecture, for instance? A shiny example of Japanese ski destinations, I'm sure. As a backup option there are indoor ski locations around the country, for instance, in Yokohoma.

Pu'u 'O'o

But what I really wanted to do on this trip is to make a stop over in Hawaii. Unfortunately, One World round-the-world tickets did not seem to make that possible. What I wanted to do is to drive up Mauna Kea, climb the snowy parts, and ski down. This would have added yet another state and yet another volcano to my list. But even at 13,000 feet, Manua Kea is unlikely to have snow in November. Maybe on another trip, January and February are the best times to visit this mountain. Of course, such a trip would not be completely without dangers. As the Hawaii ski club says: "Due to safety and environmental-impact issues and health concerns, the Hawaii Ski Club no longer sponsors group ski trips to the Mauna Kea volcano". To catch the snow, one may have to travel at a few day's notice. The high altitude, road closures, and likelihood of high winds conspire to make successful access to this mountain an unlikely event at the right time to find the snow.


In any case, Hawaii is always a recommended place to visit. Volcano sightings are guaranteed, you might even get a view of the red stuff. I made another stop here in a similar business trip ten years ago: 29 hours on the islands and still had time for an inter-island flight, driving a couple of hundred miles around the Big Island, acquire a hiking permit from the rangers, hike 20 miles, and camp alone one night on the slopes of the Pu'o 'O'o. The company saved on hotel costs that night.

Camping out near the Pu'u 'O'o volcano. Alone.

But now I am flying over Hawaii, direct to San Francisco. And this is where I will attempt to find some real skiing, by flying to Anchorage, Alaska after my meetings are over. The Alyeska ski area might open on the day that I am going there. Assuming the snow has arrived by then. I might find out that I dragged myself and my skis there for nothing.

Puu Huluhulu

Photo credits (c) 2001-2011 by Jari Arkko and the Great Circle Mapper

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Speed Skiing in Germany

The ski hall is a very visible landmark in Neuss
There are no speed limits in German highways, right? Wrong. I got a speeding ticket yesterday on my small 650 kilometer detour to ski in Jever Skihalle.

"That guy is spending all his time on the ski slopes". I get that a lot. The reality is that I have two or three good trips per year, but all the rest is squeezed in already incredibly tight time schedules on business trips. Spending late evenings on the road for a precious few minutes of skiing. In this case I am on a family weekend trip to visit museums in Germany, and my schedule was, if possible, even tighter. I applied for a permission to disappear at 7 PM. However, since we are in Sinsheim the nearest skiing was 325 kilometers away in Neuss, Germany. In the good old times this would be an hour's trip, but today stau and speed cameras are making it a slightly more tedious. My trip takes three hours one way, two hours on the site, and back in Sinsheim at 3AM.  And even with all this slow crawl through the highway system, I still got a ticket. For exceeding the speed limit by 11 kilometers an hour. Completely accidentally, of course.

Evening on a German highway
Incidentally, during this year I have collected tickets from California, New Hampshire, Poland, Slovakia, and now Germany. Luckily not all have lead to an actual ticket that I had to pay, in some cases we were left off with a warning. I've also had an accident in India (not my fault) and scratched my car twice while parking. Not a record that I am particularly proud of, but I drive a lot and most of these cases were mistakes. Such as not knowing we had to pay highway tax, crossing a forbidden direction sign to find space to turn our car around, or missing a reduced speed sign. But I know I will never again rent a car in Brussels, because every time I have done it I have ended up damaging the car while parking.

Indoor skiing at Neuss

But back to more important topics, i.e., skiing. This is day three of my season and the third country I have skied in. So far only indoor skiing. Not good, but better than nothing.

Jever Skihalle is a modern indoor sports and entertainment complex near the Dutch border between Düsseldorf and Köln. They house skiing, tubing, climbing, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and a classy hotel. When I arrived Friday evening at 10PM, a steady stream of party goers were arriving to the nightclubs and bars. The ski slope is the most visible landmark around, but otherwise skiing appeared to be like a small side note at the time. I entered through the nightclub door, for instance, and had to find my way through the building to the ski area.

Jever has one main slope and one beginner area. The main slope also offers a snow park with some rails and jumps. The beginner area has a tubing area and an ice bar.

A view from the top of the main slope

The main slope is nice for two reasons. One, this is yet another indoor ski area that likes to run its snow cannons during the opening hours. I think this is awesome, as it creates a winter feeling, reduces visibility to the structures, and creates a more realistic skiing experience. Not to mention that skiing on fresh snow is nice. Two, they have the only indoor quad chair lift that I have seen besides the one in Dubai. The lift in Dubai is painfully slow, but this one runs at the same speed a chair lift would run on a real mountain. At least a non-detachable ski lift. The lift can take 5000 people up the "mountain" per hour.

The main entrance

The main slope is OK to ski, but it is a bit too short and a notch steeper gradient would have made the slope far more fun to ski. Now it feels like making a turn slows you down too much. There is race training on this slope, but I suspect the racers too would like a bit steeper slope. Short slopes are OK, as long as the skiing is fun. As it is, the Jever slope is fun to ski for a while but I would probably get bored after a couple of hours.

Top of the main slope

There are ten or fifteen other customers on the slope during my visit. I think that is quite a reasonable turnout for late Friday evening. The chair lift can definitely handle a large crowd on weekends.

On the chair lift


I was amazed by the after-ski possibilities. As mentioned, the main door takes you to the nightclubs and bars. Never mind that probably no one from the bar crowd had been skiing earlier, there was definitely a big party.

Note the mountain views in after-ski
If I didn't have to drive back to Sinsheim, I would have checked my gear to the garderobe and gone to the bar.



My overall verdict for this indoor site is as follows. On the plus side:

  • Real winter feeling, excellent snow
  • Best lift system that I have seen indoors
  • Best after-ski that I have seen indoors, competitive even with the real ski resort after-ski

The sign at the main entrance
On the negative side:

  • Steeper ski run would be nice. Of course, this applies to most indoor ski slopes.
  • Main ski slope is narrow and crowded due to the snow park being on the same slope.
  • Road access is patrolled by speed cameras.

Important Parameters

Never Skihalle is at An Der Skihalle 1, Neuss, Germany. They are open every day of the year from 9 to 23, which is important to people like me who only make it there late in night. An evening ticket costs 25€, a day ticket 29€, and for some reason they sold me a one hour student ticket for 18€. The ticket cards cost an additional 4€, but if you return the ticket you get those euros back. They rent not just ski equipment but also clothing. Skis and poles alone are 7€/day and an all-inclusive packet is 16€/day.

A soup in the Salzburger Hochalm restaurant costs 3.50€. There are plenty of on-piste and on-site restaurant and bar options.

The main ski slope

The main ski slope is 110 meters high and 300 meters long, and the steepness at the top is 28%. Skiing down the slope takes about 25 seconds.

Other Slopes

I have now skied in 9 of the 40 slopes and 5 of the 15 countries in the Wikipedia list of indoor ski slopes, as well as one country (Indonesia) and slope that is not on that list. On this trip I actually wanted to tick off another one, Snowhall in Amneville, France, but I ended up not being too interested in spending another night driving. Hopefully future trips will allow a visit there. Snowhall is the world's longest indoor ski slope at 620 meters. It should be easy to arrange a visit on some future trip to Belgium, Germany or France. I should also visit the remaining ones in the Netherlands and Germany; there are a few left. I am also hoping that I can visit Japanese indoor ski areas some day. I already tried this in 2009 in Hiroshima, but the slope there was closed just before my visit.

It is snowing at the top!
Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko