Skiing every ski state

Photo: Jon Wyatt

I first set skis on American snow late in the spring of 1978 – in Aspen and Vail, Colorado, and two Californian valleys: Squaw and Heavenly. It was the last day of the season at Heavenly, and the code on the lift tickets was TGIO. I discovered this stood for “Thank God It’s Over.” For me, however, it was just the beginning of a three-decade love affair with American skiing, which continues to this day
I have a theory: menfolk love the Rockies because of their association with the Wild West – hell, it IS the wild west! So those of us babyboomers who watched westerns as youngsters can actually see where some of these wonderfully exciting movies were made – such as the glorious Tetons of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which feature so dramatically in the classic movie, Shane.
By 1986, when I started a 15-year-spell as the FT’s ski correspondent, I had continued to explore the Rockies and also started to discover the Appalachians, which – though smaller, colder and often icier than their western counterparts – offered a different kind of magic: skiing in the woods, with the hoot of owls and screams of jays, and the warm fireside welcome that New Englanders seem to excel at.
By now I was familiar with many resorts in Colorado, Utah, California, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. In 1990, I was asked by Vogue magazine to write about skiing somewhere on the planet every month. And this got me thinking. If one could ski every month of the year, why not every day?
Come 1994, I set out with Lucy Dicker to do just that in the Financial Times Round The World Ski Expedition, writing every single Saturday about our travels through the Alps, the Rockies, the Himalayas, the Andes, the Japan Alps, and the Southern Alps and the Snowies of the Antipodes. During this mission, which took us to 240 ski areas and into the Guinness Book of Records, we realised that driving rather than flying was often less disruptive, so we ended up taking a curious route across the USA, skiing in southern states that had minimal skiing – boldly going to strange new ski worlds which were often the only single places with organised skiing in an entire state. Americans like to classify ski areas as “breeders, feeders, and leaders” and we were about to experience some serious breeders.
We drove across Wisconsin and into Illinois, where we were told that Villa Olivia, a filled in garbage dump converted into a ski slope – rather like “Mount Trashmore”, Virginia – had the unenviable record of beiing the only ski area where a drunk driver had once killed someone standing in the liftline because the road was so close to the skiing. Next was Kentucky (where Ski Butler has since closed) – and even Alabama (50 miles south west of Chattanooga, Tennessee) where Cloudmont, with a vertical descent of around 150 feet, is served by just two tow lifts, and across Georgia (where the state’s only ski area, Sky Valley, was closed all that winter, and remains closed) to get to North Carolina. Next came, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York State, which – intriguingly – has over 40 ski areas: more than any other state.
The curious thing is that although these resorts are minnows compared with celebrated names like Vail, Aspen and Jackson Hole, I enjoyed skiing there just as much. What they lack in gradient and size, they make up for in charm, honest-to-goodness enthusiasm, and intimacy.

So it was no hardship to consider the possibility of finishing the job and trying to get round to every US state with organised skiing. There are 37 (40 originally, but Kentucky, Nebraska and Geogia have fallen by the wayside). You can ski in Hawaii, too, but there are no permanent lifts.
I started working in a new state whenever I was “passing.” En route home to the UK from Utah, I found myself with a few hours to spare in Detroit. Much to the amusement of an airport taxi driver, I leapt into his cab and asked him to take me to Alpine Valley where I borrowed some ski gear and ticked off Michigan. Driving to New York one winter’s day, I took a detour and skied Mohawk Mountain, Connecticut. Then I ticked off Jiminy Peak, Massachusetts.
By now there were just nine skiable states I hadn’t visited. It was time for a concentrated blitz. But I wanted to share the final stages of this adventure with someone. Who better than Bernie Weichsel, who organises ski shows every year in Boston, Denver and Minneapolis, and now also runs the American Ski Hall of Fame.
Weichsel was intrigued, and became a brilliant wing-man, organising transport, flights, hotels and even a couple of gold passes from NSAA – America’s National Ski Areas Association (which resemble Olympic gold medals).
We duly braved the flatlands of “Tornado Alley”, drifting down through Powder Ridge (Minnesota), Bear’s Den “Mountain” (North Dakota) and Great Bear Ski Valley (South Dakota). In Nebraska, the local ski hill, NebraSki, was shut and remains so, but just across the border we reached Mount Crescent (Iowa). The area was closed for the day – but we walked up anyway, before calling a halt at Snow Creek, Missouri.
Two years ago, Weichsel and I closed in for the kill. There were only four more states to go. And we could easily polish off three – Yawgoo Valley, a converted patchwork of abandoned potato fields (vertical drop 245 feet) in the unlikely state of Rhode Island, Mountain Creek (New Jersey) and the twin ski areas of Brandywine and Boston Mills in Ohio. I left some fancy heliski gloves in the base lodge at Yawgoo Valley (vertical drop 245 ft). The owners – who bought the area under the mistaken impression that Yawgoo was an Iroquoi word for “friendly” only to discover (apparently) that it meant the opposite – had probably never even seen a pair of heliski gloves in their resort before, but returned them faithfully to me.
Come this winter, there was only one state to go: Arizona. With Weichsel once again acting as chauffeur, liaison officer and companion, we flew into Phoenix, Arizona to find temperatures nudging 80 degrees. Pushing on to Flagstaff, where we were entertained by members of the Arizona Ski Museum and other skiing aficionados in a restaurant whose walls were plastered with all manner of skiing memorabilia
Perhaps because like many of the less obvious skiing states Arizona has unexpected skiing attributes (four ski areas) ski enthusiasts here are devoted to their sport. We homed in on the Arizona Snow Bowl, with a more-than-healthy vertical drop, (for Arizona) of 2,300 feet, some impressively long – and more than steep enough – runs, plus tantalising glimpses of the Grand Canyon 70 miles away.
We could have stopped after one run, and opened the champagne. But of course we didn’t, skiing hard and pleasurably for a few hours. Unlike some of the southern states and those along Tornado Alley, Arizona Snowbowl’s skiing was exhilarating, and more than challenging enough to keep us happy on 32 trails, some as long as two miles, with some excellent tree-skiing thrown in. It was an exhilarating climax to a mission that had lasted 33 years.
What next? Well, you never know – climate change or not, Georgia’s and Nebraska’s solitary ski areas might re-open one day. And then there’ll work to be done.