Getting a lift

The Baltimore Sun

Somewhere along the Maine Turnpike heading to Sunday River Ski Resort, Mark Jones made his way to the back of the bus to pass out coloring books and crayons, and announce a contest to the five kids on the trip. The trio of tween boys barely lifted their heads from their electronic games, but my 8-year-old daughter and another little girl, who was 6, zealously got to work.

Jones' gesture was not lost on the adults on the bus, who could see that in the world of the Baltimore Ski Club, this was huge.

"There were more kids on that trip than I've ever seen," said Jones, general treasurer of the club and a member since 1982. As trip leader, he was determined to make sure the mothers and children felt at home. "The aging of the ski club has been a problem," Jones says, echoing a sentiment expressed by ski clubs all over the country.

Although there are some 2,200 ski clubs, representing 750,000 slope fans nationwide, their membership is not getting any younger.

"Most ski clubs are still predominantly baby boomers - now in their 50s and 60s," says Bob Wilbanks, publisher of the National Ski Club Newsletter. "They need to attract younger people to survive."

Wilbanks acknowledges that many ski clubs have a well-deserved reputation as singles groups intent on partying. (For ski club regulars, the big event on the four-hour bus ride from the airport in Manchester, N.H., to the resort in Newry, Maine, was a stop at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store to stock up.) But that image is receding as fast as their members' hairlines, he says. "The clubs who resist change are the ones that won't be around in 15 years."

Ski clubs began to blossom after World War II, as the European sport of alpine skiing began to immigrate to the United States. Many clubs began when a group of friends or skiers pitched in to buy land near a mountain and build a lodge to share during the season. Ski areas back then were primitive: Sunday River opened in 1958 with one rope tow. Now it is immense: eight peaks, 131 trails and 16 state-of-the-art lifts, including a new "Chondola" - a hybrid chair lift and gondola - that began operating this season.

Other clubs evolved from outdoors organizations. The Baltimore Ski Club, which started in 1946, was an outgrowth of the Maryland Mountaineering Club. Today, the Baltimore group has about 275 members and operates 10 trips a year that can range from a weekend trip to Pennsylvania to weeklong excursions in Europe.

Some of the most active clubs are based in urban areas and act almost as mini-travel agencies, organizing trips for members. In booking trips, the clubs have years of experience and repeat visits to ski areas to go on.

Clair Hill of Fairfax, Va., found the Baltimore Ski Club while searching online for a spring trip to take with her 9-year-old son, James. "It was much cheaper than any other deals I looked into," she said. Hill's sister, Ellen Kelderman, who lives in Kansas, and a friend, Merrill Smith, joined the trip, too, bringing along their kids.

"If you work full-time and you're not into all those details, it's great to be able to just write the check and go," said Smith.

In tough economic times, ski clubs provide an affordable option. The price for a day on the slopes has risen steadily over the past decade. At the beginning of the 2008-2009 season, Vail Resort in Colorado announced its lift tickets would cost $97 - almost double the price 10 years ago and the most expensive in the country. In the northeast, a day at Killington Ski Resort in Vermont is $82. Add equipment rentals, transportation, food and lodging, and the tab can add up to hundreds per person - per day. Ski clubs take advantage of group rates on lodging and lift tickets, as well as discounts on midweek trips like ours, to substantially reduce costs.

Our five-day trip to Sunday River cost $830 per person, including round-trip airfare to Manchester, N.H., the bus to the resort, five nights lodging at the Jordan Grand hotel, five lift tickets each, and all but one dinner. While there wasn't a discount for children, the ski club distributed vouchers for lessons and sundry. I calculated that the hotel room alone that my daughter Mary and I shared at the Jordan - even at midweek - would have cost more than $800 for our stay.

Sunday River has loads of packages, including several ski-and-stay deals, but I probably wouldn't have taken the initiative to rent a car at the Manchester airport or drive the 10-plus hours from Baltimore.

Furthermore, without companions, Mary and I probably would have stayed close to the hotel for our meals, and I'm sure I would have obsessed over all the extra charges. In other words, our trip wouldn't have been nearly as much fun. The other kids got Mary excited about hitting the slopes each morning and were fun companions at the end of the day. Knowing she was entertained meant that I could enjoy a vacation of my own.

We arrived at the Jordan Grand late Sunday afternoon, in time for a quick dip in the heated outdoor pool before dinner at the hotel's casual restaurant, Sliders, which was reserved just for our group. Entering the restaurant, I wondered which table to join. The ski club members, while not unfriendly, definitely had their own thing going on. Many had taken trips together, and there were lots of stories about ski lift mishaps and apres-ski activities. While I had exchanged greetings with the other mothers, I didn't want to interfere with their girlfriend getaway. But they waved us over enthusiastically and shifted around to make room at the table. Mary and 6-year-old Josie quickly picked up where they left off on the bus, and the tone for the rest of the trip was set.

In the mornings, we had breakfast in the hotel dining room, taking advantage of an elaborate buffet. Afterward, we'd get the kids to the mountain for ski school. The girls skied in different groups according to their level, while the three boys were "riders," learning to snowboard. The mothers, all compatibly strong skiers, could then choose to take a clinic, ski together or join other Baltimore skiers.

When Mary's lessons ended in the afternoon, we would ski together so she could show me what she'd learned. When the lifts closed, we would check our skis at the base of the mountain, change into our now light-as-air street boots and climb on the bus to return to the hotel.

If there was time before dinner, some of us would meet at the pool; Mary and Josie became best friends for the trip, dashing up and down the halls between rooms.

The trip leader planned most of the meals for the group. On our second night, we took the resort shuttle to the South Ridge Lodge and ate at the Phoenix House, once the home of Sunday River partner and Red Sox vice chairman Les Otten. The menu included filet mignon, seared tuna and scallops. The next night, we had a soup, salad and pizza party at the Shipyard Brew Haus, where the kids could try tubing while the adults enjoyed microbrews. We were on our own for just one dinner, which we ate at the hotel. The hotel staff was kind enough to arrange a private movie night for our kids, complete with popcorn and candy.

The Jordan Grand, while within the resort's 161 acres, was some distance from the base lodge. On our final day, Mary and I decided to ski back to the hotel, an expedition that required traversing across a few peaks. No run was rated above intermediate, but it was an arduous trek involving catching several chairlifts to slowly zig-zag across the mountain. There had been off-and-on snowfall during the week, and on this afternoon, the wind picked up and snowflakes swirled around us. It was hard to tell if they were coming from the sky or the ground.

As the wind tried to push us up the mountain, I watched Mary gamely shifting her legs in wide parallel turns, moving steadily downward. At one point, I clutched her in one arm, holding my ski poles in the other hand, her skis pressed close to mine to comfort and guide her. OK, it was not our favorite run of the trip, but it was certainly our most memorable. Once safely inside the warm hotel, stomping snow from our boots, we were both exhausted and exhilarated. Mary had a great tale of adventure to share with her friends, and we both had plenty of reasons to want to return.

if you go

Baltimore Ski Club

You must be a member of the Baltimore Ski Club to join a trip. Membership in the club is $38 for a single membership, $55 for families, $45 for a single parent (including one child; additional children and individual memberships for children younger than 18 cost $16).

The Baltimore club has two trips remaining this season, including one to Jay Peak, Vt., from March 15-20. Most trips are about a week, and in most cases, flights, transfers, hotel, lift tickets and some meals are included in the pricing. For more information on the Baltimore Ski Club, go to baltimoreskiclub.com.

For additional ski clubs in the region, contact the Blue Ridge Ski Council, skiclubs.com.

Sunday River, 15 S. Ridge Road, Newry, Maine 04261; sundayriver.com. The resort, about 5 miles outside of Bethel, has 131 trails, 667 acres and eight interconnected mountains.

Jordan Grand Hotel and Conference Center , 800-543-2754. The hotel has slope-side access, a heated pool, health club, day care and wireless Internet. Regular room rates start at $200 per night. Ski and Stay packages start at $99 per person.

five things to know before you join a ski club

1

You must be a member of a ski club to join a trip. Most clubs have an annual membership fee and are open to all, even those who do not live in the area.

2

Members of clubs that are part of the Blue Ridge Ski Council can take advantage of trips run by its affiliated clubs.

3

While you can join a club for just one trip, longtime members, who hold offices and volunteer their time to plan and lead trips, hope that new members will stay on and pitch in.

4

The most affordable trips are planned for off-peak ski times and midweek, so finding a trip that coincides with school vacations may be a challenge.

5

Membership in the club means invitations to year-round activities not limited to skiing, such as cookouts, hikes, bike trips and golf outings.

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