Jeff Diner looked the picture of a downhill racer. Skis parallel, his rear end tucked and the sun glinting off his front teeth, he was smooth as water running over a rockslide. Then he hit the slush. Then he slid onto a whale-sized patch of ice.
"That was nasty," said Diner, after performing his imitation of a drunk at a skating party. "After three days in Utah, I'm too spoiled to ski this mess."
At its best, eastern skiing is deplored by western snobs as too quick and easy. At its worst, the kind of downhill thrills you can find within a few hours drive of Washington will persuade you that God didn't intend for our species to fool with the sport.
Last week, at Ski Liberty, our neighborhood slope just 65 miles north of Washington, there was evidence of both skiing extremes. The good news was the weather -- warm, clear-skied and sunny. The bad news was that the weather was causing the snow to form slush on the surface and ice underneath. And with night-time temperatures above freezing, no new snow could be made to cover it.
For most of our metropolitan area, last week's weather was a gift. False spring? Who cares. Warm weather in February can wag the tail of a junkyard dog.
But for skiers, and particularly the folks who own the slopes they ski, the recent heat wave has come at a very bad time.
"When it gets warm, people lose interest," said Manfred Locher, the general manager of Virginia's Bryce Mountain, 120 miles west of the Beltway. "People think there can't be any more snow."
There is still snow on the slopes of Bryce, Liberty, Massanutten, Snowshoe and the 17 other ski resorts within about 250 miles of Washington. There is enough of a base at some mountains to survive a few weeks of this weather.
But without the low temperatures to make new snow, the quality of the old stuff starts to resemble spilled slurpees. Except in spots that never get sun. Those spots are usually 20 yards or so above the place where all the bodies are sprawled.
Ski resort managers can't complain too loudly. The weather has been kind during most of the past six weeks. Although there has been little natural snow, temperatures have remained consistently low enough to make the artificial stuff that is the lifeblood of "Banana Belt" skiing.
"The season began terribly. It was so very mild in December, through the Christmas week and the first nine days of January," said Blair Taylor, manager of West Virginia's Canaan Valley. "But since then, we've been very popular. We've set records practically every weekend we've been open."
Ten years ago, there were few ski slopes south of Pennsylvania, and those few were lucky to be open more than a couple of weeks each year. With the development of sophisticated snow-making machinery, however, the ski boom arrived here.
Because of the weather, the ski business in this area is still a gamble. Financial problems at a few of the resorts have been proof of that. But there have been many more successes. And every year millions of dollars are spent expanding area slopes.
Liberty is an example of that expansion. In the 1960s, when it was known as Charnita, it boasted a hill that was no bigger than a Colorado bunny slope. In recent years, Liberty has opened three expert slopes on the mountain's backside, built new chairlifts and spruced up the lodge.
Business is so good that Ski Roundtop Inc. of York, Pa., wants to develop another ski resort a few miles away, near Emmitsburg, Md. Nearly 600 people signed petitions last year opposing the 500-acre resort, which some have argued would drain the town's water resources and adversely affect the environment.
"It's just a matter of education," said Barry Maloney, a Washington attorney and an investor in the proposed ski resort. "People sometimes say no because they don't have all the information."
Whatever the outcome of that resort, the ski business will likely remain very healthy in this area. The sport is too much fun, even on ice.
"That was a good workout," said Diner, a Washington art and furniture dealer, who came to Liberty with a bad attitude, born of his recent skiing vacation in Utah. By the end of the day, he was planning a trip to another local resort.