Snowshoe, Snowshoe! 4
Author thumbnail By Matthew Graham, DCSki Columnist

Snow gently fell as the fog threatened to engulf us. Yet it really wasn’t fog. Technically, we were walking in a cloud. At 4800 feet, we pushed onwards atop snowshoes to the Sunrise Backcountry Hut at Snowshoe Mountain Resort. Snowshoe Mountain, due to its elevation, receives a lot of snow (an average of 180 inches per year). Long after other local ski resorts (which rely mostly on man-made powder) have closed down for the season, Snowshoe is still blanketed by snowfall. Usually the resort remains open until mid-April. The only drawback is that occasionally the top of the mountain lives in the clouds.

A mile into our trek along the Cheat Mountain Trail, the cloud began to lift revealing the wooded expanse ahead. The path was relatively flat which made breaking the trail an easy task. My wife and I stopped to dust off some of the snow that had accumulated on our backpacks. We carried only a change of clothes and basic toiletries to spend the night in the forest. Food was not required. A full gourmet meal awaited us at the end of our journey.

The backcountry hut and a variety of other adventure programs are the brainchild of Mike (Fluffy) Valach, the Outdoor Adventure Program Manager. [Editor’s note: after overseeing the development of Snowshoe’s Outdoor Adventure Program, Mike Valach joined the historic Homestead Resort in Virginia this past summer as Director of Outdoor Activities.]

The hut allows one to experience the wonders of wilderness in winter while at the same time eliminating the abysmal chore of winter camping. After another 30 minutes of snowshoeing, we arrived to discover not a hut, but rather a large log cabin. Preparation Chef, Meghan O’Connell greeted us at the door with a hot mug of apple cider. Inside, the cabin included four bedrooms, a large dining area, kitchen and a bathroom on the first floor. A loft upstairs housed four double beds. A large, wood burning stove heated the entire space. We huddled by this stove to warm up as we sipped our cider.

The Chef and Hutmaster at the time of our visit, James Patterson, had returned to the resort to ferry in 10 other patrons on snowmobiles. They would be joining us as part of the Adventure Dining program. While we waited for dinner, Meghan entertained us with stories of life at the hut as she bustled about the kitchen. Bears, deer, bobcats, wild boar and other wildlife were often seen from the front porch. The bear’s den lay just a few 100 feet down the hill below the cabin. Though they have never had any problems with these creatures, I felt better knowing it was hibernating season. As the smell of freshly baked rolls filled the air, we succumbed to a pre-dinner snack. The sounds of engines then alerted us to the arrival of the other diners. They spilled into the cabin, cold and in need of refreshment. So I helped out in pouring the wine. Fine Cabernets, Merlots and Chardonnays are other items you usually don’t find in the backcountry. Ahhh, roughing it!

For dinner, we were served an appetizer of Vidalia onion soup. The main course was a choice of grilled steak or salmon. To accommodate my vegetarian spouse, James prepared a pasta prima vera with hints of basil. Side dishes included garlic mashed potatoes and sugar snap peas. A checkerboard marble cake and coffee followed.

By nine o’clock, the diners and Meghan were ready to depart and we were ready for bed. We optimistically chose a room with a sunrise view. The quiet of the evening returned now that we were alone in the cabin. We drifted off to sleep under the thick comforter long before James had returned from motoring everyone else back to the resort.

At 6:20 a.m., an hour before official sunrise, I awoke to see clear skies, stars and a crescent moon outside the window. The thin white line of dawn separated the horizon. It’s been years since I’ve dragged myself up to watch a sunrise. I nudged my wife and we sat up to enjoy the spectacle of the light breaking through the night. Purple hues gave ways to pinks and then reds and orange as the stars and moon faded. The fresh snow reflected off the trees and sparkled like millions of tiny diamonds. With the sky turning a bright blue, we knew that it would be a fantastic day.

Since we were still somewhat stuffed from dinner, we opted for just cereal, juice and tea instead of a big country breakfast. James didn’t seem to mind not having to cook. After freshening up and donning our expedition weight long underwear, we set forth deeper into the woods on a trail to the Cheat Mountain Fire Tower. It’s always best to start out a little cold so as not to overheat when cross country skiing or snowshoeing or winter hiking. The thermometer read a balmy 8 degrees Fahrenheit. Brrrr. But with the sun shining and the trees sheltering us from the wind, we warmed up after only 20 minutes. One of the great things about snowshoeing is that it requires no skill. Your boot is secured to the snowshoe on a pivotal binding. Metal cleats protrude from the toe portion. Another cleat extends from the bottom at the rear of the main deck. When going uphill, you kick with your toes. When going downhill, just stomp down on your heels. Trekking poles help you balance. A variety of styles exist for different purposes and weights of users. The large surface area of the deck distributes weight so that you only sink in a few inches with each step. Breaking trail in deep snow, especially going uphill, can be quite the workout. But running down a hill of deep powder is a blast as you bounce into the air with each stride and the powder explodes upwards around your feet.

We followed the narrow footpath along the mountain ridge as strong winds whistled at the tops of the trees. Red and pink ribbons tied to the trunks marked the way. We had the entire mountain to ourselves. After stopping occasionally to enjoy the solitude and beauty of the deep forest carpeted in white, we arrived after two miles at a clearing for the fire tower. Unhindered by the trees, the full force of the cold breeze sent chills while we removed the snowshoes and climbed to the top of the 60- foot structure. Bracing against these frigid gusts, we were treated to a panoramic view of the West Virginia countryside as well as the ski slopes at the resort.

Back on the ground, I broke open the thermos and we downed some hot chocolate to reheat our cores. The road to the resort backtracked one mile to a turnoff onto a trail named 6000 Steps. Fortunately, we were heading gradually downhill on this ominously named route. The 6000 Steps meandered along a small frozen stream, which we had to traverse several times. At one point it required us to step across cracking sections of ice. The cleats of the snowshoes dug in on the tricky balancing act of hopping from one plate of ice to the next. And though we saw the tracks of several different animals, the forest appeared empty and astoundingly quiet. The tall trees of the mid-mountain muffled all of the noise from the wind. The monochrome of the snow set off subtle shades of color you usually don’t notice in the woods. And the sunshine bursting through clearings often created a prismatic effect. As before, we had to stop several times just to marvel at the stark beauty of the niveous landscape.

The trail ended at the base of one of the chair lifts. It was a strange feeling to suddenly re-emerge into the world of men and machinery. But after trekking 5 miles, it sure was nice to be able to ride the lift back up to the top of the mountain!

For more info, contact Snowshoe Mountain Resort at: (877) 441-4FUN, or visit their web site below.

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About Matthew Graham

Matthew Graham is a skier as well as a hang glider and paraglider pilot, SCUBA diver, cavern diver, equestrian, polo player, sailor, hiker, biker, rock climber, paddler, and skater. He's also yoga teacher and certified personal trainer and has dabbled in just about every other sport, even stunt car driving and bull riding! He has written for the Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine, USA Weekend Magazine, Hooked on the Outdoors, Richmond Magazine, Chesapeake Life Magazine, Metro Sports, American Fitness, Blue Ridge Outdoors, Recreation News and numerous other outdoor and travel publications.

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Reader Comments

February 8, 2002
I am absolutely green with envy! I wanna go! How much does something like this cost -- snowshoeing and staying in the backcountry hut and the wonderful dinner and all? Great story!
Matthew Graham
February 8, 2002
Here's prices on the hut from Snowshoe's Web Page.

For an extend stay in the wilderness, take a trip to the Sunrise Backcountry Hut. You can get there under your own power, or take snowmobiles out. Either way, our hut master will serve up a gourmet dinner before you head back to the lodge. Of course, you may decide you don't want to go back. No worries, the hut sleeps 12-14 people and breakfast is as good as dinner.

Lodging at the Hut
One Room or Loft - $89 (midweek) / $109 (weekend)
Entire Hut - $295 (midweek) / $395 (weekend)
Breakfast & dinner with whole hut rental - $40 per person

Cross Country Skiing
Rentals with trail pass - $22
Daily Trail pass - $10

Rentals with trail pass - $22
Daily Trail pass - $10
Introductory Package (Saturdays 9am Jan. - Feb.) - $45; 2 day trail pass, 2 days snowshoe rental and goody bag.
James R. Patterson III
February 9, 2002
Yes, all that was written was true, this experience is a must for all outdoor enthusiasts. Either walking, hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, no matter how you get there, everyone needs to visit the Sunrise Backcountry Hut. The views from the hut are breathtaking, so be sure to bring a camera and lots of film. Last year at Snowshoe was my internship and while working in the Outdoor Adventure Program I became the Hutmaster, overseeing all activities at the hut plus many more. I enjoyed meeting all sorts of people from all walks of life. However as the mountain closed during the spring, I had to return home to graduate from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a degree in Leisure Service Management. Thank you Snowshoe for the experience, Thank you Matt for the article, and most of all Thank you Mike Valach for everything you did for me, especially helping me through my internship.
James R. Patterson III
Chuck Robertson
February 16, 2002
Just got back from Mardi Gras weekend at Snowshoe. Everything you say is true. There is nowhere better for good skiing,scenery, and people. Conditions were great, and like the sound of checking out the Back country Hut. Thanks for the great article, and thanks to Snowshoe. Can't wait to go back for the Mountaintop Beach Party!!

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