Cataloochee Ski Area opens with new shop, upgrades
Jake Flannick • SMN Correspondent
Michael Wagenseil is settling into his element, arranging displays of ski equipment and clothing as he finishes a flurry of preparations at a new rental shop in Maggie Valley amid the beginning of what is considered a rite of the winter season here.
It is familiar territory to a man who has spent years working at ski areas across the country, including in Colorado, whether as a lift attendant or a member of the ski patrol.
But Wagenseil is making it a point to distinguish this space, hanging on its walls relics of ski equipment and photographs of local figures widely known in the ski community, so it “becomes part of the Valley, instead of just another ski shop,” he said. He moved to the area late last month from upstate New York, where his family still lives, to help manage the shop.
The new rental shop, Cataloochee Ski & Sports, is run by Cataloochee Ski Area, which acquired the lodge on Maggie Valley’s main strip in the spring shortly after it emerged on the real estate market after operating as a restaurant. Beyond rentals, it offers lift tickets, clothing and other merchandise the ski area had long offered only at its mountaintop lodge.
Cataloochee has not faced any long lines or shortages of equipment at its mountain shop, said ski area general manager Chris Bates. But the thinking over the last couple of years was that expanding into the Valley was a way to “increase the experience” of visiting Cataloochee.
“We were just looking for the right place,” Bates said of the new shop.
Directly across the main thoroughfare in the Valley from the new shop is another rental shop and retailer, Maggie Valley Skis & Tees, which has remained the largest of its kind here since opening about 25 years ago. While its longtime owner, Danny Blitch, acknowledged that rentals of skis and snowboards and other equipment are a significant part of his business — “we live for this time of year” — he said he welcomes the presence of the new shop.
“Competition doesn’t hurt,” he said on a recent weekend in his shop, adding that his shop is still the largest ski retailer west of Asheville.
Snow making, slope grooming and deck lounging
The opening of the new rental shop is a reminder that the offseason at Cataloochee is not as stagnant as some might think. It is a time of preparation, albeit among a skeleton staff, involving upgrades to equipment and discussions about new projects and ways to spread hype about the coming season.
“We’re always trying to push the envelope,” Bates said of improving the ski area, which employs about 20 staff year-round compared with as many as 300 during winter months.
Beyond replacing a dozen snow-making machines and buying two slope grooming tractors over the past year, the ski area has built a new deck at its lodge facing the slopes, Bates said. He added that the ski area has carved five new trails over the past seven or eight years, and expects to add an additional three in coming years.
The work is part of a broad plan by Cataloochee to increase its prominence among the five other ski areas in Western North Carolina. Among the components of that plan is an increasing emphasis on customer service.
To accomplish that, the ski area has taken steps such as extending the length of lessons and working to expand racing and other programs by recruiting more instructors. But perhaps the most crucial component in the plan is timing.
“We just make snow, and get open,” said Tammy Brown, the marketing director of the ski area.
The long arm of the mountain
Streams of skiers and snowboarders from across the region and beyond have ascended to Cataloochee since it opened on Nov. 14, gliding or tumbling down the six trails its snow-making machines started blanketing with one to three and a half feet of powder about a week before. The ski area is working to cover its remaining 10 trails, most of which are more steep, bearing names like Lower and Upper Omigosh and Wild Cat Glade.
The opening was not the earliest Cataloochee has seen in recent years. In 2008, the ski area opened on Oct. 28, the earliest in its history since the resort opened in 1961 as the first ski area in the state, Brown said.
And while Mother Nature determines the length of each ski season — the automatic snow-making machines at Cataloochee do not start rumbling until their temperature gauges dip to at last 28 degrees — the ski area takes pride in its reputation as one of the first to open every year. To accomplish that, ski area workers are always seeking ways to increase snow-making capabilities and reduce energy consumption.
It is a shared approach in what remains a competitive industry whose economic impact in North Carolina is considerable. Business involving skiing and snowboarding generated some $146 million during the 2009-10 ski season, according to the N.C. Ski Areas Association, when more than 670,000 people visited ski areas that employed nearly 1,600 workers.
For many skiers and snowboarders, the beginning of the season cannot come soon enough.
That’s because skiing is “just a lot of fun,” said Sherrie Bruner, a college professor in Knoxville who regularly makes the trip to Cataloochee around this time of year. She and a friend had just finished tucking their clothes and ski equipment into the car after spending a recent weekend afternoon on the slopes at Cataloochee.
For others like Kelley Eyster — who is among dozens training to work as ski instructors at Cataloochee — it is more a matter of endurance.
“They’re serious about making snow, and they’re open until the end,” said Eyster, a K-12 special education teacher in Transylvania County.