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Moonshine Freeway: Discovering powder stashes and ski tradition south of the Mason Dixon Line

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Moonshine Freeway: Discovering powder stashes and ski tradition south of the Mason Dixon Line

Written by Xavier— Posted in January 24, 2023

Min Reading Time

WORDS — Graham Averill
PHOTOS — Derek DiLuzio

It’s nearly midnight when the tall man within the camo jacket arms me a bottle of whiskey and says, “Don’t fear, you’re within the land of the freaks now.” His associates chuckle. We’re in a instrument shed in the midst of West Virginia. Snow is falling onerous outdoors, somebody is shucking oysters out of a burlap bag and the Grateful Lifeless is enjoying at peak quantity on audio system mounted within the nook of the room. I had a hunch issues may get bizarre once I deliberate a ski journey via West Virginia with two buddies, so I take the whiskey and look ahead to my probability to crack open an oyster from the bag. Like the great man within the camo stated, I’m within the firm of freaks.

What might probably go flawed? 

The concept was bold: Street journey into West Virginia and hit all 5 ski resorts within the state in 4 days, tenting alongside the way in which. For those who don’t dwell within the South, you may not take into account West “By God” Virginia as a viable ski vacation spot. If the state is understood for something, it’s coal extraction, being overwhelmingly patriotic or simply being actual fucking redneck. All of that are true, however you’re simply scratching the floor with these stereotypes. West Virginia is within the midst of an id disaster. Coal jobs are waning with the introduction of recent, cleaner power sources and journey tourism is on the rise, however there’s nonetheless pressure between the outdated and new economies as long-time locals and newcomers to the state sometimes conflict. I’m not one to evaluate, although; I’m having my very own id disaster, amplified by Covid-19 restrictions. Am I a skier if I can’t ski these massive mountains out West? Contemplate this journey a seek for id—a fact-finding mission the place I enterprise deep into the guts of the South to discover a ski tradition I can name my very own. 

West Virginia has a few of the most rugged mountains on the jap seaboard and, come winter, these mountains can pull down near 200 inches of snow, sucking up the tail finish of Lake Impact storms shifting out of the Midwest. Nonetheless, snowboarding in West Virginia is a bet due to the preeminent freeze/thaw cycle: You might get ice or dust or knee-deep powder, which is why I usually select to not roll the cube and easily fly west for extra assured situations. However since common journey restrictions had shut down Rocky Mountain ski journeys for many people, I’m trying to my very own yard for a powder repair. 

I roped two ski companions into the journey, Jeff Keener and photographer Derek DiLuzio, neither of which had skied a lot in West Virginia and have been skeptical about how the terrain would stack up towards their expertise within the Rockies. Mom Nature had delivered a sequence of storms that prompt strong early season situations, however what the hell would go for ski tradition in a state that has extra ATV trails than paved roads? By the point we discover ourselves entrenched within the instrument shed oyster fest, all of our issues had vanished. Snow is falling onerous and there’s speak amongst the crew of an evening mission for crusty activates the mountain behind the shed. 

Issues weren’t all the time trying so rosy, although. The primary couple of days have been tough. Listed here are the highlights: We watched just a little woman in pigtails pressure her brother to tow her across the snow in circles, like skijoring, however as a substitute of a horse it was a chubby boy in a vivid orange searching go well with (serendipitously, John Denver’s “Nation Roads” was enjoying on the resort’s PA system on the identical time); we bounced off the hardwoods whereas snowboarding ice via bushes at Snowshoe Mountain Resort (an indication on the high of the mountain warned us that the powder we noticed within the bushes was “a deceitful mistress”); one way or the other we didn’t go to the porn store proper subsequent to the primary resort we skied; and we spent the evening in a tent subsequent to a dumpster in a parking zone. 


We have been alleged to lease a swanky camper van with warmth and a kitchen, however we determined that may be too bougie for us, so we towed a Sylvan Sport, which is a glorified four-person tent that doubles as a ski rack. We needed to strip our gloves to arrange the tent, which might have been tremendous if it wasn’t seven levels with whipping wind outdoors. Listening to the Beastie Boys and ingesting Coors helped, however our fingers nonetheless went numb.

I go to sleep listening to Keener speak about stitching a winter coat out of highway kill pelts for snowboarding on actually chilly resort days. Keener is my “ski partner.” We plan days on the native hill collectively, a tiny “resort” with 60 acres of synthetic ice to shred, construct greater ski journeys round one another’s schedules, go on epic, all-day cross-country excursions as a duo… Does our winter marriage trigger pressure with our precise wives? Typically. However if you wish to preserve a wholesome relationship, you’ve gotta put within the work. Derek requested if deer fur could be one of the best materials for that highway kill efficiency jacket. Keener scoffed. “Too heavy. Raccoon fur could be excellent. Lighter, higher insulating. It will take loads of raccoons, although.” 

So, yeah, issues are trying up as we huddle contained in the instrument shed, slurping oysters and making an attempt not to consider how far we’re from the closest ocean. The shed is in Canaan Valley, a broad, agricultural meadow at 3,200 toes, surrounded by a bowl of mountains rising 1,000 toes larger. Take a look at Canaan Valley from the proper angle and it seems downright volcanic, or perhaps an impression left by an asteroid. It’s additionally floor zero for snowboarding within the South, boasting two alpine resorts (Canaan Valley Resort and Timberline) and a ski-touring heart known as Whitegrass, which attracts a mix of hippies and Nordic nerds, life-long tele devotees, split-boarders and new college rippers with AT gear. All of them collect to drink, eat by the fireplace and discover the backcountry terrain that rises from the sting of Whitegrass’ iconic purple lodge. Mix the old fashioned tailgating scene at Arapahoe Basin, the blue collar roots of the Higher Peninsula and the crunchy vibes of Vermont’s backcountry, and also you’ll begin to perceive the allure of Whitegrass. As for the terrain, it’s extra backcountry than cross-country—all up and down on ridges rising from the meadow surrounding the lodge. Watch movies of youngsters who develop up right here and also you’ll see them hucking boulders on skinny skis within the bushes above the lodge. 

“It’s a small hippie enclave in the midst of West Virginia,” says Athey Lutz, the man within the camo jacket handing out whiskey. “Go searching and also you may assume you’re in Michigan’s UP, or Vermont or hell, even Norway. It’s a pleasant mixture of redneck and hippie cultures.” 

The whiskey we’re ingesting really comes from Athey’s personal distillery just a few miles down the highway. He grew up in Canaan Valley, skied competitively in school and now coaches the native youth race group. The instrument shed is known as Barry’s World, named after a beloved Whitegrass volunteer/worker. It’s the closest factor to a VIP lounge you’ll discover on this a part of West Virginia—the go-to spot for locals within the know to repair their skis, seize a beer and get heat. There’s a lot occurring within the small area that it’s onerous to focus. Spools of thick-gauge wire are stacked on cabinets, together with air compressors, instrument containers and cans of unfastened screws. Christmas lights and flags hold from the ceiling, a furnace clicks and hums, pitchforks and hoes are stacked in a nook, tele bindings and small woodland creatures are mounted to the partitions. There’s a keg of beer and a small desk within the heart of the room with three totally different sorts of sizzling sauce. Somebody has attached a vise to make shucking oysters simpler. 

A half a dozen skiers are crammed within the shack, watching the snow come down outdoors and speaking in regards to the bomber early season situations. Chip Chase is the ring chief, proprietor of Whitegrass and native legend. He’s small in stature, gentle spoken with a bandana round his neck, however has an outsized stoke that’s contagious. Perhaps it’s the moonshine and oysters speaking, however I’m satisfied that this ten-by-seven-foot shack is the middle of the universe and there’s nowhere else I’d fairly be than proper right here, proper now. On the finish of the night, stomach filled with oysters and head gentle from the ‘shine, I’m filled with stoke as I crawl into the tent, occupied with the subsequent two days, which will likely be spent exploring the Valley’s items. 

Tight & Sketchy

Ian Beckner provides me the finger and factors to the meaty half between his thumb and his pointer knuckle. “That’s West Virginia proper there,” he says, utilizing his hand as a makeshift map for the area. “Proper within the Fuck You.” 

Ian grew up in Canaan Valley, sleeping beneath the benches of the native ski store that his mom managed and getting kicked out of the lodge for beginning meals fights whereas on the youth racing group. “Snowboarding was every thing to me,” he says. Now he owns his personal ski store, Driftland, and spends most of his free time glading backcountry runs everywhere in the Valley. “The snowboarding potential right here is large. There’s a lot terrain, we don’t have time to glade all of it. And we’ve got three resorts inside 5 miles of one another? Who else has that?” 

A number of inches of recent powder fell in a single day and the snow continues to be coming down as we comply with Ian on a tour of Canaan Valley Resort, hitting mellow, broadly spaced glades known as “Darkish Aspect of the Moon,” and steep bumps beneath the raise. At one level, Ian and I do some exploring, dropping via steep, however open glades that funnel us right into a creek mattress that varieties a slim half pipe via dense hardwoods. Every bend within the creek requires a tough, hockey cease, and a few downed bushes pressure us into limbo place. When you’re within the dry creek mattress although, you’re dedicated, like snowboarding a luge, and I’m just a little stunned when the luge dumps me out onto a inexperienced groomer on the base of the mountain, fully intact. 

Ian is all smiles at discovering a brand new line. “Welcome to tree snowboarding in West Virginia,” he says. “Tight and sketchy.” 

Timberline, the Valley’s different resort only a few miles away, is even higher. We meet up with Athey Lutz, who’s filled with power and large hucks as he reveals us his favourite strains on the mountain, which has been revived after sitting dormant since 2018. New homeowners have pumped 10 million into the hill’s infrastructure, together with a high-speed, six-person chair that makes operating laps on the mountain straightforward and exhausting. 

“This was once a two-beer journey,” Athey says of the outdated raise, a dinosaur double that infamously fell aside with skiers on it in 2016. “Now you barely have time to chug a single beer.” 

We watch Athey ski a sequence of whales—massive humps of synthetic snow blown onto the sting of the run—skipping throughout them effortlessly, catching air with every massive hump, like he’s hitting a trampoline all the way in which down the mountain. Timberline isn’t massive, simply 91 acres, however the selection and high quality of terrain is staggering. My legs go jelly on lengthy bump runs, and we discover massive hits on the perimeters of steep groomers, however the true pleasure at Timberline is within the bushes, that are tight, fall line affairs filled with knee-deep powder. Every steep part appears to be adopted by a extra mellow saddle, like an eddy after a speedy in a river, giving me simply sufficient time to collect myself earlier than chasing Athey additional into the forest. 

I’m labored by the top of the day, however Athey is beaming with satisfaction. That is the primary season lifts have been operating on Timberline in three years, and he couldn’t be happier. “You need to go actually far north to search out the form of terrain that Timberline has.” 

The solar is vivid, however sinking by the point we retreat to our campsite at Whitegrass, the place a full-blown après ski scene has blossomed. Dozens of skiers are mingling 

within the flat, snow-covered meadow on the base of the touring heart. Somebody has tapped a keg and a volunteer is cooking burgers on a grill. Chip Chase is milling round, handing out free pictures of moonshine from a glass jug. We pull out the ping pong desk and set it up close to the keg and get a mellow match going, inviting individuals to play of their AT and tele boots. 

Shit, did I overlook to say we introduced a ping pong desk on our ski journey? Yeah. We introduced a ping pong desk on our ski journey. ‘Trigger why not. 

The bonfire will get larger because the solar drops and extra individuals make their approach out of the woods, a few of them sporting skinny skis, whereas others are on extra trendy fats gear. A gaggle of 4 roll up recent off an 18-mile ski, stoked on the accomplishment. A pleasant man named Jamie saunters as much as the fireplace with a cooler and a field of meals and begins making everybody bourbon cocktails whereas setting out a charcuterie board to share. Everybody at Whitegrass desires to pitch in, to be greater than only a spectator. 

Snowboarding looks as if a neater match right here than on the different resorts we’ve hit on this journey. Snowshoe usually has nice situations, and the mountaintop village developed by Intrawest a number of years in the past is gorgeous, but it surely looks like a miniature Vail, an island separate from the remainder of the state. Winterplace, our ultimate cease on the tour, may be very a lot an area’s hill, however lacks any sense of ski tradition. However in Canaan Valley, outdated West Virginia and new West Virginia appear to be extra at peace. I ask Ian if there’s any pressure between the multi-generation locals and the newer transplants. 

“Typically, however not as a lot as once I was a child,” he says, including that when he was rising up, you both performed soccer and baseball otherwise you skied. You didn’t do each. However Ian himself is a little bit of a conundrum. He has a mullet, however listens to NPR. He drives an Audi, however loves his twin sport bikes. He’s a dwelling metaphor for what’s occurring within the Valley because the disparate cultures meld into one thing totally new. It makes me notice I don’t must dwell out West to name myself a skier. Ski tradition may be totally different in West Virginia, but it surely’s alive and effectively, and one thing to be pleased with.  

“I see extra locals letting their children discover ways to ski. I see the cultures mixing, redneck and skier,” Ian says. “And that mix makes for a extremely nice social gathering.”

It’s a celebration I can’t wait to crash once more. I’m certain I’ll ski out West as restrictions are scaled again, however the minute we head south within the truck in direction of dwelling, we begin planning our subsequent ski journey to West Virginia. There’s a lot we didn’t get to deal with. We’ll plan for extra days in Canaan Valley. We’ll deliver headlamps for midnight backcountry missions. We’ll come ready as well up a few of Ian and Athey’s secret stash tree strains. We’ll positively deliver the ping pong desk. The mountains aren’t as massive because the Rockies and the snow isn’t as deep, however the terrain is nice and when you hit it proper, there’s loads of powder. And the ski tradition is not like anything I’ve skilled. It’s a hell of a mix for a ski journey, particularly when you like your turns with a facet of moonshine. I’m relaxed as I head dwelling, no id disaster right here. I dwell within the South, I ski the South and that’s sufficient for me. 

This story initially appeared in FREESKIER Quantity 24.
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