It's a little weird, though not completely unheard of, to arrive at a ski area, put your skis on, and immediately ski down the mountain. Going from zero to hero right after breakfast sort of makes you wish you’d remembered to buckle your boots.
But that's how it is at Snowshoe Mountain, West Virginia, one of the largest ski areas in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern U.S., with a vertical drop ranging between 800 and 1,500 feet. For anything south of Vermont and east of Colorado, that's pretty darn good. After opening in 1973 by some ski-resort developers who were keen on turning the nearby logged forest into a ski area, Snowshoe has steadily expanded. Ostensibly, they built the 'base' at the top of the mountain to take advantage of the views from its 4,848-foot elevation.
What they may not have foreseen was how the wind attacks the summit. Stories are told about the old days when all the resort had were a few battered lodges, with ski bums taking refuge in laundry rooms. Today, there is a full village with several hotels and restaurants, most of which came after Snowshoe's acquisition by Canadian resort developer Intrawest in 1995.
Due to its high elevation, Snowshoe often gets the best snow in the region. But that's been a challenge this winter, as the ski area has tallied just 83 cumulative inches, less than half of its yearly average of 180. Where there isn't snowmaking, which is extensive, the ground is bare. (The resort picked up several inches this week, however, as Winter Storm Stella moved in over the East.) That's far better than most areas in the Southeast, where many ski hills are seeing historically low snowfall. North Carolina's Appalachia Ski Mountain, for instance, has just 16.5 inches of snow this season. The subject of climate change was a frequent topic, an interesting dynamic given the role of West Virginia's coal country in the recent election.
"I'd hate to have to agree with Al Gore," one man lamented.
Last week, there was still plenty of snow at Snowshoe, as most trails were open and full of happy skiers on spring break. From the central part of the village, several trails spill off from the top of the Ballhooter high-speed quad, named after the logger whose dangerous job it was to roll logs down steep hills. Our first run was down a mellow pitch called Skip Jack, which afforded views of the lake at the base of Ballhooter. It's always exciting to ski in a new place: You have no idea where you're going, you just let gravity take over and trust your skis.
Skip Jack rolled past deep, dark forests of spruce and deciduous hardwoods, whose trunks and bare branches held a hauntingly gray color. The snow wound around these forests like white snakes, delivering creamy and smooth spring turns. As we picked up speed to the lake, arms outstretched, we felt the kind of exhilarating sensation you might get from skiing in a different country. Skiing the Southeast for the first time, as I was, it might as well have been.
Next up was a classic called the Widowmaker--straight, fast, direct fall line, where many of the local races are held. I chased a skier named Andy Rice. Rice, 29, is a Presbyterian minister in nearby Hillsboro, a town with less than 300 people. He's also a coach on the Snowshoe Race Team ("Fear the bunny!"), and arced every turn like he was bashing imaginary gates.
But the true gem of Snowshoe, the terrain that sets it apart from all other ski areas in the South, is called Western Territory. To get there, you have to take off your skis, walk across the road, put your skis back on again (remember, you're still at the summit), and push off. Designed in the early 1970s by the inimitable Jean-Claude Killy, Cupp Run drops 1,500 vertical feet over 1.5 miles. It felt like something you'd ski at Park City, Utah: a long groomer, with the occasional steep rollover, with thick trees on either side. I was surprised how it just kept going and going. At the bottom, we loaded the Western Express and nodded to the scruffy, tatted-out liftie who was blaring old-school Metallica.
We took two laps on Cupp Run before it started to rain. In just minutes, I was completely soaked, our cue to head indoors. But the rain did nothing to dampen the spirits of the other skiers. That afternoon, I watched families and little kids skiing in the foggy downpour. They traveled here from long and far. Rain or shine, they were going to their turns in. Southeastern skiers, I learned, are a resilient bunch, and Snowshoe gives them what they need.
Lift ticket: $59 and up, depending on time of season
What to eat: Nick B's is a small wooden shack near the top of the Ballhooter chair. International house music and homemade empanadas (among many other freshly baked goods) make Nick B's a must-stop. Gotta try the chimichurri sauce. If you can't find a spot here, try the reuben sandwich at the Old Spruce Tavern.
Where to après: The Old Spruce Draft House offers craft brews from West Virginia, as well as the locally renowned 'Crawler,' a 32-ounce can of beer filled with any brew of your choice.
Where to stay: Snowshoe offers a range of lodging, from around $100/night and up, depending on time of year. We stayed in Expedition Station, which was built in 2005. The corner units have nice views, but if you're a light sleeper, you might hear the snowcats all night long.
What's up with cellular service? One of the most interesting aspects about Snowshoe is that your phone probably won't work here. That's because the entire eastern half of West Virginia is within what's known as National Radio Quiet Zone, which serves to protect frequencies from interfering with a giant radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in the nearby town of Green Bank. There is free wifi in the village, but you'll get nothing on the slopes. The refreshing result: Nobody at Snowshoe is on their phones. Instead, they're enjoying each other's company, and skiing.