Closest thing to flying: Cataloochee Ski Area helped Calhoun reach pinnacle of racing
Watching the 1960 Olympics on television, a young Keith Calhoun saw something that would forever change the course of his life.
“I was in elementary school, and I remember seeing these Olympians skiing,” he said. “And I was just fascinated — I had never seen something like that.”
Growing up in Waynesville, Calhoun was raised down the road from the Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley. At the time, he didn’t personally know anyone who did ski, but he did know he’d find his way up to Cataloochee somehow.
“I grew up 15 miles from Cataloochee,” he said. “It was always this oasis of snow at the top of the mountain that beckoned me.”
Several years would pass before Calhoun was finally brought up to the mountain to see what skiing was all about, to be able to hit the slopes and dive right into his curiosity, which quickly led him to the Meadows, a vast, open landscape on the backside of Cataloochee.
“The first time I went up, the Meadows happened to be open. It was foggy out, I got separated from my group and was lost,” Calhoun laughed. “I just had learned how to snow plow a half-hour earlier, and here I was, in this big expanse. So, I just continued slowly down the hill, figuring downhill was the best way to go, and back down to the bottom.”
Not deterred from his first day on the mountain, Calhoun kept coming back, kept learning more about the Cataloochee terrain and continued to improve his powder skills. Following high school, he enrolled in nearby Western Carolina University as an art major and immediately signed up for the institution’s Ski Club. He soon joined the National Ski Patrol in an effort to not only aid others, but also have a way to hit the slopes for free.
“I figured I had to find a way to go skiing all the time, so I did Ski Patrol for a few seasons,” Calhoun said. “I loved it, helping people and hitting the mountain everyday.”
In 1972, Rick Coker, the owner of Cataloochee at the time, hired Calhoun as the mountain’s first paid ski patrolman. Coker, alongside the Alexander family, ran the ski area and also the beloved Cataloochee Guest Ranch just down the road.
“In those days, I got paid $10 a day to be a patrolman,” Calhoun chuckled. “At that point, I was completely addicted to skiing.”
That passion ultimately led to Calhoun heading for the western horizon. He made his way to Summit County, Colo. — home of Copper Mountain. Amid chest-deep snow and the growing popularity of freestyle skiing in the 1970s, he was in alpine heaven, only to eventually relocate for work down to Crested Butte, Colo., another icon of Rocky Mountain ski resorts. It was there he discovered telemark (or “free heel”) skiing. A very old and “back-to-basics” type of skiing, telemark went through a revival in Crested Butte in the 1970s, with Calhoun at the forefront of the movement.
“I gave up freestyle skiing and took up telemark. My friends out there were pioneers of modern telemark skiing, and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” he said.
Calhoun totally immersed himself in telemark skiing. He started racing and competing, and became very involved on the national telemark scene. In 1983, he even won the North American Championships at Snowmass Ski Area in Aspen, Colo. His picture was printed in numerous publications, while his recognition in the sport echoed through the western skies and beyond.
“It was pretty wild winning the championships,” he said. “I have a pretty good southern accent and people took note of that, always asking, ‘Where are you from?’ I’d proudly tell them I was from Western North Carolina, from the highest mountains east of the Mississippi River, and most people didn’t even know that.”
And through all the excitement and successes Calhoun experienced with western skiing, there was one thing he missed — Cataloochee. After getting married, he decided to return to North Carolina, finding work as Cataloochee’s first bartender while going back to school. He had come full circle with his life, back home in Southern Appalachia, back to the mountain of his youth.
“Coming home, I realized how lucky I was to have Cataloochee right there for me,” he said. “All of my friends and family were there. It’s a special place, the most welcoming and warm place you could ever go to.”
Now 62, Calhoun splits his time between Haywood County and Greensboro. Spending his later years as a technical illustrator, writer and graphic artists, he has since retired. But, one constant remains, and that’s heading for the slopes at Cataloochee every winter.
“When I’m skiing, I’m totally in the moment, totally tuned in to what I’m doing, feeling the mountain and its changes in the snow under my skis,” he said. “It’s the closest thing I’ve found to flying without leaving the ground — a lifelong passion you can enjoy for the rest of your life.”
At a glance
Elevation: 5,400 feet
Vertical Drop: 740 feet
Trails: 17 (25 percent beginner, 50 percent intermediate, 25 percent 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. 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: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekday; 8:30 a.m. to 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. to 10 p.m. weekdays; 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends.
Rates: Lift ticket pricing ranges from $40 weekdays to $62 on weekends. Ski and snowboard equipment can be rented at the ski area, with rental costs ranging from $22 for juniors to $27 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.