The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast
The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast
Podcast #177: White Grass Ski Touring Center Founder and Owner Chip Chase
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Podcast #177: White Grass Ski Touring Center Founder and Owner Chip Chase

Deep in the West Virginia wilds sits one of the nation's most unique ski areas
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Who

Chip Chase, Founder and Owner of White Grass Ski Touring Center, West Virginia

Chase on tour at White Grass. Photo by Stuart Winchester.

Recorded on

May 16, 2024

About White Grass Touring Center

Click here for a mountain stats overview

Owned by: Chip Chase

Located in: Davis, West Virginia

Year founded: 1979 (at a different location)

Pass affiliations: Indy Pass and Indy+ Pass: 2 days, no blackouts

Closest neighboring ski areas: Canaan Valley (8 minutes), Timberline (11 minutes)

Base elevation: 3,220 feet (below the lodge)

Summit elevation: 4,463 feet (atop Weiss Knob)

Vertical drop: 1,243 feet

Skiable Acres: 2,500

Average annual snowfall: 140 inches

Trail count: 42 (50 km of maintained trails)

Lift count: None

Why I interviewed him

One habit I’ve borrowed from the mostly now-defunct U.S. ski magazines is their unapologetic focus always and only on Alpine skiing. This is not a snowsports newsletter or a wintertime recreation newsletter or a mountain lifestyle newsletter. I’m not interested in ice climbing or snowshoeing or even snowboarding, which I’ve never attempted and probably never will. I’m not chasing the hot fads like Norwegian goat fjording, which is where you paddle around glaciers in an ice canoe, with an assist tow from a swimming goat. And I’ve narrowed the focus much more than my traditionalist antecedents, avoiding even passing references to food, drink, lodging, gear, helicopters, snowcats, whacky characters, or competitions of any kind (one of the principal reasons I ski is that it is an unmeasured, individualistic sport).

Which, way to squeeze all the fun out of it, Stu. But shearing off 90 percent of all possible subject matter allows me to cover the small spectrum of things that I do actually care about – the experience of traveling to and around a lift-served snowsportskiing facility, with a strange side obsession with urban planning and land-use policy – over the broadest possible geographic area (currently the entire United States and Canada, though mostly that’s Western Canada right now because I haven’t yet consumed quantities of ayahuasca sufficient to unlock the intellectual and spiritual depths where the names and statistical profiles of all 412* Quebecois ski areas could dwell).

So that’s why I don’t write about cross-country skiing or cross-country ski centers. Sure, they’re Alpine skiing-adjacent, but so is lift-served MTB and those crazy jungle gym swingy-bridge things and ziplining and, like, freaking ice skating. If I covered everything that existed around a lift-served ski area, I would quickly grow bored with this whole exercise. Because frankly the only thing I care about is skiing.

Downhill skiing. The uphill part, much as it’s fetishized by the ski media and the self-proclaimed hardcore, is a little bit confusing. Because you’re going the wrong way, man. No one shows up at Six Flags and says oh actually I would prefer to walk to the top of Dr. Diabolical’s Cliffhanger. Like do you not see the chairlift sitting right fucking there?

But here we are anyway: I’m featuring a cross-country skiing center on my podcast that’s stubbornly devoted always and only to Alpine skiing. And not just a cross-country ski center, but one that, by the nature of its layout, requires some uphill travel to complete most loops. Why would I do this to myself, and to my readers/listeners?

Well, several factors collided to interest me in White Grass, including:

  • The ski area sits on the site of an abandoned circa-1950s downhill ski area, Weiss Knob. White Grass has incorporated much of the left-over refuse – the lodge, the ropetow engines – into the functioning or aesthetic of the current business. The first thing you see upon arrival at White Grass is a mainline clearcut rising above a huddle of low-slung buildings – Weiss Knob’s old maintrail.

  • White Grass sits between two active downhill ski areas: Timberline, a former podcast subject that is among the best-run operations in America, and state-owned Canaan Valley, a longtime Indy Pass partner. It’s possible to ski across White Grass from either direction to connect all three ski areas into one giant odyssey.

  • White Grass is itself an Indy Pass partner, one of 43 Nordic ski areas on the pass last year (Indy has yet to finalize its 2024-25 roster).

  • White Grass averages 95 days of annual operation despite having no snowmaking. On the East Coast. In the Mid-Atlantic. They’re able to do this because, yes, they sit at a 3,220-foot base elevation (higher than anything in New England; Saddleback, in Maine, is the highest in that region, at 2,460 feet), but also because they have perfected the art of snow-farming. Chase tells me they’ve never missed a season altogether, despite sitting at the same approximate latitude as Washington, D.C.

  • While I don’t care about going uphill at a ski area that’s equipped with mechanical lifts, I do find the notion of an uphill-only ski area rather compelling. Because it’s a low-impact, high-vibe concept that may be the blueprint for future new-ski-area development in a U.S. America that’s otherwise allergic to building things because oh that mud puddle over there is actually a fossilized brontosaurus footprint or something. That’s why I covered the failed Bluebird Backcountry. Like what if we had a ski area without the avalanche danger of wandering into the mountains and without the tension with lift-ticket holders who resent the a.m. chewing-up of their cord and pow? While it does not market itself this way, White Grass is in fact such a center, an East Coast Bluebird Backcountry that allows and is seeing growing numbers of people who like to make skiing into work AT Bros.

All of which, I’ll admit, still makes White Grass lift-served-skiing adjacent, somewhere on the spectrum between snowboarding (basically the same experience as far as lifts and terrain are concerned) and ice canoeing (yes I’m just making crap up). But Chase reached out to me and I stopped in and skied around in January completely stupid to the fact that I was about to have a massive heart attack and die, and I just kind of fell in love with the place: its ambling, bucolic setting; its improvised, handcrafted feel; its improbable existence next door to and amid the Industrial Ski Machine.

So here we are: something a little different. Don’t worry, this will not become a cross-country ski podcast, but if I mix one in every 177 episodes or so, I hope you’ll understand.

A trail sign at White Grass. Photo by Stuart Winchester.
*The actual number of operating ski areas in Quebec is 412,904.

What we talked about

White Grass’ snow-blowing microclimate; why White Grass’ customers tend to be “easy to please”; “we don’t need a million skiers – we just need a couple hundred”; snow farming – what it is and how it works; White Grass’ double life in the summer; a brief history of the abandoned/eventually repurposed Weiss Knob ski area; considering snowmaking; 280 inches of snow in West Virginia; why West Virginia; the state’s ski culture; where and when Chase founded White Grass, and why he moved it to its current location; how an Alpine skier fell for the XC world; how a ski area electric bill is “about $5 per day”; preserving what remains of Weiss Knob; White Grass’ growing AT community; the mountain’s “incredible” glade skiing; whether Chase ever considered a chairlift at White Grass; is atmosphere made or does it happen?; “the last thing I want to do is retire”; Chip’s favorite ski areas; an argument for slow downhill skiing; the neighboring Timberline and Canaan Valley; why Timberline is “bound for glory”; the Indy Pass; XC grooming; and White Grass’ shelter system.

Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview

I kind of hate the word “authentic,” at least in the context of skiing. It’s a little bit reductive and way too limiting. It implies that nothing planned or designed or industrially scaled can ever achieve a greater cultural resonance than a TGI Friday’s. By this definition, Vail Mountain – with its built-from-the-wilderness walkable base village, high-speed lift fleet, and corporate marquee – fails the banjo-strumming rubric set by the Authenticity Police, despite being one of our greatest ski centers. Real-ass skiers, don’t you know, only ride chairlifts powered from windmills hand-built by 17th Century Dutch immigrants. Everything else is corporate bullshit. (Unless those high-speed lifts are at Alta or Wolf Creek or Revelstoke – then they’re real as fuck Brah; do you see how stupid this all is?)

Still, I understand the impulses stoking that sentiment. Roughly one out of every four U.S. skier visits is at a Vail Resort. About one in four is in Colorado. That puts a lot of pressure on a relatively small number of ski centers to define the activity for an enormous percentage of the skiing population. “Authentic,” I think, has become a euphemism for “not standing in a Saturday powder-day liftline that extends down Interstate 70 to Topeka with a bunch of people from Manhattan who don’t know how to ski powder.” Or, in other words, a place where you can ski without a lot of crowding and expense and the associated hassles.

White Grass succeeds in offering that. Here are the prices:

Yes I took this picture in 2024. Photo by Stuart Winchester.

Here is the outside of the lodge:

Then, like, BOOM, atmosphere. Photo by Stuart Winchester.

And the inside:

A slow weekday at White Grass. Photo by Stuart Winchester.

Here is the rental counter:

This was once the rental counter for a downhill ski hill. Photo by Stuart Winchester.

And here’s the lost-and-found, in case you lose something (somehow they actually fit skis in there; it’s like one of those magic tents from Harry Potter that looks like a commando bivouac from the outside but expands into King Tut’s palace once you walk in):

One guy found his dog in here two weeks he ran off on a trail. Photo by Stuart Winchester.

The whole operation is simple, approachable, affordable, and relaxed. This is an everyone-in-the-base-lodge-seems-to-know-one-another kind of spot, an improbable backwoods redoubt along those ever-winding West Virginia roads, a snow hole in the map where no snow makes sense, as though driving up the access road rips you through a wormhole to some different, less-complicated world.

What I got wrong

I said the base areas for Stowe, Sugarbush, and Killington sat “closer to 2,000 feet, or even below that.” The actual numbers are: Stowe (1,559 feet), Sugarbush (1,483 feet), Killington (1,165 feet).

I accidentally referred to the old Weiss Knob ski area as “White Knob” one time.

Why you should ski White Grass

There are not a lot of skiing options in the Southeast, which I consider the ski areas seated along the Appalachians running from Cloudmont in Alabama up through Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. There are only 18 ski areas in the entire region, and most would count even fewer, since Snowshoe Bro gets Very Mad at me when I count Silver Creek as a separate ski area (which it once was until Snowshoe purchased it in 1992, and still is physically until/unless Alterra ever develops this proposed interconnect from 1978):

Sourced from skimap.org.

No one really agrees on what Southeast skiing is. The set of ski states I outline above is the same one that Ski Southeast covers. DC Ski includes Pennsylvania (home to another 20-plus ski areas), which from a cultural, travel, and demographic standpoint makes sense. Things start to feel very different in New York, though Open Snow’s Mid-Atlantic updates include all of the state’s ski areas south of the Adirondacks.

Anyway, the region’s terrain, from a fall line, pure-skiing point of view, is actually quite good, especially in good snow years. The lift infrastructure tends to be far more modern than what you’ll find in, say, the Midwest. And the vertical drops and overall terrain footprints are respectable. Megapass penetration is deep, and you can visit a majority of the region with an Epic, Indy, or Ikon Pass:

However. Pretty much everything from the Poconos on south tends to be mobbed at all times by novice skiers. The whole experience can be tainted by an unruly dynamic of people who don’t understand how liftlines work and ski areas that make no effort to manage liftlines. It kind of sucks, frankly, during busy times. And if this is your drive-to region, you may be in search of an alternative. White Grass, with its absence of lifts and therefore liftlines, can at least deliver a different story for your weekend ski experience.

It's also just kind of an amazing place to behold. I often describe West Virginia as the forgotten state. It’s surrounded by Pennsylvania (sixth in population among the 50 U.S. states, with 13 million residents), Ohio (8th, 11.8 M), Kentucky (27th, 4.5 M), Virginia (13th, 8.7 M), and Maryland (20th, 6.2 M). And yet West Virginia ranks 40th among U.S. states in population, with just 1.8 million people. That fact – despite the state’s size (it’s twice as large as Maryland) and location at the crossroads of busy transcontinental corridors – is explained by the abrupt, fortress-like mountains that have made travel into and through the state slow and inconvenient for centuries. You can crisscross parts of West Virginia on interstate highways and the still-incomplete Corridor H, but much of the state’s natural awe lies down narrow, never-straight roads that punch through a raw and forgotten wilderness, dotted, every so often, with industrial wreckage and towns wherever the flats open up for an acre or 10. Other than the tailgating pickup trucks, it doesn’t feel anything like America. It doesn’t really feel like anything else at all. It’s just West Virginia, a place that’s impossible to imagine until you see it.

Podcast Notes

On Weiss Knob Ski Area (1959)

I can’t find any trailmaps for Weiss Knob, the legacy lift-served ski area that White Grass is built on top of. But Chip and his team have kept the main trail clear:

The long-defunct Weiss Knob ski area ropetow ran directly uphill. Photo by Stuart Winchester.

It rises dramatically over the base area:

Hey man, where’s the lift? Photo by Stuart Winchester.

Ski up and around, and you’ll find remnants of the ropetows:

The remnants of an antique ropetow used at the abandoned Weiss Knob ski area. Photo by Stuart Winchester.

West Virginia Snow Sports Museum hall-of-famers Bob and Anita Barton founded Weiss Knob in 1955. From the museum’s website:

While the Ski Club of Washington, DC was on a mission to find an elusive ski drift in West Virginia, Bob was on a parallel mission.  By 1955, Bob had installed a 1,200-foot rope tow next door to the Ski Club's Driftland.  The original Weiss Knob Ski Area was on what is now the "Meadows" at Canaan Valley Resort.  By 1958, Weiss Knob featured two rope tows and a T-bar lift.

In 1959, Bob moved Weiss Knob to the back of Bald Knob (out of the wind) on what is now White Grass Touring Center.

According to Chase, the Bartons went on to have some involvement in a “ski area up at Alpine Lake.” This was, according to DC Ski, a 450-footer with a handful of surface lifts. Here’s a circa 1980 trailmap:

The place is still in business, though they dismantled the downhill ski operation decades ago.

On the three side-by-side ski areas

White Grass sits directly between two lift-served ski areas: state-owned Canaan Valley and newly renovated Timberline. Here’s an overview of each:

Timberline

Base elevation: 3,268 feet

Summit elevation: 4,268 feet

Vertical drop: 1,000 feet

Skiable Acres: 100

Average annual snowfall: 150 inches

Trail count: 20 (2 double-black, 2 black, 6 intermediate, 10 beginner), plus two named glades and two terrain parks

Lift count: 4 (1 high-speed six-pack, 1 fixed-grip quad, 2 carpets - view Lift Blog’s inventory of Timberline’s lift fleet)

Canaan Valley

Base elevation: 3,430 feet

Summit elevation: 4,280 feet

Vertical drop: 850 feet

Skiable Acres: 95

Average annual snowfall: 117 inches

Trail count: 47 (44% advanced/expert, 36% intermediate, 20% beginner)

Lift count: 4 (1 fixed-grip quad, 2 triples, 1 carpet - view Lift Blog’s inventory of Canaan Valley’s lift fleet)

And here’s what they all look like side-by-side IRL:

Google Maps.

On other podcast interviews

Chip referenced a couple of previous Storm Skiing Podcasts: SMI Snow Makers President Joe VanderKelen and Snowbasin GM Davy Ratchford. You can view the full archive (as well as scheduled podcasts) here.

On West Virginia statistics

Chase cited a few statistical rankings for West Virginia that I couldn’t quite verify:

  • On West Virginia being the only U.S. state that is “100 percent mountains” – I couldn’t find affirmation of this exactly, though I certainly believe it’s more mountainous than the big Western ski states, most of which are more plains than mountains. Vermont can feel like nothing but mountains, with just a handful of north-south routes cut through the state. Maybe Hawaii? I don’t know. Some of these stats are harder to verify than I would have guessed.

  • On West Virginia as the “second-most forested U.S. state behind Maine” – sources were a bit more consistent on this: every one confirmed Maine as the most-forested state (with nearly 90 percent of its land covered), then listed New Hampshire as second (~84 percent), and West Virginia as third (79 percent).

  • On West Virginia being “the only state in the nation where the population is dropping” – U.S. Census Bureau data suggests that eight U.S. states lost residents last year: New York (-0.52), Louisiana (-0.31%), Hawaii (-0.3%), Illinois (-0.26%), West Virginia (-0.22%), California (-0.19%), Oregon (-0.14%), and Pennsylvania (-0.08%).

On the White Grass documentary

There are a bunch of videos on White Grass’ website. This is the most recent:

On other atmospheric ski areas

Chase mentions a number of ski areas that deliver the same sort of atmospheric charge as White Grass. I’ve featured a number of them on past podcasts, including Mad River Glen, Mount Bohemia, Palisades Tahoe, Snowbird, and Bolton Valley.

On the Soul of Alta movie

Alta also made Chase’s list, and he calls out the recent Soul of Alta movie as being particularly resonant of the mountain’s special vibe:

On resentment and New York State-owned ski areas

I refer briefly to the ongoing resentment between New York’s privately owned, tax-paying ski areas and the trio of heavily subsidized state-owned operations: Gore, Whiteface, and Belleayre. I’ve detailed that conflict numerous times. This interview with the owners of Plattekill, which sits right down the road from Belle, crystalizes the main conflict points.

On White Grass’ little shelters all over the trails

These are just so cool:

Warming huts at White Grass. Photos by Stuart Winchester.

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The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast
The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast
Everyone’s searching for skiing’s soul. I’m trying to find its brains.