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.
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.