Q&A with M. Scott Smith of DCSki.com

This winter I discovered the Web site DCSki.com | @DCSki when I was looking for a “lost ski resort” off of I-66. It turned out to be Ski Cherokee in Linden, Va. I have since enjoyed the many reviews of mid-Atlantic resorts that DCSki.com offers. I decided to set up a Q&A with M. Scott Smith, the publisher of DCSki…

WFY: First off, how are you coping with this false winter?

DCSki: It’s been tough! It’s always hard to predict what winter will be like in the mid-Atlantic. But even though it’s been fairly mild (at times VERY mild), there is snow on the slopes. Over the past decade mid-Atlantic ski areas have invested millions of dollars in snowmaking improvements. They now have state-of-the-art snowmaking that can produce more snow with less energy in an automated fashion. With just a couple nights of below-freezing temperatures, they can blanket entire slopes. That’s something they couldn’t do just a few years ago, and it makes a huge difference in lean years like this. If it’s too humid or the temperature is above freezing, they won’t be able to make snow, but once the wet bulb reaches that magical point, they can make tons and tons of snow.

Truth be told, many resorts would prefer to have cold temperatures without the natural snow, because that keeps the roads clear so skiers and boarders can safely reach the slopes. Resorts can carefully control the quality of the snow they make, while Mother Nature isn’t always as careful. (That wet, gloppy snow isn’t too helpful to skiers.)

There are still a lot of weeks left in the ski season. In the end, I think skiers and boarders will do OK.

WFY: What was your inspiration for starting DCSki?

DCSki: When I was in college, I purchased a Season Pass at local resort and tried to ski as often as I could. Back then, the only way to learn about ski conditions was to call the resort’s snow line. These recorded messages were famous for their breathless enthusiasm, which often bore little resemblance to the conditions you would find upon arriving at the slopes. Since I was skiing frequently, I decided to create an e-mail newsletter to describe conditions in my own words. This e-mail newsletter expanded to cover more and more mid-Atlantic resorts, and jumped to the web in 1997, expanding from about 100 subscribers originally to thousands and thousands of readers today.

Things have changed a lot since then. I remember how proud I was in 1997 when I was able to take some photos at a local resort and publish them to the web on the same day. This involved shooting the photos with a film camera, rush-developing the film at Ritz Camera, and then scanning the prints into the computer. Now, of course, many resorts stream live video direct from webcams and skiers upload photos in real-time from their smartphones. Skiers and snowboarders have access to a lot more real-time information to help guide their decisions and skiing dollars. DCSki continues to provide an independent voice, capturing a lot of resources together in one place and providing a community for passionate skiers and boarders to interact.

WFY: Your bio says you are Colorado native, so I assume you picked up skiing there. How was the adjustment to the mid-Atlantic/Northeast? I took a Colorado skier with me to Camelback in the Poconos once and all he did was complain about the “ice” and ask “where is the mountain?”

DCSki: I grew up cross country skiing in Colorado, but I never actually went downhill skiing until I moved out east — talk about backwards! When you’re a kid, though, you kind of do what your parents do. And my parents didn’t downhill ski. Now I try to make it back to Colorado as often as I can.

A lot of native Colorado skiers will tell you that it’s more challenging skiing in the East. I had one instructor at Snowmass tell me that the best skiers he knows cut their teeth on the hardpack conditions of the East Coast (editor’s note – I might have bolded for emphasis). If you can ski well in those conditions, you can ski well just about anywhere.

Mid-Atlantic resorts don’t have the scale or packed powder conditions that you’ll find out west. But skiing is skiing, and the local resorts work wonders with what they have. We have some of the best snowmaking in the world right in our backyard, and that can work wonders in lean snow years, like much of the west has faced this winter. Although I’ve skied a lot in Colorado, some of my best ski days have been right here at resorts like Whitetail.

WFY: I’ve tended to ski in the Poconos since I went to college near there for 2 winters and still have friends up that way. I’ve never skied in Western Pennsylvania, so I wonder if that’s better. I’ve tried to get an answer, but I don’t think many skiers have been both places. Do you have a preference?

DCSki: I’m not sure one area is better than another. Blue Knob, in western Pennsylvania, is known for having some tougher trails that expert skiers appreciate. Some of DCSki’s Columnists really appreciate Elk Mountain, which is pretty far north in PA, although I haven’t been there. For a lot of folks, mid-Atlantic skiing is about what’s most convenient. If you live near the Poconos, there might not be much motivation to ski further south. If you live near Seven Springs, you may not have much reason to drive to the Poconos.

WFY: Which ski areas would you recommend within driving distance for a day trip?

DCSki: My favorite local resort is Whitetail — it’s about an hour and a half away from DC and Baltimore. I appreciate its vertical (1,500 feet) and high-speed quad. On a weekday, you can find great conditions and have the place to yourself. Liberty and Roundtop are also very popular with DC natives, and Wintergreen provides some Shenandoah charm.

WFY: How far north do you have to go to get skiing comparable to out west?

DCSki: I’m not sure you can drive far enough north! New England has a lot of great ski areas (particularly in Vermont), but in most years, you can’t beat the consistently good conditions of Colorado. Since I don’t get to ski outside of this area much, I would rather ski out west than gamble on great New England conditions; it’s easier and quicker to fly to Denver than to drive to Vermont. Other DCSki contributors have a soft spot for New England skiing, but my heart is still out west.

WFY: Every year I see more and more helmets on the mountain. Do you have any recommendations for selecting a helmet?

DCSki: It’s been tremendous to see an uptick in the number of helmets worn, especially by children. I began encouraging helmet use years ago on DCSki, and quickly realized I would have to “eat my own dog food” by wearing a helmet myself — something I initially was hesitant to do. There was no reason to be hesitant; ski helmets are lightweight and keep your head warm, not to mention safe! There’s really no good reason not to wear a helmet. Having said that, you do want to get them properly fit — they come in many sizes and many have lots of adjustments you can make. It’s best to see a professional at a reputable ski shop. They won’t let you walk away with a bad helmet. The key is to make sure the helmet doesn’t flop around when you make sudden head movements — it should be pretty snug. But it should be comfortable to you, too — if it isn’t comfortable, you’ll be less likely to wear it.

WFY: I want to get my son on skis when he’s 4½. Are any of the resorts better for little kids than others?

DCSki: I have two young nieces and they rave about the Ski School at Roundtop Mountain Resort. I haven’t found a mid-Atlantic resort yet that doesn’t have an excellent program for kids. Most of the local ski schools are staffed by people who are passionate about skiing and snowboarding; they want to spread their joy to others. For most of them it’s not a “job.” So I don’t think you can go wrong. The best thing you can do is try to go on a weekday — weekends can be very crowded and that can be intimidating. Weekdays may not always be an option, but it’s great if you can swing it.

WFY: What is the best way to save on skiing in this area besides going during the middle of the week?

DCSki: Midweek is definitely the best solution — low crowds, lower prices, what’s not to like? But there are other ways to save. Each fall, I spend a lot of time hunting down deals. I catalog them in the DCSki Bargain Tracker.

In recent years, a lot of resorts have started offering discounts to members of the military. Some even pick a day or weekend to provide free skiing to members of the military, police, and paramedics. Another way to save money is to pack a lunch, rather than buying at the resort. At most resorts, you can find places to stash away a bagged lunch, and few resorts mind if you eat your own food in their lodges. And finally, a lot of resorts offer late-season discounts. The snow conditions can be great into late March. In typical years, resorts close not because they run out of snow, but because people simply stop visiting once the weather starts getting warmer. So you can find good deals and good conditions late in the season.

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