It was only 8:30 a.m., but Garrett Cope had already been up and down Liberty Mountain a few times on his snowboard. And here he was again today, at the peak, a 14-year-old bundle of energy about to go careening down 600 vertical feet. For him, it was bliss defined.
"I'm obsessed with snowboarding," said Garrett, a Lovettsville resident, while buckling his board to his boots atop the mountain.
Thanks to nature's bounty and human ingenuity, this season has been one of the best for skiing and snowboarding in the Washington region. Resorts from Snowshoe in West Virginia to Liberty just over the Maryland border in Pennsylvania and ski shops throughout the area, blessed by one of the coldest winters in recent years, say they are experiencing a record season.
During the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, Whitetail Mountain Resort and Liberty, both about an hour and 20 minutes north of downtown Washington, were so packed they had to turn away cars. Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia has received 125 inches of snow so far this season, 55 in January, said Joe Stevens, a mountain spokesman. And at Wisp in McHenry, Md., "we're having our best year," said spokeswoman Paula Yudelevit. Lift ticket sales, she estimated, are up more than 100 percent over last season.
Last year was a different story for the resorts near Washington. There was hardly any snow, the weather was often springlike and the runs didn't open until around Christmas. Skiing was, for many patrons, an afterthought. Liberty, which so far this season has received more than 21 inches of natural snow, got just nine all of last season.
"It was pretty lean," remembered Kathy Hart, 46, of Alexandria. But riding the chairlift today, with soft, powdery flakes falling off her skis, she said, "It doesn't get much better than this."
For the mid-Atlantic, that is. Even in a season as good as this one, the resorts within a two-hour drive of Washington don't typically get as much snow as Vail, Colo., averages in one winter month. The mountains here are relatively tiny. There was no skiing in this region until snowmaking was invented in the late 1940s.
"The areas south of even central New England wouldn't exist were it not for snowmaking," said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. "And one might even argue that very few areas, if any except in northern Vermont and Maine, would be around if snowmaking weren't invented."
Now -- if it's cold enough -- you can ski almost anywhere there's a slope. North Carolina has eight ski areas. Even Alabama and Georgia have a few.
At Liberty, which has 360 snowmaking guns, almost half purchased in the past five years, the resort can produce some 10 inches of snow a day. The mountain -- a mere 1,186 feet above sea level and some 3,500 miles below the North Pole -- can stay open almost until Washington's cherry blossom season.
In recent years, snowmaking has gotten so advanced that resorts can alter the kind of snow they produce. To make a base, they'll often create wetter snow, which is heavier and more durable. Later in the year, when they just want a coating, the snow will be drier, fluffier, the kind skiers and snowboarders love to glide through.
Snowmaking "has become absolutely fundamental to the sport and to the industry," Berry said. "It allowed ski areas to guarantee a season for themselves."
Ski shops also reap the benefits.
Arthur Cerasani, owner of Ski Haus in Annapolis, said he's having the best season in the store's 34 years. Helmets, hats and gloves are flying off the shelves, as are skis and snowboards.
Profits, he is sure, are up. "We haven't had time to count," he said. "We've been too busy."
Today, as the caravan of cars from Washington, Baltimore and Northern Virginia began pouring into Liberty's parking lot, there was a frenzied feel. The lines for lifts began to swell by 10 a.m., and the queue for snowboard rentals was a 20-minute tangle.
"This is crazy," said Steve Dekker, 34, of Ashburn, finally nearing the front.
On the mountain, Garrett, preparing for yet another run, wasn't letting the crowds bother him. The snow was too good. He only hoped it would continue to fall.
"I want to ski through March," he said, eyeing the sky.