I grew up skiing near Washington, D.C., when one good run down the front side of Seven Springs, Pa., was an adventure fit for all levels of dinnertime embellishment. But after attending college in Colorado and ski bumming in Utah, I renounced Eastern hills as a waste of my time: too crowded, too small, lacking in snow and, worst of all, too easy.
The Eastern ski industry, it turns out, was listening. Well, not to me, exactly, but to the legions of other skiers and snowboarders who have been clamoring for more challenging mountains in our home time zone. In the past few years, words have crept into the Eastern ski marketing vernacular that once existed only west of Denver: glade, steep, trees, bowl, cliff (!). Snowshoe now has its black-diamond Western Territory, Jack Frost/Big Boulder promotes its tree- and cliff-punctuated Free Domain, Seven Springs and Wisp have spiced their trail maps with expert-only tree-skiing and glade runs, and Blue Knob now takes every chance possible to remind us that it is "Pennsylvania's highest skiable mountain."
And for the snowboarding crowd, the regional hills promise more extreme-terrain parks, well-maintained half-pipes and a continuation of last year's "boarder-cross" events (go fast, take jumps and look good doing it), with bigger jumps and tougher turns than last season, as well as "big air" (i.e., who can jump highest?) contests. Many areas will hold similar events for skiers (yes, there is a skier cross), and Snowshoe blends the sports with its Psychocross Mountain Challenge, a single race pitting skiers and boarders against each other. Jack Frost/Big Boulder even holds mountain bike races on snow-covered slopes.
Asked to explain the proliferation of expert-magnet slopes and events, reps at every resort had the same answer: Because the guests asked for it (suggesting that now might be a good time to request cheap lift tickets and free food).
But while resorts may be able to puff up a few jumps or build a better half-pipe, their best-laid customer service and marketing plans can't substantially change natural topography, and that raises the question of whether the new "expert" and "extreme" runs are a boon to skiers or an empty promotional scheme.
The answer lies somewhere in between and depends largely on how bored you--the guest--have become with a given mountain. That is, if you've so thoroughly mastered each turn at Wisp that you could sleep-ski the mountain while balancing your kids on your head, it is unlikely that one new glade will revive that tingle of adrenaline you had the first time you peered down a forbidding slope.
But if you have only recently conquered peak-to-base nonstop skiing or boarding, and your frustration with, say, Snowshoe stems from a lack of expert-run variety, a few more acres of challenging terrain might keep you enthused about the mountain for seasons to come.
While few of the regionals will look you in the eye and claim to compete with Western resorts for size and breadth of challenge, many Eastern hills like Snowshoe, Seven Springs and those in New England nonetheless market themselves as destination resorts. Most of those closest to Washington are more realistic about their place in the resort food chain as regional draws. "Most advanced skiers go out west or to New England for a week-long trip, but why not brush up on your skills at Ski Liberty before you leave?" asks Liberty spokeswoman Carolyn Reagle.
With a couple of exceptions, here's the golden rule: Resorts that have long been your favorites likely will remain so after upgrades and augmentations; those that failed to excite you in the past probably will continue to disappoint. The exceptions are Blue Knob, which markedly expanded its expert offerings over the past two years, impressing even the most seasoned local ski snobs, and the radical contest and race events that can turn a normally mundane hill into a carnival of cardiac speed, air time and tricks.
And if the regional platter still isn't demanding enough, consider New England resorts; they're also making changes to test your top skills, and they have bigger mountains to tinker with in doing so. Below we list notable additions to and events at selected regional and New England resorts.
(Note: Lift prices are for adult one-day passes; many resorts offer discounts for children and seniors, as well as a range of prices for night skiing, multiday tickets and packages.)
"Been to Blue Knob lately?" was a frequent response when we solicited opinion on challenging local skiing. In the past two years, the venerable Pennsylvania resort has added 13 new trails, 10 of them expert, and has started to cut two more expert trails that are expected to be ready for the 2000-01 season. The best and steepest terrain is on the mountain's lower half. The area is trying to maintain its reputation as a more challenging hill--promo materials state that Blue Knob is "Pennsylvania's Highest Skiable Mountain." Many of our black-diamond aficionados call Blue Knob the best regional mountain for tough and fun skiing, though its altitude and northward-facing slopes often mean icy conditions. The resort will host a big-air snowboard contest Feb. 26 and a winter festival Dec. 26-27.
Lift tickets: $39 weekends, $27 weekdays.
Small even by local standards, Bryce nonetheless got in on the radical act last year by hosting two boarder-cross events and intends to repeat that schedule this season. As with shredder events at other hills, Bryce will bolster the "hits" (man-made or natural features that snowboarders use for jumping) and enhance terrain for the events. Dates are not yet set.
Lift tickets: $37 weekend, $27 weekday.
Elk, like Blue Knob, is an old-school area favored by people seeking mountains simply for the skiing, without a need for a vivacious apres-ski scene. Considered by some to be the steepest mountain within reasonable driving distance, Elk is among the resorts vying for extremists' attention, not with new slopes but with high-flying events. The area plans to repeat last season's schedule of two boarder-cross/skier-cross events (Elk closes a slope for two days prior to the contests to prepare 10- to 15-foot jumps and tight turn angles). New last year was the intermediate Kickapoo trail, with snowboard-intended high bank turns that skiers have reportedly taken to, using the knolls to attempt ever-more-radical maneuvers. Dates for the events are not set.
Lift tickets: $41 weekend/holiday; $35 weekday.
JACK FROST/BIG BOULDER
The first page of Jack Frost/Big Boulder's 1999-2000 brochure touts Jack Frost's Free Domain--about 25 acres of "trees, glades, bumps and cliffs"--as "the most challenging terrain in the Poconos!" The domain was new last year and though it can't quite overcome the hill's small size, the resorts offer a wide menu of shredder events to augment the terrain. Events: Ultimate Snow Slippin' and Trippin' mountain bike races, Jan. 30 (biker cross) and March 12 (dual slalom, the same format pro skiers use for mogul contests); uphill dirt bike race, March 18; uphill snowmobile race, March 19; Mountain Park Bash, a mix of big-air, slope-style and half-pipe competitions for amateur snowboarders, Feb. 6. Snowboard series: Board O' Cross, Jan. 9 and March 5; giant slalom, Jan. 23; big air, Feb. 20; slope style, Feb. 27.
Lift tickets: $42 weekend/holiday; $36 weekdays.
One of the region's most developed resorts, Seven Springs added 16 acres of double-black-diamond glade terrain on the North Face side of the area. The well-spaced tree runs provide more variety but do not increase the mountain's 750-foot vertical drop. Seven Springs plans further additions, but blueprints have not been finalized.
Events: Mid-Atlantic Snowboard Series, Jan. 8-9; Mountain Dew vertical challenge, Jan. 9; Rider's Cup snowboard series (boarder-cross, half-pipe and big air), Jan. 29, Feb. 12 and 26, March 11; K2/K&M/MGD mogul challenge, Feb. 27; Mid-Atlantic Super G, March 3; Bud mogul challenge, March 26.
Lift tickets: $40 weekend/holiday; $32 weekday.
As the closest ski area to Washington (65 miles), Liberty has long been the de facto choice for racers and others seeking a quick practice session, although White Tail is challenging at a mere 80 miles from the city. New this year are a terrain park with tabletops, spines and quarter-pipes, as well as a mogul park.
Events: Ultimate Rider series boarder cross and half-pipe, Jan. 15 and Feb. 12; Coors Triple Crown series, Jan. 23 (slalom), Feb. 6 (giant slalom) and Feb. 13 (modified giant slalom). Prizes include skis and a ski package to Vermont.
Roundtop wanted a radical terrain park and to make room it widened the recruit slope threefold; new this year, the park covers 400 of Roundtop's 600 vertical feet.
Events: Ultimate Rider Series boarder cross and half-pipe, Jan. 28 and Feb. 26 (snow conditions will dictate which event is on which day).
Shay's Revenge, an expert run that drops 1,500 vertical feet in 1 1/2 miles and at one point boasts a steepest-in- the-region 60 percent pitch, opened last year adjacent to the resort's former crown jewel, Cupp Run, in the newly named Western Territory. Shay's looks to be the first in a handful of new runs that the resort wants to cut--teams have been surveying the ridge but more formal expansion plans are not set. Long considered some of the best skiing within driving distance of the capital, Snowshoe is also considering new glade skiing at the Silver Creek area and more tree runs at Snowshoe. Also, Silver Creek's Mountaineer terrain park underwent its yearly expansion and is in the area's Cascade trail system.
Events: Nocturnal big-air contest (skiing and snowboarding) in Silver Creek's Mountaineer terrain park, Dec. 11; Psychocross Mountain Championships (skiers race snowboarders in boarder-cross format), Jan. 8; Cupp Run Challenge giant slalom, Feb. 7 (its 26th year); Rolling Rock bump and boogie free-style mogul competition, March 18.
Ticket prices: $49 weekends; $42 midweek.
Timberline, reputed to be a skier's mountain for its 1,000-foot vertical drop and the formidable cut of its runs, may add a terrain park this year if the area receives enough natural snow. The park would occupy Lower Dew Drop run, transforming that slope from intermediate to advanced at the insistence of the resort's insurance lawyers (really). Creating the park entails building jumps and letting natural moguls build up, thus the need for piles of real snow.
Events: Appalachian USA Snowboard Association Slalom Series, Jan. 16, Feb. 13 and March 12 and 26; Southeast Race Association U.S. Ski Series pro and amateur slalom races, Jan. 28-30.
Lift tickets: $39 weekend; $29 weekday.
No new slopes here, but White Tail will hold four boarder-cross events (no skiers allowed) this season, Jan. 8 and 29 and Feb. 5 and 12 in the hill's snowboard park and Mountain Dew zone, the half-pipe that debuted last year. The area will host half-pipe contests Jan. 22 and Feb. 26. Snow Time Inc., which owns Ski Liberty and Roundtop, bought White Tail this year, meaning that a Liberty/Roundtop season pass ($585) is also good for four visits at White Tail and a White Tail season pass ($605) gets you four visits or an Advantage Card ($89), good for a 40 percent discount on any lift ticket purchase at any of the three hills--plus your sixth visit to any one mountain is free.
Wisp cleared some tree skiing off of Devil's Drop (to the skier's right of the face) last year and has been making improvements to its snowboard park by adding "hits." Like many area resorts, whether Wisp opens its half-pipe this year depends on how much snow the gods deliver (a lack of flakes kept Wisp's pipe dormant all last season).
Events: big-air and boarder-cross competition, Feb. 11-13 (part of the U.S. Ski Series Ski and Snowboard Competition); Mid-Atlantic Snowboard Series, Jan. 22-23.
Lift tickets: $35-$42
With 87 miles of trails and a 3,150-foot vertical drop, Killington is tops in the East in both of those categories and harbors Outer Limits, the steepest and longest mogul run east of the Rockies. The resort also moved its terrain park to the 4,800-foot-long Timberline Trail, making it the longest park in the East, and is building two half-pipes at the bottom of Highline. A terrain park is also planned for Pico. In its third season is Killington's Dream Maker Swatch-Palmer Boarder-X course, which will host a series of radical snowboard competitions (with fast twists and turns over rollers, berms, bumps and gap-table tops finishing in sharp dropoffs).
Events: Nesa Snowboard Competition, Dec. 18-19; Green Mountain Snowboard Series (amateur competition includes half-pipe, boarder cross and giant slalom), Jan. 15-17; Skier Cross/Swatch Palmer SBX Series (four competitors at a time, all levels welcome), Jan. 23, Feb. 6, March 27 and April 12; Pipe Jams (half-pipe), Jan. 30, Feb. 13, Feb. 20 and March 19; Spring Loaded Pro/Am Snowboard Event (half-pipe and slope-style, the largest pro/am event in the East), April 15-16; Killington Rage Weekend (spring festival with spring skiing/snowboarding, mountain biking, kayaking, triathlon), May 27-30.
Carrabassett Valley, Maine
With a vertical drop of 2,820 feet, Sugarloaf offers the only lift-served, above-tree-line skiing in the East. And five years ago the resort added snowmaking to the 50-acre snowfields that account for most of that terrain, which is the highest and steepest at Sugarloaf. The area also continues to cut new glade areas, increasing the accessibility of its all-mountain, boundary-to-boundary skiing, which means the entire mountain is open . Sugarloaf enhanced its terrain park with larger features and new tabletops, and opened its half-pipe to skiers.
Events: Bud-Light Boarderfest (big-air and half-pipe competitions, plus a boardercross), Dec. 18-19; Skier and boardercross (pro/am), Jan. 6; Ben Weisbein GS snowboard race series, Jan. 22, and half-pipe competition, Jan. 23.
MAD RIVER GLEN
The Eastern mountain that best embraces the philosophies of true extreme skiing--uncontrolled terrain with no snowmaking--Mad River Glen has stepped up even further in the past three years, adding about 12 "bands," treed runs no wider than 50 feet that provide little tolerance for missed turns. Only half of them are intended to knock your boots off, though; the rest are fit for intermediate alpinists looking for a glade experience. Events: the Triple Crown, comprising a mogul competition, Feb. 12; an uncontrolled-terrain event, March 4; and a vertical challenge, March 24 (the winner gets a trip to compete in next year's X-Games in Crested Butte, Colo.).
Lift tickets: $36 weekends; $29 midweek
A resort already known for fast steeps and great views, Sugarbush this year added three expert-only glade trails, cut between the trees on Lincoln Peak: Lew's Line, Eagan's Woods and Deeper Sleeper. None of these long runs is wider than 50 feet. Events: Boarderfest 2000 (pro/am half-pipe and boarder cross), Feb. 12-13; Castlerock Extreme Challenge, an experts-only contest through ungroomed terrain, with skiers and boarders judged on turns, difficulty of line and style, Feb. 26; Sugarbush triathlon, April 9. Lift tickets: $53 weekdays and weekends; $55 holidays.