Ripping it up in Tornado Alley – well, sort of…

As my Airbus touched down in the twin cities of Minneapolis-St Paul, a gleeful passenger shouted: “Enjoy the cold – I’ll be wearing shorts in five hours!” He was off to Florida. I was about to make a 1,000-mile skiing journey down America’s so-called “Tornado Alley”.
The trip was part of my self-imposed quest to ski in every US state which has lift-assisted downhill skiing – and there are 40 of them. Having over the years worked my way through such unlikely states as Wisconsin, Illinois, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Indiana and even Alabama, I was now ready to tick off another five: Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Iowa and Missouri.
I was guided on this trip by Bernie Weichsel, the founder of Ski USA which, during the 1980s and 1990s, did much to promote skiing in the Rockies and New England.
Collectively, the five “resorts” we were about to ski (for at least two hours in each case, we’d agreed, before moving on to the next area) have about as much vertical (1500ft) as a typical New England resort. If you skied down once at each, end to end, this would be the same as skiing less than half way down Vail Mountain in Colorado. But then, says Bernie, “we don’t have to worry about mountain passes – and there’s little chance of driving over a cliff!”
Our first stop was at Powder Ridge, where the drop is around 300ft. Although much of Minnesota’s soil is ancient glacial sediment and moraine, I was assured that there are no risks of crevasses at the top of the hill. There are nine runs, with 100 per cent artificial snowmaking when conditions are poor. There are plenty of snow-related alternatives for non-skiers, including ice fishing, ice skating and snowmobiling.
We went on to Fargo, North Dakota. What must be one of the flattest places on earth gives way, after a lonely 75-mile drive, to the south-west through Ransom County to the delightful Sheyenne River Valley. The nearby Bear’s Den Mountain ski area is a welcome beacon.
The word “mountain” may be a touch flattering, but both village and ski hill are a delight. Entering the base lodge is like stepping back into the 1960s. Indeed, one suspects that little has changed since then. Dale and Karen Anderson opened the place – it’s hard to call it a “resort” – in 1962 (the same year Vail opened).
The couple had first sent me lift tickets to explore their ski hill in 2003 when I was toying with a visit. Five years on, they scarcely blinked in honouring these same tickets. Their daughter now teaches skiing here.
Some wonderfully homely 1960s bric-a-brac gives the lodge a museum-like quality, and conceals a very cunning invention. Dale Anderson has built automatic pressurised doors behind the raised bench where visitors have their skis adjusted. As soon as they are ready for the slopes, a quick flick of a switch enables skiers to exit straight onto the snow.
On to South Dakota, and we headed for Sioux Falls. The Great Bear ski area is three miles east of the city, which owns the hill. Some skiers wearing all-purpose camouflage suits (for hunting, shooting, skiing and fishing) heard about our trip and asked: “You guys get to ski all over? Then why did you come to South Dakota?”
Good question. In some ways, skiing at tiny municipal ski hills like this can feel more special than the more anonymous big-gun corporate destinations such as Vail or Whistler.
We moved on. We drove across endless, flat, windswept fields, with few other cars on the roads and no mobile phone signals for hundreds of miles.
When we eventually got to Mount Crescent, Iowa, the ski area was closed but they still put out the welcome mat and let us walk up the “mountain”. An old red snowcat was stuck high on a tall pole at the entrance to the ski area. “Why?” we asked the owner – “I just didn’t know what else to do with it” he said. We walked up, and had a pleasant ski down (just the once) and headed for Kansas City, across the river in Missouri – our final state. We drove to the pretty little ski area of Snow Creek. “Kids come here in busloads,” said the manager, David Grenier. “It’s the world’s greatest field trip.”

It was a beautiful sunny day. The skiing, though not extensive, is idyllic in the sunshine. Spring was on its way. And we were at the end of our mission in Tornado Alley.