As a child, I made quite a name for myself on the local ski slopes. Alongside a love of skiing, I developed a persistent, irrational tendency to freeze at the very moment I was supposed to ski off the chairlift. Much to the chagrin of my older siblings — and, no doubt, my fellow skiers — this caused multiple ski-lift halts and notably, an impromptu snowmobile rescue from the top of the highest diamond slope after I failed to exit the lift at the bunny slope and just kept riding. After several rounds of this, the ski operators took to flanking my chair as I glided up to them, grabbing me by the arms to pull me down the small hill, like the ski version of the police escorts that help jittery drivers over the Bay Bridge.
Despite these ignoble beginnings, I enjoy skiing with my children on some of the slopes I remember from childhood — especially when I don’t have to commit to an overnight stay. There are upwards of 30 ski destinations within three to four hours of Washington, along the Appalachian range and beyond. But a half dozen are two hours or less from the Beltway. With kids in the mix, the less time spent languishing on the road, the better.
Whitetail Resort and Liberty Mountain Resort, the first two resorts we visited this season, are both about 90 minutes’ drive from the District. The third, Massanutten, is about two hours away, near Harrisonburg.
We took the winter’s inaugural ski trip to Whitetail, in Mercersburg, Pa. (Whitetail and its Pennsylvania “sister resorts,” Liberty in Carroll Valley and Roundtop in Lewisberry, share an owner, and visitors can purchase passes good at all three locations.) At Whitetail, kids can take ski lessons in mixed age groups. For reluctant younger kids, learning alongside parents can be a major plus. The beginners’ class is about an hour, a good length for kids — still covers enough bases to get them started. I took the lesson, too, ostensibly to keep my kids company, but once we started, I was glad I had. As a permanent advanced beginner who hadn’t skied in years, the refresher was much appreciated.
Our ski coach quickly singled out my then-8-year-old as the smallest and youngest of the group, taking Noah under his wing and praising his efforts to the group. My normally cautious son was barreling down the hills at top speed in no time. Not crazy about the height of the chairlift, he found his footing that first day through multiple trips up the carpet ride, the moving walkway for beginner skiers that’s a standard feature on all of today’s bunny slopes. My teen daughter, less enamored of the cold-weather sport than we were, begged off our subsequent trips in favor of the warm indoors back home.
Ironically, our next trip, to Liberty, fell on the warmest ski day we had all season. Several years ago, the National Ski Areas Association voted Liberty one of the best places in the country for beginners to learn to ski and snowboard. The resort’s group instruction, in contrast to Whitetail’s, gathers students by age as well as ability and ran a bit over 1
Of course, with temperatures in the 50s and the snow machines at capacity, there was more slushing than schussing. It slowed us down a bit, but skiing with one less layer of clothing was a welcome novelty. This time, Noah ventured up in the chairlift with me, and after a shaky first trip (“Take a photo when we get to the top, Mom. We’re not doing this again!”), we went on a number of more challenging runs, stopping only briefly for lunch at the lodge food court.
Although options vary among resorts, all of the ski lodges we visited offer food that’s consistently kid-friendly — and by kid-friendly, I mean cafeteria-style. But we were happy enough to scarf down the standard cheese pizza and get back to the slopes. And, really, when you’re cold, any cocoa will hit the spot. McKee’s Tavern, our après-ski choice at Liberty, offered French onion soup and grilled cheese to ward off the chill before we headed back home.
Several weeks later, we finally ventured to Massanutten, where I’d first learned to ski. Times have changed since I was little: It’s now an all-season resort, offering everything from an indoor water park and an ice skating rink to fishing and an 800-foot zip line in the summer. It also boasts the largest vertical drop (1,110 feet) of any slope in Virginia, Maryland or Pennsylvania. The resort offers a variety of lesson options. Its basic package, the Pathway Program, groups skiers by ability in mixed ages for hour-long lessons. Ski students can take lessons of increasing difficulty after “graduating” from the previous class.
Massanutten’s roomy quad chairlifts allow plenty of time to strike up conversations with the snowboarders who are as visible a presence on today’s slopes as skiers. Fun as it looked, their assurances that wipeout recovery was less fun on one board than two skis — and our bird’s-eye view of snowboarders wiping out halfway down the hill — convinced us to leave that particular sport for another time.
Indeed, skiing with kids who still aren’t allowed to walk to school alone can be a cognitive leap for today’s parents. I admit I felt a pang as my fourth-grader dangled high overhead in Massanutten’s chairlift, unrestrained save for a single metal bar. Later, I learned that one of his fellow quad-lift passengers impatiently lifted the restraining bar far in advance of lift’s end, lending credence to my most far-fetched imaginings. (Come to think of it, where were my parents while my chairlift crisis was playing itself out? Probably chilling back at the lodge, I now realize. Ah, the enviable bliss of ’70s parenting.)
A major boon is the resort’s Southern Comfort beginner’s slope, a luxuriously long 2,300 feet that allows room to try out new moves on a gentle grade. As the day progressed, we found ourselves returning to Southern Comfort repeatedly; by the time the sun started to dim I was hitting my limit, unlike my inexhaustible ski buddy.
“One more time, Mom?” he pleaded.
My face was cold. I could feel three of every five toes. The pain emanating from an oddly laced boot would later manifest as ribbonlike welts around my ankle. The resort’s Encounters Lounge restaurant — or heck, even just the cafeteria — beckoned with the promise of hot soup, hot cocoa or just plain heat.
But we could still fit in another run before the sun started to sink for the day; one more time to slip the ties of gravity, to surrender to one more blinding-white snow slide so exhilarating it made everything else worthwhile. “One more time,” I agreed.
Lanyi is a writer in Arlington.
The resorts listed below are all about two hours or less from the Beltway. It is advisable to call ahead the day of travel to confirm ski conditions, as activities may vary with the weather. All resorts are open through February; most through mid- to late March.
925 Roundtop Rd., Lewisberry, Pa.
The resort has a variety of packages tailored to kids, depending on age and interest level. Weekdays 9 a.m.-10 p.m; weekends and holidays 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Average cost of lessons, lift tickets and rentals ranges from about $70 to about $120 depending on dates and type of lesson; call or check online for details.
13805 Blairs Valley Rd., Mercersburg, Pa.
Lifts operate 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Skiing or snowboarding learner packages range from $86 to $99 and include rentals, lessons and lift tickets.
1822 Resort Dr., McGaheysville, Va.
Massanutten’s Pathway Program is designed for first-time skiers age 7 and older; kids 6 and younger need to schedule private lessons. Sunday through Thursday 9 a.m.-9 p.m. and Friday, Saturday and holidays 9 a.m.-10 p.m. The package for half-day lessons, rentals and lift tickets ranges from $79 to $99; for full-day lessons, $89 to $109.
Liberty Mountain Resort
78 Country Club Trail, Fairfield, Pa.
Through its Children’s Learning Center, Liberty offers a variety of ski lesson packages for kids, from two hours to four hours to full-day ski camp. Half-day lessons run $89 during mid-week or off-peak times, $120 on weekends or peak times.
296 Marsh Hill Rd., McHenry, Md.
Wisp offers half-, full-day, or private ski lessons for kids through its Wisp Kids programs. Tuesday to Saturday 9 a.m.- 9 p.m., Sunday and Monday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. They run from $79 to $119 for a half day to $99 to $139 for a full.
1982 Fairway Dr., Basye, Va.
In addition to standard lessons for all ages, Bryce has special Kinder Ski programs designed to teach kids ages 4
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the Web site of Bryce Resort. It is www.bryceresort.com. Also, the season at Bryce Resort lasts through mid-March, not Feb. 23rd.
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