Air time: The brand new ski camp where 'progression is inevitable'

Stephen Wood visits Colorado for a sneak preview of Woodward at Copper

Saturday 03 January 2009 01:00 GMT

The family that skis together: doesn't it always end up not skiing together? Since my eldest child is still eight years away from being a teenager, I have no personal experience of this; but among the changes that adolescence brings – along with alienation, apathy and acne – is surely the end of the fun-filled family ski holiday. What 15-year-old worth his or her salt wants to carve graceful turns with the old folks, listening to the gentle swish of skis in powdery snow, when the alternative is to hang out in the half-pipe with like-minded people beneath huge, hard-working loudspeakers?

That sort of culture clash is bound to turn the family snow holiday into nothing more than a fast-fading Eastmancolor print, you would think. But there is one resort in the winter-sports world which promises to resolve this enduring conflict. It is Copper Mountain in Colorado, which lies about 75 minutes' drive west of Denver. The first day of February will see the opening of a new facility called Woodward at Copper, the result of a deal between Intrawest, the resort's owner, and a 38-year-old summer camp operation – Camp Woodward – which is based on a 450-acre site in rural Pennsylvania.

The US has innumerable residential camps. Children as young as seven can spend part of the long summer holidays while their parents are, thanks to the paltry annual leave of US employees, hard at work. Many camps have specialities; and Woodward's was, originally, gymnastics. But in the aftermath of the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, gymnastics declined in popularity and Woodward had to extend its range. BMX biking was the first innovation; and it was followed by two other "action sports", skateboarding and in-line skating. These sports, with their freestyle displays of jumps and tricks, became very popular in the US. Their star performers became household names, at least in households with teenagers. And many of them were graduates of Woodward camps. The operation has now spread to three locations, with an annual attendance of 17,000 seven- to 18-year-olds during summer seasons from late May to early September.

In August 2001, the newspaper USA Today reported that skateboarding had overtaken baseball as a participation sport and that in-line skaters outnumbered soccer players by almost two to one. While it credited the competitive X Games on the ESPN TV channel with popularising action sports in the US, the paper also recognised Woodward as an important force, and it reported that "all this summer's $725-a-week [camp] slots were filled in two days". (The weekly fees are now closer to $1,000, or close to £700.)

For obvious reasons, snowboarding played little part in these summer camps. But its popularity with Woodward's age-group, and the technical crossovers with other action sports, gave it huge potential as an addition to the portfolio. And a chance meeting at a ski-business conference between Woodward's president and senior staff of Copper Mountain led eventually (it has taken six years) to the Woodward at Copper project, under which Intrawest pays a licensing fee to Woodward.

The director, Ben Brown, was formerly in charge of lodging at the resort. Perhaps Brown, a 37-year-old skier and boarder who competed in the 1997 US Extreme Freeskiing Championships, was once equally zealous about lodging; certainly, his enthusiasm for Woodward at Copper is barely under control. Last month he showed me The Cage, the first fruit of the tie-up. Opened last year at the resort base, The Cage is a sort of retail lounge with the unusual feature of an in-store skatepark encased in metal bars – hence its name – designed to prevent skaters flying into the racks of cult-brand snowboard clothing ("You won't find North Face or Columbia here," said Brown gleefully). Over to the back are several iMac edit suites with which riders will be able to work on footage shot by Woodward at Copper.

The Cage is just a pod; the mother ship is a huge, ecologically efficient metal shed, called The Barn on the reasonable grounds that it is barn-shaped. On the 20,000sq ft floorspace, the first of its facilities – essentially hard things to jump off and soft things to land on – were being installed during my visit. Off the north wall will run two slopes, both covered in the very successful Snowflex artificial-snow surface developed in the UK by Brian Thomas (whom I met by chance in 1996 when he was installing a test area at the Sheffield Ski Village). One of the slopes is for rail-riding, and has slots into which a variety of rails can be fitted; the other, for big-air jumps, is shorter and steeper, and aligned with a foam-block pit, easy on the body in landings but hard to get out of, and therefore equipped with a recovery winch.

What all action sports have in common, in Woodward terminology, is a requirement for "aerial awareness", an appreciation – central to gymnastics – of body balance and movement in the air. To develop this, the Woodward at Copper coaches, including former US Olympic gymnast Phoebe Mills, will use the trampolines, sprung floor and runway in the north-east corner, alongside the BMX bikers' area. On the other side will be a substantial skatepark. The south-west corner will have a stairway leading up to a high-diver's board above the foam-block pit: it is for boarders who want to practice jumping off cliffs.

The Woodward slogan is "progression is inevitable". This relates to the skills of action sports: rather than just taking a leap into the dark (or, in Brown's phrase, to "huck and hope"), Woodward riders can work on their jumps and landings safely, indoors, before taking them out on to the hard-packed snow of the terrain park. But Brown emphasises that another component of the inevitable "progression" is an increasing awareness of the hazards of aerial manoeuvres.

That will be a comfort to parents, as will the opportunity Woodward at Copper presents for them to enjoy skiing while their teenage offspring are in The Barn or out on the terrain park. The winter programme at Copper will not be a "camp" in the sense of the other Woodward locations: rather than a residential, week-long course, there will be "Day Camps", Friday to Monday, plus "One-Hit Wonders" (90-minute courses on a single discipline) and evening drop-in sessions. Brown hopes that the casual nature of the evening events will cultivate something of the camaraderie of camp. Day Camp activities will be split between The Barn and the terrain park, just above Copper's lift base. Altogether Brown expects it will be possible to have 200 riders (and skiers: they are welcome too) taking instruction per day. Also planned are week-long camps during the summer. Techniques designed to ensure that sufficient snow is maintained in the terrain park for skiing and riding are currently being evaluated.

There is a cost to all this, and it is not negligible, especially now that the pound is so weak. Day Camps will cost $199 (£145), One-Hit Wonders $69 (£50); drop-in sessions are free, but they are only open to those who have had a paid-for session during the day. Still, that may not be too high a price for the family which no longer skis together but still wants to share their winter-sports holiday.

For more information on Woodward at Copper see or call 001 970 968 3400.

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