Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Skier aims at every resort

77-year-old skier continues quest to conquer North America’s ski areas

Express Staff Writer

John and Jewel Andrew make an off-season visit to the River Run lifts during their quest to ski every resort in North America. Over the past 12 years the couple has traveled to over 500 ski areas, from Alaska to Georgia. Photo by David N. Seelig

While many people choose to buy a condo at a ski resort after retirement, John and Jewel Andrew took a unique approach, when a simple visit to a real estate agent's office was deemed insufficient.

"We couldn't decide where," said Jewel, during a recent trip to Sun Valley. "So we decided to ski all of them before we made the final choice."

Twelve years and 505 ski resorts later, they're still on their quest to ski all 700 ski resorts in North America. After 678 ski days and 200,000 miles, the couple is closing in on completing what John, 77, calls a "mind-numbing numbers game." But there are nearly 200 resorts to go before they can give their legs, along with their Nissan Pathfinder, a rest.

"You have to get lucky with a lot of these places," John said. "You have to get there when they're open and they have snow, which can be difficult."

Among those that he managed to catch during the right conditions include Arco's Blizzard Mountain, with its 600 vertical feet just west of Craters of the Moon National Monument and serviced by a single, ancient T-bar lift.

"It has to be the slowest T-bar ever," John said of his trip in 2002. "But if you're living in Sun Valley, you ought to go there and make a donation."

Making "donations" has become a common occurrence during the trip; John has been forced to come up with a creative solution to the numerous lift ticket vendors that refuse his money once they find out his age or powder-hungry crusade.

"I make sure not to tell them what I'm trying to do before I buy our tickets," John said with a wry smile. "And if they say I'm too old to pay, I say, 'No way, that's age discrimination.'"

At a lot of these ski hills operating on a shoestring, John insists on paying as they have a lot more need for his $20 than he does.

That goes for the Sawkill Family Ski Center in New York's Catskills, which holds the honor of North America's smallest ski area at 70 vertical feet, making Blizzard Mountain look positively Himalayan by comparison.

Arriving on a Wednesday to take a look at the weekend-only "resort," John was fortunate to find the manager, who drove John and his skis to the top of the hill, since the recently installed magic carpet conveyer belt wasn't running.

With 60 ski areas in Ontario, 55 in Quebec, 51 in New York and 43 Michigan, John and Jewel have had plenty of ground to cover. The longest trip ranged from their home in Seattle across 13,000 miles to Newfoundland and the easternmost resort on his list, White Hills in St. Johns.

"When we started, crossing into Canada was just like driving into another state," said John, who didn't start skiing until he was 40 years old. "Now, especially if you're travelling with kids, they're going to shake you down for pot."

This is just one of the many observations John has made along the way, which, in addition to his extensive research, has made him an expert on the ski industry, filling him with knowledge that would likely surprise the ski bums that flock to Warm Springs on a powder day. Included is the fact that the average vertical height for ski areas in North America is 948 feet. That's 10 feet taller than Idaho's Kelly Canyon, where John was once forced to ski around a moose that decided the middle of a run would be a nice place to take a rest.

Other notable experiences included "skiing" sand dunes in White Sands, N.M., driving through the south with studded tires and the discovery that "run for run," Pebble Creek, south of Idaho Falls, is one of the steepest mountains John's skied.

Throughout all of his travels, John and his wife have compiled their information to offer recommendations to curious friends, including that Mirror Lake Inn at Lake Placid, N.Y., offers a great dining experience, that Remi Lake's upside-down Ford works well to power its rope-tow and that one should avoid motels whose front desk is encased in bulletproof glass.

As for Sun Valley, where the couple has visited a number of times, it's near the top of the list in the contest that put them on the road over a decade ago.

"In our quest to find the right ski area, and we've skied all the big ones, Sun Valley is ranked very high," John said. "The snow guns guarantee good skiing all the time, and with its new lodges and summertime amenities, it's definitely one of the nicest."

Perhaps they'll return once they decide to settle down but, after a two-year hiatus brought on by health problems, the couple is eager to hit the road once again, with more back roads and one-man T-bar operations awaiting them over the next few years.

"Our goal of skiing all of North America may be forever elusive," John said. "But we will have ... albums full of snow, snow and more snow to remind us of travel all over rural North America in the dead of winter while sensible retired people cruised the Mediterranean or Caribbean."

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