Get hooked on night skiing in Wisconsin
A snowboarder heads down the hill at Blackhawk Ski Club, selfie stick in hand. Photo courtesy of AJ Stern
On one of the last runs of the night, Dimi Schweitzer and I decided to extend our poles out to one another and glide straight down the hill without making any turns. Together, we gradually picked up speed as the trees blurred together on either side of us.
After spending the majority of my junior year of college staring at a computer screen, night skiing at Devil’s Head Resort, about 50 minutes from Madison, was the closest thing to normalcy I had felt in a long time.
However, my love for skiing only slightly outweighed my overwhelming anxiety about interacting with the very real snow monsters that were surely hiding in the depths of the woods and were sure to only be active at night.
For a first-time night skier, navigating in the dark felt daunting. But for kids at the Blackhawk Ski Club, navigating dark trails is just an exercise in trusting themselves and their abilities.
“There are places, especially on the Nordic trails, that are really dark, and it is so cool to watch the kids learn to navigate that and be confident,” says Blackhawk executive board president Amy Grunewald.
A typical night at Blackhawk Ski Club starts the moment kids get released from school. The private not-for-profit ski club is located in Middleton, Wisconsin, roughly a 20-minute drive west of Madison.
Grunewald says that once the lights are on, the hill becomes “this magical place that is both light and dark.”
All of the Nordic trails are completely lit, but often avid night skiers like to venture out to the trails beyond.
“And there’s lots of trails over there,” Grunewald says. “And there’s no lights. And so if you forget your headlamp, you just have to let your eyes adjust, and you’re skiing in the total dark.”
Although Grunewald jokes that it would be ideal to have greater funding to replace all of the lights, she doesn’t dwell on their shortcomings. Rather, individuals are challenged to navigate terrain in the dark. This ultimately becomes an exercise of trust.
“This magical place that is both light and dark.”
— Amy Grunewald
Jessica Bodin was surely exercising her trust when she decided to go night skiing at Cascade Mountain.
“My friend invited me to go and my first instinct was to say, no, absolutely not, because I’ve had weird experiences with anxiety and skiing before, but it was a new time for me, and I was excited to rewrite my story with skiing,” Bodin says.
The UW–Madison senior journalism major spent every winter break for as long as she can remember skiing in Oregon. Bodin knew it meant a lot to her father that the whole family learn to ski.
Despite her father’s vision of the whole family skiing together, Bodin remembers feeling suffocated by the multiple layers of clothing required to stay warm. That, coupled with her fears of going down a mountain, put a sour taste in her mouth about the whole thing.
All of that changed when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Bodin and students like her across Wisconsin to work remotely throughout the duration of the school year. Bodin stepped onto Cascade Mountain with a new set of anxieties: skiing in the dark.
“Honestly, I was a little bit terrified at first when it got dark, because I didn’t have goggles and I was zooming down the mountain and I was like, I actually can not see anything, but it was part of the fun because when you get to the bottom you’re like, well I survived, so let’s do it again and see if I survive this time,” Bodin says.
For beginner night skiers like Bodin, blaring lights on an icy run is daunting. For talented ski racer Martha Daniels, under the fluorescent lights is where she will do some of her best skiing.
Daniels’ childhood was defined by night skiing. She grew up in a suburb just outside of Milwaukee and spent as much time as possible on the hill both with her family and friends, and later with her competitive high school team.
While many of her peers spent their after-school hours finishing homework or socializing with friends, Daniels was on the slopes until late into the night. It was second nature to her.
“I love night skiing, and I love night practices,” Daniels says. “It was just so fun to go. I don’t know, it’s just cool.”
However, Daniels’ rigorous practice schedule throughout high school altered her love for the sport and almost prevented her from seeking a spot on the UW–Madison alpine ski team.
In her freshman year at UW–Madison, Daniels wasn’t sure she wanted to join the alpine ski team. She remembers missing the deadline to sign up for the team, but later realizing she wanted to continue skiing.
Blackhawk Ski Club is nestled on the west side of Madison, near a farm conservancy. Photo courtesy of Kyle Lehman
A drone flies overhead of Blackhawk Ski Club. Photo courtesy of Todd McKinnon
UW–Madison’s alpine ski team is most active at night. Practice typically starts once team members have finished classes for the day, says the team’s senior director Alec Riddle. The team then carpools in fleet vehicles up to Tyrol Basin, a ski hill roughly forty minutes outside of Madison, and sets up the race course and then trains through the night.
For Wisconsin natives Daniels and Riddle, skiing at night is second nature. As lifelong competitive skiers, the fluorescent lights simply illuminate their playground. However, their love of the sport was tainted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The university prevented the team from officially organizing, Riddle says. In an effort to keep skiing, members of the team unofficially maintained their practice schedule and stayed connected with teammates through a beer league at Tyrol Basin.
While COVID-19 put a strain on the UW–Madison alpine ski team’s ability to practice, the pandemic may have been a saving grace for Christie Mountain. The small ski area in Bruce,northwestern Wisconsin, saw more traffic on the hill than ever before.
Christie Mountain didn’t have limitations on the number of skiers who could purchase lift tickets in a given day, says Christie Mountain’s manager Andrea Vohs. Without those limitations, skiers flocked to Christie like never before. Traffic to the mountain was so prevalent that Vohs recalled having to enlarge the parking lot.
Vohs is hopeful that some newer skiers that tried Christie for the first time last season will return this coming season. Without the flexibility of an entirely remote school schedule, I am also hopeful to return to the slopes this coming winter.
DUSK page photo credit: A young snowboarder smiles in anticipation of another run as he waits to catch the rope tow up the hill at Blackhawk Ski Club. Photo courtesy of AJ Stern