Southern snowboarding

It’s true: I’m a convert. For me, skiing was always more of a pastime than an authentic sport. Maybe I never got the hang of it, but I seemed to spend more time in the chalet nursing my knees and downing whiskey than I did swooshing down the slopes. And when people asked excitedly how my runs were, I just shrugged.

I knew I was missing something. So when my friends and I decided to hit the slopes after a weeklong snowstorm had unloaded the fluffiest white powder all over Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 1996, I decided to keep things strictly aboveboard and leave the skis at home.

That was the weekend I fell in love with snowboarding. Even the awkward beginning stages — repeatedly landing on my ass — were blissful. Here was a sport that felt more like flying than anything I’d known, a spectacular joy ride over a caliber of snow I’d never even dreamed of. In the years since, I’ve boarded the best slopes in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas, both riding the lifts and climbing into the backcountry, never thinking for a minute that I’d ever leave the West.

But having recently found myself back in North Carolina, I’d been curious about the runs here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was pleasantly surprised to meet so many snowboarders here, and it bolstered my resolve to check out what N.C. has to offer. Over and over again I heard the phrase, “If you can cut it here, you can cut it anywhere” — words that couldn’t help but sink the heart of a girl who loves boarding as much as I do. I envisioned the slopes encased in solid sheets of ice, like a giant, tilted skating rink.

Even so, when I got the opportunity to cover snowboarding on Sugar Mountain last week, I was thrilled. Free lift tickets aside, this was my chance to talk to some Real Southern Snowboarders and test the local slopes for myself. I checked the ski report that morning online and was delighted to learn that Sugar boasted a 36- to 69-inch base. Not bad, I thought, since all week it had been in the 60s in Asheville. When we got to the base of the mountain, however, it appeared that whoever had reported those numbers had been somewhat optimistic, as huge patches of brown grass were apparent here and there.

“Not to worry,” said David Johnson, director of marketing at Sugar Mountain. “We make snow all the time. Every year, our snowmaking technology is upgraded. On the open runs there’s plenty of snow.”

Luckily for us, he was right. When my fellow reporter, Cecil Bothwell, and I made our way to the top of the mountain, we found a beautifully cut, narrow trail with huge drops and embankments. In some places, a 60 percent pitch sent us sailing as Cecil swooshed on skis and I carved. And the snow, while not exactly powdered sugar (it was actually closer to snow-cone filling) proved eminently boardable. The first run of the season, then, was officially fun. And matching the pure, physical pleasure of a frosty magic-carpet ride down the highest vertical drop south of New England was the discovery that I can enjoy my favorite sport even here in the Southeast.

All that was good enough, but it kept getting better. The boarders I spoke with were less than overjoyed about the conditions — meaning Sugar hadn’t yet shown me its best. “Last weekend,” said one, “was much sweeter. But going midweek makes up for it — no waiting at the lifts.” The consensus seemed to be that after that big storm around Thanksgiving, the slopes were really excellent.

Surprisingly, very few of the boarders I met were locals. Granted, there were the requisite ASU students dropping in after late-afternoon classes, but a lot of the folks I encountered had journeyed to Banner Elk from places as remote as South Carolina and even Florida. “It’s my favorite place — Sugar is best for carving,” declared Sandy, who lives in Tampa. “You have to keep an eye out for when the weather’s good. It’s getting really warm today — yesterday was better.” Isn’t that always the way?

And for those boarders who’re looking for a little more excitement, the news gets even better. Sugar Mountain also boasts a snowboard park featuring a fun box, tabletop, spine, quarter pipe, 6-inch metal rail, and a brand new lift designed specifically for us. Next year, said Johnson, they’ll be adding a rainbow rail to all that fun.

The park wasn’t open the day I checked it out — they were waiting on a little more snow. Meanwhile, though, Sugar has 15 slopes open, and they’re making snow like mad. Snowboarders abound on Sugar Mountain (about five for every skier, by my tally). And these boarders rocked; even without the park, these were serious freestylers getting some amazing air.

If you’re a skier who’s thinking of converting too, consider Sugar Mountain’s Polar Bear Snowboard School. I should warn you, however, that if you don’t have your own board, the rentals are lumbering 2001 Burton Chargers — fine if you’re an obese man, but a bit rigid for my small frame. By the time you read this, though, the rental shop will have released the Burton LTR 2003, a beginner board with an edge cut 3 degrees to minimize the likelihood of catching an edge in the snow pack, a definite plus — nay, a necessity — on a snow-cone-covered mountain. They also stock boots up to size 15, and the folks in the shop are very friendly and helpful.

Incidentally, the ride improved dramatically after the grooming machines hit the slopes that afternoon, and we all swarmed to the corduroy, which was returned to shaved ice by the next run. We all got in some good turns, however, and I had a great introduction to Southern snowboarding. You can bet I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next blizzard on the road to Banner Elk.

And I have to say, I was impressed with Sugar. Sure, Beech Mountain sits at a higher elevation (and I definitely plan to check it out), but Sugar Mountain Resort is the biggest ski area in North Carolina, with 20 trails and 8 lifts spread out over 115 acres.

Besides, Sugar boasts a 1,200-foot vertical! And though the lower mountain’s graceful, gentle terrain is perfect for lower intermediates and beginners, the summit will surprise even seasoned snow enthusiasts, with several narrow, expert trails sporting 60 percent pitches. I’m not giving up on the Rockies by any means, but I’m overjoyed to find that snowboarding is still one of the most fun things to do in winter, even in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

For information about Sugar Mountain and other snowboarding and ski areas in WNC, check out the Xpress Ski Report elsewhere in this issue.

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