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

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Forbidden Drive

Views from the trail

Unfortunately, this is not a story about skiing. I made a mistake, did not do my research. I am on a business trip through Stockholm, London, and Philadelphia. And I failed to look up possible skiing destinations along the way, missing the fact that there are indoor ski areas in the UK. If I had more time between my flights in and out of Heathrow, I could have visited one of them and collected yet another country that I have not skied in. Doh! Oh well, maybe next time.

Boat race next to a balloon from the zoo

As a result, this blog is about biking. As you may know, I don't collect only ski destinations. I also collect cities that I have biked in. Today's tour was in Philadelphia. The city itself is not that friendly for bikers (but certainly easier than New York or Paris). But there are plenty of park areas that are great for biking. I made a 50 kilometer tour through the Schuykill and Fairmont parks, ending up in the Forbidden Drive, a winding dirt road along the Wissahickon Creek. This was a nice bike tour, with plenty of nature, forest, rivers, but also people and interesting buildings and cafes. The name "Forbidden Drive" comes from the many attempts to open this trail for vehicles. I am very glad that they have not done it and it remains a quiet, beautiful park area today.

Biking towards the Forbidden Drive

I rented by bike for 50$ per day at the Breakaway Bikes, on the corner of 19th Street and Chestnut. Their service was friendly and hassle-free, and the bikes were in excellent condition.

Schuykill river views

I ate lunch at the Valley Green Inn, which was a friendly place, albeit with a somewhat US-centric and limited menu mostly consisting of sandwiches. For comparison, their soup of the day costs 5$.

Chamonix? Not quite...

Photo credits (c) 2011 by Jari Arkko

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Peer Review

This is the second day of my ski season and I am at Peer, Belgium. My plan is to ski at the Snow Valley, a small indoor ski hall. Yesterday I was skiing in Beijing, and today I will try to do so in Belgium. The next days would be spent in meetings in the European commission, but I was not about let that prevent me from having some fun exercise this evening. My travel through the airport and on the road went smoothly, and was quickly at Peer.

Snowboard park from the outside

But Snow Valley's ticket office wanted to prevent me from skiing there. They had forbidden bringing backpacks to the ski area, and they seemed adamant to hold on to their policy. After some negotiations with the manager in charge I was allowed to pass the gates. They did ask me to put the pack in the ground and not ski with it, a request that I had to disobey if I wanted to take pictures. Luckily, at this late hour the area was practically empty from both other customers and management, so I got to carry my pack undisturbed.

The Grote Skipiste

I understand that it can be dangerous to use a backpack in the ski slopes, except when the pack has padding that prevents the contents from hurting your back if you fall on it. If you ski with something else than clothing in your pack, please make sure that you have a suitable pack! In particular, carrying heavy SLRs on your unprotected pack is dangerous - not recommended.

Snowboard park from the top

Snowboard park from the outside

When I arrived at the slope, two dozen kids were busy using a race track built by the local ski club. These indoor ski halls are excellent for training racing. They are easily accessible, open long into the night, and at least here in Peer steep enough to build a race track. Short, and not overly challenging, but still good practice. The ice surface on on the slope is adding to the difficulty of the race track. My skis are still in bad shape from our off-piste tours in Africa, and I have trouble edging my skis.

Racer's platform

The layout of the Snow Valley slopes is that the main ski slope is to the left, a beginner's slope is next to it, and on the far right there is a separately housed snowboard park. The snowboard park looked fun, having several jumps and rails.

Snowboard park from the bottom

Important Parameters

Snow Valley is a few kilometers from the center of Peer, a small village 100 kilometers from Brussels.  A one hour lift ticket costs 15€, for 19€ rental skis are also included. I did not have time to test their restaurant, so I can not say what the Goulash index is here. But Belgium is a very expensive country in general.

Grote Skipiste from the outside

Their "Grote Skipiste" (large ski run) is 235 meters long and 42 meters high. You know that this is a small hill when they have to count the height at 1 meter accuracy. Skiing down the large ski run took about 20 seconds for me.

I'm on a magic carpet!

The ski lifts were a positive surprise here. All the lifts are of the magic carpet type, but there is enough of them, on both sides of the large ski run. And they are fast for this type of a lift.

Signs leading to the area

Snow Valley is not the only indoor ski arena in Belgium, there are two others. I have been to another one as well, Ice Mountain in Comines. This is a 210 meters long ski area that likes to keep their snow cannons on during the day, making the experience feel more natural. Comines is 114 kilometers from Brussels.

Ice Mountain, Comines, Belgium 
Snowstorm, inside

Next Steps

I also had the intent to pick an indoor ski area in one of the neighboring countries (probably France) and spend a third consecutive day skiing. That plan failed when it turned out that I needed to find a dentist to fix a filling that had come out, and searching for the dentist took all my free time the next day. Maybe on the next visit...

Returning home from Brussels

Grote Skipiste from the outside
Photo credits (c) 2010-2011 by Jari Arkko