By Lindsay Wertz • Correspondent
After hours of work and preparation, six terrain elements sparkled imposingly under the lights on Cataloochee Ski Area’s Rabbit Hill Run last Friday night in preparation for the inaugural Cat Cage Rail Jam.
The Maggie Valley’s resort first-ever rail jam — where boarders and skiers do as many freestyle rail tricks as possible during an allotted time frame — attracted more than 50 competitors of all ages and skill levels. The rails and boxes were arranged by skill level and resembled features used in the popular X Games.
What started as an unsure adventure turned into a passion-filled career for Jim Rowell.
As superstorm Sandy hurled itself toward the Northeast, soon to leave a wreckage of flooded streets, sunken boardwalks and dangling electrical lines, the folks at Cataloochee Ski Area were firing up the snow machines — to take advantage of the early, high-elevation flurries brought on by the hurricane.
While most people were still pulling pumpkin seeds out of their jack-o-lanterns on Halloween, Cataloochee Ski Area had already opened, marking one of the earliest opening dates in the hill’s history.
Living in the mountains of Western North Carolina, it is hard to imagine never seeing snow — but Elizabeth Comberg and Amber Damato of Jacksonville, Fla., got their first taste of the fluffy white stuff last Friday at Cataloochee Ski Area.
“The snow is a blast,” 15-year-old Comberg said.
Last week was Comberg and her family’s first trip to Haywood County and first time snow skiing. She didn’t know much beyond the basics of stopping and going, but Comberg was starting to pick it up thanks to a handy mnemonic device well-known among beginners.
“The first thing I knew was pizza and French fries,” she said. French fries, or parallel skis, if she wanted to shoot rapidly down the hill, and a pizza slice, or turned-in skis, if she wanted to stop.
The family spent several hours on a small, crowded bunny slope to the right of the ski lodge and lifts, taking their cues from other skiers while trying to pick up the fundamentals of keeping their balance on the snow.
The beginner slope is neither long nor steep, giving first-timers like the Combergs a safe place to practice before taking on the steeper, more crowded trails.
“This slope is a godsend,” said Laurie Comberg, 45, who last remembered seeing snow in 1989 during a rare snowfall in Jacksonville.
Elizabeth’s younger brother had fallen a number of times and quickly became weary of the slope. After seeing a fellow skier holding onto a child’s ski poles and guiding the child down the hill, Laurie was able to help her son regain enough confidence to ski again.
Elizabeth’s friend, Amber Damato, was not having an easy time either.
“Skiing is hard,” exclaimed Damato, who had fallen several times including a tumble over the blue netting that is supposed to keep skiers from skidding off into a tree.
Damato said the experience of skiing was worth all the spills, however.
The Combergs and Damato planned to stay at Cataloochee until their lift tickets expired at 4:30 p.m. In the end, their goal was to ride the ski lift at least once and then slip and slide as best they could down a trail.
“By the end of the day, we will do it at least once,” Laurie said.
People packed the slopes of Cataloochee Ski Area during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The gangbuster week is the most profitable of the year. Not only is the sheer volume of skiers monumental, but the vast majority are buying lift tickets and renting gear and hitting the lunch counter — as opposed to locals with season lift passes and their own gear who populate the slopes during a more typical week.
But during this holiday week, skiers from across the South were hitting Cataloochee in force — with plenty of newbies among them. The landing at the foot of Cataloochee’s main hill was overflowing with skiers, snowboards and spectators alike Friday. To the side of the slopes, five ski and snowboarding instructors led teams of 10 or more pupils through the basics.
Just on the other side of the blue nets on a barely sloping, super-intro-level straight away, Trey Ford, 30, was helping teach his 3-year-old daughter Lexi how to ski as his wife, Kelly Cooper Ford, watched anxiously to the side.
Kelly has never skied before and was a little nervous to let her daughter try, but Lexi’s grandfather, a former ski instructor, was also on hand to help teach her. Sitting on her heels with her knees bent, Lexi glided down the slight decline more than a dozen times, smiling each time she slide into her grandfather’s arms.
“I am so proud of her,” said Kelly, adding that Lexi has been begging to ski since the idea was first brought up this summer.
Trey and his wife both work at Cooper Construction Company in Hendersonville.
Trey’s father was a ski instructor for many years. However, it was not until the last three years that Trey himself became interested in skiing. He said he wanted to teach Lexi how before she was conscious enough to fear the slopes.
Trey said he hopes to take a family vacation to Colorado or another popular ski destination in the future, but first he will need to get Kelly as excited about skiing as his daughter.
“If I can get my daughter excited about it, then I can get my wife excited about it,” Ford said.
It’s now all systems go at Cataloochee Ski Area. The more advanced trails opened last week thanks to plenty of cold weather (finally) and the resort’s state-of-the-art snow-making technology.
Where: 1080 Ski Lodge Road in Maggie Valley
When: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, non-holiday. 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Holidays. Night and Twilight skiing run until 10 p.m. are also available Tuesdays through Saturdays as well as on Sundays Jan. 15 and Feb. 19.
Cost: The price of a lift ticket ranges from $18 to $71 depending on the day, how long you plan to ski or snowboard, and whether it’s a day, half-day, twilight or night session. Adult equipment rentals run $23 for ski or $30 for snowboard. Group lessons are $20, and private lesson are between $25 and $200 depending on the length of the tutorial.
Mark Rozof sat behind a beat-up white desk surrounded by skis, walkie-talkies, snow jackets and other sundry gear strewn about the office, chuckling as he recalled his experiences as a ski instructor.
During his 23 years of teaching, Rozof, the new ski and snowboard school director at Cataloochee Ski Area, has collected a volume of tales, from those who fall flat on their face to kids who go on to be medal winners.
The most prominent memory, however, is about his youngest student — a three-year-old boy. The boy’s parents had planned to just let their son experience the snow and watch the other skiers, but they couldn’t keep him away.
“He saw the snow, and he got really excited about it,” Rozof said.
So the little boy’s parents bought him an hour-long lesson and stood by nervously watching him learn. Despite his age and lack of muscle development, the boy lasted the whole hour, Rozof said.
People nearby and on the ski lift clapped for the small child as he glided down a beginner, or bunny, slope on his tiny skis, surprised at his adeptness.
“I bet I started a bad problem with him,” Rozof said. “He loved it.”
Rozof talks about skiing and teaching newbies like some people talk about addiction. A life on the slopes is something he can’t seem to get away from, not that he’d want to.
Growing up in southeast Michigan, skiing and snowboarding were a part of the culture. Rozof began skiing with his dad when he was 13.
“I saw the Olympics, and I liked it,” he said.
His first forray as a ski instructor was admittedly self-serving. Like other Michigan-area kids, Rozof just wanted a free season pass to the Pine Knob Ski and Snowboard Resort so he became an instructor.
“That’s where I learned to teach and pretty much learned to ski,” he said.
He went to college in West Virginia, where he continued to teach skiing, and then moved on to Seven Springs in Pennsylvania. He moved back to Michigan and started working in the automotive business, but like many became a causality of the declining industry — and so returned to his passion of skiing.
Utah, specifically Deer Valley, was Rozof’s most recent home, where he once again donned his skis to help the uncoordinated master the slopes.
About a year ago, Rozof started teaching at Cataloochee Ski Area, and he quickly moved up in the ranks to director of the ski school.
The job “kind of fell in my lap here,” he said.
Teaching at Cataloochee is “fun and a little more challenging,” Rozof said, because some first-time visitors don’t realize how chilly the slopes can get in North Carolina.
Vacationers from Southern states such as Alabama and Georgia are not used to the cold of higher elevations, and some do not dress appropriately for the weather, he said.
Cataloochee is the southern most ski slope in the East, and as a result, captures Southern skiers whose quest for snow leads them to Cataloochee as the closest resort.
“I’ve never heard so many y’alls on a ski slope in my life,” he said.
That close proximity to droves of Southerners seeking a taste of the slopes also means Cataloochee instructors get more than their fair share of novices.
When teaching, the instructors focus on getting their students acclimated to skis, which can feel cumbersome and gangling at first. After mastering the basics of moving and stopping, the new skiers take to the bunny slopes for straight runs, in which they simply ride down the hill with their skis facing forward.
Although the ski school tries to keep the instruction groups small, the holidays can be a busy time. Rozof suggests people pay the extra $30 to $180 for a private lesson, especially if they are already athletic, because the instructors can only move through the lesson as fast as the slowest learner. People who are apt to pick up skiing more quickly may get bored waiting for others to catch up.
Beyond private lessons, the ski school is hoping to remedy the problem by changing its teaching methods. Rather than each group having one instructor, beginners would move from station to station, where they would learn different skills at their own pace, Rozof said.
Rozof has a level three certification, the highest level, through the Professional Ski Instructors of America, meaning he can teach pretty much anywhere.
Eventually, Rozof, who has coached high school and middle school ski teams, said he also wants to bring NASTAR, or National Standard Racing, to Cataloochee. NASTAR is a grassroots ski race program, open to people of all skill levels. Participating ski resorts hold races throughout the winter, and the top racers from across the country are asked to compete in Nature Valley NASTAR National Championships.
Unlike many sports, such as football or basketball, skiing can be a solo activity.
“You can just do it yourself,” Rozof said. People of “any size, any weight, any height” can become great skiers, he said.
Currently, skiers and snowboarders can traverse Cataloochee’s lower trails, but the resort plans to open the upper trails as soon as possible, Rozof said.
The snow that covers the mountains of Cataloochee Ski resort is not visible from U.S. 19 in the valley below, which can be a hindrance when 50-degree weather keeps people’s minds from thoughts of a winter wonderland.
However, Cataloochee is open and ready for business — despite the day’s conditions, assured Rozof.
Cataloochee Ski Area opened its slopes this past weekend and plans to remain open the rest of the season.
Where: 1080 Ski Lodge Road in Maggie Valley
When: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, non-holiday. 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Holidays. Open til 10 p.m. starting December 13.
Cost: The price of a lift ticket ranges from $18 to $71 depending on what day, how long you want to ski or snowboard, and day or night session. Adult equipment rentals run $23 for ski or $30 for snowboard. Group lessons are $20, and private lesson are between $25 and $200 depending on the length of the tutorial.
The rest of the economy might have suffered, but a couple of snowy winters are adding up to big bucks and good times for North Carolina’s ski industry.
Last year, the total economic impact of this segment of the state’s economic pie amounted to $146 million. That number is courtesy of the N.C. Ski Areas Association, which crunched and computed the figures for the 2009-2010 season and recently released its findings.
That good news doesn’t come as a surprise for ski industry workers such as Brittany Heatherly of Skis and Tees in Maggie Valley, who said the store was running out of rental equipment by 10 a.m. each day during the Christmas break.
“It’s been awesome,” Heatherly said. “Everybody is making a lot of money, and having fun. There have been a lot of people because it has been such good weather.”
(Clarification to readers: “Good weather” to the skiing industry would be the snow and cold many people have a difficult time dealing with.)
Heatherly, an avid snowboarder, said skiers and other winter-weather lovers didn’t let road conditions prevent them from getting to the slopes at resorts such as Cataloochee in Haywood County. Folks used four-wheel drive vehicles or put chains on their car tires.
N.C. Ski Areas Association defines “economic value” as the total value to the economy from the existence of ski areas. Winter value, employment value, capital improvements and economic multipliers were considered. The study looked from November to March as the “ski season” when compiling this report.
North Carolina has six ski areas: Cataloochee Ski Area, Sapphire Valley Ski Area, Ski Beech, Appalachian Ski Mountain, Wolf Ridge Ski Resort and Sugar Mountain Ski Resort.
Collectively, these ski areas provided 96 year-round jobs and 1,557 seasonal jobs during last year’s ski season. The industry generated over $32 million in gross revenue from ski area operations, including lift tickets, lessons, equipment rental, retail stores and food and beverages.
David Huskins, who heads the regional tourism group Smoky Mountain Host that is headquartered outside Franklin, said the rockslide and subsequent closure of Interstate 40 in the Pigeon Gorge section of Haywood County “obviously … impacted our region’s ski economy.”
“But, generally, reports are that it was offset by the continued natural snowfall through December-March 2010,” he added. “Good news for our region.”
(Per person spending, and percent of total)
Lift tickets/tubing/ice skating: $44.78; 33.5%
Ski/snowboard lessons: $5.75; 4.8%
Equipment rental/demo at ski area: $13.81; 10.7%
Equipment rental/demo at other N.C. locations: $1.97; 1.4%
Food/beverage/restaurants on mountain/base: $16.88; 13.2%
Food/beverage/restaurants in other N.C. cities: $14.22; 9.8%
Lodging accommodations (nightly rate): $18.88;14.4%
Shopping/gifts/souvenirs/retail stores: $9.04; 6.6%
Entertainment/activities: $3.85; 3.0%
Local transportation/rental car: $1.54; 1.6%
Other spending: $0.98; 0.9%
Total per person spending: $131.70
Source: N.C. Ski Areas Association
Total Visits: 671,554
Total Revenue: $32,526,608
Year-Round Employees: 96
Seasonal Employees: 1,557
Capital Expenditures: $3,341,237
Source: N.C. Ski Areas Association
Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley is off to another strong start to its season.
“We’ve been open since Nov. 6,” said Cataloochee General Manager Chris Bates. “We have a base of anywhere between 18 to 80 inches. And the weather for snowmaking looks great for the next couple of weeks.”
Currently there are 11 trails and three lifts operating over a groomed surface.
Despite a lot of equipment upgrades during this offseason, Cataloochee ticket prices will remain the same for this season and all of the ski area’s great programs like Family Day, which starts Jan. 12, will be in place.
According to Bates, last Sunday’s partnership with Haywood Christian Ministries drew its largest crowd ever.
“And we are happy to be able to partner with them to make a difference in the community,” he said.
Additions to enhance skiing at Cataloochee this year include 30 new snowmakers and two new grooming tractors. Bates said the advance in equipment and computerization since Cataloochee revamped in 2004 has been amazing. “It’s like going from a car that gets 18 miles to the gallon to one that gets 35 miles to the gallon.”
The new equipment and dip in temperatures are really aiding Cataloochee’s snowmaking abilities. “We can make snow at 28 degrees,” Bates said, “but with the new equipment and technology, when the temperature falls to 7 degrees, like now, our capacity increases 25 fold.”
Cataloochee also boasts over 4,000 sets of snow sports equipment. According to Bates that includes 700 new pairs of rental skis.
The Cataloochee Ski Patrol began in 1961 as a group of friends who enjoyed skiing at the new Cataloochee Ski Hill, the first ski area to open south of Pennsylvania. As Cataloochee Ski Area grew and became more popular, it’s Ski Patrol grew and became more professional.
Today’s Cataloochee Ski Patrol is still a group of friends who love skiing on the local mountain, but their numbers have grown to more than 100 counting paid staffers and volunteers. And they are all highly trained professionals with a minimum of 80 hours of Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) training.
According to Wayne Morgan, director of Cataloochee’s Ski Patrol for the past seven years, OEC is a worldwide standard established and regulated by the National Ski Patrol. The National Ski Patrol system is composed of more than 625 patrols with more than 26,000 members across the U.S., Asia and Europe.
“That standard is the same across the board,” Morgan said.
Dan Greene, the representative for Cataloochee Ski Patrol volunteers, said the OEC program is designed “to prepare individuals from all walks of life and all backgrounds from the high school graduate to the PhD to work side by side providing the same level of care.”
“The focus of Ski Patrol is safety on the slope,” Morgan said. And that begins with the slope itself.
“We survey the slope for any kind of hazards that might be a danger to skiers,” he said. That could be anything from holes to ridges that develop that could bump skiers into a different flow of traffic to snowmaking equipment.
“North Carolina law mandates that all snowmaking equipment be marked, so we flag all the equipment plus any other hazards we see,” Morgan said.
“We are most visible in that we provide rescue and first aid,” said Greene. “That’s what Ski Patrol is known for. But the overarching principle is safety on the course, whether it’s the slope itself or skiers on the slope.”
“We don’t like being policemen, but it’s part of the job,” Morgan said. “We try to be proactive, rather than reactive,” he said, but still it’s a tough job.
“Face it,” Greene said, “we’re dealing with a public that doesn’t necessarily show a lot of common sense all the time.”
Morgan said that how Ski Patrol is perceived on the slope usually has to do with the attitude of the skier. “If we see people doing unsafe things and have to intervene, they may not be happy to see us.
“I’ve been on the slope slowing people down, and I’ll have some people cussing me and some will stop and pat me on the back and say thanks — good job — we’re glad you’re out here,” Morgan said.
The basic training to become a patroller begins with OEC training.
“That course is usually between 80 and 110 hours and begins in the summer,” Morgan said. “OEC test are given the first or second week in November.”
Morgan said that one of obstacles the National Ski Patrol’s Southern Division has is finding competent skiers. The Southern Division runs from West Virginia to Alabama and includes Cataloochee, Beech Mountain, Ober Gatlinburg, Wolf Ridge, Wintergreen, Massanutten, Appalachian, Sugar Mountain and other southern ski areas.
“Here in the Southern Division we have smaller mountains and we don’t have that real skier mentality. Great skiers don’t flock here, like they do at Vail or Whistler to join the Ski Patrol. So we’ve created a ski school in our division and each slope has at least one PSIA [Professional Ski Instructors of America] certified instructor. We’re really fortunate here at Cataloochee. Our guys are really enthused and we have about 10 PSIA instructors on our patrol.”
After a Ski Patrol candidate has successfully completed OEC training, they must pass a basic ski and toboggan course (S&T) to become a basic patroller.
“The toboggan is basically a stretcher or litter on a sled, designed to transport an injured person off the hill,” said Greene. “There are very specific skills required to handle them.”
Morgan said Cataloochee has about a dozen toboggans that ski patrol stashes at strategic points along the slopes so that they will be accessible in an emergency.
“To become a basic patroller, a candidate must pass an S&T test on the hardest slope at his area,” said Morgan. “To progress to a senior patroller, the basic patroller must pass an S&T test on the toughest slope in their region. Our senior patrollers have to pass their test on Mogul Ridge at Ober Gatlinburg.”
And the rigors only get tougher to become certified in S&T. According to Morgan, of the more than 26,000 members of the National Ski Patrol there are only about 7,000 who are certified in S&T.
But that doesn’t mean your care is compromised. The ski patrol candidate has the same OEC skills as the certified patroller.
“As your level increases from candidate, to basic, to senior patroller you acquire more and better management skills regarding multiple traumas and managing an accident scene but OEC is OEC,” Morgan said.
“We’re somewhere between a wilderness responder and a paramedic. We have victims in a hostile environment and we have to stabilize them and get them out of that environment, then assess the injury and decide the proper course of action.”
And every patroller is trained to do that whether he is a candidate or certified said Morgan.
All National Ski Patrol members have to renew their certification every three years. Their continuing education is done once a year and the course topics and structure is mandated by the National Ski Patrol so that any patroller could walk into a course anywhere and get the credit needed for that year.
Morgan said that during the week he generally had five or six patrollers on the slope. On the weekends ski patrol duties generally fall to Greene’s volunteers and because of the extended hours they run two shifts and generally have between eight and 10 patrollers on the slope.
This is Dan Greene’s first year as patrol representative, but he has more than 20 years experience as a patroller. Volunteers have to pass the same tests and meet the same requirements as paid patrollers, they are just rewarded in a different way — free skiing. According to Greene all volunteers have a set rotation that they are required to fill, but other than that they ski at any time.
“They can also patrol at any time and there are added benefits to putting in more hours. The management here is very generous and we get rewarded with complimentary tickets,” Greene said.
For Greene, who lives in Atlanta, it’s the love of the sport.
“I do a lot of volunteering in other areas as well, but I love to ski. I love the sport. It’s something my family and I have enjoyed for years, and I see this as a way of giving back to the sport. And, selfishly, it gives me a reason to come up here and play in the snow.”
Morgan notes that there are other benefits to becoming OEC certified.
“I was able to use my OEC certification to work the Olympics in Atlanta,” he said. He also noted that many rafting companies were adopting OEC as their standard of care and venues like Asheville’s mountain sports festival and area mountain bike races welcomed volunteers with OEC certification.
Cataloochee Ski Area opened for the season on Saturday, Nov. 6, making it one of the first resorts in the east to start skiing for the fifth year in a row.
The resort will open on Saturday and Sundays only for now, with skiing from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (check the resort’s website at www.cataloochee.com for the most up-to-date information on hours and conditions)
Cataloochee — North Carolina’s first ski area which is now in its 49th season — spent more than $1.2 million in capital improvements this summer, including the purchase of two new Pisten Bully snow groomers and the installation of 13,000 feet of snowmaking pipeline. The area has also replaced 24 snowmaking guns with new, more efficient, automatic fanguns and installed a new efficient six-stick automatic snowgun system on the Alley Cat Racing Trail.
Additional improvements have been made to the area’s rental fleet with the replacement of all adult boots and 700 adult skis in their main rental shop. Cataloochee has also added a second terrain park on the mountain with four new snow guns.
“We continue to expand our snowmaking system which allows us to utilize these early colder temperatures and allow us to open as early as we can,” said Chris Bates, Cataloochee’s vice president and general manager. “We remain committed to our customers in providing the most skiing and riding time we can each season and will continue to make snow and open early each year.”
For seasoned Smoky Mountain outdoor enthusiasts, snow in the forecast means the chance to indulge suppressed fantasies. Whether its getting fresh tracks on some obscure slope they see on the road to work or heading up to the blocked-off Blue Ridge Parkway to enjoy a de facto ski slope, most people have a plan for when the snow falls.
Juan and Alex Pena have lived in Maggie Valley for six years. After past snowstorms, they’ve hiked to the upper meadows at Cataloochee and skied Thunder Bowl, but on Saturday they wound up Soco Road to the Parkway entrance with their cross-country skis.
Just past the gate blocking Parkway, Juan said the turnout was crowded with sledders and snow-gawking motorists.
“There were a bunch of people tubing and sledding at the entrance,” Pena said. “There were even some people who never saw snow before. We just skied past them, and then we had fresh tracks.”
The Penas went up the Parkway toward Cherokee all the way to Heintooga Ridge through about a foot and a half of fresh snow.
“I just love the feel of fresh powder. The way it grabs,” said Juan. “You could still kick and glide and it tracked really nicely.”
After a beautiful ski, Juan and Alex headed into Maggie for dinner. When they got home, their driveway was still impassable, even with chains on their truck.
“We just had to walk back up the driveway in the moonlight,” Juan said.
If you’ve visited the outdoors store at Mast General Store in Waynesville, you’ve probably seen Brent McCoy. The Kitty Hawk native grew up surfing the Outer Banks but he traded that lifestyle for the mountains six months ago.
What’s a lonely surfer to do after a snowstorm? McCoy said he’d had his eye on a steep slope above his father-in-law’s goat pasture out in Crabtree, so on Sunday he hiked straight uphill with his snowboard on his back.
“I’ve been thinking of ways to get down it,” McCoy said. “I was thinking I could get a dirt board and ride down it. It worked out pretty good because I’ve been eyeballing that thing for a while.”
McCoy revealed his surfer roots by complaining of the walk up the hill to get first tracks in what he estimated was two and a half feet of powder.
“I was pretty beat last night,” McCoy said. “I was like ‘We need to get a helicopter if we’re going to do this tomorrow.’”
Now that’s a thought –– heli skiing the Smokies.