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This, I thought, is as close as I’ll ever get to knowing how it feels to be an Olympic ski jumper. I was perched at the top of a ramp, near the roof of a vast indoor hall, 10 metres above what looked like a large swimming pool filled with a jumble of grey breeze blocks. The white surface stretched down at 45 degrees and then curved up sharply with a snarl to its lip. In the galleries all around, spectators stared at me as I edged closer to the ramp, skis jutting into thin air.
Reading about the new ski and snowboard Freestyle Academy in the Swiss resort of Laax, I had been keen to try it out. “Perfect your moves in a padded environment,” puffed the publicity material. It sounded fun. But now, standing at the top of my slope, I wasn’t quite so sure.
The Freestyle Academy, the first in Europe, opened last month and is housed in a utilitarian hangar on the edge of Laax village. Over the summer, SFr1.7m (£1.1m) went into jumps, trampolines and training equipment to prepare winter sports enthusiasts for aerial tricks. It’s part of an attempt to reinvent Laax – once a sleepy hamlet – as one of the coolest resorts in the Alps.
The idea for the academy came from Reto Poltéra, a former professional boarder who runs the resort’s ski and snowboard rentals and schools businesses. He’d seen something similar in Colorado and persuaded local colleagues to invest. Initially, the idea was to allow training to continue after the snow had melted. “Switzerland has to become much hipper in the summer. We’re not just about Alpine horns and cows on mountain pastures,” he says.
Despite the snow outside, the academy is already booming. “What’s special is that all this was designed and built by my friends and colleagues. Many of the ski instructors work as joiners, painters and decorators in the summer so we employed them here.”
I had arrived with a friend, Lee, for the induction course, two hours of compulsory instruction before being let loose on our own. I’m 39 but felt older as we met Patrick, the 20-year-old instructor, and our fellow students: a young Lycra-clad couple; two 15-year-old cousins and a boy of eight.
Patrick took us to the foam pit and told us to jump in for a warm-up. He wasn’t kidding. The rubbery blocks (called Schnitzel in German) cushion your fall but make it almost impossible to get back out, sticking and clinging to your legs as you thrash about. We emerged, hot and sweaty, and went to the trampoline hall. We bounced for an hour to get our bodies used to whirling through the air. Lee flushed with pleasure as his bounces were praised by our instructor, while everyone sniggered as I ricocheted out of control.
The Lycra-clad couple looked suspiciously confident. When we got chatting, it emerged that they were part of Swiss-Ski, the national freestyle team and were training alongside us because they needed to pass the induction course.
Laax has made a push to attract snowboarders and freestyle skiers. It claims to have been the first to welcome them, allowing boarders on to lifts and has developed snowparks and the largest half-pipe in Europe. The Burton European Open snowboarding championship is held here.
It was time for us to put on skis and move up to the slopes. The half-pipes and jumps are covered in an artificial material called Snowflex made by a company based in Yorkshire. Was this the first evidence of Britons selling “snow” to Switzerland, I wondered? It looks like giant, white mats of Velcro but has been developed to perform like snow as a ski or board’s edge digs in or glides across. “It’s a bit harder for boarders,” said Patrick as he directed me down a gentle beginners’ slope, “but I’ve never seen a skier fall on here”. I did. Snowflex might be softer than hard-packed snow but it delivers a cracking carpet burn.
The Swiss-Ski pros both passed the course and were left to get on with training. The rest of us made our way to the top of the giant ski jump. On the long climb up I tried to forget my burning knee and struck up conversation with Moritz, one of the teenagers. He has been skiing since he can remember. He volunteered to go first and without even saying goodbye, he was off. Teenagers know no fear, I thought, as he delivered a high jump, grabbing his skis as he “caught some air”. Thomas, his father, was looking on with pride. “We thought this would just be something for the kids to do in the evening or in bad weather,” he said. “But this is something incredibly special, you can’t do it anywhere else.”
The resort has developed accommodation to attract families with Rocksresort, a new “village” of eight stark granite cubes housing 122 apartments at the foot of the slopes, offering a design-led antidote to the usual Alpine chintz. At night, there are bars and restaurants with an urban edge. Although full into the small hours, they don’t disturb the rest of the resort.
And so Lee and I were left at the top of the big jump. “Me next!” he yelled and off he zoomed, with a banshee cry. That left me, shuffling towards the edge. I raised my hand so the Swiss national team queueing up on the jump next to me knew I was next. I tipped over and the sensation of speed was sudden and overwhelming as faces blurred past. In a flash I was at the curl, which catapulted me into the air – probably for three seconds but it felt like 10. All thoughts of a point-winning trick jump were forgotten as I landed ski first into the schnitzels. “Again, again!” called Lee as he helped to haul me out. “And they do week-long summer camps!”
Richard Edgar is global editor of FT video
In February a flat for eight in the Rocksresort complex costs from SFr2,744 (£1,790) a week, www.rocksresort.com
At the Freestyle Academy, induction costs SFr50 for adults and SFr30 for children. After induction, 2½hour sessions cost SFr25 for adults and SFr15 for children, http://freestyleacademy.laax.com
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