Cold!!!!! My wife, Karen, and I finally returned to our favorite Pennsylvania Resort after two years to be greeted by frigid temps and bitter, strong winds that cut right to the bone. Thank goodness! On what would usually be a busy Sunday at the fabulous Elk Mountain, in the Endless Mountains north of the Poconos, the slopes were nearly empty. With temps in the teens, at best, and winds of 20-25 mph predicted, only the true cold weather lovers came out to play.
We drove up the previous night and stayed at the Lynn-Lee Bed and Breakfast, about a 25-minute drive from the slopes. Elk doesn’t have on site lodging. The closest inn is 2 miles away. But it, like all of the other closer inns and hotels, were booked solid for the weekend. We arrived at the B&B to find several other skiers sitting around the fire in the main living room. The smell of banana bread baking filled the air. Mmmmm. After checking into our cozy room, we joined the group and spent the evening talking, of course about skiing. They said that the conditions Saturday had been fantastic but the slopes had been packed. One guest, Ron, was on the ski patrol at Ski Roundtop. He and his wife, Chris, had come up to Elk for a change of pace. The other couple had a three-month old infant with them - a little girl, cute as a button with hair like Don King. Uh oh! I worried that our pricey stay at a quiet B&B would end up in a sleepless night listening to a baby cry.
We hit the sack around 11 pm. It was dead quiet all night.
We sat down to breakfast at 8:30 with the crew from the night before, plus two other guests. The Lynn-Lee house has four bedrooms. The baby sat in her mother’s arm and smiled and giggled. The other couple, also skiers, started right up talking about skiing. B&B’s have always been somewhat a conundrum for me. I love the charming rooms and I especially love a big breakfast with pancakes and waffles and quiche and French toast and everything that is bad for you. My usual breakfast at work is coffee and a donut or bagel. At home I just have cereal. So a big breakfast is a TREAT! But who wants to talk to people in the morning? Really??? Ugh. Morning isn’t a socializing time. It’s the time to read the paper and slowly ease into the day. Karen is even worse. She doesn’t like breakfast and her morning conversation consist of hrrmmphs and hand gestures.
The fresh coffee, however, perked us up and we fell into a good discussion about the various Pocono ski resorts. Breakfast included a fruit cup with fresh strawberries, banana bread, quiche and toast or biscuits. Karen and I are vegetarians and we passed on the bacon. The food kept coming out and breakfast went on F-O-R-E-V-E-R! I looked at my watch and it was already 9:30. Yikes! We needed to hit the slopes. And then our innkeeper Eleanor came out, pulled up a chair and joined the ongoing conversation. So I started thinking how am I going to escape. It was like trying to leave a party early. Just as I was about to say excuse me and step away, someone would ask a question. I finally used the old I’ve had too much coffee and I need to excuse myself line.
Thus, we left the inn at 10 am and arrived at Elk, parking in the second row of the lower lot at 10:25. A shuttle whisked us up to the main lodge where we geared up in the locker room and met up again with Ron and Chris. Karen and I FINALLY got on the slopes at 11 am.
Elk has 27 trails and each runs pretty much from the top to the bottom of the mountain - a thousand foot vertical drop. The trails are wide and long. It’s a mountain designed mainly for intermediate and advanced skiers. Other than the bunny hills, there are only three beginner trails. There are ten blue slopes and eleven black slopes. All but a few are impeccably groomed. The resort regularly wins awards for grooming and was voted the Best in Pennsylvania for the 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 seasons by Ski Magazine. The un-groomed trails offer mogul mayhem for those who love a good thigh pumping work-out.
The lifts at Elk are old school technology: side by side doubles on the front half of the mountain, near the lodge, and a quad and an adjacent double on the back, sunnier, side. We headed over to the sunny-side after the 7 minute chair ride to the top. The connecting trail off the lift was right dead into the wind. When I put out my arms I’d come to a stop. Fortunately most of the trails are lined with tall Norway spruce trees to block the wind. We first ventured down the blue Wissahickon trail. What a joy! Great packed powder and no one on it. We got down to the quad lift and had to do it again. After a second run we tried another blue, the winding Kickapoo, and then moved onto the advanced slopes Wyalusing and Tecumseh. These two are only a little steeper than the intermediate runs. After an hour, we decided to try the front half of the mountain to get out of the wind at the top. I had bought a new jacket on overstock.com. It was billed as a snowboarding jacket. The wind sliced right through the center even though there was a flap covering the zipper. The black Lackawana trail returned us to the front lift area. We had discussed doing several more runs before lunch. But on the way up we decided we needed a break from the cold. We swooshed down the steep and straight Susquehanna slope back to the front.
Still being quite full from breakfast, we stopped in the bar and ordered hot chocolates and an order of nachos to munch on - a pretty nasty combo now that I come to think about it. The nachos came out drenched in cheese sauce in a bowl the size of a bath tub. Needless to say, we only made a small dent in nacho-world. Karen felt that she had fallen back into some bad habits. So she signed up for a two hour private lesson at 1:30. I tried my hand at a few other black runs on the front side. Iroquois was steep-steep-steep and scary fast. Had to do it again. Then I tried Mohawk, less steep, but still way fast. With the cold air starting to wrap its grip around and through me, I moved over to the long mogul run Tunkhannock. I’m not that good of a mogul skier and the workout usually warms me up. While riding up the quad lift earlier that morning we had seen plenty of carnage on Tunkhannock. I thought to myself watching one guy bounce sideways across the bumps “this guy has no business on that trail.” There is a cut-off back to a groomed trail about a quarter of the way down. I planned to use it if the going got too rough. I, however, fell into a nice rhythm down the first section of bumps and kept to the path. Then it got steeper. I stopped halfway down to catch my breath. Then it became even steeper and the bumps turned into narrow, shear ice mounds. I’d do two or three and have to stop. On the last quarter of the trail I gave up and bounced sideways across the slope going back and forth from one side to the other, not even attempting to connect a line down the hill. This guy has no business on that trail!
After a few more runs down Wyalusing and Tecumseh, I met up with Karen at the lodge and we ducked in to warm up for fifteen minutes. Her instructor had told her that she was skiing a little knock-kneed and needed to roll her knees more when turning. Part of this may have been due to her forgetting to pack her knee brace for the trip. She has a torn meniscus and uses a patella brace to stabilize her knee cap when skiing. We finished the day with a few runs on the back side and a couple more on the front, ending the day at 5:00. We planned on an early dinner at the lodge restaurant. Sunday night is all you can eat Pasta Night, with salad and breadstick, for only $8.99… an easy choice for vegetarians. However, the pastas that night were spaghetti in meat sauce with meat balls and a shrimp linguini. So we ate at a little Mexican place in a strip mall near the interstate that had been recommended by Eleanor the innkeeper. The restaurant, Mamasita’s, served the best guacamole dip I’ve tasted in years. And the menu included an entire vegetarian section. Yay!
We returned to the inn and called our friend Mike, who lives near Allentown. He wanted to meet up on Monday if conditions were good. We agreed to meet at 9:00 the next morning. We arranged an early breakfast at 7:30 with Eleanor as we were the only guests staying on Sunday evening. Eleanor couldn’t simply give us cereal as I suggested. That wouldn’t do. After some discussion, we agreed on oatmeal, a fruit cup and pumpkin bread. Karen and I called it an early night.
We barely made it to the resort by 9:00 the next morning after eating our hearty breakfast, packing and checking out. The place was a ghost town and we parked in the upper lot next to the slopes. Mike had been waiting for us for about fifteen minutes. We geared up quickly and hit the slopes by 9:15. I checked the temperature at the guest service deck on the way out of the lodge - 8.6 degrees F. Another cold one.
Winds, however, were lighter and the temperature was forecasted to climb to 24 degrees, pretty ideal conditions when combined with the bright sunshine and blue skies. And like the day before, we started on the sunny side, warming up on the blue slopes and then taking Mike onto the advanced trails. We had the place to ourselves. Karen’s knee began to bother her. She sat out a run while Mike and I took another spin, zooming down the mountain. Karen joined us for a couple of more runs before we broke for lunch. To give Karen’s knee a rest, we took the green trail Tioga back to the front side. To make it more fun, and because the mountain was empty, we skied the green trail downhill racer style, only turning where the trail turned. It was a gas! Who knew you could have that much fun on a beginner trail?
Lunch consisted of cardboard-ish pizza, greasy fries and soda at the cafeteria. Eating healthy! I took off my boots and put them next to one of the heating vents to warm them up while I ate. The vent blasted out really hot air! When I went to put my boots back on the buckles were so hot that I couldn’t touch them without it burning. So much for that great idea. I was afraid of melting my gloves. So I balled up napkins to grip my boots while slipping my feet in. It was like stepping onto hot coals. Hot feet! Hot feet! Hot feet! I yelled as I bounded out to the snow to try to cool off my boots. Karen and Mike followed, laughing at me, and we took the front lift up to ski the steeper black trails. My feet, however, stayed warm and toasty the rest of the day even when my fingers became cold. Karen’s knee acted up again after a few runs and she sat one out. Then we all returned to the sunny side and skied the blues.
Since we had had so much fun contour skiing the green trail, we tried it on the serpentine intermediate Kickapoo. I came down to the bottom giddy as though I had just gotten off a roller coaster. On the way down, Mike had tucked deep to try to catch and pass me. He determined that I must have faster skis. We both wear the same size boot. Thus, we swapped skies for the next run. He tried my ‘piece of crap’ K2 “Two” 188s and I stepped into his Rozzy “TD 100” 170s. Both are intermediate models on the lower end of the spectrum. Mike is a couple of inches taller (at six feet) and outweighs me by about 15 lbs. He instantly noticed the faster speed of my longer skis. Still, he took his time while I raced down the trail. His skies slowed with even the slightest toe pressure and carved much tighter turns than mine. I enjoyed them, but preferred my trusty old Twos. I’d like to move onto a higher performance ski. But most all mountain intermediate and advanced skis I’ve tried didn’t differ much from my old crappy skis. And the really high performance models seem like too much ski for my ability. I wish I could combine a demo day with a half-day lesson to find a ski that I could grow into and also help me improve my technique. Oh well. Maybe some day.
Back into our own skis, we jumped onto the black trails following Karen and swooshed away in the happy afternoon sun. I’d been making count of our runs as we went along; Mike and I were at 19, Karen at 17. The midweek lift ticket is 40 bucks. Mike and I needed only one more to break 20 for two bucks a run. After our next trip down Wyalusing I announced that Mike and I had made 20 runs and Karen only need two more to join us in the twenty run club. Karen’s knee, however, was aching and she said she was done for the day. I implored her to ski a couple more to reach a goal of 20. She said “you’re picking a random number and then reaching it. How is that a goal?” It’s not random I explained. 20 is a nice round number. “T-w-e-n-t-y” I said with emphasis. She gave me that look she’s always giving me. Women, they just don’t understand these things.
We returned to the lodge via the green Tioga, again skiing it like downhill racers. Karen headed inside after we agreed to meet at 3:30 so we could hit the road by 4:00. Mike and I took the lift back up the mountain and sped down Iroquois twice in a row. We squeezed in a trip down Mohawk and arrived at the lift at 3:24, just enough time for one more. Thus we finished on Susquehanna with 25 runs. Woo hoo! What a fantastic day.
The drive back to DC only took 4 hours and 20 minutes, including two stops and we made it home in time to watch 24. (They need to put Jack Bauer on skis some day.)
So anyone who is used to the nearly four hour drive to Canaan, or the five plus hour drive to Snowshoe, should try Elk Mountain this season or next. There are inexpensive places to stay in Scranton with packages for lift tickets at Elk. It’s like going to Stratton or Mount Snow with only half the drive.
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.