The DCSki User of the Month program recognizes some of the best members of the DCSki community based on their contributions to the DCSki Forum. Individuals selected for this Program are interviewed and receive an exclusive DCSki pin that they can proudly wear on their ski jacket.
We’re pleased to announce that Rob Davis has been selected as DCSki’s User of the Month for February 2021. A retired steelworker from Pittsburgh, Rob — known as Laurel Hill Crazie on the Forums — is perhaps best known on DCSki for his tireless advocacy for Pennsylvania’s Laurel Mountain Resort. In fact, if you ski at Laurel Mountain today, you have Rob to thank in part for his efforts to push for the re-opening of the ski area after a series of rough patches in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Scott: Hi Rob, congratulations on being selected as DCSki’s User of the Month. For over 15 years, I’ve been enjoying your posts to the Forums, particularly about Laurel Mountain Ski Resort. I’ve been writing about Laurel Mountain on DCSki since at least 1999. Dating back to the mid-1930s, the ski area originally closed in 1989, and then re-opened with some fanfare in 1999. But after a few years, the area was once again placed on the auction block. Some drama followed, with a few false starts for Laurel’s re-opening. That’s around the time that you began posting to DCSki, taking on an advocacy role in pushing for Laurel’s re-opening. What made Laurel Mountain so important to you?
Rob: Growing up around Pittsburgh one would not think that skiing would be a big part of the culture but remember the bulk of the population stems from the industrial migrations from the late industrial era. Most came from Europe and brought their home culture with them.
The Laurel Highlands was home to winter sport before World War 2 with Laurel Mountain Slopes, Seven Springs Farm, and the Summit Hotel establishing rope tows, ski rentals and lessons. By the 1960s there was enough disposable income to buy actual skis, boots and bindings. We would set out on open fields and golf courses to schuss and sidestep the hills. Most of us began like any child who would set out on a new adventure and the hilly terrain of Western Pennsylvania offered many opportunities to test the limits of bone and courage. I was fortunate to get some helpful tips.
I was introduced to the sport by my German mother who came of age in the mid-1930s through the end of World War 2. In her childhood in northern Bavaria there was only skiing as was common winter travel and sport. There were no ski lifts but there were ski jumps. It was much more organic to the culture than the nordic and alpine sport we spend our disposable income on today. She competed in local school cross country and slalom races and dreamed of international acclaim. The 1936 Olympics loomed large in the news of her era.
Of course, the war put an end to my mother’s recreational skiing until the winter of 1964/65 when her oldest son bought the family skis for Christmas with money he earned from his first real job at the local steel mill. Mom taught us to stem and stem-Christi for the downhill and herringbone and sidestep for uphill.
By 1960 alpine skiing was beginning to catch on, fueled by TV coverage of the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley then again in the 1964 Innsbruck Olympic Games. There was a real growth spurt for the ski industry. What better time to get back into the sport? We were fortunate enough to have a snowy winter that afforded us many opportunities to try out our new equipment. The first place I tried my skis was at my uncle’s hilltop home and then at the local golf course just across the way.
Just as fortunate, Allegheny County was building regional parks. Among them was Boyce Park, with a couple of surface lifts on a modest hill for inexpensive lift-served downhill skiing. Seven Springs was beginning to hit its stride and Hidden Valley was growing too. A bunch of other lift-served places sprang up briefly, then faded into the Lost.
That is how what I call the progression began. Local areas with surface lifts, gentle hills, and modest vertical were the starting point. For me that was Boyce Park with its poma surface lifts and a daring 180-foot vertical drop. The next hill to conquer was Hidden Valley. The hill is twice the size and the surface lifts become chairlifts, which carries you through to your intermediate phase.
Going from those to the North Face at Seven Springs was doubling again the drop of the hill, and the tilt-o-meter nudges significantly upward, but so does the cost and crowds. With it comes a real resort feel, restaurant and bar selections, hot tubs for hire, off mountain activities, and a slopeside hotel to pamper and distract.
Then there was Laurel Mountain, tall and steep but with limited trails and snowmaking. A basic mountain with little frills, but Lower Wildcat will take the measure of your skiing like nothing at Seven Springs.
After a bit of skill and confidence grows your curiosity, you begin to hunt along the edges and between the runs to find real glade skiing not marked on the map with whispered names like Goat, Midway, the elusive Joe’s. When I first skied these lines, I thought that they were somehow naturally occurring and, in a sense, it is when skiers naturally prune their favorite powder plunge in the woods.
Laurel for me is like going back to a purity of the sports as athletic outdoor adventure where comradery and challenge are joined. You are out to enjoy the mountain, control gravity, and immerse yourself in a culture that celebrates the joyous sensation of gliding upright on snow. It is like flying, but on the ebb and flow of the land and through the suppleness of your body.
Scott: What were some of the key milestones in Laurel Mountain’s rebirth, and what actions did you take to advocate for Laurel Mountain’s re-opening?
Rob: In the post World War 2 years, Laurel Mountain Slopes became Pennsylvania’s premiere ski area. When the lower mountain tows operated there was a vertical drop of 1,000 feet on the original mile-long trail that Hannes Schneider cut in 1940.
In 1955 a top to bottom T-bar was installed on the Wildcat side, climbing over 700 feet vertical. One of the nation’s first commercial “artificial” snowmaking systems was installed. From the time RK Mellon gave the ski area to the state, Laurel just ambled along as the sport saw great growth in the 1960s and 70s.
There was no real capital investment until the first chairlift was installed in 1968, an 805-foot vertical drop Poma double. But the 1955 T-bar drive house burned down, followed by the 1970 fire that destroyed Laurel’s original mountain top lodge, the Laurel House built in 1947.
The state parks ran the operation in the 1970s when I first skied there. At the end of that decade, it became my home mountain in the 1980s when we were blessed with a few snowy winters. The latest leaseholder, Malcolm Samakow, cobbled together another topside lodge, and installed snowmaking to cover all of Broadway and Wildcat. Samakow like Patterson before him lacked the capital to fully exploit Laurel’s skiing potential. Ten years into his 35-year lease, Malcolm Samakow gave up the lease and Laurel sat abandoned for a decade despite attempts to reopen by a private developer or as a nonprofit.
The most significant milestone was George Mowl’s investment to reopen in 1999. George went big and installed another lift and improved snowmaking capacity and built the existing Laurel Lodge.
The on-hill improvements moved fast. For opening day, in December, 1999, only the quad opened. The double was broken down. Lower Wildcat was snow-covered but the only way out was to hike. We did just that. I trained for the ski school that year and we got to ski Lower. The hike out was worth the ten-year wait to be among the first to ski Lower again.
The first winter we seemed busy on weekends. George wanted an all-season attraction at Laurel, so a concert series was planned, and mountain boarding and mountain bike rides on the chair were offered. The bar was open all summer, but George too could not capture Laurel’s magic in a bottle. Not even five years into operations, Mowl was done, but a skeleton of a somewhat modern ski infrastructure was left in place. Seven Springs agreed to run operations the final year, during the 2004/2005 winter season.
Over the next decade, the local ski industry was going to see big changes. Seven Springs was sold by the Dupre family to Bob Nutting, who then installed the resort’s second high speed six pack and refurbished the hotel. Kettler Brothers sold Hidden Valley to the Buncher Company, who refitted the resort with improved snowmaking and lift capacity to the tune of millions of dollars.
It was in this timeframe that I became involved in trying to resurrect Laurel. Since Laurel was pretty much a turnkey operation, a group of us explored opening Laurel as a non-profit friends group. We attempted to affiliate with the PA Parks and Forest Foundation, but the PPFF found us an unsuitable partner. We then turned to forming a non- profit co-operative to lease and operate the ski area. We held a few meetings to that end. As part of that effort, I began my online advocacy for Laurel.
Somerset Trust, who now owned the private assets on the mountain, was shopping the ski area too. Around 2007 the Buncher Company expressed interest in buying and operating Laurel, and began negotiating a lease agreement with the state and an option to buy agreement with Somerset pending a lease agreement. A study commissioned by the DCNR/State Park and Buncher by resort developer Jack Johnson Co. made a preliminary assessment of Laurel’s assets and requirements to meet successful operations. Local politicians added $6.5 million to the State’s capital budget to rehabilitate Laurel, although that was more of a wish list; most projects added to the capital budget never see the light of day. By 2008 negotiations with Buncher stalled and the option to buy was about to expire.
Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was set to do a ribbon cutting ceremony in nearby Somerset. An impromptu protest was organized on DCSki and a group of about a dozen Laurel supporters showed up with signs demanding Laurel Mountain be re-opened. I was not among that group. The protest caught the Governor’s attention. A group spokesperson was given a brief meeting with the Governor who then pledged to release the $6.5 million for Laurel from the capital budget.
Buncher’s time had expired and Bob Nutting bought the assets from Somerset Trust and entered a ten-year lease for Laurel with the PA State Parks. All of this happened while the home mortgage bubble burst and the great recession began.
As I began to write about Laurel and become involved in efforts to reopen the venerated ski resort, in that process my intellectual brain learned what my emotional brain intuitively knew. Laurel was someplace special born of the same spirit and time when skiing as a recreational sport came to America and its first pioneers began to stamp their vision on the flanks of America’s mountains. People do not know that before Aspen, Colorado (1947) or Stowe, Vermont (1934) there was Seven Springs (1932); before Mad River Glen, Vermont (1948) or Arapahoe Basin, Colorado (1946) there was Laurel Mountain 1940. Hidden Valley predates Vail (1962) by almost a decade.
Scott: In pushing for Laurel Mountain’s re-opening, did you ever start to lose hope?
Rob: From the 2008 recession on it looked bleak, but we knew the money was released and design work was being done. But that eight-year stretch seemed eternal. The final design was not known. No opening date was set. A Facebook Group was formed and a letter writing campaign aimed at both the state and Bob Nutting set in motion a meeting of all stakeholders sponsored by Mr. Nutting at Seven Springs. The plans were unveiled, and a timeline began to take shape. Construction bids would soon be accepted. By 2016 Laurel was up and running but on about 50% snowmaking instead of the 100% the previous plans had envisioned.
Scott: Looking at the broader Mid-Atlantic market, how does Laurel Mountain fit in? What are some of its greatest strengths?
Rob: Laurel is truly a mountain for the dedicated skier. It is basic. The single quad is seldom crowded, the slopes are equally empty. Snowmaking covers three top-to-bottom runs. Two are about a mile long, the other shorter while being the steepest sustained pitch in the region — a 60+% grade, with moguls on skier’s right. When the mountain is fully dressed in winter white, the old narrow original trails and glades reveal another world, a real throwback to all-natural snow sliding, seldom groomed but always fun.
Scott: What are some tips you would give to first-time visitors to Laurel Mountain?
Rob: If you are an accomplished skier and the entire mountain is open, then hit as much of the natural snow terrain as possible. If the trails are marked thin or have bare spots, be willing to sacrifice your base for fun or ski slower and pick your way.
If you are a groomer cruiser from novice to intermediate, stay on the snowmaking-covered slopes. Keep to skier’s far left for the easiest path to Innsbruck. Broadway is low intermediate except maybe the first face but that can be bypass on Woodland Trail to skier’s right. Upper Wildcat is truer blue but Lower is a real black diamond, steep, steeper, and no let up until you reach the bottom. Last Chance on skier’s far left of Upper Wildcat can take you to safer pitches back to Broadway.
Scott: If you were in charge of Laurel, what changes or improvements would you make?
Rob: Well, the obvious thing would be 100% snowmaking, but the efficient application of snowmaking might mean that some of the rough character would become polished. Places like the last corner of Dream are known as rocky corner. At a bare minimum, I would add snowmaking from The Slot, which catches all the upper mountain traffic in an intermediate pitch traverse across mid-mountain, down to the rocky corner switchback, to the chair. I would add snowmaking capacity before lift capacity.
This past snowy winter showed there is a lot of interest in skiing the natural snow half of the hill. With better snowmaking comes increased traffic. All those untracked lines long after a snowfall now become bumped or groomed — both indications of the popularity of the run and overuse, which changes the character of the trail. Old timers recall that Broadway was a much more varied and a more difficult blue before elements like “the chute” down to the last face on Broadway below Midway to Deer Path were graded and widened.
Scott: About how many total days do you think you’ve skied at Laurel Mountain?
Ron: Hundreds, thousands? I don’t count. I’ve spent a lot of time on the mountain. In the nearly two decades it was closed, I must have hiked it hundreds of times. I’ve met many others along the way whom I’m sure did a little clearing and gardening on the hike down and back.
Scott: Are there any particular visits that stand out? What was your best day at Laurel?
Rob: One visit both my wife and I share is of a warm rainy spring-like day sometime in early 1980s. Lower Wildcat had snowmaking and I believe it was groomed on occasion, but we often encounter Lower with bumps over swells of machine made: hard-packed and unforgiving. In the steady rain we were about the only two people on the mountain. The only other person we would see was the lone liftie who would come out of the shed and just shake his head. Kathy and I were dry and snug in our motorcycle rain suits. The steady rain did not make Lower Wildcat any less bumpy, but now the bumps were soft and pliable, enabling us to check and flow with slick ease. It was the first time we felt like we rode the cat instead of the cat striking back.
Scott: Outside of the Mid-Atlantic, what are some of your favorite ski areas? Are there any areas on your bucket list you haven’t visited yet?
Rob: In recent years we’ve been partial to Northern Vermont resorts. Stowe has long been a favorite, Jay Peak, Sugarbush. I’ve not had the family to Mad River Glen yet but for skiers it is a special place.
The last few decades we’ve favored the ease and economy of Salt Lake City resorts. All types of skiing are within an hour’s drive, with public transportation available to the resorts if required. You get low elevation sleeping to ease the altitude sickness, and affordable beds to ease the expense.
There are so many ski areas I’d like to hit, both big and small, each iconic in its own way. From Cranmore to Sun Valley. Big Sky to Taos, Cooper, home of the 10th Mountain, to Suicide Six, stepchild to the first S rope tow, Whistler to Mammoth, and so many places in between. I would love to hit them all yet somehow hit every great day close to home.
In the near term we will ski Maine’s Saddleback. And perhaps a few others on the spring Indy Pass. I’d love to get to Cannon, Waterville Valley, Magic and Jay before they all close, but only one or two might be more likely given the pandemic. Both my wife and I will have received our second COVID-19 vaccination shot by mid-March.
Scott: Your DCSki profile says that you’re a retired steelworker. That’s very Pittsburgh. Have you lived near Pittsburgh all of your life?
Rob: I’m a third generation Steelworker. The Davis family has been in Pennsylvania since colonial days. I’m not sure how or exactly when my branch moved into the western regions, but my Great-Great Grandfather was a Civil War Veteran enlisted out of Clarion County. My Grandfather was a coal miner who became a steelworker when Allegheny Coal and Steel, West Penn Steel and Ludlum Steel merged to become Allegheny Ludlum and got out of the coal mining business.
I ended my career in the same building my Grandfather worked although we did very different things. In his time the building was a silicon “electrical” steel finishing operation. In my time silicon steel was reduced to annealing or normalizing. In the remaining space went the shop I worked for 15 years welding 3 by 20-foot carbon cores inside stainless steel plates to make a slab that is reheated then rolled into a 10-to-15-ton coil. The clad material is used to make stainless steel cookware. That product along with the silicon steel product my grandfather worked are now both gone.
Scott: What was it like to be a steelworker? How long have you been retired?
Rob: I worked 37 years in the same steel mill. One would think that after 37 years things would become rather boring. I mean 37 years doing the same thing repeatedly, that is manufacturing right? The same process over and over until creating a finished product. But in that 37 years, I’ve worked in rolling mills, melt shops, finishing plants, transportation yards; where scrap is melted, ingots poured, slabs reheated and rolled down to sheets or coils. Yes, and it can be boring and tedious, and it can be interesting and dangerous too. It is a lifetime of different jobs anchored by 1 or two.
I started one midnight shift in 1973 when I walked into a dark building so large a town block full of frame houses, duplexes, and brick two stories would be engulfed. You feel out of scale; too small in a vast indoor space. There is a twenty-foot orange glowing bloom bouncing down the rolling mill in front of you. Sparks, smoke, grit, and slag billowing off as it hits the U-mill with speed as it is compressed down to its next level.
There is an overhead crane lifting a big hopper full of glowing bloom ends from beneath the rolling table. They are rough ends of a slab that had just been sheared off. On the far end of the building is a small diesel train with a single railcar carrying an ingot, glowing orange. It stops at the end of the rolling mill and uses a hydraulic arm to push the ingot on to the table.
At the other end of the building, a glowing ribbon of steel bonces down the run-out table, getting sprayed with water as it is cooled, caught and coiled. Sometimes the bouncing leading edge misses the coiler. The mill cannot be stopped. The result is a pile-up. The fast-moving edge comes to an abrupt stop but the steel buckles and folds, almost reaching the ceiling three stories above before falling over as the rest of the length begins to double up, resembling 3-foot-wide ribbon candy.
My first job that night was to water down the soaking pits. Soaking pits are furnaces that reheat ingots. The ingots are taken off railcars by an overhead plunger crane, a crane with a mechanical claw instead of a hook. The operator grabs an end so when lifted the ingot is upright. The ingot is taken to a furnace, the roof is rolled back, and the ingot is stacked inside, with the roof rolled shut. There are about a dozen furnaces in a row, each lined with fire brick which wears down and becomes slag-encrusted. That night, I cooled off the recently shut down furnace with a small fire hose.
Later that week a crew of us went down in that furnace and jack hammered down the slag and spent fire brick. When we started, it was so hot that one cannot stand with just steel toed work boots. We threw wood pallets down to stand on, which promptly began to smoke. Several months later, I worked with brick layers rebuilding the furnace, stacking brick and mixing mud. At some point I worked in the roll shop swinging bearing boxes, dismantling the rolls used to compress the slabs and ingots to coils so the rolls could be refinished by roll turners.
I’ve worked on furnace crews that tap the furnace to release molten steel into a ladle. I’ve worked on teeming platforms where the ladle of steel is poured into ingots. I’ve worked in water a grease up to my ankles, smoke and dust so thick respirators must be worn. Hazards were all around from burning to crushing to loss of limb (mostly fingers), but the hazard I feared the most was the smoke and fine metal dust, the orange airborne rust the toxic acid fumes from the finishing operations spewed out. Those will be the ones that slowly kill you. My grandfather died of black lung. In such an environment it is your insides that are just as much at risk as your skin and bones.
When a bid in the Transportation and Yards/Raw Material Department for truck driver came up, I took it. For the next 17 years or so I worked a 3-turn shift rotating 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to midnight, and midnight to 8 a.m. I learned to drive a fork truck, coil ram truck, straddle buggy, dumpster, flat bed, small dump, dump trailer, eighteen-wheeler flat trailer, and triaxle. I got out of the smoke and soot as much as possible. I hauled brick, scrap, ore, people, equipment, sludge, wastewater, refuse, coils of steel, and spare parts.
My work schedule would constantly change. In addition to changing shifts every week, I would often be bumped to another crew which changed my work rotation, resulting in changed or missed days off or worse yet, facing a reduction in schedule and getting reassigned to one of the many labor jobs I described above.
The top of the truck driving jobs were the triaxles and big rigs that hauled coils of steel between finishing plants in towns that are about 10 hilly miles apart. Just as I got to that level, a steady daylight job became available. To work only weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. like a normal person, wow. I jumped on it. That led me to another 18 years or so of welding the clad assemblies I described above. I retired at age 59 in 2013.
Scott: Other than your career as a steelworker, what is one non-skiing related fact about you that DCSki readers would find surprising or interesting?
Rob: My uncles on my mother’s side were in the German Wehrmacht and SS while my uncles on my father’s side were in the US Armed Forces. I am the child of an immigrant from a former enemy combatant country.
Scott: When you’re not skiing, what are some of your favorite hobbies and pastimes?
Rob: We like to hike, prune glades, bicycle rail trails, kayak fast water (not white water), and travel. I like to read news, periodicals, compelling novels, Internet hodgepodge, watch good TV and movies, and listen to music.
Scott: We’re experiencing a season that’s been cold and snowy, but the COVID-19 pandemic has been hanging over it. Has the pandemic caused you to make changes to your skiing?
Rob: We didn’t plan any destination trips this year. We skied local weekdays only. We social distanced and wore masks. Often, our car served as our base lodge.
Scott: Thanks, Rob, for providing a great history of Laurel Mountain and describing your career and connection to the mountain.
M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.
Scott you really got Rob to open up with your questions. We got an alpine sports history lesson, the life story of the Davis family, and a love letter to all things skiing - in one great interview!
DCSki was the conduit through which I got to know Rob and his family of avid skiers. I've shared many great ski days with them. One comment, the photos don't do justice to how nice the mountaintop lodge is at Laurel Mountain. Behind that wall of windows is one of the most scenic and relaxing places to boot-up, dine, and hangout in the mid-Atlantic ski world.
Rob - a very interesting life. I love hearing about LM history while riding the lift with you. I missed seeing you this year. The skiing at LM this year was so enjoyable.
Scott - great interview.