Snow guns get ski season off with a bang
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.
So by mid-November, Cataloochee Ski Area was posting 15 to 20 percent more skiers on its slopes than it normally would have by that time.
“We got a lot of help from Sandy,” General Manager Chris Bates said of the bittersweet storm that caused the cities of New York and New Jersey so much devastation but blanketed the ski area with about seven inches of fresh powder.
That, in addition to other snowfalls, accounts for the 14 inches of natural snow the ski area has received already this season — hopefully, well on its way to surpass the 50 inches of snow it gets on average per year.
But skiing in Cataloochee wouldn’t be possible without the help of artificial snowmakers — and lots of them. Advances in snow technology, which have come along way since the ski area first opened in the early 1960s, are critical to the success of the nation’s southernmost ski slope.
Bates said before the snow of Sandy had begun to fall, workers had already switched the snow machines on. And what the machines can do alone, even without the help of a superstorm, is impressive.
“We can go from grass to skiing in eight hours,” Bates said.
Cataloochee makes snow nearly every night — laying down between six and eight inches during those midnight hours — to combat the inevitably warm winter days of the South and lessen the toll the fickle weather will surely take on the hard-fought base come sunrise.
And the warmer days did come. By last weekend, temperatures hit 60 degrees Fahrenheit and skiers sported short-sleeved shirts and sunscreen.
Saturday, two of the area’s three chair lifts hoisted skiers and snowboarders up the hill to take one of the three open runs back down. The other lift and remaining dozen or more runs should be opened by Christmas.
The small number of snowy runs, assaulted by the beating sun and bracketed by brown grass, didn’t keep 21-year-old Paul Lee and his two friends from Greenville, S.C., from making the nearly two-hour trip that day to snowboard. Lee had faith in the snow-making abilities of Cataloochee.
“Cat’ is a really awesome place,” said Lee, using the abbreviated lingo for Cataloochee. “They make some awesome snow.”
Skis and lessons with your turkey legs?
While Halloween skiing was an unexpected boon to the local ski season, skiers and snowboarders are crossing their fingers that the slopes will be ready for the next big day right around the bend.
Thanksgiving Day weekend is one of the most popular at Cataloochee Ski Area. The region’s many second-home owners are here in full-force this week. And thanks to school and work holidays, families load up and come from as far away as Florida, Georgia and eastern North Carolina to incorporate a little skiing into their break.
To compensate, the ski lodge offers a Thanksgiving Day meal for those who would rather bomb down mountains than cook. It is expected to draw in the crowds.
Sue Reitze, first-year director of the ski school at Cataloochee, said with the runs filling up, the best way to keep the holiday ski season fun and safe is to take a lesson or two.
The school offers free lessons during the week along with an equipment rental and lift ticket.
“If you know where the brakes are,” said Reitze, “you’re a lot less likely to hit something.”
There are also special classes geared toward women only, private groups and children of all ages. Reitze encouraged skiers and boarders to take advantage.
And Georgia Defrancia, with her four-year-old daughter, Sula, from Asheville, did just that. Originally from Colorado, Georgia comes from a long line of skiers. As one would expect, Sula is already a veteran of the slopes at age four, having begun lessons at Cataloochee at age three.
Georgia attaches a harness to her daughter to keep tabs on her while she warms up. But after that, the small child is on her own.
“We do the first couple of runs with the harness,” Georgia said. “Then, I set her free.”
But not all new skiers are as trained as young Sula. Many show up for the first time and try to learn as they go, and that’s what can cause problems for themselves or others.
Many involved in accidents on the hill are first-time or beginning skiers. Cataloochee has more than 120 responders on its roster who help patrol the slopes.
Ski Patrol Director Wayne Morgan recalled one infamous day when his crew responded to 30 incidents on the slopes. Thankfully, November has been slow on the injury front so far. For the week leading up to last Saturday, patrollers had only one reported incident. But, that was still one too many in his book.
“I prefer none at all,” Morgan said.
When injuries do happen, skiers generally twist a knee or an ankle as they attempt to stabilize themselves with their legs. Meanwhile, snowboarders, whose legs are strapped in and immobile, tend to break arms, wrists and collarbones as they reach out to cushion a fall, Morgan said.
But the thought of broken bones didn’t deter beginner boarder Kelly Smith from letting her boyfriend talk her into trying the sport, which by the looks of the Cataloochee slopes last Saturday is now either equal to, or has surpassed skiing, in popularity.
Smith’s boyfriend convinced her with his “sideways is always better” mantra and now, after her third week of snowboarding, she is finally getting the feel of it.
“He’s pushing me,” Smith said. “He said, ‘just strap in and go.’”
All you need to know
Cataloochee Ski Area located outside Maggie Valley is officially up and running for the season.
Ticket options include full-day, half-day and twilight skiing sessions. Day hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with night skiing on certain days until 10 p.m.
Lift tickets range from $19 to $54, with equipment rentals of $20 to $25. Costs are higher during holiday periods.
www.cataloochee.com or 828.926.0285.