Enjoying adventure dining at Snowshoe Mountain ski resort in West Virginia

By Becky Krystal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010; WE21

On a recent evening at Snowshoe Mountain, I found myself hesitating slightly as I signed a waiver warning me that the night's activities could result in injury or death. Pretty standard stuff, right?

Still, it was an awful lot of legalese for a dinner.

There were 15 of us willing to risk life and limb for a rustic $75 dinner on Christmas Eve at the West Virginia ski resort; making the requisite small talk, we waited to be shuttled to an isolated cabin in the woods. The resort bills the three-hour experience as "adventure dining."

When the time came, we split into two groups. Most of the diners made a beeline for a novel-looking vehicle that we later learned was a 1950s-era ambulance, a la "M*A*S*H." My husband and I piled into a van with another family.

"Seat belts might be a good idea," our driver, Carol Doss, advised. "Just sayin'. "

I soon understood why. We exited a parking lot onto a narrow, snow-covered path, mainly keeping to the ruts created by the wheels of previous travelers. It was a bouncy ride, during which I found myself alternately awed and terrified by the steep drop-off to our left.

After a very long 15 minutes, we reached the Sunrise Backcountry Hut. It's an airy cabin filled with the fragrance of exposed wood, decorated with vintage snow-sports equipment and moose-patterned curtains. Amid the coos of admiration came an improbable statement that I was sure had been garbled as it rushed around the room like an elementary-school game of Telephone: Someone was stuck in the van.

This made absolutely no sense until I saw the rescuer stride back into the cabin with a sharp knife in hand. There was at least one seat belt we wouldn't be using on the return trip.

Adventure dining, indeed.

Thankfully, this Crocodile Dundee moment lent some levity to the evening. What had initially sounded like the start of a bad horror movie -- 15 strangers are hauled out to the middle of nowhere, to a place with no cellphone reception and only the wildlife to hear their cries -- turned into something out of a holiday special. A Jimmy Buffett Christmas CD provided the soundtrack while 11 of us joined in a competitive game of Apples to Apples.

And, of course, there was eating and drinking. We started with a baked artichoke and Parmesan dip with crackers, followed by a creamy potato and leek soup. And what some people may have regarded as the throwaway entree for vegetarians, the grilled Italian portobello mushroom, came out perfectly charred for my taste. (The other options were steak, duck, salmon and trout.) Dinner includes your choice of beer, wine or nonalcoholic beverage. But the highlight was the peach cobbler for dessert, which came from one employee's family recipe. I was momentarily worried, as it is well past the fruit's season. No matter, though. The crust was all buttery, sugary goodness, and the spiced whipped cream made an ideal topper.

After we had polished off dessert, a few of the guests became suspiciously antsy to leave. People started calling seats in the van -- the same people who had been so eager to take the ambulance on the way to dinner. It didn't take long to figure out what was going on, but my husband and I let the others rush to the van unchallenged.

Two hard benches covered in bright orange tape lined the sides of the ambulance. And no need to worry about seat belts holding you against your will here. The only "restraints" were a pair of ropes hanging from the ceiling with a few duct-tape-reinforced hand loops. Let's just say that the ride to the cabin was nothing compared with the harrowing return trip, during which the language in the waiver flashed before my eyes.

Two nerve-racking miles later, we were on smooth pavement again and back in the parking lot. I staggered out of the beast to talk to our driver, adventure journeyman Christopher Carnefix, who, when he hadn't been capably shifting gears during the return trip, talked of his plans in such places as Costa Rica and Africa.

I asked him what makes people want to go through such an ordeal just for dinner.

"It's something that's just totally new to them," he answered. "This is good old West Virginia fun."

(Also fun: Snowmobiling out to the hut, but as Carnefix put it, "Guests prefer to drink more than snowmobile, and you can't do both.")

The Rohlman family from Gainesville, Fla., drove 12 hours to get to Snowshoe, and the backcountry hut dining was high on their agenda. "We've considered it several times, but it's been booked up," said Allison Rohlman, who was one of our dinner companions, along with her husband, Adam, son Jake, and daughters Amber and Rachel.

Dinner wasn't the only way we could have experienced the cabin. For $999, as many as eight lucky people can, in addition to the meal, have the hut for the night and breakfast the next morning. Not included: pre- or post-stay group therapy, so let's hope that those who take up the offer get along. I counted four beds in the place, three of them in the loft.

That such diversions are available at Snowshoe might put at ease vacationers wary of being overwhelmed by the crowds at a resort that boasts 19 restaurants and 1,400 condos and rooms.

On the Wednesday before Christmas, we checked into a condo unit in the Mountain Crest property, about a mile from the village. Originally, I'd hoped to stay in the village, but when the prices unexpectedly rose as I planned the trip, I settled for something a little farther out. I'm glad I did. Though not completely isolated (a walking path and shuttle bus connect to the center of the resort), the building was, as the name suggests, situated at a prime perch overlooking the mountains. Our balcony faced this breathtaking vista, framed by trees so laden with snow it was hard to believe they hadn't been sprayed with fake stuff from a can.

We rarely saw the other people staying at Mountain Crest, but we were charmed by one set of neighbors. On Thursday morning, I threw my boots on over my Santa-red flannel pajamas to take a few photos from the balcony, only to discover a half-dozen deer shuffling through the deep snow. Rather than scurry off, they contentedly gathered under our second-floor porch and stared at me for several minutes until I went inside. They were probably looking for a handout.

Not long after, I was out the door for my ski lesson. This, too, turned out to be a respite from the crowds. My group lesson with Jodi Starr, an instructor who has been on skis since age 2, turned out to be a nearly private one. The only other person in my group was Patricia Vargas, a Miami resident who, like me, hadn't hit the slopes at a resort in more than 10 years.

We quickly fled the beginner slope and started a series of trips up and down the mountain on the easy green trails, with our trio a perfect size to travel the lifts together. I asked Starr about the new lessons Snowshoe is offering this season, using what it calls the "station teaching method." She said the program is in pilot mode as the format is tested at the less busy Silver Creek area of the resort, but the idea is that individuals in the lesson can progress at their own speed as they master certain skills, with instructors stationed at various places.

I could see that the concept was on the mind of Vargas, whom I ran into after a much-needed lunch in the village. She said she'd been concerned that she was holding me up during the lesson. I told her not to worry. There are ways to feel alone at Snowshoe if you want to, but hurtling down a mountain on a pair of fiberglass strips was not one that interested me. In that instance, I was happy for the company.

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