Mountains of Fun

By Caroline Kettlewell
Friday, November 18, 2005

When the sun starts setting before supper and the mercury sinks somewhere between frosty and frostbite, it's time once again to layer on the fleece, load up on lip balm and head for the hills -- winter sports season has arrived.

If you're a skier or snowboarder, you'll find that the theme this year at the region's winter sports resorts is more and better: computerized snowmaking, new trails, bigger terrain parks, faster lifts. Nordic skiers, too, can have their pick of miles of trails through forest and field. Not a skier? Not to worry -- you won't be left out in the cold either. Although skiing remains a prime attraction, it's only one option on a lengthy multiple-choice list of activities, some of which don't even require snow.

Even if you've long taken the view that the chilly season is best enjoyed in the abstract, preferably from indoors, beneath a toasty throw, with steam curling up from the mug in your hand, perhaps this could be the year at last to put aside those lingering childhood memories of stiff-frozen clothes and popsicle toes and venture outdoors. With ever-warmer cold-weather wear and lighter, more comfortable, more user-friendly gear, "winter fun" no longer has to feel like an oxymoron.

Going Downhill Fast

For the ski and snowboard crowd, 'tis the season for something new, starting with Maryland's Wisp Resort, which this year is opening virtually an entire new mountainside. Called North Camp, this expansion to Wisp's downhill terrain will add 10 slopes -- one expert, two intermediate and seven beginner trails -- along with two quad (four-person) chairlifts. Want to be one of the first on the mountain? Wisp will celebrate North Camp's grand opening Dec. 10. For the best bargain of the year, on Dec. 11 and 12 the resort will mark its 50th anniversary by rolling back prices to 1955 rates: $3.50 for a lift ticket, $7 for a lesson, $7 for equipment rental. (Don't worry, it's 2005 equipment.)

Last year, the Wintergreen resort in Virginia introduced two six-passenger, high-speed lifts. This year, Wintergreen opens a new, 2,200-foot single black diamond expert trail, which will be serviced by one of those lifts. Wintergreen also sings the praises of its snowmaking equipment. "Our system allows a great deal of control over the water-air mix to make it drier and also to make more of it," says Frankee Love, Wintergreen's director of public relations. "It pumps out a higher volume of snow that is higher and fluffier."

Pennsylvania's Liberty Mountain Resort has updated its snowmaking equipment with a computerized system on four slopes. "The system can sense different climate states at different levels on the mountain and adjust the snowmaking accordingly," explains Lindsay Penvose, marketing assistant for the resort. Timberline Four Seasons Resort in West Virginia has a new, professionally designed intermediate trail, Twister, which is one mile and, for novelty, passes through a tunnel under a road. Massanutten, near Harrisonburg, Va., adds a second quad lift, accessing its advanced terrain.

Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia has completed a "massive expansion" of its terrain park options, according to Adrian Mosby, communications coordinator for the resort. Included in the expansion is a pro-level park called Spruce Glades and a Super Park, spread across multiple trails. "Half-pipe, tabletop, jumps, rails, any terrain feature that the technical or extreme snowboarder or skier would like, we will be able to provide," Mosby says. There's also a dedicated area for beginners, as well as a "skier/boardercross" section, where skiers and boarders can race through a course of gates, berms and rollers.

At Liberty Mountain, beginner, intermediate and expert terrain parks are "a huge draw for us," Penvose says. "People will spend their whole day there." Liberty offers an "introduction to terrain parks" clinic to get boarders and freestyle skiers started. "It's about park etiquette, how to be safe, how to approach and clear a jump, building blocks for being a safe and courteous park rider," Penvose says. Thinking about trying something new on the slopes this year? From opening day ("probably by Thanksgiving, as long as the weather is ready," Penvose says) through Dec. 23, Liberty is offering free group ski or board lessons for all levels; details are available on Liberty's Web site at .

If you hate a crowd, First Tracks, available only on Saturdays and Sundays at West Virginia's Canaan Valley Resort, puts you and a limited number of skiers first on the snow in the morning, with only the ski patrol for company. Wintergreen invites you to take advantage of the quieter early season with a "Ski Free" special through Dec. 2: $79 per person, per night (two-night minimum stay, two people per bedroom) includes lodging and a lift ticket per person. Back at Canaan Valley, kids 12 and younger can stay, eat and ski free throughout the season when staying in the lodge with their parents.

Over Hill, Over Dale

If you're looking for even more solitude, then the cross-country trails are calling you. White Grass Touring Center in Davis, W.Va., is in the same high valley as the Timberline and Canaan Valley resorts, where the average annual snowfall is more than 150 inches. At White Grass, cross-country is the main attraction, with 50 kilometers (or about 31 miles) of trails; a ski school; rentals of backcountry, telemark and skating skis; and for that pre- or post-ski carb boost, a mellow, cozy cafe with an emphasis on natural foods, offering lunch daily and dinner Thursday through Sunday. There's also a well-stocked equipment shop. On Jan. 7, White Grass will hold its annual XC Ski Fest Day, for "all first-time interested skiers that want to try the dang stuff," as White Grass's calendar describes it, with free lessons and half-price rentals.

Though more familiarly associated with downhill skiing, both Canaan Valley and Snowshoe resorts also offer cross-country skiing. At Snowshoe, you can take a guided ski tour, and equipment rentals come with a brief introductory lesson; Canaan's marked trails and open meadows are free. There's cross-country skiing, too, on groomed trails at Blackwater Nordic Center in Blackwater Falls State Park, just down the road from Canaan Valley.

In Maryland, Savage River Lodge near Frostburg is set in the middle of 800 acres of the Savage River State Forest. "We have a working agreement with the state, and we maintain a complete network of trails on Mount Aetna in Garrett County," says Mike Dreisbach, who owns the lodge with his wife, Jan Russell (and dog Bodhi, "CEO of good cheer").

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