Coming down the mountain: Cataloochee turns attention to user experience
It’s a feeling that Chris Bates can’t shake. “Being outside, in the winter, on the mountain — there’s nothing like it,” he said. “There’s a sense of exhilaration when you’re on a pair of skis. It’s a rush I’ve never gotten enough of.”
Bates, who has been the general manager at Cataloochee Ski Area for 17 years, is sitting inside the main lodge high above Maggie Valley this past Monday morning. Gazing out the windows onto the snowy slopes, the troves of eager skiers and snowboarders already cruising down the mountain, Bates can’t help to be excited that the 54th season at “Cat” got underway this week.
“Some of it is relief,” he chuckled. “Typically, we’d have already been open for three weeks by now, but with the warm fall we had, we had to wait. And, with the recent cold snap, we were able to coat the first few trails with snow within one day.”
“Coat” as in the state-of-the-art snowmaking equipment that has put “Cat” on the map in recent years as not only one of the first ski areas to open nationally, but also one of the most efficient and high-tech in terms of what they are able to do with where they are located and how (or if) the weather cooperates with them.
“With our location we realize we’re going to have warm and cold days, where we need to capitalize on our cold days,” Bates said. “What used to take us four or five days to make enough snow for the trails now takes between eight and 10 hours.”
But, Bates noted with a slight grin, it isn’t just all about business practices when figuring out when to open the “Cat.”
“A lot of it is that we’re skiers who run this company when it comes to getting out there and getting the mountain ready — we want to get out and ski, too,” he said. “Our initial design years ago was to get to a point where we could work within a day to make enough snow to open, and we’ve done that.”
Stepping into the lodge around lunchtime, Ski Patrol Director Wayne Morgan kicks the snow off his boots. Grabbing a nearby table, he removes his gloves, facemask, goggles, helmet, scarf, and jacket, only to reveal a large smile as droplets of melted snow fall from his hair.
“It’s total freedom up there,” he said. “I don’t know really how to explain it. You come down that hill with the biggest grin on your face, which says it all.”
In his 12th season at “Cat,” Morgan looks at the ski area as something special in Western North Carolina.
“All the employees are like family here,” he said. “What it comes down to here is one thing — snow. Any day on the mountain is a good day.”
Growing up on the coast of North Carolina, where sandy beaches and flip-flops reign supreme, Morgan didn’t try skiing until he went to college in the mountains near Boone, home to Sugar Mountain and Beech Mountain. He then spent his career as an educator in Henderson County. But he never stopped skiing. After working at Wolf Laurel (Mars Hill) and a ski shop near Asheville, he soon was approached about being in ski patrol, a position he has held to this day at “Cat.”
“And I get to go work and do this everyday?” he laughed. “From growing up on the beach, once I got to the mountains, I never left.”
Morgan recommends that anyone interested in skiing should take a lesson first. See what you need to do from experts instead of doing trial and error on your own. Yes, you can learn to ski in a day, but, like fishing, it takes a lifetime to master.
“I equate it to golf,” Morgan said. “You can hit a golf ball. You can ski down a mountain. But, I don’t know any golfers that aren’t trying to improve their game. It’s about learning, always getting better, and, most of all, having fun.”
Originally from New Jersey, Bates, who learned how to ski at age 3, has been involved in this industry for most of his life. Working in and around ski around in the northeast, he eventually landed in Haywood County, a place he felt his talents and aspirations could thrive.
“And in the last 17 years, we’ve doubled our terrain [to 50 acres], we’ve achieved our goals in terms of snowmaking, where now our focus is shifting to the whole experience,” he said.
With a trademark family-friendly atmosphere, “Cat” has always looked at ways to hone in on what makes the mountain great — the people who ski and snowboard it daily. It’s about making sure the first-time skier/snowboarder has an equally pleasant experience compared to a veteran snow hound.
“If we can make their first day or two on the a snow a lot more conducive to learning and having fun, then they will come away from the mountain excited and wanting to become skiers or snowboarders, that’s where it all starts,” Bates said.
Alongside its expanding “Learn to Ski” programs, “Cat” is also increasing its rental options, where any and all can simply head up the mountain, pick up the gear they need and immediately hit the slopes.
“We get around 140 days of skiing here, which is something unique to North Carolina and the Southeast in general,” Bates said. “It’s a great feeling to see people pulling into the parking lot today — all smiles today, all ready to go skiing.”
Cataloochee at a glance
• Elevation: 5,400 feet
• Vertical Drop: 740 feet
• Trails: 18 (8 beginner, 7 intermediate, 3 expert)
• Longest Run: Upper and Lower Snowbird (3,500 feet)
• Lifts: 5 (quad, triple, double chair, two moving carpet)
• Skiable Acres: 50
• Snowmaking: 100 percent
• Day: 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
• Half Day: 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekday and weekends.
• Twilight Skiing: 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.
• Night Skiing: 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
• Marathon: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays; 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends.
• Rates: Non-holiday/weekday/twilight are $30 for juniors, $40 for adults, with $23 (junior) and $33 (adult) for half-day, $20 (junior) and $24 (adult) for night, and $40 (junior) and $54 (adult) for marathon. Holiday/weekend/twilight are $47 for juniors, $65 for adults, with $38 (junior) and $53 (adult) for half-day, $28 (junior) and $32 (adult) for night, and $60 (junior) and $75 (adult) for marathon. Season passes are also available.
• Programs/Deals: Cataloochee offers several midweek programs and packages such as our “Kids Stay and Ski Free,” “Drive, Slide, & Stay” and a free “Intro to Skiing or Riding” program. Outer gear rentals, such as overall bibs and jackets and accessories, can be found at The Shop at Cataloochee, the mountain gift shop. Bib and jacket rentals are available there for a nominal fee plus deposit.
• Rentals: Over 4,000 sets of skis and snowboard equipment, available at the ski area and at Cataloochee Ski & Sports Shop in Maggie Valley.
• Tubing: Multiple runs available at Tube World in Maggie Valley. Park is located on Soco Road, four miles from ski area.
• Racing: www.cataloochee.com/learn-to-slide/school-race-programs.
800.768.0285 or 828.926.0285.