Southern Skiing - The South Has Risen

Southern Skiing - The South Has Risen

When I moved to the High Country to go to college, I did so with the intention of leaving my skiing career behind me forever. As a former ski racer, I had the opportunity to ski nearly every type of terrain this continent has to offer, from Maine to Mt. Hood, from Quebec to New Mexico, and several dozen places in-between. I’d spent every season as a ski racer traveling across the continent to compete, and lived for two years in the Mecca of aggressive alpine skiing, Crested Butte, CO. I thought I’d seen it all when it came to North American skiing. So never once did I think I’d end up skiing in North Carolina. And I certainly didn’t think I’d grow to love it.

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Southern skiing may never get the respect it deserves from northern and western skiers and snowboarders, but that’s a good thing. Let’s face it, southern resorts will never compete with the Sugarloafs, Okemos, Strattons, and Killingtons of New England, or with the Crested Buttes, Vails, Whistlers, and Lake Tahoes of the west. But as a Midwestern native, I can safely say that the on-snow quality we have here in the High Country is as good as any of the 50-plus resorts in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. It’s even as good as some of Ontario’s resorts.

But that’s like comparing apples to oranges. What truly makes southern skiing and snowboarding special is accessibility. It’s amazing that only two hours off the mountain the temperature frequently reaches the high 90’s in the summer, yet in the winter people can make relatively short drives from Charlotte, and even as far south as Atlanta, and be skiing and snowboarding the same day. Sugar Mountain, Beech Mountain, Appalachian and Hawksnest can provide a quality fix of winter adrenaline in a world better known for its NASCAR and moonshine than for skiing and snowboarding.

Sugar boasts a vertical drop that would make any Midwestern resort drool, with steep runs to match. Beech isn’t too far behind. Appalachian has snowmaking that is as good as anywhere in the country, and can pile it on thick and quick when the temperature’s right. And Hawksnest keeps a low enough profile to give locals a lot of runs on crowd-free slopes, something every ski community needs. Appalachian has an exceptional terrain park and Beech has the high-speed. What more do you need?

The High Country is developing a strong competitive scene as well. Local skiers and snowboarders are picking up sponsorships and representing the region on the national level. Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain both have full-fledged ski and snowboard teams, and have had several athletes represent the south at the Junior Olympics in skiing and at the U.S. Nationals in snowboarding. Southern colleges are competing in the United States Collegiate Skiing Association, a division that has rivaled the NCAA over the past several years on an individual level, with several USCSA athletes going on after college to have successful World Cup careers. Local athletes have gone on to have exceptional success at the national level, including former Lees-McRae standout Nathan Schwing, who took ninth in the giant slalom in a recent U.S. National Championships, beating out a slew of U.S. Ski Team athletes and top collegiate racers.

Southern skiing and snowboarding’s popularity has also led to great commerce off the mountains. Local ski and snowboard shops rival any in the country in terms of products and service, and all are staffed by knowledgeable people who know skiing and snowboarding. The recent upstart of winter sports has led to the opening of new stores across the High Country, proof-positive evidence that the industry is continuing to grow and thrive in the south. Where once there was very little interest, manufacturers are now taking notice of southern skiing and snowboarding popularity, and see it as a viable and critical market to their success in the industry.

The ski resorts of North Carolina have also begun to draw transplanted skiers and riders from other areas of the country. I have the same conversation every year on the lift with a guy or a girl who raves about the skiing or snowboarding down here, and how grateful they are that they have a place to ski or ride after moving from New England. Often they are as surprised as I once was that it’s possible to ski 25,000 vertical feet in a day, or that there’s enough snow to build a park.

But it’s the little nuances that make it special down here. It’s the chance that it could rain in the middle January, or that we could have a storm at the end of March that drops three feet of fresh powder. Predictability is boring. There’s something special about seeing a Camaro with a roof rack full of skis. You don’t get that anywhere else. Another thing you won’t get at any other ski resort? At least three people on the mountain at all times are wearing camouflage, and at least five have on at least one piece of clothing made by Carhartt. Hey, I’m one of ‘em.

A couple other things I like about southern skiing and snowboarding? At least once very year I see someone who has just seen snow for the first time. On most days I can go skiing in the morning and fly fishing in the afternoon. You can get a whole meal at the cafeteria under $5. Most of the ski patrollers are better skiers than the ski instructors, and any college kid who wants a job at a ski resort can get one. And this I promise, no where else in the skiing world will you buy a ticket and hear, “Ya’ll have fun!”

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