The two men were nose to nose on the snow-covered slope of a Blue Ridge mountain, trading insults and arguments in voices loud enough to bring down an avalanche.
"I've been skiing that run for two days," said the skier who had just been booted from an expert slope by the Trail Police.
"You're not good enough to ski it," answered the slope manager, who wore a white cowboy hat and a dark look.
That snow flurry occurred Sunday at Wintergreen, a ski resort 43 1/2 miles southwest of Charlottesville (about three hours drive from the District) where skiers have had to navigate more than moguls this winter. A new policy of segregating skiers according to levels of skill, a practice that may be the first of its kind in the ski world, has delighted many, infuriated some and become a hot topic in the ski business.
"I don't know of anyplace else that has tried that," says Kathe Dillmann, an official with the National Ski Areas Association, which represents 400 ski resorts in the United States, Canada and Europe. "It's a unique marketing technique."
Before skiers are allowed to take on Wintergreen's steepest slopes, they must be certified by a ski policeman. He decides whether you possess the right stuff by watching you ski a few hundred yards downhill. One punch on your lift ticket allows you onto an area of steep runs that opened this year. But you need two punches to try Wild Turkey, the most challenging slope this side of Snowshoe in West Virginia.
"We want to provide a first-class skiing experience for experts," says Gunter Muller, the manager of the 8-year-old ski and golf resort. "Once you let everyone on the expert slope, it is no longer an expert slope."
Wintergreen has taken a novel and controversial approach to a problem that plagues every ski resort with more than middling hills. How do you keep sorry skiers from littering steep slopes with their own broken bodies?
But the solution has caused bitter feelings and bruised egos among those judged lacking. They argue that the criteria used to rate them is totally subjective and arbitrary, that the time it takes to be certified, up to an hour on peak weekends, is wasted and that nowhere in Wintergreen's literature is mention made about having to qualify to ski certain slopes.
"We hear from people who are kind of frustrated and intimidated, people who don't like it," says Adam Kahane, the owner of the 25-year-old Ski Center in northwest Washington. "Some very good skiers do not get certified because they get stage fright, they forget what they learned when somebody is watching them."
At some local ski shops, Wintergreen's Trail Police are referred to as the Nazi Ski Patrol. And stories are told of skiers having their lift tickets removed for arguing about their certification.
"I don't take nothin'," said one trail policeman this week when asked about the tough spot he is put in having to fail skiers who have invested large amounts of time and money to be there. "If people get hostile with me, they're gone. You know the best way to get a person to shut up? Blow a whistle in their face. It works every time."
While Muller admits there have been complaints, he says reaction to the certification program has been mostly positive. The expert skiers love it. Interviews this week on Wild Turkey, which drops 1,003 feet during a run of 4,125 feet, confirmed that.
Beginners like Alice Striffler of Virginia Beach also were sympathetic to the program. Striffler, 28, a recreation worker, landed in the hospital after her first ski run on a Maryland mountain.
"I didn't know anything about skiing. I saw everybody going to the top and figured that's where I was supposed to be," she said.
Most skiers, however, fall somewhere between the beginner and expert class. They are the ones who find the restrictions at Wintergreen aggravating.
"If I had known they weren't going to let me on the steep stuff I would have gone somewhere closer to home like Ski Liberty or Bryce," said Allen Richards, 24, a file clerk from Silver Spring who claims to have skied the hardest runs in Vermont and Lake Tahoe but was not allowed to try Wintergreen's worst. "You can bet I won't be back here."
Ski resort managers around the area are very curious about the Wintergreen program and how it fared this year. But none thought ski segregation was the wave of the future.
"In some ways I think it's a great idea," says Cliff Turner, an official at Snowshoe, which offers the most challenging skiing in the Mid-Atlantic area. "But there is the other school of thought that you can't progress unless you get in over your head every once in a while. In theory, certification is great, but it sounds like it opens a whole big can of worms."