Western North Carolina isn’t exactly known as a winter sports mecca. Far from the ski-loving cultures of the Rockies and New England, fears of icy roads, school closures and work cancellations often reign supreme. During Southern snowstorms, more people can be found navigating the long lines at grocery stores for bread and milk than hitting the surrounding slopes.
But for a growing breed of ski and snowboard enthusiasts across the region, predictions of cold, snowy weather inspire more exuberance than unease. Local ski area operators say interest in the sports has been increasing in recent years. They’ve been trying to feed the trend with investments in new slopes, instruction programs, snowmaking machines and chairlift upgrades. And while the Appalachians may never rival the Alps, local snow buffs say it’s high time the region gets the respect it deserves as a winter sports destination.
“The South and its mountains are the Rodney Dangerfield of the mountain world,” says Randy Johnson, a Banner Elk-based author who has written extensively about outdoor sports in WNC. “I’m passionate about getting the Rodney Dangerfield of America’s mountains proper credit. I think skiing is getting better down here. It’s a hotbed of skiing at this point and it’s a bona fide, valid place to call yourself a skier and celebrate skiing.”
Slopes and hopes
This year local ski areas are celebrating a long list of improvements.
Topping them is the first major new ski slope WNC has seen in decades. Sugar Mountain Ski Resort in Banner Elk spent $1.2 million to cut the trail, which straddles the mountain’s winding northern pitch for 2,900 feet, dropping a steep 700 vertical feet down.
“It’s a significant impact to what a skier in the South can access in terms of variety and vertical — it’s long, it’s steep, it’s wide,” says Kim Jochl, a former member of the U.S. Alpine Ski Team who now serves as the resort’s marketing manager. The run is named Gunther’s Way after her husband, resort owner Gunther Jochl, an Austrian native who has been at the helm of North Carolina’s biggest ski area for 38 years. Helped by unusually cold weather and record early snowfall, the slope opened Nov. 20 and is attracting interest from across the Southeast ahead of the busy holiday season.
“The response has been awesome,” he says. “It’s been a real hit; everybody loves it.” The slope followed $2.5 million in chairlift upgrades over the last few years.
Meanwhile, Beech Mountain also made major enhancements this year, including a new Magic Carpet conveyer lift for beginners, new high-tech snow guns, new rental equipment and a snowboarding school. Also rising above the small town of Banner Elk, which markets itself as “Ski Capital of the South,” Beech offers the highest-elevation slopes in the East. “People are seeing that we’re truly invested in making this one of the top ski resorts in the Southeast,” says resort general manager Ryan Costin. “All these upgrades are steps in that direction.”
Closer to Asheville, Cataloochee Ski Area is in Maggie Valley, about a 45-minute drive from town. It opened Nov. 2 this year, making national headlines as one of the first ski areas in the country to open. That puts it on track to offer skiing for 140-149 days this season, which is more than most resorts in the Rockies and Northeast, notes general manager Chris Bates.
He says skier visits were unharmed by the recession and have been steadily growing for the last 15 years. This season, the mountain plans to open a small new trail and will continue to invest in new snowmaking gear and instruction programs.
Cataloochee partners with several local elementary schools to teach kids how to ski and has a variety of deals designed to lure newcomers to give it a try. “They’re the future of the sport,” says Bates. “Skiing is one of those things where if you come out and have a good time at a young age, it kind of hooks you in and becomes part of your life.” Bates says he plans to build more trails in years to come.
About a 35-minute drive north of Asheville, Wolf Ridge Ski Resort near Mars Hill has had some challenges in recent years, admits co-owner and manager Rick Bussey. He says that the area was hurt by the real estate crash and had been slated to be sold each year for the last several years. In each case, the deals fell through at the last minute, he says. And last year, a failed deal resulted in a lawsuit. At the same time, one of the resort’s lodges burned down. The turmoil prevented Wolf Ridge from investing in improvements for a while, but Bussey says the disputes have now been resolved, the ownership has “regrouped,” and “this year we’re going to refocus and do things the way they should be.”
Eventually, he wants to build a major new hotel and conference center on the mountain. In the meantime, he promises the ski area will open more of its terrain this year than it has in a long time. “There’s been criticism in the past that we haven’t been able to get all of our slopes open,” he says. “We really want to get everything open. I think we have the best terrain of all the slopes. Maybe we haven’t mastered them the way we could.”
Gunning for snow
More than anything else, the growth of Southern skiing has been powered by upgrades in snowmaking technology. When air temperatures drop below freezing, most snow “guns” combine compressed air and water, shooting water droplets into the air at high speeds, where it freezes into snowflakes before blanketing the slopes. Big grooming tractors are then used to comb the snow, dispersing it across slopes and transforming them into a more ridable surface. “Some people say, ‘Well, you’re making artificial snow, but there’s nothing artificial about what we’re making,” says Jochl. “It’s water and air.”
The whole process has gotten more efficient and faster over the years, giving ski areas the ability to quickly cover most of their terrain with snow, even without any natural accumulation. In fact, cold temperatures have become much more important to a resort’s success than natural snow.
“The South, over the years, has truly expanded the high-tech nature of the snowmaking and grooming side of the industry. That’s what’s made the difference,” says Johnson. “That kind of snowmaking power turns an iffy kind of industry into something that the skier can really count on for high-quality conditions.”
Of course, cranking up all those snow guns and staffing the ski areas cost a lot of money. Sugar’s electricity bill alone runs upward of $1.3 million a year, according to Jochl. The resort employs about 600 people per winter. Wolf Ridge employs about 170, making it one of the largest employers in Madison County. The high costs of operations are partially to blame for the price of passes, which generally run between $30 and $70 a day.
It all adds up to big business, according to the most recent Economic Value Analysis commissioned by the N.C. Ski Areas Association. Collectively, the state’s six ski areas pumped $146 million into the Western North Carolina economy during the 2009-10 season, according to the report. The trade association is commissioning another study this year to determine a more up-to-date measurement.
Craig Friedrich, owner of Asheville retail store Ski Country Sports, says he’s seen big consumer growth since opening the shop in 1990. He credits the resorts in general for getting “a lot better at being snow farmers,” and Cataloochee in particular for its popular youth program and race series.
The Asheville Ski Club also has an active and successful race program. In fact, its team has come in first place in its Crescent Ski Council division the last two years, competing with teams across the Southeast at resorts in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. John Hofler, the club’s volunteer president, says many of the group’s nearly 200 members are also active as local ski instructors and safety patrollers. Although he says he does wish the area offered more challenging terrain for experts such as himself, he gets fulfillment from helping turn newcomers onto the sport. “I find that very rewarding to be on the slope helping people,” says Hofler, who works as a member of the Wolf Ridge ski patrol.
For hearty locals seeking winter adventures outside the confines of a resort, opportunities abound in the region, although sometimes they can take a four-wheel-drive vehicle to access.
In fact, the tradition of skiing in WNC vastly predates the first chairlifts, which went up at Cataloochee in 1961. Stories of skiers trudging up Beech Mountain’s natural meadows date as far back as the 1930s, according to Johnson, who documented the sport’s local history and backcountry trails in his book Southern Snow: The Winter Guide to Dixie.
Those following in their footsteps can now be found skiing, snowboarding and sledding at popular wilderness sites like the Roan Highlands. After a surprise Halloween snowstorm this year dropped up to 2 feet of snow on some local mountain ridges, a visit to Max Patch in Madison County revealed dozens of enthusiasts schussing the area’s steep natural ridges, building jumps and performing acrobatic tricks.
Skiers and snowboarders in the Max Patch backcountry of Madison County on Nov. 2. Video by Jake Frankel.
Asheville thrill seekers shouldn’t be dissuaded by the meager average of 14 inches of snow the city receives each winter. When nothing more than a few flurries are falling in town, the higher mountain peaks a short drive away are often getting blasted, averaging more than 100 inches a year.
Johnson notes that those in search of snow have a growing arsenal of tools at their disposal to determine backcountry conditions. When he published Southern Snow in 1986, he advised Asheville trekkers to call residents in remote rural areas to ask them what the weather was doing. Now the Internet allows savvy travelers to find out precise snow conditions via a variety of websites and even live webcams. “We are dramatically better able to understand the true weather and the true ski conditions than we ever have been,” says Johnson, who is writing an updated version of his book.
Video guide to cross-country skiing at Roan Mountain by Randy Johnson.
Of course, on the occasions it does snow in Asheville, a creative attitude and a shovel can turn any neighborhood hill into a terrain park. During last year’s big snowstorms, cross-country skiers could be seen sliding down Lexington Avenue, and sledders were speeding down Walnut Street.
However, despite all the advancements and enthusiasm, stereotypes of the area as a winter sports desert do persist, laments Hofler. “I was wearing a shirt at a restaurant that said ‘Asheville Ski Club,’ and the waitress looked at it and said, ‘Is that a joke?’” he says. “So there are people here who don’t know much about local skiing, the opportunities we have.”
But Hofler says he doesn’t let that get him down. The most important thing his club tries to do is encourage people to enjoy the surrounding mountains — if not on skis, then bikes, boats and hiking feet will do, he says. With so many opportunities available to get out and play, he says with a laugh, “If you’re going to live here and you’re not out enjoying the outdoors, there’s something wrong.”