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For Veterans, Challenging Hills Without All the Frills

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By Moira E. McLaughlin
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 4, 2008

Growing up, I was spoiled by annual family ski trips to Colorado. The snow was soft and packed; the quadruple chairlifts, high-speed; the slopes, long; and (since my dad hated to ski in the cold) the spring skiing weather was always ideal. So when I took my first East Coast ski trip with friends in college, I was in for a skiing reality check.

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I think I spent most of the day in the lodge, warming my fingertips and waiting for the sun to come out.

Since then, I have explored skiing in the East a bit more. It has me thinking about what the sport is really supposed to be about. Is it supposed to be about sharp turns through the moguls of the Rockies on a sunny, relatively warm day? Or is it supposed to be about skis rattling on the hard ice of the Alleghenies on a bitter cold, windy day?

"If you can ski in the East, you can ski anywhere," says Andy Himes, the mountain manager at Blue Knob All Seasons Resort in Claysburg, Pa.

Take Hungarian skier Marta Vastagh, who trained at Blue Knob for the 2002 Olympics. (She didn't win a medal, Himes says, but still, she competed at the Olympics.) Or extreme skier Glen Plake, who skied Blue Knob about four years ago on what he called a "Down Home Tour" of smaller ski resorts.

According to the resort, Blue Knob, about three hours from Washington, is the highest skiable peak in Pennsylvania. With 34 trails and a vertical drop of 1,072 feet, it's known as a skier's mountain. During ideal conditions when the temperature is zero to 20 degrees, snow guns can make five to eight feet of snow to spread over several slopes.

Kari Jingozian, 11, of Fishertown, Pa., is on Blue Knob's race team. Her enthusiastic commentary is punctuated with a lot of "awesomes." "It's steeper," she says of Blue Knob's runs. "There's always some different type of snow or ice."

On a recent trip to Blue Knob, I investigated how skiers dealt with the conditions. People looked good coming down the mountain, in control and making turns. They had to be prepared for various snow conditions, from icy to crunchy to freshly fallen.

At Blue Knob, slopes are designed to wind gradually down the mountain. From the top, a skier can't see the bottom -- unusual for East Coast mountains. My favorite slope was the Jack Rabbit, which corkscrewed down the mountain. It even had a few bumps and a little jump at the bottom as the trail made a final right turn. The steepest trails you'll find at Blue Knob are Extrovert and East Wall Glades.

What you won't find at Blue Knob is glitz. The mountain opened in 1963, and not much has changed, Himes says. The lodge doesn't have posh restaurants, fancy warming huts and definitely not a hip apres-ski nightclub. Even the signs leading up to the mountain are small and easy to miss. (Start looking for them once you get off the Pennsylvania Turnpike.)

Phil Hughes, a civil engineer from Arlington, discovered Blue Knob three years ago while trying to find a place to take his wife snowboarding. "Blue Knob? Where's that?" he remembers thinking during an Internet search. He liked the mountain so much he has since bought a condo there. "I love this place," he says as he puts on his boots by his car in the parking lot.

Another thing you won't find at Blue Knob: day lockers. Aside from a bathroom stall, there's no private place to change into ski gear, and unless you have rented a locker for the season, there's no place (except your car) to throw excess gear.

But with minimal frills, you get minimal chairlift lines. "You spend more time on the slopes than you do in the lift lines," says Curt Weyant, who runs the resort's lift operations.

You can have a burger or a chicken sandwich for lunch. You can rent skis or try out a snowboard for the day. You can grab a beer at Mueller's Pub at the summit. And the best part: You can drive there, ski and be back in Washington in time for "The Simpsons."

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