My wife and I left Washington at 6:30 on Friday evening, hoping to drive straight to Timberline Four Seasons Resort. Hunger interrupted our journey around 8, forcing us to stop at the 24-hour Hancock Truck Stop for a bite. The truck stop featured a decent soup and salad bar along with your usual diner fare. I ordered a club sandwich and my wife, the chicken wings. Both meals proved tasty, but what was even more satisfying was the bill: soup, salad, soft drinks, and an entrée for two came to just $14.00.
I woke up early the next day for first tracks. As I rode the familiar Thunderdraft triple, I noticed that Timberline had groomed every open trail to perfection. The surface consisted of frozen granular covered with 4 inches of packed powder-perfect for cruising. I made my first run down Upper Almost Heaven. There is nothing in the world that compares to slicing through fresh corduroy first thing in the morning. On this day, it was just me, the trail, and lots of crisp blue sky. Even the 20 degree temperature and brisk wind didn’t faze me. Everyone who whines about Mid-Atlantic skiing should experience a morning like this one.
Before making my next run, I paused for a moment on the summit and gazed downwards: the Canaan Valley and the mountains surrounding it were still deliciously white from the recent snow. It could have been the heart of winter, but instead, it was late March.
I barreled down White Lightning, letting my skis rip because there was no one else on the trail to worry about. I then made a big hockey stop just yards from my condo. “Get up!” I pleaded with my wife, “The conditions are perfect and Timberline has more terrain open than on any of our earlier trips!” Darina, already up, put her boots on and joined me 15 minutes later. One of the truly wonderful aspects of owning a ski property is the flexibility it gives you. Last minute trips are the rule, not the exception. Slope-side access means that one person (usually me) can be out getting first tracks and the other, sleeping soundly. Meals, snacks, and drinks can be conveniently enjoyed without a time-consuming, not to mention expensive, trip to the lodge. Finally, if I get cold or the lift lines become unbearable, I just ski-in, throw some logs on the fire, and take a short nap.
On this weekend, however, lines were non-existent. The irony of March in the Mid-Atlantic is that resorts further west such as Snowshoe, Timberline, Wisp, and 7 Springs often offer more terrain and better conditions than on any other month of the season. Yet, many Washingtonians, for whatever reason, don’t want to ski.
Their loss and my gain! Darina and I averaged close to four runs per hour for the remainder of the day. I broke up my routine by taking a few runs on the NASTAR course at 1 pm. Cold weather kept the course fast throughout the afternoon, but also made it very icy. Not wanting to end my season with gate pole up my nose, I relaxed, and ran the course for fun. In essence, that’s what NASTAR is all about: just running the course and not worrying at all about times.
Mike Lamb from Atomic Skis set up a demo tent at 10 am, and I eagerly lined up to try the new 2002-2003 R-11s. Atomic makes a “free-ride” ski for terrain parks and a “ride” ski for all-terrain use, including off-piste. The R-11 is a ride model with an attitude: a ski designed to take on everything from moguls to deep powder. Mike suggested that I ski on 180s-skis 8 centimeters shorter than my Volkl G-31s. “Are you sure?” I asked him. “Trust me!” he replied.
Timberline’s bevy of groomers didn’t represent the best test bed for an all mountain ski. Nevertheless, I noticed a couple of things immediately about the R-11s. First, they could turn on a dime. Second, they were extremely light and easy to handle compared to my Volkls. Clearly, these skis would give me more endurance on a big mountain like St. Anton or allow me to negotiate Lower Shay’s at Snowshoe with ease. However, for the Mid-Atlantic, they might not be the boards for me. Why? Because they simply did not have the stability at high speeds on frozen granular that my Volkls have. I spoke to Mike about this issue and he suggested I come back the next day and try his favorite ski, the GS-II.
Sunday’s weather promised a warm-up in the afternoon, but morning conditions were frozen granular with a groomed loose granular frosting. I snapped into a pair of 180 centimeter GS-II’s, and my first impression was: “Wow, what pretty skis.” Their red color and big titanium boosters made them look like a ski version of the Porsche 911. I made demo runs down Almost Heaven, Thunderstruck, and White Lightning. The GS-IIs were also light, but much narrower and stiffer than the R-11s. I couldn’t believe how well the GS-IIs held their edge on frozen granular. They were absolutely bullet proof. I kept accelerating and accelerating and going lower and lower on my turns, and the edge just held itself to the surface like a good ice skate. Moreover, its lightness and shorter length made it easier to ski than my Volkls. This could be the perfect ski for Mid-Atlantic groomers and ice. To use a biking analogy, the GS-II rode like an upper end rode bike whereas the R-11, with its pronounced shape and flexibility, felt more like a top-of-the-line mountain bike. Different terrain does indeed demand different types of skis.
By my last run at 3 pm on Sunday, warm temperatures had made the lower slopes mushy and slow. Spring had definitely returned to Timberline. Rain forecast for this week may force the resort to close. On the other hand, Timberline still has an impressive surface. Yes, thin spots began to rear their ugly heads on Sunday, but there were hardly any bare areas. Only time will tell what lies in store for next weekend.
As for me, this will be my last firsthand report of the 2001-2002 season. I plan to suffer through warm months by turning up the air conditioner, flipping my gas log on, and watching Warren Miller videos.
Was it a winter of discontent? In looking at my lift tickets, I can unequivocally say no. Despite the seemingly endless spates of warm weather, I still skied for 26 days this season. Of that number, 17 were spent in West Virginia, 1 in North Carolina, and 8 in Austria.
I experienced my first day of the season at Snowshoe on December 22nd-the resort’s opening day. Snowshoe, in just a few cold days, managed to open trails on both the Snowshoe and Silver Creek areas. The resort later opened 100 percent of its terrain just 16 days later. How’s that for pulling a rabbit out of a hat? Arguably, Snowshoe offered better skiing than Vermont during the early days of winter because of its utterly fantastic ability to make snow.
Timberline never achieved 100 percent this year, but its snowmaking team worked doggedly from December through the end of February to get a majority of its trails open and to guarantee good skiing through the end of March. Over the next 2-3 years, the resort’s management hopes to double snowmaking. If this happens, the resort will be able to open much more terrain, much earlier during bad years such as this one.
Sadly, I never made it to Whitetail or Liberty this year, but from information gleaned from DCSki, it appears that both resorts offered some decent skiing in January and February. I hope Snowtime and all the other close-in operators will weather this season without too much financial pain.
Next year promises an El Niño winter. In short, expect colder than normal temperatures but less than normal precipitation in Mid-Atlantic ski country-great for resorts with robust snowmaking but not so good for those which rely heavily on natural snow. Joe Stevens, Snowshoe’s communications director, is very skeptical about El Niño. “Everything pointed to a back-loaded snow season this year. When is it coming? In May? If the El Niño forecast is correct, we’ll have 150 million gallons of holding water for snowmaking, need I say more.”
Whatever happens, DCSki readers and columnists will be out on the slopes reporting on the always wild, and sometimes wacky world of Mid-Atlantic skiing. Until next season, happy tracks.
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.