Making first tracks of the season is a critical moment for every skier. On average, we must endure eight months of warm weather a year in exchange for four cold months of skiing. The anticipation this creates can be agonizing. It starts in the summer when the first issue of Ski Magazine arrives and then slowly builds during the fall, as the weather turns colder. By late November, the snow guns are firing, and most of us have already tried on our equipment at least five times in expectation of opening day. Finally, the resorts begin dropping the ropes and we can once again do what we’ve only dreamed about for the past eight months.
It was with this eagerness that I confronted the weekend. At first, I had planned to head to West Virginia’s Snowshoe Mountain. The storm then dissuaded me from driving up on Friday, so instead I planned a short day trip to Wisp on Saturday. On Saturday morning, however, my wife came down with a cold, which once again forced me to cancel my trip. Trying to make the best of the situation, I spent the day taking a long walk in snow and watching a lone country skier struggling to make some tracks on Washington’s minimal snow cover.
Sunday rolled around and my wife was feeling much better. “Would you like to ski,” I nervously asked. “Yes, but I want to go to 7 Springs,” she replied. Although it is one of our favorite resorts in the region, neither of us had skied 7 Springs in two years. On Sunday, the resort opened 15 trails on a base of 8-14 inches. Better yet, it was only charging $30 a ticket. The promise of acres and acres of intermediate skiing at bargain basement prices convinced me to go for it and make a day trip to 7 Springs.
The drive to 7 Springs from D.C. takes between 3.5 and 4 hours depending on traffic and departure points. Approximately 85 percent of the drive is on I-270, I-70, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I left D.C. at 6:45 a.m. and was skiing by 11. Our tickets were good until seven but by four, we were pooped.
We started the day by taking the resort’s new high-speed detachable six-pack to the North Face. This lift, installed in 2001, links the Front Face with the North Face. It enabled us to quickly get from the Wagner base lodge to the Lake Tahoe Lodge without waiting in much of a line. Once on the North Face, we opted to make first tracks on North Slope. More of a bowl than a slope, this trail is rated expert but because it is very wide and expansive, most confident intermediates can handle it with ease. We made our first runs here because we know this slope well and wanted a lot of space on which to warm up. The top of the slope is relatively flat, but there are two nice steep pitches in the middle and bottom of the run. On Saturday, the resort allowed a strip of moguls to grow under the quad chair, but since we were just trying to get our ski legs back, we avoided them and stuck to groomed terrain for the entire day.
After our first run, we moved over to the Giant Boulder, a blue/green trail on the North Face. Giant Boulder takes a more circuitous route down the mountain and is less steep than North Slope. Because it was getting a lot of wind blown snow from the cannons on the closed Giant Steps trail, we soon gravitated back to the North Face Slope. My wife commented on how this slope has an above the tree line feel similar to what one often experiences in the Alps.
Since lines were minimal, we skied for three straight hours before ducking into the Tahoe Lodge for lunch. Food at 7 Springs is a cut above your average ski lodge fare. The hot dogs are always hot and the fries, always crispy. The bakery at the mountain also makes delicious cookies and moon pies. For those wanting a real meal, the main hotel offers an all-you-can-eat buffet on weekends and gourmet meals can be enjoyed at Helen’s Restaurant.
The high level of service at 7 Springs has made this mountain the envy of many other resorts in the United States. This service goes well beyond food and lodging. At 7 Springs, the bathrooms are clean and the shuttle buses run on time. The resort also features loads of extras designed to enhance one’s experience. For example, my wife mentioned at the Tahoe Lodge that her lips were getting chapped. I told her to be sure to wear her facemask, which she had wisely brought, and then I went downstairs to use the bathroom. When I emerged, I noticed a little kiosk selling neck warmers, facemasks, scarves, hats, and lip balm. A $2.00 purchase of some chapstick put a huge smile on my wife’s face -; now that’s what I call customer service!
We made a few more runs on North Face after lunch but by 3 p.m., the sun was gone and the slopes were getting skied off. In the early season when bases are low, one can’t expect a slope to last much more than six hours between grooms no matter how cold the weather gets. On Saturday, the temperature hovered in the mid twenties for most of the day, but strong winds made it feel much colder.
We took our last three runs on the Front Face. The Front Face does not offer as much vertical as the North Face, but the pitches are more sustained. I noticed many expert skiers on the black Avalanche slope. Having never spent much time on this side, I was pleasantly surprised by how much challenge the blue Tyrol slope offered. The slope was empty and wide, allowing me to really rip through my final runs of the day.
With the possibility of rain later this week, skiers may only have a few days left to take advantage of the January conditions and acres and acres of open terrain at 7 Springs. Enjoy it while you can, but even if we do get some rain, the snowmaking arsenal at 7 Springs will recover terrain quickly, so next weekend should be decent no matter what happens.
Photos provided by John Sherwood.
John Sherwood is a columnist for DCSki. When he's not hiking, biking, or skiing, he works as an author of books on military history.