“I am a mighty mountain. I rise above the others and look down upon their crowns. When you see me from below I seem to shoulder out the sky. For more than half a hundred miles I stretch my length. Five miles across my top spreads, holding between its double row of peaks its own private valley. There, cradled in eternal green, my own river flows. I am rough. I am cold. Men call me Cheat.”
Of Men and a Mighty Mountain.
Cheat Mountain rears its mighty girth from the belly of Appalachia, its ancient spine spanning 50 miles of rugged and remote terrain. At its southern end, Thorny Flat rises to 4,848 feet, marking West Virginia’s second-highest summit behind 4,863-foot Spruce Knob. Here, Snowshoe Mountain Resort sits atop the summit, standing proudly in the clouds above the mountain mists.
Just over a mile north of Thorny Flat, the western flank of Cheat Mountain drops precipitously down Cupp Run to the valley of the Big Spring Fork. Cupp Run’s drainage cradles the Western Territory, home to some of West Virginia’s most storied expert-level ski terrain.
Tumult & Timber
Blackhurst’s stoically elegant personification of Cheat Mountain in his 1965 logging memoir specifically describes the southern end of the mountain where Shavers Fork of the Cheat River is born—the present-day site of Snowshoe and Shavers Lake.
Detailing the hardships of the logging lifestyle, Blackhurts’s book was published just after the decimation of the largest spruce-hardwood forest south of Maine. By 1960, Cheat Mountain—and most peaks in Appalachia—were stripped completely barren by timber companies who set out to leave no sapling standing.
But Cheat Mountain began to recover. Spruce saplings steadily stretched toward the sky, covering up the slash piles, skidder scars, and log camp ruins. As the recovery took place, construction of a ski resort began. In December of 1974, just 14 years after the final tree was cut, Snowshoe Mountain Resort opened to the public.
In a nod to Cheat Mountain’s legacy, the names of Snowshoe’s ski trails and lifts double as a glossary of logging terms. Whistlepunk, Ballhooter, Skidder, and others are now household names among local skiers.
When Snowshoe set out to design its slopes, it knew the resort needed a dynamic trail that traversed the rugged terrain and took advantage of several distinct fall lines along Cupp Run. The resort brought Jean-Claude Killy, a world-famous French alpine ski racer, overseas for the job. Killy’s magnum opus of Cupp Run is a heart-thumping, leg-burning romp down the mountain that he considered one of his favorite ten lift-served runs in the world.
Snowshoe’s most famous trail gets its name from the stream that creates the steep drainage bowl of the Western Territory. The stream was named for Daniel Cupp, the first settler of the rugged drainage. Historic accounts show his cabin sat just below where Arbuckle’s Cabin now sits by the lower lift terminal.
When Snowshoe first opened, Cupp Run was served by a triple-chair lift that was the longest triple in the country at the time. Nowadays, the Western Territory is served by the Western Express, a high-speed quad lift that can handle 2,400 skiers per hour and cruises along at 13 miles per hour. The Western Express slashed the lift ride from 20 minutes to six.
Killy’s alpine racing legacy continues via the annual Cupp Run Challenge, a giant slalom race in which Killy put down the first winning time some 45 years ago. He frequently returned in the race’s early history to set the time to beat. At the age of 76, Killy no longer sets the pace, but the Cupp Run Challenge lives on each February.
Cupp Run remained in a class of its own until 1997 when Intrawest, the corporate owners of Snowshoe at the time, met with then-vice president Ed Galford to figure out how to further leverage the world-class terrain of the Western Territory.
After discussing the route, budget, and timeline, Galford and his team got to work creating Shay’s Revenge. Snowshoe’s steepest trail is an homage to the Shay locomotive, a geared steam engine designed by Ephraim Shay that was used extensively in Appalachian logging operations.
“We knew we always wanted another black-diamond slope [on the Western Territory],” Galford says. But looking at a rugged mountainside and having the vision to create that slope proved to be a monumental effort. Galford’s team hand-cleared the trail with chainsaws and had to extract large rocks with a dozer. “Walking was quite difficult because the second-growth spruce trees were inches apart,” he says. “You’d cut several small trees and they wouldn’t fall because the branches were hemmed together.”
Galford says the biggest challenges were placing the trail to catch shade from the tallest spruce trees and tackling the flat area to reach the steep face of Lower Shay’s. Just five months and some $5 million later, the project was complete. Shay’s Revenge opened for the 1998-1999 ski season to the joy of expert skiers and snowboarders. “It was a great relief to get it open,” Galford says.
West Bound and Down
With 1,500 feet of vertical drop, 6,500 feet of length, and one of the steepest pitches of any in-bounds slope in the eastern U.S., the Western Territory is the gem of Mountain State skiing. Mention any of those stats in the same sentence, and even the most jaded Colorado skier’s ears will perk up.
Joe Stevens, West Virginia Ski Areas Association chairman and former Snowshoe communications director, has been skiing and snowboarding for over thirty years in the Mountain State and says the Western Territory holds the best expert terrain in the region. His favorite run links the wide, upper section of Shay’s Revenge to the steep chute and high-speed runout of lower Cupp Run. “For expert snowboarders, it’s the upper echelon of technical riding in the southeast,” Stevens says. “You’ve got a bit of everything. It’s where you learn and move up in the progression.”
For Becky Sharp, a veteran member of the Snowshoe Mountain Patrol, it doesn’t get any better than the 29-degree face of Lower Shay’s. “It’s the excitement of having a nice steep; it’s the steepest thing we have at Snowshoe,” Sharp says. This will be her 39th season on ski patrol at Snowshoe, and Sharp still carves turns with the fervor of her early days.
As soon as she gets the assignment to head west, she skis both trails to check trail conditions and make sure all equipment and signage is placed. While this usually happens early in the morning, Sharp’s favorite time to ski the Western Territory is at sunset. “You start off with the view, which is absolutely incredible, so many people stop at the top and just take it in and enjoy it,” she says.
It takes a village to craft a mountain, and the operations team that functions out of Snowshoe Village work around the clock to pull it off. Ken Gaitor, vice president of mountain operations, has been the architect of a massive overhaul at Snowshoe, including a $4 million state-of-the-art snowmaking system that allows the Western Territory to open earlier and stay open deep into the spring skiing season. “Anyone can build a great park, but not a lot of mountains have a Cupp and a Shay’s,” Gaitor says. “I want to showcase it as part of who we are.”
Over the past four years, the snow guns on the Western Territory have been replaced with high-efficiency guns that automatically turn on and adjust water content with input from air temperature sensors. They’ve also added nearly 50 new guns to create slope-wide riding throughout the season. “You never quite know what Mother Nature is going to hand you, but we’ve tried to flatten the curve a little bit,” Gaitor says.
While Gaitor and the mountain ops team arguably run the best snowmaking operation east of the Mississippi, they still rely on the occasional hand-out from Mother Nature. Not many are aware that Cheat Mountain has more landmass above 4,000-feet elevation than New York, Vermont, and Maine combined. Snowshoe’s strategic position on the high point of Cheat Mountain results in 180 annual average inches of the white stuff.
Gaitor, who got his start in the ski industry in Utah, compares the Snowshoe region’s low-density snow to Utah’s legendary powder. “Our natural snow, when it comes, is a nice, dry power,” he says. “You can almost breathe it in sometimes.”
From the decimation of its forests at the hands of the relentless loggers to the construction of its slopes at the hands of restless skiers, Cheat Mountain’s legend continues with Snowshoe. The development and evolution of Snowshoe’s Western Territory have been carried out with an industrious labor of love, and those involved in its ongoing story have devoted serious sweat equity to keeping the dream alive.
“It’s what makes us stand apart from other mountains, not just in West Virginia, but in the Mid-Atlantic region,” Gaitor says. “I really believe it’s the gem that nobody else has.”
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and has joyously been snowboarding in WV for nearly two decades. You can bet he won’t be working when the flakes are flying at Snowshoe.