A visit to a new freestyle training centre to master mid-air stunts on a snowboard in the Swiss resort of Laax.
A leap too far in Laax
This isn't how it's meant to happen, I think to myself as I strike the lip of the terrifying ski jump with my tailbone and bounce head-first into the gigantic pool of foam with a heavy snowboard strapped to my feet. I'd travelled to the Swiss resort of Laax to experience the newly opened state-of-the-art Freestyle Academy - "Europe's first indoor freestyle training centre" - lured by the promises of a safe, padded environment to try out all the crazy snowboarding tricks I'd never dare attempt on real, hard-packed snow. And here I am, battered, bruised and face-down in foam, my credibility in tatters, wondering how it had all gone so wrong.
Freestyling has been a source of terror and fascination for me since I started snowboarding 13 years ago. Doing jumps and tricks over manmade structures in purpose-built snow parks is just one aspect of the sport, but to my mind it is where ordinary mortals attached to rectangular boards turn into super-humans who can fly. If you've ever witnessed a snowboarder sailing over a big jump, doing a few rotations or backflips in mid-air and touching down as casually as a bird on water, you'll know what I mean. I'd always dreamed of becoming a great freestyler, and had made a few haphazard attempts to learn, but until Laax I'd never had the courage to properly take the leap.
The journey started promisingly enough. I arrived at the resort after a smooth two-hour trip by train and bus from Zurich airport, to be greeted by glorious falling snow and a thick, white carpet underfoot. This promises to be a bumper ski season in the Alps: its resorts opened several weeks early and the conditions are already superb.
My hotel for the weekend is the famed Riders Palace, which established Laax as a snowboarder hot spot when it opened in 2001. A modern concrete structure with a neon-lit cocktail bar in the reception, a club in the basement, and beanbags and widescreen TVs in the bedrooms, it is a magnet for trendy young boarders from all over the world. The young man checking in ahead of me has travelled all the way from California.
When I last visited Laax in 2007, the hub of the resort consisted of two large hotels, an ugly complex with downmarket bars and restaurants, and a gigantic car park next to the lifts. Since then, the company that owns the resort has totally transformed the site. The car park has been buried underground and replaced with eight minimalist, cube-shaped apartment blocks arranged around a central plaza. The development, known as rocksresort, also boasts chic shops and bars and a variety of dining options.
Rocksresort lacks the cosy, old-fashioned feel of a classic European ski resort but has been designed well enough to make you feel pleasantly at home, especially if you're a hip young snowboarder who values clean lines and convenience over Alpine kitsch. (The 122 apartments can be rented throughout the season from 32 Swiss francs [Dh123] per person, per night.)
My appointment at Freestyle Academy isn't until three the following afternoon, so the next morning, fully kitted up, I head up the mountain. The snow is fresh and powdery and I do some exhilarating runs. Laax is not a large resort by Alpine standards but it does contain a good variety of terrain, with an epic off-piste descent from the Vorab Glacier to Alp Ruschein, lots of long, winding reds, and a new 2.5km freestyle slope at Crap Sogn Gion where expert boarders wow the crowds on jumps, rails and half-pipes. The lift system is a bit patchy but I'm told it's getting an overhaul in the next year.
The Freestyle Academy, which I hope will turn me into some sort of big-air hero, turns out to be a low, inconspicuous building next to Riders Palace. The entrance hall, with a long coffee bar and comfortable sofas, is actually a viewing platform overlooking a series of training pits. Below left are four large trampolines; below right is a skateboarding ramp. Towards the rear, taking up more than half of the building, is a massive pool of carbon-grey foam cubes cushioning a series of jumps, the largest of which stretches all the way up to the ceiling. I assure myself that this is not even slightly intimidating.
Everyone has to enrol in a supervised two-and-a-half-hour introductory course to familiarise themselves with the facilities and to prove that they are skilled enough to use them. The academy accepts all ages and skill levels, but you really need to be an intermediate-to-expert boarder, and already confident in the air, to attempt the bigger jumps. Once you've completed the course, you can book cheaper unsupervised sessions to further hone your skills before you try them out on real snow.
No matter how young you think you are, you will probably feel old at the Freestyle Academy. High-energy pop and nu-metal pumps out of the speakers and everyone is dressed in baggy skater gear. Many of the kids in my group, which numbers about 20, are half my height and - infuriatingly - double my skill level. Loath to be outperformed by a bunch of nine-year-olds, I throw myself into the activities with total determination.
Our group has two cheerful young supervisors. We start with a trampoline session, which teaches you how to jump and flip in mid-air without losing your balance. "Stop flailing your arms," I am told, "and keep your legs straight." I apply this advice and immediately feel a lot more stable in the air. Next, we strap on our boards and venture onto a baby slope, to get a feel for the artificial terrain (a cutting-edge new technology called Snowflex). I find the bristly, slippery surface hard to negotiate, and to my embarrassment I keep falling at the bottom. The nine-year-olds glide by with infinite ease, giving me pitying looks as I crawl to my feet. "Take as many goes as you want," the supervisor smiles sympathetically.
We try a steeper slope with a near-vertical drop, which I manage to pull off in a dignified manner, and then it is on to the climactic moment of the course. The big jumps are where you accustom yourself to taking off at speed and, with practice, learn how to do elaborate mid-air tricks. I have watched skiers, boarders and even BMX bikers shoot off them, spinning and somersaulting into the foam, and I'm ready now to have a go myself.
"Try it if you want," a supervisor tells me, so I haul my snowboard up the steep steps and perch at the top of the second-highest descent. The foam pool below seems a very long way down. This is much scarier than anticipated. But if kids half my age are doing it, what excuse do I have? I take a few deep breaths and, inching forward until there is nothing beneath my board but thin air, I drop over the edge ...
A word of advice: if you're a freestyle snowboarding novice and you attempt a big jump, make sure you brace your legs as you speed towards take-off. Otherwise your knees will buckle, like mine did, and you'll use your rear end as a launching mechanism.
My pride takes some comfort in the fact that the girl two places ahead of me also took a tumble. Eventually I am hauled out of the pool by a man who assures me: "I have seen much worse falls here. Professional boarders as well as beginners. This is nothing out of the ordinary." I believe him. Looking around, there are clearly too few supervisors to prevent such accidents. I'm left feeling, as I hobble to the exit, that I could have conquered my fear of freestyling, attaining the confidence to tackle big jumps and the skill to land them safely, if only I'd had proper tuition.
But there's no denying that the Freestyle Academy is a terrific facility which looks set to confirm Laax as one of the hottest snowboarding destinations in the world. Just one week after opening it's full of enthusiastic young boarders - four of whom had come all the way from Japan - putting their aerial abilities to the test and pulling off all manner of gravity-defying stunts. As for me, I'm going to keep my feet on solid ground from now on and stick to the safety of the slopes. My dreams of flying have been laid to rest: I'll leave the freestyling to the kids.
The introductory course at the Freestyle Academy (freestyleacademy.laax.com; 00 41 81 927 7170) costs 50 Swiss francs (Dh190). A double room at Riders Palace (www.riderspalace.ch; 00 41 81 927 9700) costs 690 Swiss francs (Dh2,660) per person for five nights including a lift pass.