Pssst! Are you a skier? Would you like to learn? If you answered positively to either question, then I have a hot tip for you.
A new ski area will open in Pennsylvania next month. It's not just another ski area, either. Whitetail Resort, in Mercersburg, Pa., is billed as the nation's first major new ski resort to open in a decade. In a year when economic uncertainty has quieted ambitious developments in any business, this is significant.
The best news of all? It's barely a 90-minute drive from Baltimore, seven miles off Interstate 70 near Hagerstown.
Let's put Whitetail into perspective. The mountain will join an elite group of "southern" ski resorts with a vertical drop of around 1,000 feet, a magic number as far as skiers are concerned. Vertical drop is the measurement from the uppermost skiable spot on the mountain (usually the dropping off point of the highest chairlift) to the lowermost skiable spot.
Whitetail's vertical falls shy of that "magic number" with 933 feet, but no matter. The next best verticals within a reasonable drive from Baltimore belong to Massanutten, Va., and Elk Mountain, Pa. Both are at least 3 1/2 hours away.
As for other important statistics, Whitetail will boast the only high-speed easy-on, easy-off express quad chairlift in the mid-Atlantic region. Express quads, a relatively new method of hauling skiers up the mountain, are generally found at much larger resorts in the West or in New England. That combined with two additional fixed-grip quad chairlifts (a slightly slower variety) and a double chairlift that services the big inner terrain will enable Whitetail's transportation system to move 8,800 skiers uphill per hour.
But at Whitetail, downhill travel will no doubt create a ground swell of curiosity-seekers this winter. Fourteen trails spread over 100 skiable acres (that's 5.2 miles of trail) will appeal to skiers of just about any ability level. The terrain breaks down to 20 percent novice, 30 percent low intermediate, 35 percent intermediate and 15 percent advanced. A gently pitched beginners' area is separated from the rest of the slopes and a specially designed ski school slope is available for first-time skiers who might feel a bit jittery.
Whitetail's ski school (certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America) is so confident of its ability to teach people how to ski that it is offering first-timers a "Guaranteed Learn-to-Ski" package that includes a full-day beginner chairlift ticket, rental equipment and a group lesson on Whitetail's learning slope. If you are unable to ride the chairlift and ski the novice slope by the end of a lesson, you'll get additional lessons until you can accomplish the feat.
Overall, Whitetail's trails are cut straight down the fall line for a true top to bottom decline and are manicured practically down to individual blades of grass, thus requiring minimal snow cover for optimal results. Granted, it may seem like a risky business to open a ski area in a region not generally known for its abundance of natural snowfall, but Whitetail's management isn't worried. It has installed 275 snow guns (a quarter are tower-mounted) capable of blanketing the entire trail network with a machine-made snow in a very short time.
"We can go from bare ground to providing full skiing in about 48 hours, and we'll do it as often as necessary," says general manager Bruce Watson.
To help produce such huge quantities of machine-made snow, Whitetail has installed a 100-million-gallon self-recovering reservoir along with cooling towers to cool water before it is pumped into the snowmaking guns. It takes about 1.7 million gallons of water to cover the entire trail network, says Sally Bray, Whitetail's public relations coordinator.
"Ten years of cumulative weather data show that we can probably count on 1,200 hours of weather below 30 degrees," says Ms. Bray. Because periods of cold come in spurts, Sno-Engineering, a resort consulting firm based in New Hampshire, designed Whitetail's snowmaking system to take maximum advantage of such typical mid-Atlantic weather conditions.
Whitetail's success will hinge, in part, on a large, mobile cross-section of skiers from the densely populated Washington and Baltimore metropolitan areas. Many are accustomed to traveling long distances to ski at much larger resorts that pride themselves on offering value for the dollar.
Developers have poured $20 million into Whitetail in their effort to compete. Besides state-of-the-art snowmaking and lift systems, skiers will find a 30,000-square-foot base lodge that will offer a variety of food in two distinct but informal dining areas -- a cafeteria and a deli. A separate 9,600-square-foot equipment and rental facility will house 1,800 pairs of new Rossignol skis and Salomon bindings and boots. Experienced skiers may opt for high-performance equipment, which will also be available.