Firsthand Account: Snowshoe Mountain Resort
By Chris Gulla, a DCSki Reader

This is my fifth annual Snowshoe trip, in addition to a few other times I’ve been up there, and the first time I’ve written a review. I had a great time, which may be because I love skiing regardless, but this trip had some very good weather and conditions. The weather for our trip was some of the best we’ve ever had there.

What made this trip so enjoyable was that there was no wind until the last day, mostly sunny skies, contributing to beautiful views, and low temperatures. Cold temperatures really help the conditions of course, but if you have bad wind, it’ll be difficult and uncomfortable to ski. This weekend, we had a good combo with cold temps and no wind. In addition, the sun made it feel just a little warmer.

Unfortunately, most of this review will be worthless from a snow conditions standpoint, because of the new snow they are expecting, but some of this will be useful even with an additional foot of fresh powder.

The Drive

We left on Friday afternoon from the northern Virginia area. I prefer to drive up there during the day because of the difficult mountain roads and uncertain conditions. This year we had strong winds and some hard packed snow drifting over the roads once we got into the mountains, but I never needed to put the car into 4WD mode.

One of the groups in our party saw a 4WD vehicle spin out while driving on a straightaway, then try and make a U-turn through a large snowdrift, without success. This held up a line of cars, but no damage or injuries were apparent.

Since we had three cars in our party, I decided to survey the times and distances of three different routes. One was fastest, one was shortest, and the last one had the least mountain driving. Take your pick:

  <P><B>Fastest</B> (4:28 driving time from Rosslyn to Snowshoe
  base, and 250 miles)</P>

  <BLOCKQUOTE>
    <P>I-66 west to I-81 south, to rt. 275 west, just north of Staunton<BR>
    This rt. 275 is like a beltway around Staunton, and avoids the
    many lights and turns you need to take if you go through Staunton
    on 250<BR>
    275 to 250 west, just west of Staunton, then on to Monterey on
    250<BR>
    In Monterey, take a left to go south on 220 at the Texaco station
    (which is a good place for a break, gas, and food)<BR>
    Take 220 to 84 west, then 92 north in Frost<BR>
    92 hits 66 west, which goes though Cass, then hits the Snowshoe
    entrance</P></BLOCKQUOTE>

  <P><B>Shortest</B> (25 miles shorter than the fastest route,
  but 10 minutes longer)</P>

  <BLOCKQUOTE>
    <P>This route goes through the infamous speed trap in Wardensville,
    and is the route that the Snowshoe brochures tell you to take
    from DC<BR>
    I-66 west to I-81 south, to the 2nd exit on I-81, rt. 55 west,
    in Strasburg<BR>
    55 west to 55/220 south in Moorefield<BR>
    In Petersburg, stay on 55 as 220 branches off<BR>
    55 merges with 28 south<BR>
    Stay on 28 for a long way, then stay on 28 as 55 branches off<BR>
    Just after Thornwood, 92 merges with 28. Stay on 28/92<BR>
    Just after Greenbank, turn right to go west on 66<BR>
    66 west goes though Cass, then hits the Snowshoe entrance</P></BLOCKQUOTE>

  <P><B>Least mountain roads</B> (20 minutes longer than the fastest
  route, and 13 miles longer)</P>

  <BLOCKQUOTE>
    <P>This is the route that the Snowshoe brochures tell you to
    take from Richmond<BR>
    Take the fastest route to route 250 west from Staunton<BR>
    Instead of going all the way to Monterey, take a left to so south
    on 42 in Churchville<BR>
    Take 42 south to 39 west, in Goshen<BR>
    Take 39 west to 219 north, in Marlinton<BR>
    Take 219 north to 66 east<BR>
    66 east will hit the Snowshoe entrance in a few miles</P></BLOCKQUOTE>

The Weather

When we got up there on Friday night, it was around -5 degrees and very windy, making the unpacking process a somewhat chilly experience. We were dreading similar conditions the next day.

Saturday temps were indeed cold (two degrees below zero in the morning, and highs in the teens), but there was no wind and sunny skies. The only natural snow we saw were some flurries on Saturday afternoon.

The skies were overcast on Sunday and Monday, but there was no wind and the views were still great. We had temps in the mid to upper 20’s those days, and therefore did not see much snowmaking. Fog drifted around the top of the main side on Sunday morning.

Tuesday was the worst weather day. Temps were in the single digits, skies were cloudy, and there was some wind. On the Western Territory side, the wind was more constant, and whipping up the hill, making for low visibility, the “thousand needles in your face” effect, and deteriorating conditions, since the fluffy powder was being blown straight up and off the slopes. I had seen these conditions in years past, and knew that there was no relief in sight until the wind stopped. Since it was a travel day anyway, I sadly departed the Western Territory at lunchtime.

From what I heard, conditions on the previous Friday were very similar to Tuesday’s -; cold and windy.

Overall, I’d say the weather was pleasant, despite the low temperatures. We were all prepared for cold weather, and the lack of wind made the low temperatures a non-issue. The low temperatures made for better conditions because of increased snowmaking, and the visibility provided spectacular views every day, from Widowmaker and the Western Territory.

The Main Side Conditions

The crew groomed nearly all the slopes every day. The left half of Choker (looking down the mountain) was the only ungroomed run on the main side, forming that side’s only mogul run.

Packed powder and hard packed “near-ice” was the common theme, as the entire main side had consistent conditions. There was a little ice, and some spots with a few inches of powder, due to heavy snowmaking. In particular, the beginner slope Skidway had some nice powder, and it looked like they concentrated on dumping plenty of snow on the lower part of the mountain (lower Powder Monkey and Ball Hooter). I assume this was to prevent icing near the lift lines, the heavier-trafficked areas.

Widowmaker saw little snowmaking, which seems odd because that slope has the thinnest base, as evidenced by a couple of small brown spots. On Sunday there was some powder on the left side, so they may have done some snowmaking there Saturday night. However, that slope turned to ice later in the day each day, as did most of the steeper slopes.

Overall, the conditions were very good for all types of skiers, especially since there was little natural snow and so much grooming. The grooming is favorable to most skiers there, but noticed that large sheets of ice formed later in the day on steeper slopes. These ice sheets formed on Widowmaker, Grab Hammer, upper Ball Hooter, Knot Bumper, and a few other spots. Of course, it’s not easy to keep lots of snow on steep slopes, so my take is that given the lack of natural snow, those slopes could not have been in much better condition. I’m just unsure how the daily grooming affected the steep spots.

The storm that dumped a foot or so the previous Thursday didn’t hurt conditions, but I would’ve liked to see a few ungroomed trails.

The Western Territory Conditions

The back side saw plenty of snowmaking and grooming as well. The only part spared by the groomers was lower Shay’s, which was a minefield of bumps (heaven for us mogul hounds) until they were groomed flat Sunday night. At the bottom of lower Shay’s, pre-grooming, there was a professional-sized liftoff that I saw no one attempt at an interesting speed. Those people who can ski the bumps and like to perform aerials would’ve loved that one.

The two Western Territory slopes were a pleasure to ski all weekend, and there was never a lift line. My biggest complaint is the lack of ungroomed terrain. It seems like they could groom half the slope in wider spots (like Choker), leaving something for the mogul skiers to enjoy. Other resorts, such as Seven Springs, always have mogul fields.

The slopes were kept in good condition otherwise, mostly hard-packed and powder, with some ice and crud at lower Cupp and lower Shay’s, post-grooming. We were able to enjoy up to six inches of powder in less-steep spots where they aimed the snow guns and where the wind wasn’t able to blow the snow into the trees. Unless you ski right after a big storm, you won’t see better conditions there.

My only other complaint about the Western Territory, and it’s a minor one, is that the ladies rest room at the restaurant at base was out of order; $20 million in improvements and we can’t get a rest room with one toilet to work? This resulted in a substantial line at the men’s room for people who didn’t want to trudge over to the main side just for a rest room break. This is a minor annoyance, but worth mentioning.

Snowmaking

There was fairly constant, but relatively unobtrusive, snowmaking throughout our trip, except on Sunday, when warmer temps (upper 20’s) prevented snowmaking.

The only time I had a problem with the snow guns was when they opened them up on the traverses to and from Widowmaker (Hootenanny and Flume) on Tuesday. It was fairly impossible for beginners to ski these trails, and I’m guessing management got a few complaints. There’s probably a good reason for it, but I have to ask: why don’t they cover the traverses overnight and work on the main slopes during the day?

Also on lower Shay’s the guns were pointed against the wind, such that all the snow was blown into the trees. Better monitoring is needed over there.

As mentioned before, there was plenty of man-made snow on the lower slopes approaching the main lift areas near Powder Monkey and Ball Hooter. This served to slow traffic down, and avoided icy conditions at these high-traffic spots. I don’t remember such emphasis on the lower slopes in prior years, and think it’s a very good idea.

Lift Attendants and Ski Patrol

The only time we saw lines of more than five minutes was on Saturday. The crowds start to form at about 10:00, and last through about 3:30. Powder Monkey and Ball Hooter had lines of 15-20 minutes, and the other main-side lifts weren’t much better. Grab Hammer was open all day Saturday.

I have to mention that the lift line service was spotty. While we usually had the chair attendants assist with loading (which is an obviously physically demanding job), the line attendants were sometimes not what they need to be.

Whenever Ball Hooter had a crowd, the attendants there were effective and polite. This is a great service that can make a long lift line slightly more bearable, in addition to more effectively move people up the hill. The only problem with that lift was an incident where a skier fell while loading, and the attendant was a little slow to stop the lift. No injuries, but a few more seconds and the skier would’ve been hanging from the chair in a very uncomfortable position. During the rest of my trip, I always saw an attendant standing next to the stop button.

In contrast to the Ball Hooter attendants, those at Powder Monkey were complete slackers. In the morning (Sunday maybe), two older gentlemen were checking lift tickets but not directing traffic. Later in the day, only one of them remained, standing there doing nothing, while a long line formed. This lift requires that line attendants do their jobs: skiers come in from two sides, and the lift is centrally located, so that it gets heavy traffic. While there were no lines anywhere else, I had to stand for 15 minutes while one or two people rode up on each chair of this 3-person lift. Why is Snowshoe paying their attendants to stand around while lift lines form? Why do I see two people sitting in the lower booth, while we have two more outside? This is a poor reflection on skiers who are used to a higher level of service.

Because of smaller crowds, the Western Express never had a lift line. Widowmaker had a 15 minute wait at the worst, but that was only on Saturday and it was only off and on. Powderidge lift had a moderate-sized line, but the problem there is the novice skiers who have trouble loading and unloading. You can expect several stops during your ride up that lift. Grab Hammer is a good way to avoid the Powder Monkey line, if you intend to stay on the main side.

Ski Patrol was in force and had a high visibility. On Sunday, they were performing exercises on Cupp run for most of the morning. I never saw any accidents that required ski patrol, but I felt that any accident would have been quickly attended to. One odd problem here is that some regular skiers are wearing jackets that look like ski patrol jackets I’ve seen before, and so I was getting confused sometimes.

The People

As usual, people at Snowshoe came from all over; I met people from California, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Norfolk, and Richmond. Snowshoe is probably the closest decent ski area for people south of the D.C. area and west of Pittsburgh.

The age range contained kids down to the smallest tykes up to the grizzled vets. There weren’t many on either end of the scale, but they were there. One of the older skiers I spoke with on the lift had even been through an ACL operation, due to an accident at Park City, and had recovered to the point where she no longer needed a brace! This is a great story, providing hope for those of you who have been through major ski injuries.

As expected, most people skied on regular old skis. It was roughly 50-50 shaped and non-shaped, as many people are hanging on to their trusty old conventional skis. There were a few snowboarders out there, and several people skiing on the 50-70 cm. mini-skis. I’ve heard from skiers who have tried the mini-skis that they’re fun, although I can’t see them being stable at higher speeds. It seems that it’d be easy to learn, for those beginners hesitant to go right into conventional-length skis. I saw some telemark skiers also, but they’re still pretty rare.

I only heard about one bad “encounter” with a snowboarder, who plowed into three skiers on a beginner slope. I must say that the boarders seem more considerate as this sport matures. My biggest complaint in the past was that they tended to clog up the areas near the tops and bottoms of the lifts, as they mounted and unmounted their boards. But, this year the most annoying lift line crowding was by clueless skiers blocking the line entrances while they waited for the rest of their group. This is very annoying! Please do not do this.

The snowboarders can also be a little reckless and awkward as they dismount the lifts, as they are not strapped in, and my skis got run over a couple of times. This can be a problem for novice skiers, who sometimes panic in those situations, but more experienced skiers can overlook it.

I saw a few people trying to ski slopes where they shouldn’t have been, like at Knot Bumper, Widowmaker, and the Western Territory. The typical falls resulted, but I never saw anything bad enough to warrant ski patrol intervention.

One thing that I seem to see every year is people on Cupp Run at the end of the day, after they get their courage up. Unfortunately, the steep lower Cupp in the afternoon is typically icy, and so it’s even harder for these skiers. I had to run down to alert ski patrol one year, after witnessing a bad knee injury there, by an intermediate skiing down an icy lower Cupp. Intermediates beware the Western Territory in the afternoon! Warm up on the main side, then head over at 10:00. And do not try lower Shay’s until you’ve mastered lower Cupp.

Rentals and Lessons

The regular rental skis are Rossignol Super-Cut for type II skiers, or Regular Cut for type III skiers. A few people in my party had the rentals, and liked them for the most part.

However, the rear-entry boots they are renting left something to be desired. One person in my group had to exchange his boots, and still had problems with the new ones. For another person, the boots were defective but he didn’t want to exchange them because they still worked and he didn’t want to go through the hassle. These ill-fitting, rear-entry rental boots are old and need to be replaced. Inexplicably, the poles they gave out were too long as well.

Getting the rental equipment was not a problem, and took about 20 minutes on Saturday morning. Calling ahead for rentals does not seem to make much of a difference, as the staff is very responsive in both situations.

One person in my group was a rank novice, and took the “very beginner” class, with 7 or 8 others, from 10:00 until noon on Saturday. He enjoyed the class very much, despite seeing only the Skidder slope at the top of the mountain, and rated the instructor as very good (first question: “Anyone wearing jeans?”). As a matter of fact, he ended up enjoying this trip as much as anyone, even though he was skiing alone most of the time.

Accommodations

We stayed at Whistlepunk for the second year in a row. I like it because of the central location and the availability of a private outdoor hot tub, which we used every night. We had a two-bedroom unit on a middle floor. The beds were comfortable, the kitchens and bathrooms were stocked with the usual amenities, and the living area was plenty large enough for our group. We were missing a few small things, and the firewood was green (no kindling either) but overall, it was a fine place to stay.

I have found the condos at Snowshoe to be consistently high-quality, no matter which one you get, and Whistlepunk is no exception. I’ve not been to the lodges in a few years though.

I can’t speak for the restaurants at Snowshoe, as I prefer avoiding the crowds and eating at the condo. The one place I did visit a few times was Yodeler’s Pub, which is a quiet place to get a few drinks at the end of the day. There’s good service and a decent selection of drinks there.

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