It was an act of God, or nature, or war, or perhaps all three.
It should have been prime-time skiing, a couple of days deep in January when the average temperature at Snowshoe Mountain, W.Va., is in the twenties and the snow is usually hip deep. But we had come face to face with a phenomenon known as the "January thaw."
First, the temperatures hit the high fifties, silencing the state-of-the-art snowmakers. Then a white mucous of fog enshrouded all, and skiers just 10 feet ahead became ghostly apparitions moving in and out of view. With it arrived strong winds capable of propelling small children backward. And then came the driving, torrential rains, reducing the snow base by a foot in just two days, transforming the earth beneath the ski lifts into roaring creeks. And when it seemed as if no other force could be unleashed, lightning and thunder enveloped the mountain, shutting down lifts and sending skiers scuttling for cover.
But perhaps it's the measure of the mountain that, despite nature hurtling just about every imaginable insult, we continued to ski. We skied through the fog, the warmth, the rain, the lightning. We skied as conditions changed from powder, to packed powder, to granular ice, to packed ice, to slush. When the sun broke through for an hour, we skied that much harder. All the while, we knew in our heads and our hearts that no other mountain in the region would be able to withstand this all-out assault. That somehow this mountain was rising to the challenge, duking it out big time with Mama Nature. And for some twisted reason, it made the skiing feel even better.
We were not the only maniacs on the mountain. There were more than 5,000 others, people like Dave Wolcott of Clearwater, Fla., who had driven 15 hours to ski and who was having a blast despite the adversity. "I just love this!" Wolcott exclaimed, grinning like a child as our ski lift sliced through the fog. "It's only my second time skiing, and I just love this."
Wolcott had come to celebrate his girlfriend's birthday. We had come to take a look at the resort and what it might become, now that it's owned by one of the largest ski companies on the continent, Intrawest Corp.
We'd known Snowshoe as a sturdy, if unadorned, mountain situated in the hills of West Virginia about four hours from any big city. Back when the Vietnam War was winding down and hippies were still hip, a dentist from Alabama got the bright idea of building a ski resort there. And for more than 20 years it limped along, through bankruptcy and multiple ownerships, drawing true believers willing to drive hundreds of miles on country roads and put up with 22-minute lift rides in exchange for a 1,500-foot vertical drop and an average of 180 inches of snow annually, higher and deeper than any other ski mountain in the Mid-Atlantic or the Southeast. Condos and restaurants were built, but the closest the mountain got to glitz was a black-diamond trail designed by Olympian Jean-Claude Killy. Aspen East this was not.
But then came Intrawest, one of the new breed of mega-resort companies that have swept their spotlights across North America in search of underdeveloped ski areas, hoovering them up like so many specks of rock salt. The company calculated that this 11,000-acre resort was within a day's drive of 75 million people--a third of the U.S. population--and that it was the closest real mountain to the South.
Snowshoe, the plain girl with good bone structure, had been chosen. She was about to undergo a makeover that would cost tens of millions and turn her into the new glamourpuss of the Southeast ski scene.
Intrawest is a company that likes to use the phrase "big plans." The company got its start in the 1970s building houses in Canada. Intra-west entered the ski resort industry in 1986 when it purchased 50 percent of the Blackcomb resort in British Columbia. A few years later, it bought Tremblant in Quebec. In 1995 Intrawest started its resort-buying spree, purchasing Panorama in British Columbia, Copper in Colorado, Mammoth in California and Stratton in Vermont, plus golf courses in Arizona, Sandestin Resort in Florida and a 15.7 percent interest in Compagnie des Alpes, a French company that is the world's largest ski operator. It bought Snowshoe from Tokyo Development Corp. for $40 million in 1995.
At first, the changes at Snowshoe were incremental. But in the past two years, the metamorphosis has accelerated. So has the rhetoric of its corporate remakers. "The Snowshoe of the 21st century will be more than just another resort. It will be another world," proclaims the resort's "vision statement." "Snowshoe becomes the base camp, the outfitter, the provisioner, the wilderness guide and the instructor for the Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, Pittsburgh and Washington adventurers and discoverers wishing to explore the outermost limits of America's most pristine natural resources." Grand words, backed with big-time money.
But can a resort, even one owned by folks with apparently deep pockets and plenty of time to spend in corporate "visioning retreats," live up to such brazen ambitions? Is this just overheated brochurespeak designed to attract potential investors? Or is there really so much money to be made on a mountain in West Virginia?
Intrawest suits love to use the word "envision," and they vividly envision hordes of Expedition-driving, cafe-au-lait-drinking, soccer-kid-toting families and their overworked single counterparts driving through Snowshoe's gates in the coming years. Because Snowshoe is the closest large ski resort to the entire South, they'll come from Florida, the Carolinas, Georgia, West Virginia and southern Virginia. And it will draw a good crowd from Ohio and Pennsylvania.
But to be fully successful, Snowshoe also needs visitors from Washington and its suburbs, where the demographics are so attractive. Only 6 percent of its total skiers now hail from the greater Washington area, and that's not enough. Snowshoe requires people who work hard and play hard and don't mind spending the extra money for the nicer things in life, like those high-speed rides to the top and a hot tub within a few strides of the ski-in, ski-out condo. A cosmopolitan visitor who is willing to pay a little more for a place where staff with good teeth smile, and where there's a restaurant with a trendy Mediterranean menu.
The master plan is to make those weekend skiers love it so much that they'll come back in spring to golf on the resort's Gary Player-designed course and to fly-fish in the new lake; in summer to mountain bike and rock climb; in fall to hike, stopping at special "StoryCenters" for tales of this "forever wild" mountain country. In the best possible scenario, they'll all be so taken with the place, they'll buy weekend getaway properties.
"While the Greenbrier is the closest major resort to Snowshoe, Disney World is a more apt comparison in terms of market composition and market appeal," says the vision statement. "The new Snowshoe is what Disney World wishes it could be: REAL."
Intrawest has backed its momentous words with cash. It's already invested $60 million in Snowshoe. Among the improvements are a black-diamond trail that, at 1 1/2 miles long and with an underlying pitch of 55 percent, is the longest and steepest in the region; a high-speed quad lift that slices that 22-minute ride into six; a 40-acre lake; snowmaking equipment that can cover the equivalent of four football fields a foot deep in snow in an hour; a snowboard terrain park; a tubing park; and new condominiums.
The linchpin is Rimfire Lodge, the first phase in its aggressive real estate development plan, scheduled to open this summer. It will house 142 mountaintop homes ranging in price from $90,000 to above $275,000, nine retail shops, and a trend-sniffing upscale restaurant that will be run by Robert Wong, former executive chef at the Greenbrier.
And this is just the beginning. In the next 10 years, Intrawest plans to build as many as 600 housing units. Eventually, there is a potential for 900 units. New intermediate ski trails will be built adjoining the black-diamond trails on the west side of the mountain, and more trails will be added to the mountain's main side. But the real money to pay off an investment that may hit $200 million isn't in lift tickets or restaurant meals. It's in buying surrounding real estate cheap, building a resort that adds value to the property, and then selling houses and condos at a serious profit.
For now, it's difficult to foresee what the resort will look like. Much work remains to be done. Because of the resort's history of multiple owners, and the resulting fits-and-starts building, the mountain's developed areas have a hodgepodge look. Buildings from the '70s mingle with structures from the '80s and '90s in a mixture of colors and shapes. The condo that we stayed in, a faux log home with gas-burning fireplace, deck with a view and communal hot tub, sells for $189,900; right across the street, the '70s-era Mountain Crest Villas has units that sleep six for resale at $52,500. Many condos are in need of renovation. Landscaping and lighting are minimal, parking scant and sidewalks lacking.
Big challenges? Sure. But there are signs the Intrawest team can accomplish what it sets out to do. Silver Creek, for example, is a separate ski area owned and operated by Snowshoe, located about five minutes either by car or shuttle from the main mountain. It's well groomed, and the runs are much shorter. In other words, it is tailor-made for beginners. But the area's "revenue clock" detected a slow period between 7 and 10 p.m. "The Snowshoe team created a family adventure center in response," the company's annual report says. Ruckus Ridge, which includes a half-pipe for snowboarders, a terrain park, themed music, night skiing and tubing, was promptly built. And it more than doubled visits to Silver Creek, increasing revenues by 22 percent.
Over the next 10 years, Intrawest says it plans to invest $100 million in additional improvements at Snowshoe. The company has managed to bypass some of the controversies that have plagued its development plans in other states, perhaps in part because it is one of the region's largest employers, with 1,200 seasonal employees and 350 year-round employees. Eventually, as many as 1,450 seasonal employees and 500 year-round people will be employed at Snowshoe.
There are purists--skiers who prefer sticks to shapes, pure powder bowls to finely groomed boredom, Utah's Alta with its ancient lifts to its upscale neighbor Deer Valley with those cute valets--who believe that big corporations like Intrawest, Vail Resorts and American Skiing Co. are making skiing just a little too comfortable.
But at Snowshoe, Intrawest is taking a shot at a different kind of skier, the type who doesn't mind a chunk of the good life mixed in with a challenging day on the slopes and who likes the idea that the snowmakers can kick in when Mother Nature poops out. But Intrawest faces some worthy regional competition for this skier. Wintergreen, near Charlottesville, is posher and prettier and has already developed a four-season itinerary. Seven Springs in Pennsylvania has more off-mountain activities and more lifts. Timberline and Canaan Valley, both in West Virginia, have almost as much snow. And all of these resorts are closer to Washington than Snowshoe.
Snowshoe will have to fight to convince area skiers that being a few hours away from any major highway on windy country roads is a good thing. It must somehow convince would-be vacation homeowners that a drive of four or five hours is not all that far, and that summer offerings there are competition with the beach. It must somehow demonstrate to would-be buyers what the village will look like upon completion.
And it will occasionally have to grapple with a January thaw. But if our visit was any indication, Intra-west has one huge advantage in its favor--a bigger, badder mountain that won't say "uncle."
Carol Sottili, author of the Travel section's weekly Travel Q&A and Fly Buys columns, has skied all over the region and the West.
DETAILS: Snowshoe Mountain
GETTING THERE: Don't follow the directions on Snowshoe's brochure. When we did, it added 50 miles and an hour to our trip. Instead, take Interstate-66 to I-81 south two exits to Route 55 west. Take 55 to Route 28 south to Route 66 toward Snowshoe. After passing through the town of Cass, you'll start seeing signs for Snowshoe. The six-mile road to the mountaintop, where the village is located, is on your right. The trip should take between four and five hours, depending on conditions and your starting point.
WHERE TO STAY: There's a wide range of housing choices on the mountaintop, from a room at the no-frills Spruce Lodge to six-bedroom private homes that sleep as many as 16. You ski down and take the lifts back up to the accommodations. Weekend single-night rates are $97 to $577.
Our party of five, including two adults, two adult-size teenagers and one 11-year-old, were comfortable, although we noticed many rattles and creaks during the windy weather at a two-bedroom ski-in/ski-out condominium unit at Camp 4, which was recently built by Intrawest. Price per night is $338 weekends, $298 weeknights.
There are also package deals for those who want to stay longer; prices drop dramatically after the winter season. Off-mountain, there are cabins and other lodging choices scattered throughout the valley; contact the Pocahontas County Tourism Commission, 1-800-336- 7009, for a list. Elkins, 40 miles north of Snowshoe, is the closest large town offering name-brand hotels; a room at the Best Western costs about $46 a night.
WHERE TO EAT: Snowshoe offers a wide array of restaurants and fast-food places, ranging from the gourmet Red Fox to cafeteria-style Bear's Den Food Court at Silver Creek. We ate at Auntie Pasta's, which had decent Italian food at acceptable prices; Skidder's, a good burger-and-beer joint; Bear's Den Food Court, with serviceable fast food; and Turtle's, with deli-style sandwiches. There's also an active nightlife at Snowshoe, which boasts 10 bars, including a comedy club, and fairly wild happy hours. We passed on the nightlife but noticed that many younger adults didn't hit the slopes until after 11 a.m.
THE SLOPES: If you're an expert, head directly for the Western Territory, with two trails that descend more than 1,500 feet. Shay's Revenge is tougher than Cupp Run, but our two 14-year-olds couldn't get enough of Shay's huge bumps and 55 percent pitch. If you're a beginner, start at Silver Creek's Cubb Run and graduate to Snowshoe's Upper and Lower Hootenany and Upper, Mid and Lower flumes. If you're an intermediate, your choices are more limited. Stretch yourself on Cupp Run, or stick with Skip Jack and Spruce Glades on the main mountain. Do not take Ball Hooter; even though it's a blue, it's all moguls. If you like it empty and groomed, and don't mind shorter runs, do the far side at Silver Creek. The ski season usually runs through early April.
OTHER COSTS: Adult day lift tickets are $44 for a single weekend day, $37 Monday-Friday. On weekdays, students and seniors get a break and pay $29. Juniors, ages 7-12, pay $29 weekends and $25 weekdays. Children 6 and under ski free. Active-duty military get a 10 percent discount. There are also multiple-day lift packages. Night skiing at Silver Creek, good from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., costs $24 adults, $17 for juniors, students or seniors. Rates are cheaper when purchased with a day ticket. Snow-tubing costs $10 for two hours.
Snowshoe's rental skis are very nice quality Rossignol shaped skis; a rental package costs $26 per day per adult and $18 a day per junior or child. There are also higher-quality demos available at a higher price. Snowboards with boots rent for $35 for adults, $25 for juniors. Night equipment rentals are cheaper.
INFORMATION: 304-572-5252, www.snowshoemtn.com.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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