It wasn’t exactly agony or ecstasy, but something similar when I took my family to Wintergreen Resort over the weekend of February 4-5, 2006. We experienced two days of skiing that were polar opposites. Saturday was rainy, 45 degrees, and most foul. Sunday was sunny, 29 degrees, with blue skies and cotton candy clouds. Sunday also featured the incredible restorative powers of the omnipotent Wintergreen snowmaking system.
Our trip started with a pleasant and mostly dry three hour drive from the Washington, DC suburbs to Wintergreen via I-66, Route 29, and I-64, but as soon as we started the final five mile climb to the sprawling summit complex a heavy rain set in. It was the rain that was the source of our sorrows on Saturday, not any fault of the resort. In fact, Wintergreen had about 15 runs open with a soft, but not unpleasant surface. Each major chair lift, Highlands Express six passenger, Blue Ridge Express six passenger, and Big Acorn Quad serviced a variety of trails with minimal lines. That made the available skiing product very acceptable and the hardy members of our group managed to get in about three or four hours of snowriding during the course of the day. It was just those dang rain showers, from a light drizzle to a heavy downpour, that put a damper on our outdoor fun. As we left the mountain around 4:15 p.m. we even saw a few dim flashes through dark clouds and later learned that the entire mountain was closed down around 5 p.m. due to lightning danger.
I’m usually all about terrain, lifts, and snow conditions when I undertake a day on the slopes, but one thing about a really foul weather day, it will teach you a little appreciation for the indoor infrastructure at a resort. Wintergreen is definitely a RESORT, and fortunately for us on Saturday it delivered a myriad of facilities to feed, entertain, and comfort while evading the rain. My wife and I brought five teenagers in our group and between them they reconnoitered many of the slopeside options by the end of the day, including:
Fortunately, Sunday morning ushered in a beautiful change in the weather with clear visibility allowing all of us to refocus on the equally impressive on-slope aspects of Wintergreen. Sometime during the night a cold front crossed through the area and temps dropped sharply. Wintergreen did not get any natural snow, but they got something far more practical for mid-Atlantic skiing and snowboarding: the onset of an extended period of below freezing weather. The relatively high elevation of Wintergreen’s ski terrain, approximately 2,500-3,500 feet above sea level, presents one of the more dramatic temperature islands in our region. It can often be 15-20 degrees (Fahrenheit) colder around the slopes and summit resort complex than in the nearby lowlands.
On Sunday morning the TV weatherman reported 21 degrees at Wintergreen and 36 degrees just 30 miles east in Charlottesville. Wintergreen’s 100% computerized York snowmaking system was on full blast, all over the mountain, all day on Sunday and that meant a fresh layer of snow covered much of the mountain by the time we hit the slopes at mid-morning. In a crazy mid-Atlantic way, natural snow has almost become obsolete at Wintergreen. Given sufficient cold temperatures they can transform the mountain in a few days, maybe even a few hours, all the while leaving ski area access roads dry as a bone.
My son, age 15, has become my advanced terrain ski partner. On Sunday the two of us wasted no time in hightailing it over to the Highlands Express. This is Wintergreen’s newest lift and is a six-pack speed demon rising 1,003 vertical feet over a half dozen of the lengthiest and most challenging trails on the mountain. We made repeat runs down Upper Cliffhanger and Wild Turkey. Due to the recent wet and warm conditions neither had many moguls, so high speed cruising was the order of the day. Cliffhanger was especially sweet with the snowguns blasting fresh snow on the full length of this easy black diamond run. The confidence building layer of manmade mid-Atlantic white magic put me in touch with my inner rhythm and I felt like I was on the dance floor back at the summit nightspot, The Edge. I gladly wiped the spray off my goggles every few hundred yards.
After a while my thighs began to cry and we moved closer to the summit to cure the curiosity my son had about the sizeable Wintergreen Terrain Park. It was quite popular on Sunday and contains some nice features including a pair of huge hits and three or four rails, one mounted atop a partially buried old Volkswagen Beetle like a metallic Mohawk hairdo. We made several passes through the Park area as I taught my son that there is no fool like an old fool when it comes to mistimed jumps. It’s best to be on your game here because the Park is in a showy location in the upper heart of the mountain next to lifts, lodges, and condos. It is served by its own little fixed grip triple chair and the six passenger Blue Ridge Express (410’ vertical).
Later we joined my youngest daughter who had spent much of the day trying snowboarding for the first time. She seemed to get the knack of it by early afternoon. Her hangout at Wintergreen’s Potato Patch learning area was conveniently located at the top of the slopes next to the rental building and many dining and rest-stop options.
At 2 p.m. the kids and my wife headed off for an important two hour appointment at The Plunge, Wintergreen’s 900 foot tubing park. This is a very impressive tubing operation with ten lanes, 100’ vertical, a dedicated magic carpet lift, and its own day-lodge, “The Lookout,” with a dining area offering tremendous views of the Blue Ridge mountains.
While the family was taking The Plunge I made a last tour of the terrain served by the Big Acorn Quad chair (525’ vertical). This is a distinctive trail pod set off to the skier’s right from the rest of the mountain. Featuring about six short but sweet intermediate and advanced runs, this not-to-be-missed area provides nice variety to the main ski hill and valuable crowd relief on busy days. I took a final few plunges of my own on the fresh manmade snow covering a nicely tilted trail in this area called Sunrise.
As our terrific ski and tubing day came to an end we made a rendezvous at our car parked in The Lookout lot. What a find this spot is for day trippers! Park here and you are steps from the slopes of Big Acorn (with linking trails to the main ski area) and the ticket window at The Lookout lodge. There is also a free shuttle that will carry you to/from the summit complex above the main ski hill if necessary. This was my first visit to Wintergreen in about eight years and I’m not sure if it was the rainy day before or the Superbowl game after, but crowds were lighter than I expected. We headed home feeling ecstatic about a super Sunday, while the memories of a soggy Saturday faded like the Blue Ridge sunset beyond The Lookout Lodge.
An aside about snowmaking:
Skiing throughout the mid-Atlantic over the last 40 years I’ve been able to observe some of the best snowmakers in the world. Wisp, Seven Springs, Snowshoe, etc. come to mind. But this two year old York system at Wintergreen may rank right at the very top. On Sunday it seemed like 80% of the entire massive system operated for all or most of the day, even as temps rose to the 25-30 degree range. Over a 12 hour period during Saturday night conditions went from rain-drenched slush to relatively dry loose snow on many trails. I’m not sure it was even groomed. The surfaces my son and I enjoyed from Upper Cliffhanger to the far side of the mountain on Sunset seemed more like freshly cut-up natural snow. Skiing while snowmaking is underway at barely below freezing temps can sometimes be unpleasantly moist, but the slopes were in such need of new cover and the quality of the product was so good that it was a pleasure to “run the guns” on Sunday.
Some fascinating information can be gleaned from the York Snow Inc. web site, providing details on the type of 100% computerized system employed at Wintergreen. Basically, 315 snowguns are mounted on towers about every 120 feet over all 125 acres of the trail layout. Electronic probes that measure temperature and humidity in various locations on the mountain (approximately one probe for every 5-7 guns) are linked to a computer providing continuous control of gun operations. Start up to full capacity can be accomplished in a matter of minutes, while requiring half the overall crew of conventional manual systems. The automated system is activated by the touch of a screen. The computer then selects which areas are to be covered with snow, at what settings the guns will operate, and their order of priority. 100% of system capacity can be utilized at all times. Every gun can be set at its optimum capacity or the operator can intervene to produce a maximum amount of snow at predetermined priority locations.
As I type this several days after our visit I believe Wintergreen has been making snow almost around the clock since we left. A lady on the Big Acorn chairlift told me that it costs the resort $4000 per day to run the system. I can’t confirm that, but I know one thing, you get what you pay for! I encourage you to check out Wintergreen’s snowmaking results for yourself.
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.