Firsthand Report: Snö Mountain
By Lou Botta, DCSki Columnist
February 12, 2013 — There are no shortages of ski areas in Pennsylvania. As the Commonwealth’s nickname clearly denotes, the Keystone State is nestled in an optimum location in the Boston-Washington megapolis, with the Pocono Mountains extending just West of the Delaware River Gap, and numerous other ranges in Eastern Pennsylvania paralleling the Poconos all the way West to the Ohio River. Virtually the entire state is located in one part or another of the Appalachian ranges, and the hilly to mountainous terrain lends itself to skiing, with below-freezing temperatures and snow being the rule during the winter. As a result, there are a dozen ski areas in the Northeastern park of the state, with at least another three dozen no longer operating. And with the Northeastern part of the state increasingly becoming part of the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas, there is a ready-made customer base for these areas.
One of the salient ski areas due to its terrain and vertical drop is Snö Mountain (formerly Montage) in Lackawanna County, steps away from downtown Scranton and a short ride from Wilkes Barre. We make an annual pilgrimage to Snö with a large group of friends from Washington. Snö is generally uncrowded, reminiscent of Timberline but with twice the ski volume capacity. Snö is a relatively new area to the Mid Atlantic ski scene, having been built from scratch in 1984 through federal investment in depressed Pennsylvania coal country, and for 22 years it was owned and operated by the County of Lackawanna. In 2006, it was privatized and the name changed from Montage to Snö Mountain.
Unfortunately, the privatization deal did not include additional land that could have provided development income, and the resort has operated at a loss for many reasons, one of which is its inherited debt. As a result, Snö has gone through some tough times during warm winters and a lackluster economy, being forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 2012 and resulting in the resignation of its General Partner and President Denis Carlson. However, it has continued operation following its filing, although the future is uncertain.
The ski area’s 1,000 feet vertical drop is served by seven vintage 1980’s lifts that include one quad, three triples and a double chair. The lodge is located halfway up the ski trails, roughly separating the beginner and intermediate trails from the more challenging terrain that includes two very steep double black diamonds, Boomer and White Lightning. It’s an optimum setup that allows beginner skiers to gauge the terrain steepness and decide if they want to make the 32-degree headwall plunge before either continuing or taking a more leisurely trail back to the other lifts. Still, I would categorize Snö as mostly intermediate and advanced terrain for Eastern skiers. The ski area is well known for its excellent grooming, friendliness, and reasonable prices. During this particular weekend, despite the torrid weather earlier in the week, the groomers, snowmaking equipment and staff worked wonders to turn it into absolutely delightful corn and yes, even powder.
We arrived in the area on Friday and set up at the Best Western East Mountain Inn and Suites, a nice full-service hotel with all the amenities including indoor lap pool and a huge hot tub, located about 15 minutes from the lodge and conveniently located to Interstates 81, 84 and 476. As Snö Mountain has no overnight lodging of its own, travelers have a choice of a number of nearby hotels of varying prices and quality. The hotel is well acquainted with skier traffic and provides for a large ski check-in service as well as a shuttle to the ski area.
Waking up to a gorgeous day, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast. Some in our party made their way to the waiting bus to take them to the mountain, although we decided to drive to be able to stop at a nearby coffee house. If driving to the mountain, Snö Mountain has one of the best ski shops anywhere about three miles from its lodge, Bear Creek Ski Shop, on the access road to the right. It has a thorough line of skis, boards, and accessories, as well as a rental shop that features both beginner and performance skis and gear.
Entering the Snö Mountain parking lots, you must hike a couple hundred yards to the top of a berm and then hike down another 50 feet down a metal staircase to get to the lodge and ski ticket sales office. The premium parking that allowed paying customers to park literally next to the staircase has been discontinued.
The ticket office is located right outside of the main lodge, with several windows always open to assist customers. In addition to half-day tickets, they also offer a substantial military discount.
With new skis and boards nowadays taking a chunk of even Bill Gates’ budget, theft and pilferage of ski gear has become an increasing problem. Snö has purchased the newer-type security lock system I saw at Mont Tremblant. The skis and boards are secured between two railings on top, and a metal loop at the bottom, with a sliding pin that fits a key-operated customer-provided lock assembly. It secures the skis appropriately and is much better than the old wire lock system which is more of an attraction to tampering than anything else. This site provides an illustration of this type of lock. Additionally on slopeside, Snö provides a free check-in ski service while you’re going to the lodge.
As it was a weekend, the area was busy with activity, but still never overcrowded as it is oftentimes the case with other Poconos area such as Camelback, Jack Frost or Blue Mountain. There was activity but few lines on the lifts. We bought our tickets and went inside the lodge to secure a locker. The storage lockers are new, all key operated, with two sizes available. Keys are available for a $7.00 or a $10.00 fee and a refundable $10.00 deposit. To obtain a locker key it is necessary to enter the customer service office and pay the appropriate fee. Lockers are available in the main lodge and in the rear area.
The lodge has a large ski souvenir and accessory shop named the Ski Corner. Shoppers can get almost every conceivable ski or board-related item at the shop, as well as numerous mementos of the visit. The staff is friendly and helpful.
The lodge features two different eating areas. The main level is a large lodge and cafeteria with metal park benches positioned end-to-end like an old Boy Scout camp. People who arrive early commandeer most benches and fill the seats and the space under and on top of the benches with their backpacks, food coolers, boot bags, and whatever piece of clothing you can name; then they go skiing for the rest of the day. As a result, there is little room for customers to enjoy a hot chocolate or to have lunch. This less-than-tasteful practice is about the most irritating part of skiing in Pennsylvania ski areas. I can only imagine the money lost by the resort in disgruntled customers who don’t spend money on the lodge.
There is also a large full-service cafeteria area towards the end of the lodge, which went under utilized because most of the customers seemed to have their own food and coolers on the tables they had commandeered. The lodge used to have an annex, The Snö Grille, with a full-service bar and restaurant for adults or children accompanied by adults where they normally didn’t allow the gear-strewn nonsense prevalent in the main area. The Snö Grille has a large outdoor deck, a huge stone fireplace, and a full menu of salads and entrees. It also has numerous beers on tap and by the pitcher. On weekends, the Grille used to have a chef cooking stir-frying food and pasta to order, making the Snö Mountain dining establishment one of the healthiest and more customer friendly I had ever seen. However, on this visit, the management totally lost control and the Snö Grille became a bar area overrun by unsupervised children, people bringing their coolers, and seats which were nearly impossible to find. Only two waitresses were staffing an area with well over a hundred people.
After donning our boots and equipment and placing our shoes in ski lockers, we headed out to ski on a beautiful day with the temperature at 12 degrees and light snow falling down. We went directly to the Iron Horse lift to ski down the upper tracts, warm up our ski legs and see the conditions. Despite the snow-killer rain of the past week, we found that Snö’s upgraded snowmaking had paid off, with fully 100% of the ski area open, and despite a crunchy underbase, the surface of the runs was beautifully groomed.
While the snowmaking equipment has been upgraded to state-of-the-art and the grooming is stellar, the resort’s ski lift system made me think of my college days in the Richard Nixon years. One of my friends remarked that he should have brought his iPad to catch up on his reading while going up on the lifts. Once on top, we went down and back up three nicely groomed slopes, including a superb terrain park, before deciding to make our way down the entire length of Fast Track to the Long Haul lift to enjoy the entire 1,000-foot vertical of the mountain.
The lower part of the mountain is definitely more challenging, perhaps one of the better challenging terrain in the Mid Atlantic. Lower Fast Track goes from a fairly mellow blue to a well marked black diamond. After an enjoyable run down Upper and Lower Fast Track, we descended down the Upper Runaway connecting to Snake to continue the challenge. The Long Haul lift is disappointingly slow. And even considering its condition, lift personnel allowed only alternating chairs to be occupied and even sometimes once every three chairs. Amazingly, there were no lines at the base. But it was an excruciating ride to the top.
Once the “soft black” terrain was conquered, it was time to move further down to the Short Haul lift that covers both challenging black diamonds and Snö’s signature double-blacks, Boomer and White Lightning. While Boomer was exquisitely groomed, White Lightning was deliciously mogul-filled, allowing for an additional challenge in its almost 35-degree pitch. We had three amazing runs before deciding on lunch.
Returning to the lodge, we expected to be able to enjoy a peaceful sit-down lunch at the Snö Grille. It was not to be had. As stated previously, management had totally lost control over the facility, which had by then become just an extension of the main lodge. Two exasperated waitresses were trying to compete with cafeteria trays, small children running around unsupervised, and tables left with garbage all over them, preventing Grille customers from eating. Pandemonium seemed to be the new name of the facility.
After a disappointingly quick and headache-inducing noisy lunch, we headed again to the Short Haul lift area to enjoy the awesome conditions in the White Lightning, Boomer and Smoke runs. We skied these no less than ten times before calling a day and returning to the hotel for dinner and a couple of brews in a local establishment.
One item of particular mention while having a couple of brews in a local establishment is that in this area of Pennsylvania, smoking bans in drinking establishments are normally not the rule. As a result, visitors should bring large ziplock bags to stash their clothes upon returning to the hotels and prevent the stench of cigarette smoke from permeating their entire hotel room.
Sunday’s ski day was even better than Saturday. With the temperature at 28 degrees, and the sun shining off and on, the snow softened a bit, the grooming was outstanding, and the slopes were a simple pleasure. After just two runs on the upper side of the mountain, we quickly made our way to the challenging terrain at White Lightning, Boomer and Smoke to enjoy the day, having decided to have a hearty breakfast at the hotel and skip lunch in order to avoid the chaos and disorganization of the Snö Grille. The skiing was simply wonderful and we made no less than ten runs in this particular area. Unfortunately, the mechanics of the outdated lift system at Snö caught up with our thrill and we were stuck on the chair for about 20 minutes until the operators could activate the emergency diesel power and we inched our way to the top, after which we decided to call it a day.
Snö is a magnificent mountain for the Mid Atlantic and particularly in Pennsylvania. The quality and amount of skiing in the advanced areas is superb. Snowmaking at Snö is tops. The grooming is unparalleled. However, it is obvious that the physical plant is being unattended. The mismanagement of the Snö Grille has transformed what was once one of the nicest ski lodge dining areas in Pennsylvania into a chaos reminiscence of a cafeteria. And the lift system needs some urgent upkeep. For the sake of the skier population and the recreational opportunities in the area, I sincerely hope these items are addressed. We will make a return trip next year, hopefully to continually return and not to decide that it will be our last.
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About the Author
While actually born in the tropics (Cuba), Lou grew up in New England and went to College in Vermont, where he initially took up skiing. He then embarked on a twenty-two year Air Force piloting career that took him to over 50 countries. He has skied in Europe and America (both North and South). His second career as a senior officer with the Federal Government spanned thirteen years and in 2010, Lou retired to pursue a more leisurely life style. To read other articles by Lou, click here.
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