DCSki columnist Jim Kenney continues with part two of “Ruminations of a long-time D.C. Area Skier.” Click here to read part one.
As a youngster my skiing exploits in the 1960’s and 1970’s were mostly local, with particular focus on Pennsylvania’s Blue Knob since my folks had a vacation home there for a number of years. In the 1980’s my parents sold their place at Blue Knob and with that tie broken, I began to take more frequent trips to other ski areas, locally and around the country.
I have favorites resorts, but to paraphrase Will Rogers, I never met a ski area I didn’t like. I’ve sampled the slopes at close to 50 U.S. areas, including almost all you could reach within a half-day drive of DC. I’ve also visited most of the areas in Vermont and many of the significant ones in New Hampshire, New York, Maine, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. When I take multi-day trips I usually try to ski at more than one area in a region.
As far as local favorites go, I’ll always be a fan of the natural potential of Blue Knob. You can actually get a feeling of exploration there when all their glades and more obscure trails are open. When it’s bad it’s bad, but when it’s good it’s very good.
I’ve only made two trips to Snowshoe, West Virginia, both many years ago. As the pre-eminent ski area in the Mid-Atlantic for the last decade, I’m quite curious to return, especially on a day when the newly expanded Western Territory is fully open (as it was for most of the winter of ‘99-00). In my past visits I found the eastern terrain of that mountain to be only on par with many areas closer to DC. However, from my additional Mountaineer State experience at Canaan Valley and Timberline, there is no doubt that the West Virginia ski areas consistently have the best snow conditions in the region.
Bryce Mountain near Bayse, Virginia (90 minutes from DC) is where my four kids (ages 7-16) like me to take them for local skiing. They find the terrain very manageable and the crowds often minimal. I find the lift prices a little less than at other local ski areas.
East of the Mississippi my favorite ski area is Killington, Vermont. I know it’s crowded and expensive, but it’s also huge and great for “one stop does it all” skiing. They might be boring for the vertically inclined, but those unique (for the eastern U.S.) 5-mile long blue trails at Killington, for example Great Eastern, are simply an intermediate skier’s delight. A couple of years ago I introduced my kids to those trails and it was like rediscovering the joy of Christmas through the eyes of a child.
If there was a sleeper in my eastern experiences I would say it was Wildcat, near Mt. Washington, New Hampsire. It can be god-awful cold there, but it has the best scenery in the east with Mt. Washington and Tuckerman’s Ravine just across the valley staring you in the face all day. It also has 3 or 4 distinct and really enjoyable old-fashioned ski trails, about 2-3 miles in length, winding down a drop of 2,000 vertical feet. These cruisers have interesting changes in pitch and direction and are quite a contrast to the Colorado-style superwide, straight-down-the-fall-line runs that gained popularity throughout the country in the 1980’s. Those types of expansive runs are not especially environmentally “green” and in the east have come to represent a heavy snowmaking liability during mild winters.
Wildcat also has enough bumps and glades to keep a double black diamond skier busy for a couple of days. There are even some extraordinary backcountry opportunities at Wildcat for telemarkers and cross-country skiers.
I also had a memorable 5-day visit to Smugglers Notch, Vermont in the late 1980’s. I was invited to ski there by a friend. It turned out to be a more interesting mountain than I had expected. The place is famous as a family area with a kid-friendly beginner’s mountain and lots of slopeside condos, but they also have 2,600 feet of vertical over some serious terrain, including some steep glades that would challenge the best. I skied down a 50’ frozen waterfall/cascade and also caught a great, uncrowded powder day there, the thought of which still brings a smile to my face.
In the west I’d have to say the Aspen area is my favorite. I have not seen a better combination of three really significant and beautiful ski mountains (Ajax, Snowmass and Aspen Highlands) within 10 miles of each other; plus there is the outrageously interesting (and pricey) shops, restaurants, bars and ambiance of the town of Aspen. In addition to great snow and terrain, during one visit I saw a motion picture being made one day and met or observed several celebrities on other days. A typical 7-day ski vacation will not seem like enough time to take in all of this.
I would hardly call them sleepers, but I’d sure like to get back and explore more of Snowbird and Alta, Utah. These two resorts are side-by-side and their only known snow conditions are packed powder or fresh powder. It’s a freak of nature that the alpine-like canyon they share is only 30 minutes from the dry, flat desert terrain of the Salt Lake City airport.
I am curious about Whistler in Western Canada, but my final skiing frontier is most definitely Europe. I have never skied there, but I visited some of the major alpine resort areas on an extended summer European vacation with my wife some years ago. The Alps impart a majestic visual effect that exceeds anything I’ve seen even in the American West, basically because the valleys are lower and the mountain tops are higher. The vertical differences are often 10,000 feet or more.
From the sidewalks of Zermatt the view of the Matterhorn is one of the most awesome natural sights I’ve ever laid my eyes on. It seems to block out a third of the sky. In my dreams I envision:
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.