- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2001

Skiing, they say, is a solitary pursuit: It's you against the mountain, and all the coaching and instruction in the world won't help when the lift belches you out of its icy chair and onto the freshly packed snow.

Try telling that to the members of the Snow Searchers Ski Club, a gregarious group of local skiers who band together each winter to share their love of the sport. For them and the members of the other half-dozen ski clubs in the Washington area, the camaraderie of heading off with a group for a day or weekend on the slopes can't be beat.

Snow Searcher Marcia Shepherd, of Upper Marlboro, Md., says joining a ski club gives her a sense of connection, even at the top of a towering slope.

"Going with a large group … no matter where you are on the mountain, you'll see somebody that you know," Ms. Shepherd says. Club members tie yellow strips of nylon to their poles so they can make out familiar faces beneath the layers of clothing and goggles.

"The whole club is like a family," she says.

The Snow Searchers, composed chiefly of employees of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory on Overlook Avenue SW, plans several trips each season. Membership is open to all. The group has 160 members.

It is a tightly knit bunch. In some cases, their ties bind permanently: A Snow Searchers couple got married on a trip to Aspen, Colo., three years ago while group members toasted them on their matrimonial journey.

Some jaunts, such as recent treks to Italy, France and Austria, involve a good deal of travel. Others, like the group's annual "Beginner's Special," take members to close-in resorts like Garrett County, Md.'s Wisp, where the slopes are kind to the neophyte. Beginners on this trip enjoy free lifts, rentals and lessons, courtesy of Snow Searchers.

Many excursions fall during the work week. These trips offer thinner crowds, more reasonable prices and better groomed slopes, members say.

Longer outings planned for this year include a trip next month to Sunday River, Maine, and a March visit to Grinelwald, Switzerland.

When Mother Nature won't cooperate by providing the necessary snow, members keep together by organizing canoeing, white-water rafting and bicycle trips.

A ski trip last month took the group to Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Champion, Pa. Members paid $22 for the bus, $21 for lift tickets and $11 for rental equipment.

The bonding, as an infamous advertising campaign might say, was priceless.

The day starts at a severe hour, around 5 a.m. Outside, the winds are unseasonably bitter, especially by Washington standards, as the group trudges aboard a luxury bus. Nary a complaint is heard, though.

The vehicle is packed 43 skiers climb aboard the bus. The year's first measurable snowfall a few days earlier caused sign-ups for the trip to jump, says group president Dave Roberts.

Doughnuts and coffee make the rounds, as does the group's affable vice president, Paul Boran.

"We got plenty of snow," Mr. Boran barks to rally the troops, reporting an 18- to 24-inch recorded base at Seven Springs. Mr. Boran plays up his role as the group taskmaster, keeping a learned eye over the activities. His high-decibel declarations sound as if he were competing with a snapping winter wind, not a gently humming bus engine.

For the novices on board, and there are a few, he lets loose with some basic instructions.

"Make sure you have happy feet," Mr. Boran says, explaining that snow boots should leave some toe room when a skier stands up.

The journey's only sign of discontent emerges when the bus driver insists on taking a break during the three-plus-hour journey. Groans greet the announcement.

Mr. Roberts, a 38-year Navy Research Lab veteran, joined the club about 15 years ago. He says the group on average schedules about 10 trips a year. But fluctuating member turnout and weather that gums up the highways typically whittle the number of trips actually taken down to about six.

Die-hards, he says, keep the group on an even keel.

"We usually have the same nucleus of people," says Mr. Roberts, who sports a crisp white goatee and speaks in a kind, deliberate manner.

On the ride out, conversations are limited. A few members catch up with each other, but most sit quietly, patiently waiting for their skiing to begin.

An instructional skiing video plays over the bus' monitor to juice the escalating emotions.

As the minutes tick away, the shops around Somerset, Pa., the biggest town near Seven Springs, lurch into view. They seem frozen in time by the chill. The town's old-fashioned sheen is typical of many Pennsylvania hamlets. It lends a romantic glow to the trip, a journey meant to isolate group members from their modern problems for an afternoon.

Finally, the resort draws near. The chatter picks up exponentially, and the outdoor preparations begin.

Contending with the weather is an ordeal. The temperature hovers around the single digits on this day. Members pull on their gear, layer upon layer of it. Insulated waterproof pants are a must for those chilly ski lift chairs, and silk or polypropylene material keeps moisture away from the skin.

The seasoned skiers seemed undisturbed by the chill. Others look warily at the gusts of snowy wind and shiver. Once the bus door creaks open, though, even the veterans in the group cast a few guarded glances outside.

A steady, light snow greets the club members, a dusty presence that will remain throughout the afternoon.

Once at Seven Springs, group members splinter, headed toward green (easy) blue (more challenging) and black (difficult) slopes based on their abilities.

There's something about skiing that needs to be shared, from the glorious runs to the inviting beds of snow. Even one of the resort's wizened ski instructors, Fred Schmidt, makes sure part of his lesson includes social amenities.

Some Snow Searcher members clearly thrive on the risks inherent in the sport. Others slow their pace long enough to soak in the scenery.

At first blush, the group wouldn't strike the casual observer as the fittest assemblage of athletes. Yet they ski without break and seem as if they could have kept going when they grudgingly step aboard the bus at day's end.

A few resemble advertisements for the latest ski clothing outlet with their color-coordinated gear. Others patch together warm clothing from less fanciful sources, from oversized sweatshirts to fuzzy jester hats, to keep themselves warm.

The only thing these group members have in common is their love of the slopes. It's an assortment of characters, from the amusing Mr. Boran to sweet Ms. Shepherd.

A few sport neatly groomed mustaches under their swaddles of head gear. One skier lets his long hair flow unencumbered while skimming down the slopes.

The group reassembles at 12:30 p.m. at the Foggy Goggle, a monstrosity of wooden benches and support beams where skiers hunker down for cafeteria-style food. They eat quickly, the meal a perfunctory break in the action.

• • •

Alexandria resident Chris Moss, who taught skiing in college, relishes these midweek trips. They often provide the kind of memories that, like a snowball rolling down a mountain, grow in size over time.

He recalls a recent outing to Mount Sutton near Montreal when he lost all control of his skis and was at gravity's mercy.

"I slid a good 50 to 75 yards down the slope. I just couldn't stop," he says, warming to the story in its retelling.

Dick Hubbard of Burke, Va., often brings his wife and two sons to ski with the group, schedules permitting.

"When our kids are in school, doing trips is harder for us to do," he says. "Now that they're college age, things are a bit easier."

Skiing with their children has more benefits than just bonding.

"We sort of all learned together," he says. "They've pushed us much further than we would have done. We still can't keep up with them."

The group also provides a camaraderie which makes extended driving much less of an issue.

"This place is too far to do in a day trip" alone, he says.

Ms. Shepherd says the group started in the mid- to late 1970s.

"Some of us have skied together for years," says Ms. Shepherd, who has skied in Switzerland and other European locales.

"It's a nice club for a family," she says, chuckling at members who crow about boorish behavior during the long bus rides home. "It lasts about an hour and everybody falls asleep," she says of the high jinks.

It takes a good deal of effort to ski from the packing on of winter's warmest to assembling gobs of special gear and then riding to the location. But it's also demanding to run the club and make sure trips like this one come off smoothly. Poor turnout and nasty weather often can't be predicted until the final hours before a trip.

The Web site and hot line must be updated, and new members must be coddled and trained. That job is taken by the group, but often the specific training falls to the group's certified ski instructor, Dawn Brown.

The kindhearted instructor brings a zeal for the sport that can overcome the slickest mogul. Her patience is more than just a virtue it's a welcome mat for inexperienced visitors to give the club a try.

Snow Searchers members recruit new blood with fervor almost equal to their love of the slopes.

"Our club does try to … find out who the beginners are and introduce them to each other," Mr. Roberts says.

"When new people come in, we try to make an effort to make them feel welcome," Ms. Shepherd adds.

• • •

For some members of the group, skiing in bunches makes perfect sense.

Springfield resident Pat Brannen, who is legally blind, has been skiing eight years with the group.

"It's easier for me to follow somebody down the mountain," he says. "I can see where they went and duplicate it."

The weekday excursions mean less hectic slopes and ticket lines for Mr. Brannen.

"You get more into it on the week trips. You feel like you've made progress," he says. "I try not to go too fast. I'll never be a great skier, but it's a lot of fun."

"My wife talked me into it," he says of how he began. She had met Mr. Roberts at Springfield Plaza one day. "She thought it was a good thing to get into."

Group members are willing to lend a hand or a ski pole to anyone fresh to the club or the sport, he says.

"They're all very helpful. Anybody who comes in new at any level, you'll find someone to ski with," he says.

Member Brad Kuhn of Alexandria recalls when he broke a binding skiing down a mountain at Sunday River in Maine two years ago.

"Everybody I was skiing with was ahead of me," Mr. Kuhn says, "but luckily I had my radio on, so I called someone down at the bottom." A member of the resort's ski patrol quickly arrived to rescue him.

Sometimes it helps to have friends on the ski patrol, too.

The bus ride home from Seven Springs gives the skiers the chance to recap their adventures, retell tales that may grow longer over time.

The mood change between the two bus rides is dramatic. Cackles of laughter peal from the bus even before a few alcoholic beverages are cracked on.

For all their boasting of their hard-partying ways, though, the ride home is relatively peaceful. The proverbial back of the bus generates the most noise, but it, too, settles with a few miles under the bus's chassis. By the time someone pops "The Perfect Storm" into the bus's videocassette player, most group members have all but quieted down.

A few group members patrol the bus aisle on the way home to make sure all is well, like a parent checking in on a snoozing child. At one point, a chorus of "Happy Birthday" rings out for one of the bus passengers.

Through the day, members swap arguments over which regions are their favorite to ski, from Maine to Vermont to Switzerland. But one senses it doesn't really matter, as long as they have a day off and there's snow covering the nearest mountain.

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