Mary Vanderwall’s ski lesson seems normal enough.
The 4-year-old from Mercer Island snowplows from side to side as instructor Jim Mercer skis backward in front of her, fine-tuning her skills.
What’s different about this ski lesson is that it’s taking place in the middle of October in a Bellevue warehouse.
Mark Vanderwall, Mary’s dad, brings his daughter to Bellevue’s Mini Mountain each week to make sure she feels comfortable sliding downhill, riding a chairlift and maneuvering with skis on her feet. The idea is if she does this now, the experience will be that much better when it’s time to hit the slopes.
One of Mark’s two older daughters learned to ski here, “and I definitely noticed a difference,” he said.
Skiers, snowboarders and those aspiring to learn those sports come to Mini Mountain from as far south as Tacoma and as far north as Everett to use three massive skiing treadmills. Mini Mountain is the only company with these facilities in the state.
The treadmills are 12 feet wide and 26 feet long with a carpet surface that moves at 4 mph. With skis and snowboards adapted for the surface, skiers can learn or work out without stopping for 20 minutes at a time.
“It’s like skiing in conditions you’ve never skied in before and you don’t have the speed,” Mercer said. “But the technique is the same as on the snow.”
Tom Waldron opened Mini Mountain in 1980 after graduating from the University of Washington with a master’s degree in physical education.
Since then, his business has specialized primarily in teaching children and novices to ski. But experts like Olympic gold medalist skier Debbie Armstrong and X-Games snowboard champ Janet Matthews also have used his facility.
“We’ve had people from as far away as Florida come to town for a week in the summer to ski,” Waldron said.
Dave Edson, a 38-year-old massage therapist from Bellevue, uses Mini Mountain weekly.
“I swear by the place,” Edson said during a workout on the treadmill with his wife. “When I first started here I skied mostly blue square (intermediate) runs, but after five lessons I was skiing double diamond (expert) runs.”
Edson’s oldest daughter had similar success using the treadmill. She started skiing once a week at Mini Mountain when she was 3.
“Her first trip to the mountain, when she was 4, she used the chairlift without any trouble and skied a green (beginner) run without stopping or falling,” Edson said. “Think about all the factors that you have to deal with when you are learning to ski. This place takes a lot of that out of it.
“It’s not cold, there’s no chairlift, no long lines, you don’t spend all day on the mountain and the bathroom is right over there. You can wear shorts and just worry about learning how to ski.”
Mini Mountain has a chairlift mounted to the ceiling to teach beginners how to get on a lift. When students get comfortable using the treadmills, the lessons move to the snow-covered slopes of Snoqualmie Pass.
And for the more experienced skiers and snowboarders, working out on the treadmill can help get your thighs in shape before ski season.
“Then you can ski longer,” Waldron said. “And if you can ski longer, you become a better skier and you have more fun.”