Outdoors: Slip-sliding away

To many people, winter weather spells trouble. Snowy, icy roads can cause accidents, delays and school closures. Business activity slumps. Travel plans are foiled. And the occasional power outage can really spark a snafu. Yet when I look out the window and see snowflakes swirling, those grown-up issues barely cross my mind. Instead, I am seized by an overpowering urge to go outside and play.

A recent study by the North Carolina Ski Areas Association suggests that I'm not alone. Spurred by heavy snowfall, Western North Carolina resorts saw a record 671,554 skier and snowboarder visits last year, up 56,879 from 2008. And all that schussing and carving pumped an estimated $146 million into the economy while generating at least 1,600 jobs.

Since the region’s first chairlifts were installed in the late 1960s, local ski areas have seen slow but steady growth. More recently, they've invested in everything from snowmaking guns and lodges to the popular new tubing runs that bring the thrill of shooting down the slopes to folks with less expertise and cash.

Still, with an average annual snowfall of only about 16 inches, Asheville isn't exactly a winter wonderland; enjoying cold-weather sports here may require some extra effort and creativity. But with the right attitude and just a couple of inches of frozen stuff, even yards and neighborhood parks can be transformed into sledding-and-riding havens.

So far, this year’s off to a promising start. A cold snap in early November enabled Cataloochee Ski Area and Sugar Mountain Resort to make snow and open way ahead of schedule. And December roared in like a snow leopard, with exceptionally frigid conditions offering ample opportunities for sledding, snowball fights, snowmen and assorted backcountry adventures.

Backcountry cackalack

On the afternoon of Dec. 5, Asheville boasted only a light dusting of snow, but the mountaintops right outside town were getting blasted. A cold front had swept down from Canada, blowing moisture from the Great Lakes smack up against the northwestern ridges along the Tennessee border. Storm clouds hovered over the high peaks like flying saucers, dropping near-mystical amounts of snow.

At 5,516 feet, Big Bald is the highest point in Madison County. And though it’s only 45 minutes north of Asheville, on this day, it seemed a world away.

The climb

Trees glazed with sparkling rime and hillsides buried ever deeper in snow flanked the steep, winding, gravel road. (A friend who revealed its location to me a few years back swore me to secrecy). Deep drifts forced me to steer my four-wheel-drive wagon in the ruts left by a previous vehicle. When my car gave out, I started hoofing it. A pair of cross-country skiers swooped by and waved, their faces betraying concern at seeing me strike out on my own so late in the day.

A little ways up, I took what I thought would be a shortcut to the top: the Appalachian Trail. Ducking into the woods, I paused to tune into the deafening silence. The moment proved fleeting, however, as a mix of songs from Kanye West’s new album soon penetrated my thoughts, serving as the internal soundtrack to the rest of my hike.

I'd walked this route several times before, but thanks to a solid foot of snow, I soon found myself lost in a world of stunted spruce, fir and rhododendrons so thick I had to crawl on hands and knees, ducking under snow-laden branches.

Eventually, I emerged onto the ferociously exposed upper ridge. Battered by howling winds and blowing snow, I could feel the cold pierce every inch of exposed skin. It cut into my lungs and froze the condensation of my breath against my jacket; my fingers stung in my gloves as they clutched the metal edges of my snowboard. My clunky boots struggled to find footing on the ice below, subtly straining my ankles and knees. Glancing toward the windswept summit, it was easy to convince myself I was scaling Mount Everest or accomplishing some other momentous feat.

The iceman falleth

Topping the bald was a cornice — a huge, waist-high snowdrift that resembled a white wave crashing along the ridge's crest. Before attempting to surf it, I lunged into the snowbank free of my board. But I couldn’t jump so well in my oversize boots, and instead of the graceful leap I’d envisioned, I wound up tumbling down the slope, snow collecting in my jacket and behind my neck.

By this time, it was getting dark, and the wind and increasingly heavy snowfall left me practically blind. My fancy goggles weren't much help, having fogged over in the wake of my failed attempt at flying. Nonetheless, I stubbornly strapped into my board for what I hoped would be a heroic dive-bomb back down the drift. This time, however, I was foiled by a natural booby trap: Almost immediately, a briar bush hiding under the powder tripped me up, forcing yet another face plant.

I tried to ascribe my lack of finesse to the near-zero visibility and my battered, unwaxed board. But there was no denying my own rusty skills. Don't worry, I told myself: This was only your first run of the season. Hopefully there’ll be many more.

In the coming months, Xpress plans a series of articles on assorted winter sports and activities. Send your own stories, photos and videos plus any tips or ideas you'd like to share to jfrankel@mountainx.com.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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