Snow Days!

Hitting the slopes at Virginia’s fab four.

(Photography by Sam Dean; Tanja and Ryan Locher at Bryce)

Sam Dean and I were tackling Bryce, the first stop on a four-day blast through Virginia’s ski areas. We’d skied together during the decade we worked at The Roanoke Times, squeezing in ski days between assignments, grabbing as many runs as we could before the lifts shut down. For Dean, little had changed. But my equipment, along with my joints, felt rusty, and my confidence had waned. And in skiing, confidence is key.

BRYCE: Family-Friendly Terrain

(Photography by Sam Dean; Bryce Resort)

Bryce is a great place for a skier to rebuild that confidence. Nearly all of the terrain is designed for beginning and intermediate skiers and the runs remain uncrowded. Established as a summer resort in the 1900s, Bryce’s ski area, spurred by snowmaking technology, was designed in 1965 by Austrian Sepp Kober, who introduced skiing to The Homestead in 1959.

Bryce had its own Europeans—brothers Manfred and Horst Locher—who began traveling to Bryce from their home in Germany to work as seasonal ski instructors. When they finally settled here in the 1970s the brothers went on to manage ski operations for Bryce, a member-owned resort, for decades.

Today Ryan Locher, Horst’s son, is Bryce’s general manager while Tanja Locher, a daughter of Manfred’s, is a mountain regular. Both successful regional racers who learned to ski at Bryce, Ryan and Tanja served as our guides.

With Dean, they sent sheets of powder flying with every graceful turn, while I stuck to “Redeye,” reminding myself to bend my knees, lean forward, look ahead of my skis, and let them do the work. When I hit a patch of ice—inevitable when skiing in the Southeast—I dug in my edges and, with each run, I felt my confidence grow.

Bryce’s friendly terrain, with just one black-diamond slope—the short, steep “Hangover”—makes it popular with families. And in fact, the resort just enjoyed its best year yet. Between runs, Ryan Locher tells me that the resort’s planned expansion will include adding more slopes off the mountain’s backside.

By afternoon, Dean and I carved down “White Lighting,” worked on tighter turns on “Revenuer’s Run,” and sped straight down “Locher’s Bowl” before calling it a day and heading south.

MASSANUTTEN: Celebrating 50 Years

(Photography by Sam Dean; Massanutten)

As we wound up the mountain that evening, we imagined a mellow weeknight of skiing at Massauntten, which celebrates 50 years this season. Instead, the place was pumping. But with seven lifts serving 14 slopes, Massanutten is well-equipped to handle an influx of skiers and snowboarders.

We slid into line at the high-speed quad lift that runs from the main lodge area about halfway up the mountain. The line moved quickly, and we were soon atop “Southern Comfort.” Rather than take that gentle beginner slope, Dean and I transferred to the nearby quad lift to continue to the area’s peak.

Unlike the lower mountain lifts, the quad to the top had no lines. Even on the busiest days, the toughest terrain is a great place to avoid crowds at any ski area. But once at the top, black-diamond slopes “Para Dice” and “Diamond Jim” are the only way down.

We picked “Para Dice,” and as Dean took off making lilting turns looking for bumps, I followed, working on turns, while being overtaken by gangs of whooping teenaged snowboarders.

Sam Dean

(Photography by Sam Dean)

We hit “Diamond Jim” next, then rolled to the mid-mountain triple that serves “MakAttack” (the mountain’s only other expert-rated slope) and the intermediates “Showtime,” “Mass Transit,” and “Pacesetter.”

Behind “lean forward,” skiing’s other key rule may be: Don’t push your luck with “one more run” when your legs are tired at the end of the day. We passed on “MakAttack” and called it a day—and a night—reaching our rented condo just as a big storm rolled in.

A foot of snow was predicted, but the morning brought 4 inches of ice pellets. Still, to our happy surprise, the slopes were in great shape, thanks to the grooming team.

Despite sketchy main roads, folks were rolling in mid-morning, many wearing University of Virginia and James Madison gear. Although JMU is just 30 minutes from Massanutten, the school’s ski team calls Bryce home, while UVA’s team is based at Wintergreen. But today, these students were just out to have fun.

At the two terrain parks, we watched skilled freestyle skiers and snowboarders do their thing on jumps and rails, then ended the day at the yurt-shaped, glass-enclosed bar at the lodge, sipping Virginia IPAs and watching the slopes.

WINTERGREEN: Something for Everyone

(Photography by Sam Dean; Wintergreen)

The storm that brought ice pellets up north had dropped six inches of powder here, where the skies were an impossibly bright blue. Everyone seemed to be smiling.

Wintergreen is not only Virginia’s largest ski resort, it’s the only one with the main lodge at the top of the slopes, so you start the day skiing from the lodge, where the view is spectacular.

Earlier, we’d been taking in that view from an overlook, when we met a father and son who parked and pulled their skis from their car. Slope poachers? Nope. Season ticket holders. “We park here and walk up the road to get onto Upper Wild Turkey. That way we don’t have to go through the beginner slopes at the end of the day.” Smart!

Wintergreen’s beginner slopes are sandwiched between the mostly intermediate runs on the resort’s south side and the expert runs to the north. Dean and I started on the blue-rated “Eagles Swoop,” where the snow was perfectly groomed, and headed downhill. “Tyro” on the opposite side of the lift is just as good.

Sam Dean

(Photography by Sam Dean; Wintergreen)

We also hit the expert-rated “Upper Sunrise,” the bottom of which is an easier intermediate slope.“Big Acorn,” a black-diamond slope named after the quad lift that serves those slopes, was closed for a race, so we made our way north, skiing “The Gap” and “Devil’s Elbow” to reach the high-speed, six-person Highland Express lift.

“Wild Turkey,” which runs below the lift, was a fun, straight shot. “Cliffhanger” goes from black-diamond on the top to double black on the bottom. Even when groomed, steep terrain can get bumpy and watching an expert bounce effortlessly down a mogul field is breathtaking. Dean and I leave those to the specialists.

Late in the day, halfway down yet another run on “Eagles Swoop,” it hit me. I was no longer thinking about my next turn. For the first time in years, I was just skiing—and it was wonderful.

THE HOMESTEAD: Where It All Began
Sam Dean

(Photography by Sam Dean; The Homestead)

Dean and I hadn’t skied The Homestead, now an Omni Resorts property, for nearly 20 years. It was there that I’d introduced Dean to the woman he would marry. Opened in 1959, the Homestead’s ski area is the Southeast’s first, and you don’t have to be a resort guest to ski there.

Of the mountain’s nine runs, only a short and steep connector trail, “The Glades,” is an expert trail, making The Homestead ideally suited for beginner and early-intermediate skiers. Many Virginians have nostalgic stories about taking their first turns on this beginner-friendly mountain.

Little here has changed. Old loudspeakers on the lift stanchions still blare tinny 80s hits while ice skaters, some graceful, circle the small rink at the foot of the mountain.

The lift offers a midway roll-off station a quarter mile up the hill, where students in the Sepp Kober Ski School exit to meet their instructors. We continued to the top, launching down the slope to the reggae-pop sound of Eddy Grant’s 1983 hit “Electric Avenue.”

The snow was good. The crowds were light. The brisket lunch and cold beer at Kober’s bar at the Mountain Lodge were delicious. The day went quickly and, as the sun dropped toward the horizon, we finally stopped at the bottom of the mountain.

“Are we done?” Dean asked.

“Let’s do one more,” I said.

So we did.

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