Ruminations of a Long-Time D.C. Area Skier: Part 1 of 3 6
Author thumbnail By Jim Kenney, DCSki Columnist

My favorite form of recreation is skiing. I’ve had ski fever for over 30 years. When autumn comes around I’m practically obsessed with thinking about it. Unfortunately, like most Mid-Atlantic recreational skiers my ratio of doing it to thinking about it is waaay out of whack. This commentary is, more than anything, probably an indication that I’ve spent too much time pondering the beauties of the sport and too little time partaking in them.

I was born in suburban, Maryland, moving around a bit as a youngster but ultimately settling in Northern Virginia since 1966.

My winter sports perspective is very much one of a D.C. Skier. I first went skiing during the Christmas Holidays of 1967 at Blue Knob, Pennsylvania at the age of 14. My earliest skiing memories are of trying to learn how to plow on 5 inches of truly “Tonya Harding” quality boilerplate ice on a beginner trail at Blue Knob. I guess the ice was their idea back then of a durable man-made snow surface. It actually had a blue tint and I thought that’s why they called the place Blue Knob.

The beginner area was serviced by a Poma (platter) lift that could turn you into a permanent choirboy on those cold mornings when the pole springs were frozen in place. They still had some old barracks on the top of Blue Knob back then, remnants of a 1950’s USAF air traffic radar station. They used them as very tacky motel rooms and my family stayed in them a couple of times. If you’ve been to Blue Knob lately you’ll notice they still employ a hint of the barracks school of architecture.

I think my parents, at least in part, encouraged us to ski at that point to keep my older three siblings and I involved in a family activity we could all enjoy together. It worked and much to their credit, my folks successfully took up the sport themselves in their late forties after tiring of watching us kids from the sidelines for a season or two.

Back in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, skiing was a real growth industry. Triple Olympic gold medallist Jean Claude Killy of France was sort of the Tiger Woods of the era, attracting lots of folks to a sport they hadn’t tried before.

The hot spots I frequented for local skiing then were Charnita (now Liberty), Roundtop, and Bryce Mountain. Though still a fine children’s and beginner’s area, Bryce has been somewhat eclipsed by newer resorts in recent years. Liberty and Roundtop remain key venues for the local D.C. skier/boarder action, with Whitetail joining the mix in the past decade.

An hour or two further away, other popular old areas like Seven Springs, Canaan Valley, Wisp, Blue Knob, and Camelback offer additional options for Beatles-era skiers. Most of these resorts were every bit as crowded on prime winter weekends as they are now. In fact, perhaps more so, because many of the additional local areas we now have access to, such as Massanutten, Wintergreen, Whitetail, Winterplace, Snowshoe, Timberline, and Hidden Valley, didn’t come along and absorb a lot of the skier traffic until years later.

It’s well known that the number of active skiers nationwide has been fairly constant over the last 10 years. I’m sure that if someone could quantify it, we would all be pleased to know that there are now many more miles of available ski runs per number of participants than 30 years ago. I can remember back in the 1970’s when the lines for the two main double chairs at the bottom of Mambo Alley at Blue Knob, Pennsylvania would each stretch endlessly on many Saturday and Sunday afternoons. It took about an hour or more to muddle through them.

As America’s ski industry has downsized or consolidated in recent years, we’ve had a few local casualties too. In the 1970’s I once visited a short lived northern Virginia ski area called something like “Seven Devils” near Shenandoah National Park. For quite a few years there was a small, now defunct, Maryland area called Braddock Heights. It operated near I-70, close to where Whitetail is now.

You might have been one of the few to try Cherokee ski area west of Warrenton, Virginia during the few brief seasons it operated around a decade ago. It became a victim of inadequate cash flow and a succession of warm greenhouse-effect winters. You can still see Cherokee’s trail cuts off to the left as you head west on I-66 near Linden, VA.

By 1972 my folks were so hooked on skiing that they had a small vacation home built a mile from the Blue Knob ski area. For the next dozen years I held a season pass at Blue Knob. To put it kindly, it’s always been a bit of a diamond-in-the-rough. In my opinion it has some of the best, varied, and most challenging terrain this side of Hunter Mountain, NY. It just takes a good natural snow year to access it all and gain an appreciation of it.

I really cut my “skiing teeth” on the mixed bag of terrain there. Blue Knob is in a semi-remote part of western Pennsylvania and has never been run by an owner with deep enough pockets. In between lift breakdowns, a catastrophic lodge fire, snowmaking limitations and managerial ineptitude, you had to take what you could get.

For much of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s I skied 25 to 50 days a winter, most of it at Blue Knob, learning all about bumps, steeps, ice, powder and even a few glades. I’ve skied all over the US since then, including many mega-resorts, but Blue Knob will always be my point of reference for how tough or cold or good a ski experience can be.

Go on to Part 2
About Jim Kenney

Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.

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Reader Comments

December 12, 2000
I live in Portland, Oregon and could ski literally every day of the year if I had the desire/resources.
December 13, 2000
A wonderful article Jim. I am late in enjoying it. However, Jim like your upbringing the wife and I have 6 kids we try to take skiing each year. I'm sure your memories are fond as mine are. We have "done" snowshoe X 2, are going to 7 Springs this season and would like to know if you would recommend Blue Knob. We live in Tidewater, VA and it appears Blue Knob is as close as any of the larger resorts. Kids range from 9-14 and all enjoy skiing and/or boarding however, apres entertainment for them is always a consideration. Your comment please. Thanks Doug Murray
December 15, 2000
Glad you enjoyed article Doug, possibly more to follow. I have a sister in Oceanview. She and her family usually hit Wintergreen at least once a winter. They have indoor pool and other amenities. It's close to the Tidewater area (I'm assuming that's where Tidewater, Va is). Blue Knob is a real roll of the dice as far as conditions for wilder/tougher terrain and they have little off-slope activities. Snowshoe and Seven Springs are better for that. 2-mile long Mambo Alley intermediate trail at Blue Knob is usually a kids favorite.
January 8, 2001
jesse or others, what is best skiing in oregon? How good is Mt. Bachelor? What are towns of Bend and Sunriver like? Good places to visit or live?
March 9, 2001
Mt. Hood/Timberline is probably the best place to go for Summer skiing in Oregon. I am referring to the Timberline ski area.

I was there in July of '96, and I had a very enjoyable time camping on the side of Mt. Hood in balmy weather. At night, it dropped to the 70's, but the day temps got up to 100F on the slopes. They had so much snow that there was simply no end in sight to their season anyway. They don't make any snow, and they don't need to.

The summer area (Palmer snowfield) is closed during most of the Winter, but things start to crank up around April/May. 100F temps aren't likely, and it can be 40F (and stormy) in July just as easily. This is a hotspot for professional skiers in the summer months, and most people on the hill are either training or reps for ski equipment companies.

If you go earlier season, try Bachelor. Mt. Hood's PRIME season is Summer. They have a huge vertical of about 3500', but only about 2000' is open at any given time (the bottom part in Winter, the top in Summer).

The Palmer snowfield is supposed to be Advanced, but I would say that it is more intermediate in grade. Only half is available to the public during summer months, with the other half reserved for racing/mogul training lanes.

If you go there, I would suggest comparing airfares to Seattle (SEA) and Portland (PDX). Portland is sometimes triple the price, and with drive times of 5 hours and 2 hours (respectively), you will want to choose carefully.

The lodge/hotel itself is amazing, and many of the outdoor scenes from 'The Shining' were filmed at Timberline lodge.

They are open for skiing year-round, with the exception of about 3 weeks in September for 'housecleaning'.
Ed Kenney
February 8, 2004
Jim I noticed you glossed over the part about the three Kenney sibling beginners in late 1960 having only only one downhill speed. .. breakneck. I think all the other skiers were real happy when we finally learned how to turn.

Ski and Tell

Snowcat got your tongue?

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