The fastest way down: Cataloochee Ski Area
What started as an unsure adventure turned into a passion-filled career for Jim Rowell.
“I certainly remember that first day, and it was terrible,” the 64-year-old chuckled.
A 25-year veteran instructor at the Cataloochee Ski Area, Rowell was fresh out of college when he was first asked to hit the slopes of his now second home. Though he had attended nearby Western Carolina University in pursuit of a writing degree, he never made it up to the renowned ski resort in nearby Maggie Valley. It wasn’t until he was a sports writer at the Asheville Citizen-Time that his boss Larry Pope took him up the hill.
“Larry said, ‘Let’s go skiing,” and I replied, ‘I’ve never been,” Rowell said. “But, he insisted, so I decided to take him up on the offer.”
Buying a pair of jeans and a parka, Rowell prepared for the outdoor endeavor by spraying the denim with layer upon layer of scotch guard.
“I sprayed so much on them, I swear they could have stood up on their own,” he smiled. “But, it kept the water out, and me dry.”
Heading up the chairlift, Rowell was instructed by Pope to “just follow my lead,” to which Rowell fell again and again and again. After about an hour, he decided to get himself a lesson. It was an experience that made all the difference. From the helpfulness of instructor Kathy New (who’s still teaching on the mountain), Rowell got the hang of it and has been honing his skills ever since.
“People who are beginners always say they don’t need a lesson, which is a huge mistake,” Rowell said. “I see it all the time when folks think they can figure it out themselves. Skiing is a very intuitive sport. It’s a very simple sport, but you need those lessons to know where to position your body on the skis and have an enjoyable time.”
After that first lesson, Rowell skied throughout the east coast and out west for the next 15 years, immersing himself in the grandeur and splendor of breathing in the fresh mountain air and winding down the trails and backwoods.
“I love the freedom skiing gives me,” he said. “Especially when you’re by yourself and find your perfect rhythm on the trail, when your skis are responding and your body just glides down the slopes.”
Soon, Rowell’s entire family was hitting the mountain. Looking for the most sensible economic way to make sure everyone had what they needed for a fun day on the hill, someone suggested he become an instructor.
“I had a wife, three kids and a mortgage, so being an instructor and getting family discounts to Cataloochee seemed like a great plan,” he said.
Though a seasoned skier in his own right, Rowell was surprised at how much he still needed to learn, especially if he wanted to adequately be able to teach others. He was initially hired on a provisional level until he figured out how to properly instruct.
“Speed is a great compensator for a lack of skills,” he said. “It’s when you slow down and try and do a proper demonstration that you see how far off you are in your skills. I had to take my instructor test and demonstrate at half-speed. It was frustrating, but I eventually learned the correct methods.”
Now after years as an instructor, Rowell has picked up an array of knowledge and carries with him a “bag of tricks” to help beginners with their greatest need – a sense of comfort.
“The real key to being an instructor is communication. It’s not how well you ski, it’s about how well you can communicate to people what’s it’s all about,” he said. “The trick is to build trust because if they don’t trust you, they’ll never learn. You have to keep them in their comfort zone, back things down and work with them because everyone has a different level of comfort.”
For beginners, Rowell points out the importance of proper clothing, which also has comfort as a top priority. Those new to the mountain have to remember they’ll sweat heading down the hill and cool off riding the chairlift – so, dress appropriately. He also suggests to rent equipment those first few times in an effort to get acquainted with gear before plucking down money for top-of-the-line attire. Rowell is excited for the upcoming ski/snowboard season, and is ready for a whole new group of eager beginners that will grace his presence day in and day out. It’s a labor of love, one that has resonated within him since that first day on the slopes.
“People here tend to look out for each other and take care of each other,” he said. “If you’re not having fun and learning the sport, then I’m not doing my job. The idea at Cataloochee is to have fun, and that’s what we’re all about.”
At a glance
Elevation: 5,400 feet
Vertical Drop: 740 feet
Trails: 17 (25% beginner, 50% intermediate, 25% expert)
Longest Run: Upper and Lower Snowbird (3,500 feet)
Lifts: 5 (quad, triple, double chair, two moving carpet)
Snowmaking: 100 percent
Day: 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, non-holiday
8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Holidays
Half Day: 9 a.m.- 1 p.m weekday; 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. weekends; 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.-10 p.m. weekdays; 8:30 a.m.-10 p.m. weekends.
Rates: Lift ticket pricing ranges from $39 weekdays to $59 weekends. Ski and snowboard equipment can be rented at the ski area, with rental costs ranging from $21 for juniors to $26 on adults. 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.
Amenities: Terrain park, cafeteria, bar, tubing, gift shop, apparel shop, rental/lesson shop.
Directions: Cataloochee Ski Area is located four miles off U.S. 19 above Maggie Valley and is easily accessed from Interstate 40 (GPS devices can incorrectly direct you through impassable roads. Use the directions below for the quickest routes. Use the Google Map service for driving directions.)
From the East (Asheville/Charlotte): Take I-40 West to Exit 27 (Maggie Valley). Exit on to U.S. 19 South (exit right) and follow the signs.
From the West (Knoxville): Take I-40 East to Exit 20 (Maggie Valley). Exit on to U.S. 276 South (exit right) and follow the signs. From the North (Cherokee): Take U.S. 441 South to U.S. 19 North (Maggie Valley) and follow the signs.
From Atlanta (and points south): Take U.S. 441 to U.S. 23 exiting at Waynesville (Exit 102B). Take 276 North to U.S. 19 South (turn left) and follow the signs.
For additional directions or assistance: 800.768.0285, 828.926.0285 or www.Cataloochee.com.