On Sunday, January 21, 2007, I made the two hour drive (approximately 100 miles) west from the DC area via Interstates 66 and 81 to Bryce Resort in Basye, Virginia. I brought my high school age son and my two college age daughters with me. We had a fine wintry time skiing on a combination of man-made and natural snow. Bryce had all terrain open except for one minor trail for our visit and it was great to feel Old Man Winter back on the job.
When we arrived around 9:15 a.m. the temperature was about 20 degrees and the snow guns were blasting away. As I took my first chair lift ride a variation of actor Robert Duvall’s line from the film Apocalypse Now came to mind, “I love the smell of snowmaking in the morning.” We watched a Sno-Cat groomer putting the finishing touches on a nice fall line run called White Lightning. It was the last significant run on the mountain yet to open since winter returned after MLK weekend.
A short while later the guns were shut down just as a medium-to-heavy natural snow began to fall. It continued snowing for the rest of our visit making for a mandatory-goggle-day on the mountain. Gotta love that, after the heck we’ve suffered through over the last month in the mid-Atlantic.
In many ways, Bryce Resort is a classic Mom and Pop ski area in the best tradition of New England, or perhaps I should say Bavaria. The ski operation has been managed for decades by the Locher family, originally from southern Germany. Young and race trained Ryan Locher is the current Mountain Manager of the ski area. His dad Horst is Director of Skiing and his uncle Manfred is Director of Ski Operations. Horst and Manfred immigrated to the area in the 1960’s. A large percent of their skiing and snowboarding clientele are families and property owners at the year-around resort, while day trippers like my group are welcomed to the country club type environment.
The experience, energy, and dedication of the core management, along with a strong supporting cast of snowmakers, instructors, patrollers, and base area employees are the secret to Bryce Resort’s success in the face of every curveball Mother Nature can throw in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains. After talking to the Lochers and some of their staff I could tell all took great pride in keeping the area open continuously since early December despite an unprecedented warm spell from mid-December to mid-January when temperatures averaged 10-20 degrees above normal.
Sunday, however, was all about the return of winter and great skiing. Although we never saw much in the way of lift lines and had lots of elbow room on the slopes, the mountain was a small beehive of well-organized activity. Though diminutive in size (8 runs/500 vertical feet), Bryce Resort has a great heritage of ski racing. Even with the difficult recent weather they successfully hosted Mid-Atlantic Collegiate USSA Giant Slalom and Slalom races on January 20 and 21. Ski and snowboard racers from Duke, UVA, ASU, VPI and JMU were running gates all Sunday morning on the well prepared Bootlegger trail.
While the college racers were doing their thing on Bootlegger we saw several contingents of Bryce’s large, local Youth Ski Team working with their coaches on the intermediate Revenuer’s Run. Bryce Resort is what I call a terrific feeder-hill generating youngsters who will be ski and snowboard enthusiasts for years to come, thus making a vital contribution to the future of snow sports.
Has-beens like myself enjoy the place too. Around 10:30 a.m. my son and I got first tracks (well, really about 9th and 10th tracks) when Ski Patrol dropped the ropes on the newly opened White Lightning trail. Bryce Resort may have an old time atmosphere, but the snowmaking and grooming are state of the art. White Lightning went down smoothly with a cool, refreshing aftertaste chased by a few inches of natural.
I took turns riding Bryce’s two mostly empty base-to-summit double chairs with my son and daughters. All of us enjoyed the good grooming and deepening new snow. At noon, however, I found myself alone on a chair as the bells from the slopeside Our Lady of the Shenandoah church chimed a nice rendition of the 19th century folk song Shenandoah. My late Mom loved that kind of music and took me skiing several times at Bryce when I was a boy. January 21st was her birthday. It wasn’t the heavily falling snow that gave me chills and watered my eyes on that chairlift ride.
After lunch in the lodge at Bryce we noticed that rails, tables and a few other small terrain park type features had been set up near the base of the slopes. For the rest of the afternoon we saw and heard the thunk and clunk of boarders and twin tippers going at them while we boarded chairlifts. I hadn’t been to Bryce in a couple years and it was apparent that several new and user-friendly magic carpet lifts had been added to serve the beginner sections of the mountain. Bryce also has a tubing hill that was open for business on Sunday with its own carpet lift.
As the afternoon wore on the small on-slope crowd diminished to just a handful of us crazies. The college racers left along with many regular patrons as word got out that the roads back to civilization were turning treacherous. I made the only sensible choice: keep skiing while VDOT road crews do their job! By 3 p.m. the new natural snow made for a real blast on the lonely ski trails.
The slalom trail, Bootlegger, was now open to the public and we made about an hour’s worth of repeat runs down it. The three or four inches of natural mixed in with piles of loose man-made snow pushed around by the college kids made for some fun and challenge. Although it took us about an hour longer than normal when we headed back to Northern Virginia around 4:30 p.m., I didn’t mind a bit.
I’ve always appreciated Bryce as a great training hill for novices, intermediates, and young racers. But the historically warm winter that our region experienced this year highlights another strength of the area. Bryce’s compact layout and great management team enable it to make exceptionally rapid recoveries from adverse weather.
The bottom line at Bryce Resort: size isn’t everything. 500 feet of vertical on a mountain with great snowmaking, no lift lines, and below average lift ticket prices is not a bad deal compared to bigger, busier, more expensive mountains, especially when the trail counts at the big guys aren’t up to snuff yet.
To view Colleen Kenney interviewing Bryce’s Ryan Locher, click here.
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.