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XScape @ Milton Keynes

After a year of planning, work finally managed to organise a get together with one of our business partners and we all went to the XScape complex in Milton Keynes. It houses amongst other sporting attractions, the UK's largest indoor ski slope and it was there we started our activities with an hour's tobogganing.

The last time I did this was in Stoke two years ago and the toboggans were big metal things with levers that controlled the brakes and I figured I'd know what to expect but this was not the case. These things were tiny pieces of plastic that you sit on with no steering mechanism other than shifting your bodyweight about. I quickly got the hang of this and even though I had a couple of high speed collisions (not the best way to make an introduction) I did great. It was ridiculously tiring though and having to walk up the slope, admittedly assisted by a cable lift soon took it's toll. It wasn't the cleverest move to not bring spare footwear but a quick blast under the hand driers and the trainers were as good as new.

After the exhausting introduction we all went into smaller groups, some remained on the slope doing a mixture of skiing and snowboarding. I joined a smaller group to have a go on the AirKix skydiving simulator, the only one in the UK and something I first saw in Orlando in 2004 but never got around to trying.

You're in an enclosed room standing on a mesh floor beneath which is housed a huge fan that can generate windspeeds in excess of 120 miles per hour, simulating terminal velocity. You get two goes of 1 minute each, which doesn't sound like a lot of time but if you consider most sky dives don't last that long, and the forces on the body are pretty tiring you soon realise it's plenty of time. The room you're in is fully see through so people can come and watch.

My first attempt went pretty bad, the aim of the lesson is to get your body position right so that you can remain stable in the airflow. The instructor in the room with you helps get you into that position using hand signals that indicate the legs need to be bent or straightened, head moves back or the back arched. The slightest body movement can send you off in any direction. At about the 40 second mark in the wind actually managed to blow my goggles and glasses off my face, my hands instinctly went to catch them which then sent me into the wall at high speed. I instantly gave the one hand sign I never wanted to give, 2 thumbs down meaning abort. The fan was then brought down in speed and I flew into the exit door for some readjustment of the strap and an opportunity to await my second go.

This went a lot better, the initial shock of the wind speed (you should see what it does to your face!), the noise and just the whole experience had gone away and it was easier to compose yourself. Initially I started poorly ricocheting off the walls and a bit scared to put my head back for fear of a repeat which puts you into a dive. Once I realised the goggles were going to be OK and that bringing the arms too close in was what was sending me forward I got stable and then I found myself rising up above the control booth, WOOHOO!. But no sooner was I up there that my minute had passed and it was time to leave the room.

When we all had a go the instructors, who I've subsequently discovered to be world champions, put on a demonstration that was just insane and clearly what would happen if you did this all the time and not just 2 minutes a year.

In hindsight it was exciting but I don't think it's for me; I can't even fall gracefully. Maybe after a few more goes I'd get to like it more, but I'm not sure I'd get the opportunity.

The end of the night was spent bowling, going off for a meal, having some drinks in a bar and then returning back to the hotel for some more drinks (at this point it was water) and finishing up with a game of poker, with the few people that were able to remain awake.

A really good day but really really tiring.
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