CANAAN VALLEY — A skiff of snow from daylong flurries clung to the spruce-shaded upper slopes of Timberline Mountain ski area last week as temperatures warmed from a pre-dawn low of 9 into the 50s under a blazing sun in a cloudless midday sky.
One thousand feet downslope, Tom Price, Timberline Mountain’s operations manager, showed visitors the newly installed and passenger-ready Doppelmayr six-pack detachable chairlift, its base station painted in West Virginia University blue and gold.
“This is West Virginia’s first six-person per chair lift,” Price said. “It can make the trip to the top of the mountain in 4 minutes and 19 seconds.”
The new, state-of-the-art chairlift replaces Thunderstruck, an aging triple chair that was the primary people-mover for the ski area’s previous owner, Timberline Four Seasons Resort. Ascents could take upward of 18 minutes.
About 100 yards south, a new Doppelmayr quad lift is ready to begin carrying up to four skiers and snowboarders per chair to Timberline Mountain’s mid-mountain station for access to intermediate-level trails, a terrain park and, when natural snowfall allows, slopes accommodating glade skiing.
The two new chairlifts, along with a new surface lift on a new beginners’ slope, are among more than $10 million in new equipment and infrastructure upgrades the ski area’s new owner, Perfect North Slopes, has installed at Timberline Mountain to prepare for its season debut, likely on the first or second weekend in December.
Timberline Mountain’s predecessor, Timberline Four Seasons Resort, ceased operating in February 2019 following a series of problems with its lifts, snowmaking gear, financing and the water utility it operated. The resort filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy two months later and its ski operation went on the auction block in November 2019. Perfect North Slopes acquired it with a $2.2 million bid.
The new owner lacked the time needed to make repairs, buy equipment, acquire licenses and permits and hire staff in time to capture 2019-20 ski season business. Instead, Perfect North Slopes launched an ambitious capital improvements effort in March to prepare for an opening at the start of the 2020-21 season.
Perfect North Slopes is a family-owned ski area that began operating in 1980 on the hilly southeastern Indiana farm of Clyde Perfect, who also ran a brick-building business in Cincinnati, about a half-hour drive west. The family made the most of their terrain, as well as the latest developments in snowmaking technology, to steadily grow a clientele of regional skiers and snowboarders.
A son, Chip Perfect, has run the business for years in addition to serving in the Indiana Senate.
“For the past 15 or 20 years, Chip’s been looking for ski areas to buy, but never found the right fit,” Price said.
Timberline was among ski areas Perfect visited while shopping for possible acquisitions. When he learned it was about to be sold in a bankruptcy auction, he revisited the property, did some due diligence and placed a bid.
“It was really exciting to walk the property and envision where the lifts would go,” Price said. “That’s the dream of every ski operator. To be here now, in such a cool place — I couldn’t be happier.”
To boost the ski area’s snowmaking capacity, new pumps have been purchased, two miles of new water pipe have been installed and serviceable older snowmakers have been reconditioned, Price said.
“We’re ready to make snow the next time it’s cold enough to make it happen,” he said. “We’ve probably doubled the snowmaking capacity here.”
Most preparation for the upcoming season now is focused on the ski area’s 35-year-old lodge building, which housed warming areas, a restaurant, bar, rental and retail shops, office space and restrooms. The interior has been gutted, remodeled and re-arranged, outfitted with new appliances and food service gear and enlarged with a 5,000-square-foot addition to accommodate more seating.
The rental area has been rearranged and refitted to get visitors on the slopes faster than ever. From bins and racks on which sizes are clearly marked, guests snag their own boots, poles and helmets before being assigned the appropriate size snowboards and skis with ski bindings set to accommodate boot size and body weight. A new boot rack pumps dry, heated air into newly returned rental boots, including the 850 pairs of new Head boots on the rack Thursday.
Elsewhere in the lodge, dozens of workers were busy installing new kitchen equipment, windows and bathroom fixtures in time for the season’s first wave of snow enthusiasts.
“Our office staff has been staining the ceiling and walls, and our ski school director has been scraping accumulated soot off the fireplace rocks,” Price said. “We’ve still got a lot to do, but we’ll be ready to go in a week or two when there’s enough snow on the ground to open.”
Price said he doesn’t view Timberline Mountain as a competitor with neighboring Canaan Valley Resort’s ski area. Having Timberline Mountain and Canaan Valley both open, along with White Grass Touring Center’s cross country trails system, makes it possible for visitors to make one trip and ski three different areas.
Price, who moved to Canaan Valley in March, predicted 2020-21 will be a busy season for Tucker County and its snow resorts.
“The Valley’s been packed this year,” he said. “People are anxious to get out of the city and be outside where they can practice social distancing while having fun with family and friends.”
COVID-19 precautions practiced at Timberline Mountain this season include operating touch-free and online ticket sales, daily wellness screenings for employees, requiring guests and staff to wear masks while indoors, reduced class sizes for ski and snowboard group instruction and establishing queuing patterns that increase distancing in lift lines.
“We will follow state regulations and West Virginia Ski Areas Association guidelines,” Price said.
Some skiing and snowboarding practices lend themselves to meeting social distancing goals, he said.
“Everyone’s wearing gloves, helmets and face masks and the length of skis and snowboards keep people feet away from each other in lift lines,” he said.
Price said guests are encouraged to ride lifts with friends and relatives from their travel groups. Individual skiers and riders will not be forced to ride lifts with those not in their groups. The six-person seats on the new Doppelmayr lift to the top of the mountain are wide enough to provide adequate distancing for two unaffiliated riders, he said.
West Virginia Ski Areas Association spokesman Joe Stevens suggested that skiers and snowboarders check with the resorts they plan to visit before traveling to them.
“Every resort has its own COVID-19 plan, so before you go, it’s best to know what it is,” he said.
Ski areas are encouraging midweek visits and buying lift tickets online in advance of planned arrival dates. On some weekends and peak holidays, capacity limits might be imposed to prevent crowding. That could restrict or eliminate walk-up ticket sales.
Canaan Valley Resort plans to open its ski-snowboard season Dec. 12, weather permitting, while Snowshoe Mountain Resort in Pocahontas County plans to kick off the ski season Friday. In Raleigh County south of Beckley, Winterplace Resort’s opening date remains to be announced.