Night School at Winterplace

Night school at Winterplace teaches students to ski

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GHENT — Every weekday at twilight in January and February, busloads of high school and middle school students from across Southern West Virginia arrive at Winterplace Ski Resort’s parking area for once-a-week classes in what could be called, at 3,650 feet, higher education.

Those who own their own gear wait for it to be unloaded from the bus, while other students head to Winterplace’s rental shop, where they pick up their pre-ordered skis, snowboards, boots, poles and helmets. Once suited up, they head for the ski school meeting area to begin a 90-minute group lesson, followed by two hours of free time on the slopes of their choosing to put what they’ve learned into practice.


Winterplace’s five-week and eight-week ski/snowboard programs have been available to school groups of 15 or more for nearly 30 years, with 40 to 60 groups participating each winter in recent years, said Winterplace Executive Vice President Tom Wagner.

“Thousands and thousands of people have learned to ski and snowboard here,” Wagner said.

In addition to providing new generations of West Virginia skiers and riders, many of whom will stick with the sports as adults, the program builds self-confidence and teaches life skills like setting and achieving goals.

“The program produces lifetime advocates for skiing and snowboarding,” said Wagner.

Equally important, “learning to ski is fun,” said Christian Deiss, an eighth-grader at Hurricane Middle School, now in his third winter with the program.

Several factors make Winterplace the go-to locale for after-school ski lessons and slope time. For one thing, night skiing is offered seven days a week, keeping the slopes open until 10 p.m. For another, the ski area is easy to reach — only five minutes off Interstate 77’s Ghent exit. Finally, the resort uses a terrain based learning system, in which a beginners’ slope is carved by snow groomers to include banked turns, mini half-pipe walls and gentle rollers to let novice skiers ease into terrain they will encounter on other slopes.

“Blue Ridge Outdoors ranked us the best place to learn to ski in the southeast,” Wagner said. In addition to the terrain features on its teaching slope and an abundance of beginner- and intermediate-level trails elsewhere, “we have great instructors — some of whom have been with us for decades,” he said.

School groups come from as far west as Hurricane and as far east as Christiansburg, Virginia, to take part in the program.

On Fridays, the 65 participating students at Hurricane Middle School depart between 3 and 3:15 p.m. and arrive at Winterplace about 5 p.m.

“It takes a little under two hours to get there,” said Sara Rooper, assistant principal at Hurricane Middle School and sponsor of the school’s ski club.

Hurricane Middle School students have been taking part in the Winterplace program longer than the 12 years Rooper has been affiliated with the school.

“Hurricane High has a ski club, too, but they take fewer kids than we do, probably because there are so many more activities for them to choose from,” she said.

To help maximize time on the slopes, Rooper fills out a rental form listing participating students’ equipment needs and sizes on the day before the trip, and once on the road, calls ahead to provide the Winterplace staff with estimated time of arrival, “so they can move their employees over to be ready to process us,” she said. “I can’t think of a time when we’ve had to wait in line very long.”

While first-time skiers may struggle during their first lesson, by their second or third lesson, “they’re really making progress,” she said. “It’s a great program.”

“Being able to go every week helps you learn faster,” said Deiss, who started the program as a sixth-grader. “I got the basics down last year and now I’m learning to parallel, one of the next big steps in skiing. The lessons are helping a lot.”

Deiss, whose after-school activities also include producing “Christian’s Sports Beat,” a column appearing in the Putnam Review, looks forward to skiing at other West Virginia resorts. “I’ve gone down every trail but one at Winterplace,” he said. “It’s not open at night. I’ve skied here and at Snowshoe, and I’ll be going to Canaan Valley this season. There are a lot of places I’d like to try.”

Wagner said he’s met folks at various locations across the state and the country who learned to ski at Winterplace.

“Some of them have gone on to share their passion for the sport at other places,” he said.

During a recent ski industry conference, Chris Milam, the director of the kids’ ski school at Vermont’s Killington Resort, the largest ski area in the East, “made it a point to introduce himself and share with me that his time at Winterplace was the launching pad for what is now his career,” Wagner said. Milam, he said, grew up in Scott Depot and first came to Winterplace as a participant in the resort’s Scouts on Skis program. Later, he took part in the five-week school program through middle school and high school.

Winterplace provides participants in the five-week program with skis, boots, poles, helmets, 90 minutes of professional instruction and lift tickets for a little more than $20 a visit — a 78 percent savings from over-the-counter rates for the same services. School ski clubs add transportation costs to bring the price up a bit more.

Winterplace’s five-week and eight-week ski/snowboard programs are not restricted to school groups. Church and community groups or any group of individuals can take part in the program. Registration is open through Feb. 9, though earlier sign-up is recommended.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.