The Return of a Classic Ski Area

I have skied a lot of areas in my time and most of them were in New England where there are the giant, corporately run areas and the smaller privately held areas. The smaller areas always held my interest because they had a sense of tradition and a feel of skiing in another time. Recently, in our neck of the woods, down here in the Banana Belt, Laurel Mountain came to life again this year. It went from being one of the lost ski areas to a vibrant, resurgence of a classic ski area reminiscent of those areas in New England. In fact, there is a tie to Mt. Cranmore in the Mt. Washington Valley of New Hampshire. Apparently, when the Mellon family first had the idea to develop a ski area in 1939 for the members of the prestigious Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier, they hired Hannes Schneider to lay out the trails. Hannes Schneider was the ski school director at Mt. Cranmore who was brought to the US from Austria by the industrialist Harry Gibson, a friend of Richard King Mellon. Schneider is widely acclaimed as the father of ski instruction in this country. newaerial

When you first pull past the stone entrance hut on the mountain road, you feel as if you are driving back in time. The parking lot is never full and as you make your way to the top of the mountain lodge which has been recently refurbished, you can relax in an Adirondack chair by a roaring fire and put your boots on. img_1263 You can then take your brown bag lunch inside or take advantage of some good comfort food in the new bar area in the base of the lodge. The picture windows look out on the whole Ligonier Valley which is not only scenic during the day, but a sight at night if you choose to night ski. The refurbished snowmaking by HKD and the new Pistenbully groomer make the Wildcat slope a delight to ski and it is known to have the steepest vertical in the state. img_1266

I remember skiing Laurel when it was run by the state and had some amazing powder days there with Frank Pipak, a friend who took the PSIA exam the same year that I did. Although, I spent the winter prior to that exam in Sugarloaf, Maine, I often credit my runs down Lower Wildcat with preparing me for the steeper terrain that was utilized in the exam. My friend Hiller Hardie always says, ” if you want to get your legs ready for the western trips, lapping Wildcat at Laurel will put you in good form.” Your legs get a work out on lower Wildcat with the steep vertical pitch. img_1265

When Seven Springs Mountain Resort decided to bring Laurel back to life this season, along with the DCNR of the State of Pennsylvania, it was time to promote it. I have told a lot of friends about my good times at Laurel and how they must try it. Like my two snowboarding friends, Tina and Mark Sauers who were totally enthralled with the area and the family feel to the place. img_1262

We have some challenges down here in the banana belt with the weather being on the edge of rain and snow. But credit Laurel with good snowmaking and grooming to make it possible for enthusiasts like me to get the most days out of rather dismal early winter conditions. I have a lot of good memories of skiing at Laurel back in the day including fun times with my son Jack and our visits to Fort Ligonier and the Pie Shop in Laughlintown at the bottom of the mountain. IMG00117-20100116-1123

Two years ago, Hiller, John McWilliams, Jeff Balicki and John O’Toole and yours truly used our snowshoes to hike into the closed area and after unloading our packs, took two runs down Lower Wildcat. Four hours plus of hiking for two runs was “having to have it” and it showed our devotion to an area which we all loved. It is so nice now to have Carl Skylling’s new Sky Trac chairlift instead of bootpacking to claim our vertical. IMG_1574photophotophoto

So if you are a local, get over to Laurel. You won’t regret it and if you are visiting, check it out. Lower Wildcat will surprise you even if you are a veteran of steep skiing from points beyond. I am so happy it is back. Hannes is probably up there smiling at all of us. Thanks for reading.

Watching and Learning

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In the ski industry, our region is known as the “Banana Belt”. Any winter weather expectations are tempered below the New England, New York State line and those of us who long for winter weather experiences so that we can enjoy our winter sports here in Pennsylvania, have it tough sometimes. The only salve for these wounds of expectation is the hope that the weather will turn locally,focusing on our planned ski trips up north and out west, and………watching ski racing on television. I have always been a fan of ski racing because coming from an instructor background, racing shows the ultimate technique required to make a ski turn efficiently. I make an effort to watch NBC Sports, NBC Sports Network, Universal Sports and use the DVR function to watch turns in slow motion to see if there is anything I can glean from watching the world’s best racers.

I made efforts in past years to watch ski racing up close and personal, climbing up the sides of courses to see exactly how world class racers maneuver their way through combinations in slalom, as well as see their lines in GS and the Downhill. I remember watching Perrine Pelen race slalom at Waterville Valley back in 1982. Perrine was an Olympic silver and bronze medalist in slalom, and giant slalom, and won a gold in slalom at the World Championships. I looked at that combination where I was standing and imagined myself going through that particular section of the course.. When Perrine came rocketing through, it was almost too fast to see exactly what she was doing. Any expectation that I had was completely blown away by her world class technique and speed. It was hard to relate. I needed that slow motion function.

French skier Perrine Pelen smiles as she shows her two Olympic medals, 18 February 1984 in Sarajevo, at the Winter Olympic Games. Pelen won the silver medal in the slalom, 17 February, and the bronze medal in the giant slalom, 13 February.   AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)

French skier Perrine Pelen smiles as she shows her two Olympic medals, 18 February 1984 in Sarajevo, at the Winter Olympic Games. Pelen won the silver medal in the slalom, 17 February, and the bronze medal in the giant slalom, 13 February. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)

I had a great opportunity to meet our US Ski Team member Cindy Nelson at that race with my buddy Billy Boucherimg_1221 and we had a nice discussion with her on the finer points of racing and what her experiences were at the World Cup level. A number of years ago, I had the great experience of being with a group of instructors at an event called “Ski Happyning” in Austria and witnessed the Super Bowl of ski races- the Hahnenkamm. The speed and the treachery of that course was impressive and I learned quickly the value of sharpened edges when I skied the Streif the next day. img_1223

Fast forward, I saw our current slalom star, Mikaela Shiffrin, race in the U.S. Nationals at Squaw Valley two years ago and have watched her career with interest. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RyIpHiHBVA&list=PLiDVMRUU2yRQzbDx3HfH1eHpF86W2tmOG&sns=em

Last weekend, I watched her impressive win in slalom at Killington on NBC. It was the first time in 25 years that the World Cup was on the East Coast and the crowds were huge.It was not only interesting watching her win in front of thousands of fans, but more importantly in front of her 95 year old grandmother who had never seen her race live. 28pennington1-master768 Mikaela is not only extremely confident, but her turns are executed flawlessly. Her timing is perfect as she pressures the skis through a turn and quickly sets up for the next turn high above the next gate. She is never late and as it stands now, she is in a league of her own beating the other ladies by seconds which is light years in ski racing. Her balance is unmatched as she stands perfectly on the skis all the way through the turn. It is really fun to watch.

All in all, you can learn a lot from watching any sport executed by the world’s best. Golfers are always watching the swings of the Tour players and trying to emulate what they do correctly. It is the same with skiing. We watch and learn from skiers like Shiffrin, and see what they do especially when you can see it in slow motion. So, as I wait for the snow and placate myself with muddy mountain bike rides at night or on above frigid weekend days, I hope for the best. The equipment is sitting there waiting, the trips are planned, all we need are the HKD guns to start blasting locally and with a little luck from mother nature, maybe just maybe, we can apply what we learn from watching before Christmas. Think snow, even if you don’t ski or like winter…..it is beautiful to see. A landscape that is blanketed in snow is a visual wonder. Thanks for reading.

Photo of Perrine Pelen – Getty Images
Photo of Mikaela Shiffrin and family- Erich Schlegel- USA Today Sports, via Reuters.
Video – US Ski Team videos.