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Ruminations of a Long-Time D.C. Area Skier: Part 2 of 3
By Jim Kenney, DCSki Columnist
December 18, 2000

DCSki columnist Jim Kenney continues with part two of “Ruminations of a long-time D.C. Area Skier.” Click here to read part one.


As a youngster my skiing exploits in the 1960’s and 1970’s were mostly local, with particular focus on Pennsylvania’s Blue Knob since my folks had a vacation home there for a number of years. In the 1980’s my parents sold their place at Blue Knob and with that tie broken, I began to take more frequent trips to other ski areas, locally and around the country.

I have favorites resorts, but to paraphrase Will Rogers, I never met a ski area I didn’t like. I’ve sampled the slopes at close to 50 U.S. areas, including almost all you could reach within a half-day drive of DC. I’ve also visited most of the areas in Vermont and many of the significant ones in New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. When I take multi-day trips I usually try to ski at more than one area in a region.

As far as local favorites go, I’ll always be a fan of the natural potential of Blue Knob. You can actually get a feeling of exploration there when all their glades and more obscure trails are open. When it’s bad it’s bad, but when it’s good it’s very good.

I’ve only made two trips to Snowshoe, West Virginia, both many years ago. As the pre-eminent ski area in the Mid-Atlantic for the last decade, I’m quite curious to return, especially on a day when the newly expanded Western Territory is fully open (as it was for most of the winter of ‘99-00). In my past visits I found the eastern terrain of that mountain to be only on par with many areas closer to DC. However, from my additional Mountaineer State experience at Canaan Valley and Timberline, there is no doubt that the West Virginia ski areas consistently have the best snow conditions in the region.

Bryce Mountain near Bayse, Virginia (90 minutes from DC) is where my four kids (ages 7-16) like me to take them for local skiing. They find the terrain very manageable and the crowds often minimal. I find the lift prices a little less than at other local ski areas.

East of the Mississippi my favorite ski area is Killington, Vermont. I know it’s crowded and expensive, but it’s also huge and great for “one stop does it all” skiing. They might be boring for the vertically inclined, but those unique (for the eastern U.S.) 5-mile long blue trails at Killington, for example Great Eastern, are simply an intermediate skier’s delight. A couple of years ago I introduced my kids to those trails and it was like rediscovering the joy of Christmas through the eyes of a child.

If there was a sleeper in my eastern experiences I would say it was Wildcat, near Mt. Washington, New Hampsire. It can be god-awful cold there, but it has the best scenery in the east with Mt. Washington and Tuckerman’s Ravine just across the valley staring you in the face all day. It also has 3 or 4 distinct and really enjoyable old-fashioned ski trails, about 2-3 miles in length, winding down a drop of 2,000 vertical feet. These cruisers have interesting changes in pitch and direction and are quite a contrast to the Colorado-style superwide, straight-down-the-fall-line runs that gained popularity throughout the country in the 1980’s. Those types of expansive runs are not especially environmentally “green” and in the east have come to represent a heavy snowmaking liability during mild winters.

Wildcat also has enough bumps and glades to keep a double black diamond skier busy for a couple of days. There are even some extraordinary backcountry opportunities at Wildcat for telemarkers and cross-country skiers.

I also had a memorable 5-day visit to Smugglers Notch, Vermont in the late 1980’s. I was invited to ski there by a friend. It turned out to be a more interesting mountain than I had expected. The place is famous as a family area with a kid-friendly beginner’s mountain and lots of slopeside condos, but they also have 2,600 feet of vertical over some serious terrain, including some steep glades that would challenge the best. I skied down a 50’ frozen waterfall/cascade and also caught a great, uncrowded powder day there, the thought of which still brings a smile to my face.

In the west I’d have to say the Aspen area is my favorite. I have not seen a better combination of three really significant and beautiful ski mountains (Ajax, Snowmass and Aspen Highlands) within 10 miles of each other; plus there is the outrageously interesting (and pricey) shops, restaurants, bars and ambiance of the town of Aspen. In addition to great snow and terrain, during one visit I saw a motion picture being made one day and met or observed several celebrities on other days. A typical 7-day ski vacation will not seem like enough time to take in all of this.

I would hardly call them sleepers, but I’d sure like to get back and explore more of Snowbird and Alta, Utah. These two resorts are side-by-side and their only known snow conditions are packed powder or fresh powder. It’s a freak of nature that the alpine-like canyon they share is only 30 minutes from the dry, flat desert terrain of the Salt Lake City airport.

I am curious about Whistler in Western Canada, but my final skiing frontier is most definitely Europe. I have never skied there, but I visited some of the major alpine resort areas on an extended summer European vacation with my wife some years ago. The Alps impart a majestic visual effect that exceeds anything I’ve seen even in the American West, basically because the valleys are lower and the mountain tops are higher. The vertical differences are often 10,000 feet or more.

From the sidewalks of Zermatt the view of the Matterhorn is one of the most awesome natural sights I’ve ever laid my eyes on. It seems to block out a third of the sky. In my dreams I envision:

  • Riding all 200+ lifts in the massive French ski expanse known as les 3 Vallees,
  • Or making the half-day ski trek down the 12-mile long Vallee Blanche glacier in the shadow of Mt. Blanc,
  • Or cruising amidst British royalty on the Parsenn run at Davos, Switzerland,
  • Or downing an apres-ski beer in a 500-year-old pub after a day on the Ski Safari at Kitzbuhel, Austria
  • Or -; well, you get the idea. I’m sure you’ve got some ski dreams of your own to top these.

    Read Part 1…, or continue to Part 3
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    Rich
    17 years ago
    Loved your “dreams”…been there…done those. You are right that those are the best ski experiences…the real things, not a Disney version. I’ve really never skied out West, as I’ve found Europe much cheaper, and there is no 3 Vallee, Kitzbuhel Ski Safari, or Cortina’s La Ronda or anywhere else like that in the US. Where you can ski 40 miles in one direction from town-to-town around here?
    Doug
    17 years ago
    Thanks again Jim for a wonderful article. I very much enjoy your descriptions of various ski area you have tried. A little more personal than the usual ski area reviews. Thanks also for the advice on Blue Knob.

    P.S. You must try out Shays Revenge as you mentioned. The lower headwall is truly a hair raiser. Have fun!!
    JimK
    17 years ago
    Rich, tell me/us more about the European ski experience! What were the biggest differences for you compared to the US? What were your highs and lows. What recommendations do you have for US skiers making their first trip to the Alps?
    Jim
    17 years ago
    JimK - some advice after having skiied Europe:

    1. Bring your oldest skis. Lift lines in Europe are a mob scene. With the exception of the English, the Europeans do not believe in lining up and taking turns. They crowd through lift lines like cattle run amok. They will step on your skis, elbow you out of the way and generally be rude.

    2. Keep expectations on amenities low. Resort planning in Europe is not nearly as well designed or planned as U.S. resorts. Expect to see a lot of older equipment still in use (i.e., T-bars) and hikes to lifts.

    3. Expect to pay for EVERYTHING. European resorts believe in charging for everything. One time, my wife and I were in a ski resort near the Grindenwald/Wenden area when we decided to take a break on some lounge chairs set outside a resort. After we had sat down, a vendor came by and informed us there was a “rental” charge for sitting in the lounge chairs. We left rather than pay for the privilege of sitting down.

    4. BUY INSURANCE. If you get into an accident in Europe, the first thing Ski Patrol will ask is not “are you okay?” but “credit card?” While Europe may have great health care coverage for its citizens, as a foreigner, you are expected to pay for your own health care. Get insurance at the base of the mountain where you buy lift tickets. Its not that expensive and could save you BIG hassles and lotsa $$$ if you get into an accident and require medical attention. For example, transport off the hill can cost several thousand U.S. bucks.

    5. Trails are not well marked. Unlike the litigious U.S., Europeans are much less likely to sue ski areas when they get hurt. As a result, trails are NOT well marked (or, in some cases, not marked at all). Its not unlikely to be skiing along a cliff edge that is not marked off with a fence making going over the edge all the more likely if you’re not paying attention. Avalanche control is likewise, not as well attended to.
    Jim
    17 years ago
    Don’t take my earlier message too pessimistically, despite how it sounds. My advice was simply some precautions to take. Skiing in Europe can be fun with great food, great scenery, great terrain (albeit a tad more wild), and generally friendly people (except for that liftline thing!).
    Rich
    17 years ago
    I ski Europe almost exclusively as it’s cheaper then the US, bigger, and it’s the real thing. Most all Americans prefer Epcot where they can visit 10 countries in one day; all speak English, serve burgers & fries, and take dollars! Yes, some areas can be obnoxious (Cortina, Italy), but been to NYC recently? Food can’t be compared; a quick lunch beats the best restaurant here. There are a number of circuits to ski - 40 or 50 miles around and backthrough quaint little hamlets, not the food court at Killington! One of my favorite areas is the Porte du Soliel, Morzine, FRclose to Geneva. You can ski up the French Alps and around through Switzerland, back into France to where you started. If you’re adventurous and flexible (most times I’ve flown Lufthansa I’ve had to spend the night in Frankfurt due to delays) it’s well worth it. Forget what you’ve heard about grooming - I skied the La Ronda circuit (50 miles?) on all groomed trails. While they are much better skiers then here, there are plenty of beginner areas. The cutest thing is to see a whole class of Elementary school children clomping up the street to the lifts on a weekday morning - skiing is treated just as a PE class here! Talk to people that have been all over, not one trip to one area; what’s a Europeans’ impression of the US if they were to come over here and spend one week in the US - all in Orlando?
    Snowcat got your tongue?
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