First there were dry ski slopes that hurt a lot when you fell over on them. Then came the SnowDome at Tamworth, Staffordshire, which has snow that isn't really snow but it would take a chemist to tell you why not. Now we have the next stage on in the evolutionary chain: Snowflex, a material that is set to transform artificial snow slopes.
It has been developed by Briton Engineering, a firm that specialises in manufacturing surfaces and equipment for "dry" skiing and snowboarding, or urban snow sports as they have become known.
The new material feels like a very thick carpet with a brush-type surface. Unlike other arti-ficial slopes it has no large holes in it, which are dangerous and account for many injuries each year. There is a shock-absorbing layer under the surface, which cushions falls and gives it a more authentic snow-like feel. It also scrunches underfoot so that it even sounds like snow.
It has already replaced old surfaces at many centres, including Kendal Ski Club, Sheffield Ski Village and Calshot Activities Centre, Hampshire. The number of accidents has dropped considerably as a result. All of which will be good news for teachers who take school groups on pre-skiing trip practice sessions.
Mike Jones, the ski and snowboarding instructor at Calshot, believes that Snowflex will not only save fingers and thumbs. "On this material, you really have to use your skills," he says. One reason for this is that, unlike previous artificial surfaces, it has a "grippy" feel which provides the same kind of resistance to the edges of skis and boards that snow would. It can also be cut and shaped into interesting features, such as moguls for advanced skiers, as well as jumps, ramps and pipes for snowboarders.
"It is appealing to every level of ability," says project manager Shaun Waddingham. "Hard-core enthusiasts were the only people using artificial slopes before. This will open up these sports to the mainstream."
Briton hopes its new surface will inject an element of fun and excitement into urban snow sports. "Our intention is to revive the industry," says Shaun Wad-dingham. "It had a reputation for being dangerous and boring because surface technology had not advanced for over 30 years. Snowflex is a quantum leap."
The company says it also scores over chemical snow as it is cheaper to maintain, it doesn't compact in heavy periods and you don't get ice forming on it.
John Lowther, the chairman of Kendal Ski Club, says the new slopes have resulted in "better attendances in classes and a dramatic increase in numbers coming to open skiing and snowboarding."
Contact the Ski Club of Great Britain (tel: ??????) and the British Snowboard Association (tel: ???????? for details on which centres have Snowflex