By Larry Abelman
Editor’s note: Larry Abelman wrote a popular column, “View From The Cave,” back in the late 70s and early 80s for The Mountain Times. Last winter, he took a trip down south to ski and shares the story here.
Growing up in D.C., skiing wasn’t really a subject that ever came up, unless you happened to have parents or friends that were into it. So it wasn’t until I visited a friend in the Air Force in upstate New York in the early 70s that I first skied. I hated my first day. It was snowy and cold and I was, of course, wearing jeans and rental equipment. I still remember the hour drive back to the Air Force base—it seemed to take forever, as I was so cold and wet. But I did persevere, tried the sport again with proper attire and on not such a cold and snowy day. Soon I was hooked. I used to do this three-day loop to ski: Blue Knob in west central Pennsylvania, then down to the Wisp on Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland and then down to Snowshoe in West Virginia, then back to D.C. I still remember at the Wisp there was a great weekday special. A room right on the hill, two meals and a lift ticket and all for $39.95. Wow!
A couple years ago, when I was starting to think about retiring after 25 years at Okemo Mountain Resort, I thought it would be really cool to redo that loop just for the heck of it. Of course I knew I would have to wait for a good snow year in the mid-Atlantic to make it worthwhile. Well, I retired May 31, 2013, and they got a big dump that next winter. So on Monday, March 3, 2014, I packed up my new car with everything I needed for a one week trip and headed out.
My first stop was about an hour drive south of Syracuse in Dryden, N.Y., to spend an evening with my good friends Steve and Denise. I had moved to Killington in September of 1977 and took a job at Basin Ski Shop. Steve moved up in 1979 and took a mechanics job, also at the Basin. We became good friends and have remained that way ever since. I still remember when he met Denise. Steve and I were having lunch at Charity’s and Denise was our server. For them it was “love at first bite.”
Ok, back to the journey. It was 7 a.m. on Tuesday, when I got on the road from Dryden heading down to Blue Knob in Claysburg, Penn. Almost five hours later I was driving up Blue Knob’s access road to the top of the mountain. Blue Knob is an upside-down mountain with all the facilities and parking on the top of the mountain at 3,146 feet.
Let me say something about the access road. It’s just over two and half cars wide, about three miles long and very winding. So the ride up was fine, although some of the curves were pretty hairy. Coming down was another story. The road was a bit wet and what I didn’t notice on the way up was the lack of guard rails on many of the curves coming down, with crazy dropoffs if you happened to go off the road. I can’t imagine coming down that road during a snow storm on a crowded day with other vehicles on the road.
Anyway, Blue Knob is an old time ski area. The base lodge is very rustic—very, very rustic. The lift ticket was $25. The rental department reminded me of the 60s for two reasons. Firstly, all the counters and the benches looked like they were that old but the first thing that I noticed was the smell of incense in the air. They actually burned incense to hide the smell of the ski and snowboard boots hanging to dry!
The mountain has a 1,072-foot vertical and has six or so, very very old chair lifts, only one of which was running. There is actually some nice cruising terrain, especially for an improving beginner or intermediate skier or rider. The conditions were firm packed. Although it was fun returning, it was annoying to have to take a long run down to the bottom of the mountain to catch an old double back to the top, the only lift running. On the ride up, the lift went over some closed trails that I would have to classify as downright gnarly. They would be quite challenging even for the best of skiers. While I was glad I skied the Knob, I decided it would probably be my last visit.
My new vehicle is the first I’ve had with navigation. After spending two days on Interstates I decided to choose “no highways” and “no toll roads” on the menu. Let me just say some of the roads the navigation took me on were really neat, although some “communities” I went through were down right “Deliverance.” The two hour drive took me three hours but that was fine.
The Wisp sits right on Deep Creek Lake, a large beautiful lake in far western Maryland. I had discovered the lake back in the early 70s. When I first started heading there was only one gas station and one motel on the lake. The area has become very popular as a summer retreat and has been built up quite a bit since.
I checked in and was given a room looking right over at the slopes. Even though the lodge was the same I stayed in back in the 70s, the room was really nice. You could tell that they had spent a lot of time and money to make a building so old very comfortable and modern. I had noticed coming in o the area a BBQ place back up the road so I drove up there, picked up a plate of assorted BBQ and headed back to my room. It had a really nice-sized picture window looking out at the slopes, so I sat in pig heaven eating BBQ and watching the skiers and snowboarders under the lights. The Wisp has 90 percent of its slopes lit, very cool. The mountain’s elevation is 3,115 feet with a 700-foot vertical.
It had snowed a few days before I got there and let me just say the next morning the whole mountain except for a couple of bumpy areas was groomed like Deer Valley. Conditions were awesome. People don’t understand just how much natural snow western Maryland, down through West Virginia, gets annually. The Wisp itself boasts 100 inches annually. Nothing compared to Vermont, but more than most think. So here I am in Maryland on an 700-foot vertical mountain, 36 degrees and not a cloud in the sky, and being March I bet there weren’t 30 people on the mountain. I’m telling you, the Wisp put this big grin on my face for over four hours.
The base lodge is also awesome, large with high ceilings and a lot of natural light. Any area in Vermont would be envious of their base lodge and their wonderful food court with very reasonable prices (hear that, reasonable prices!). Apparently the folks at Ragged Mountain in New Hampshire are the new owners and have done a terrific job. The area also boasts snow tubing, a mountain coaster, ice skating and an adventure and challenge course. What a great day!
Then at about 2 p.m., I headed down to Snowshoe, West Virginia. Out of the corner of my eye while driving I could have sworn I caught a sign that said “The Smallest Church in the United States.” Sure enough, Horse Shoe Run, W. Va., is home to the Lady of the Pines Roman Catholic Church. The outside measurements of the church are 24×12 feet and there are just 12 seats. Wow!
So after a few hours drive I arrived at Snowshoe. There I found the Inn at Snowshoe where I was staying. The inn is not for you guys that just can’t get away from your cell phone. Snowshoe is located in a “National Radio Quiet Zone” which is in place to minimize interference with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory located nearby. The observatory is home to the largest steerable telescope in the world. The telescope studies our solar system as well as distant galaxies and stars. Because of this, cell phone coverage in the area is very limited—wifi, too.
Anyway, after getting settled in my comfortable room I headed up to the ski area, and I mean up. Just like Blue Knob, Snowshoe is an upside down ski area. The village is located at 4,847 feet, higher than any mountain in Vermont! And they average 180 inches of snow each winter! The village is beautiful, boasting a wide assortment of condos and eating establishments. Definitely reminded me of many of the villages out West. They were preparing for an O.A.R. concert that weekend.
The next morning I gathered everything I needed for a day on the hill, climbed on board the shuttle and headed up for a day on the slopes. I was actually surprised how busy they were for a mid-week day. I saw license plates on cars from Florida, both Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and others. After putting on my boots and storing my other stuff in a locker located in their rental department I headed out on the hill. I realized after a few runs the reason why their rental department was so modern and up to date, as I would say 75 percent of the skiers and riders were on rental equipment.
So after a few modest runs on the main side of the mountain I headed over to their famed Western Territory across the road. The Western Territory has only two runs but they are served by their own high speed quad. Let me say there is not a ski area in all of New England that wouldn’t be proud to own those two runs, named Cupp Run and Shay’s Revenge. Both are 1.5 miles long, boasting a 60 percent pitch and 1,500 vertical feet. Shay’s Revenge has a pitch on part of the run that is steep by anyone’s standard. Both runs were designed by Jean-Claude Killy himself. After skiing for a couple of hours I was already pretty beat, so I stopped at Arbuckle’s Cabin, located at the base of the two runs. Arbuckle’s is a small cabin with just a bit of inside seating and a comfortable deck outside. After feasting on a bowl of excellent chicken chili I just sat in the sun for about an hour with a cup of coffee, as it was a beautiful day.
After forcing myself to get back on the hill I had enough energy for maybe four or five more runs and then gathered my gear and headed back to the hotel, ending another great day skiing south of the Mason Dixon line.
Overall I had a terrific trip and had some very good skiing, but I was glad to come back home to Vermont. Still, it just goes to show you can find create fond memories on the hills just about anywhere.
Larry Abelman now lives in Shrewsbury, Vt.