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With today's snowmaking systems covering slopes in hours, and opening resorts around the region for Thanksgiving turns, it's important to remember pioneers like Sepp Kober. Here he is, way back in the day, making some early snow at The Homestead, the South's first real resort to add "ski" to its title. Today's aggressive snowmakers have big footprints to fill. Photo courtesy the Sepp Kober Collection.

Everything evolves, and this Thanksgiving ski weekend at a handful of the region’s ski areas is a great example of how far skiing in the South has come.

Story by Randy Johnson

Today, the target date for many Southern ski areas to open is Thanksgiving, and has been for some years. But not so long ago, even the biggest ski areas almost always declared December 15 as their target opening date, and if they were open and  operating by Christmas it was a home-run. The snow guns cranked up, the snow piled up, and then over time, someone dropped the rope and skiing was underway.

That’s changed, for the better. Granted, it looks like rain will be rolling in for some of this coming week, and who knows, if winter really doesn’t arrive until December 15th, ultimately, skiing in the Southeast could have to wait on Old Man Winter.

Despite all the controversy over global warming, it’s not the weather that’s the story here—it’s the ski industry’s response to it. Increasingly of late, the exploding fire power of Southeastern snowmaking systems has made it “the norm” for the most aggressive ski areas to launch the season whether it’s likely to last or not.

Take Sugar Mountain for instance. Gunther Jochl has led that trend. Last ski season I sat down with Jochl and he recalled the post-bankruptcy “bad old days” of the 1980s.

“It used  to be unheard to start skiing before the 15th of December,” he told me. “You just were not even thinking about it. And that applied from way farther north than Virginia all the way down here.” Jochl had been at Sugar since the late-70s, but something suddenly dawned on him. “I said to myself, it’s gonna get cold. What else do we have to do? Let’s make snow! I think we opened the 15th of November. Everybody thought we were nuts.” By the time many other slope operators started scratching their heads, “we had Big Birch open, with fantastic  skiing, and made some money.  We also got some great publicity. Nobody had ever done it.”

Jochl noticed something else. Formerly depressed local ski folks were smiling and getting excited. “Open early” became Jochl’s playbook, and it has been ever since. Good snow years came along, but, “I think our aggressive approach to doing things helped.” The wire service news bureaus—remember those dinosaurs of the pre-Internet age?—sent out photos to newspapers and suddenly skiing was on a lot of front pages in November. I ought to know—I took some of those pictures.

Today, it’s a different but similar story. Our own Mike Doble showed up at Appalachian Ski Mountain last week and SkiSoutheast TV broadcasted live from a snow-covered ski area. And TV weather broadcasts all over the South have been running footage from ski resort webcams. There’s no longer any need to send the mobile TV van up the mountain!

Jochl helped usher in today’s normal by using aggressive snowmaking to open early. Then he targeted great slope grooming, but that’s a different story. Between snowmaking and grooming, Jochl “doubled our skiing numbers. I like to ski and I like to ski nice conditions—and people don’t want anything different than I want.”

And that surely goes for opening early. Who doesn’t want that? Next week may bring rain—but a drier than expected Thanksgiving has brought days of holiday skiing and boarding to the North Carolina High Country—at all three ski areas of Appalachian, Beech and Sugar (and Cataloochee farther South). The open resorts have excited locals and attracted early season skiers (and their dollars), many of whom are heading home with a Christmas tree on top of the car.

The result? Check out Mike’s TV spot from Appalachian Ski Mountain to hear Brad Moretz talk about how his resort debuted with two-thirds of the slopes open after 36 hours of snowmaking! Jochl sees Appalachian at the crest of that curve. “That’s one thing Appalachian does,” Jochl says. “Let’s be honest. They hit the button, every snow gun comes on, and they cover the whole mountain.” Kim Jochl leaned into the conversation. “They pulverize it,” she said, “and that’s awesome.”

Jochl’s attitude is priceless. For such a conservative business manager, the man knows you gotta get out there if you’re going to make things happen. “We have smaller windows for snowmaking down here,” he says. “If I have a week to make snow and I can really cover this mountain with a good base, but we use all our water, fine—I used it all. Why should we make snow for one week and still have water left? Now it’s up there on the mountain. If it melts we’ll use the water again.”

All of the above came to mind as I read a press release from Mount Cranmore, New Hampshire last week, announcing that the North Conway resort in the Mount Washington Valley would be open three days over the Thanksgiving weekend thanks to their great snowmaking system.

Imagine, those slopes are 1,002 miles north of where I live in Banner Elk, just a sixteen hour and fourteen minute drive. How thankful we should be that there are passionate skiers, who are also ski area operators, providing snow sports a lot closer than that! Thanksgiving skiing is only a few hours from people all over the South, right now, today. And from me, I am thankful to say, it’s just 16 minutes away.

cataloochee ski area, friday November 27, 2105
Warm weather translates to rather empty slopes in the region on Friday. Photo by David McCue at Cataloochee.

Last night I was reading David McCue’s Trip Report from his day at Cataloochee on Friday. (Read it here.)

In summary – while David really praised the conditions and snow coverage that he found at Cataloochee on Friday – his huge surprise was the fact that VERY FEW people were enjoying the benefits of Cat’s snowmaking and grooming efforts.

I can ditto his appraisal by telling you that we drove by Sugar Mountain on Friday and the crowds…weren’t. I had an opportunity to look at the webcams for Beech and ditto. There was a steady flow of light traffic, but there certainly were not the kind of crowds that you’d normally find on a Thanksgiving weekend ski trip to the mountains.

That got me to researching our Google Analytics and although we have not always used Google to track visitors – I can tell you that in all of our twenty years of covering the resorts of the Southeast – I have never seen a DROP in traffic to the site from October to November. Traditionally traffic trends way up once we hit mid-November but not so for THIS particular pre-season.

(Editor’s Note: We’ve actually been around longer than Google and back in the initial years of the “www” we’d use visitor counters. Then we progressed to iStats, WebTrends and other tracking programs. Like most everyone these days, we rely on Google Analytics for data.)

Just a month ago I was bragging about our traffic being UP 35% despite the fact that there was no snow, and no skiing happening. Fast forward to the LAST 30 days of data and I can tell you that we’re now experiencing a 47% DROP in traffic when comparing October 28th to November 27th of the 14-15 season and 15-16 (this season).


We’re receiving as many comments and emails and a lot of you are commenting about the huge uptick in content thanks to David McCue, Randy Johnson, Kenny Griffin, Joe Stevens, Brad Panovich and myself. I will admit to being re-energized this season – which is VERY strange considering the late-summer-like temps that we’ve experience for much of this “first month” of ski season.

(On Friday, I was out hunting for the perfect Christmas tree in 64° temperatures!)

Over the years, I have always commented about how SNOW trumps everything when it comes to traffic. Nothing excites the masses like some snowy weather. Every time that it snows the news media across the Southeast and mid-Atlantic reports it and the next thing you know – people are headed to the mountain and tens of thousands will visit our website. We’ve seen 150K or more visitors in a single snowy day. Without snow…and so far absent of any colder temperatures…we’re seeing an unprecedented dip in traffic.

I’ve already reported this fact – but by this time last November 27th we had already seen 17.5″ of snow at Sugar and Beech and 29.6″ of snow around Snowshoe, Canaan and Timberline in West Virginia.

To date? 0.1″ of a TRACE at Beech and Sugar. The normally snowy climbs of West Virginia? 0.5″ of snow has fallen.

On top of that it has just not been that cold. When you add that it is 10-15° warmer OFF the mountain where most skier visits come from- that simply spells little to no interest in skiing and snowboarding.

I did see some brisk traffic on the roads and downtown Boone had people swarming the sidewalks, shops and restaurants but that could be attributed to Black Friday and Christmas tree business.

As a quick “sidebar” – we’ve been reporting a the economic impact of the ski industry, etc. The North Carolina Christmas tree farms bring and estimated $120 million dollars of economic benefit to the mountains of N.C.

Back to our traffic…

By this time last season (14-15) we had already experienced over ONE MILLION visitors to our network promoting the ski resorts, live webcams and weather content. Obviously being “off” 47% – you can do the math. The numbers are staggering.

However visits to the website are “virtual”. I can only imagine how far “off” skier visits to the mountain are right now. Bear in mind that thousands of people would have already hit up Snowshoe had they had gotten opened up this past week when they planned to. More would have enjoyed Winterplace by now. Tens of thousands of combined skiers and snowboarders would have already visited Appalachian, Beech, Cataloochee, Sugar and Wolf Ridge.

Massanutten and Wintergreen resorts in Virginia would have already opened some terrain and Wisp Resort in Maryland would have opened a week or more ago and all eight of those resorts would have seen tens of thousands of skiers and snowboarders by this time.

Remember that so far this season only Appalachian, Beech, Cat and Sugar have had skiers on their slopes. It’s reasonable to estimate that skier visits to the combined resorts that would have normally already been in operation to this point on the calendar HAS to be off more than 70-80% if not more.


Hopefully This Will End Up Just a Blip on the Radar…

If you’re a snow loving, ski-area-frequent-skier-or-snowboarder, don’t lose heart because this is kind of the “bonus season” before the real ski and snowboarding season begins. Traditionally the time period from early October through mid-December only makes up perhaps 5-10% of skier visits over an entire season. Also a lot of ski areas such as Canaan, Timberline, Bryce, Homestead, Sapphire Valley and even Wolf Ridge…OFTEN don’t even try to get open until around December 10th or so. So we are STILL in that period on the calendar that really doesn’t matter a whole lot to the financial bottom lines of ski areas across the region.

So if we can get some cold air and some snow falling by December 10th, this “bad start” will be forgotten. A couple of prolonged cold snaps and a big bombing of snowfall across the region and it will be a case of “Snow and the people will come”.


So, my snow-loving fans, let’s pray for some cold and snow.

Check the snow report for opening and delays…


Enjoy your day and THINK SNOW! THINK COLD!

Also visit all of our Ski Resort WebCams.

Be sure to email us your thoughts about “SkiSoutheastTV“. Should we do it? If you don’t know what we’re talking about, READ THIS STORY and comment.

2015-nov-18-newsletterAlso be sure to sign up for our newsletters. It’s FREE and easy. Click in the signup to the right.

Email me anytime and about anything at: [email protected]

Sugar Mountain Resort will make a decision at noon about whether or not to open for night sessions.

Only Sugar Mountain Resort is reporting them, but all four open ski resorts have them. Temperatures on Friday reached into the mid-to-UPPER 60s under brilliant, sunny skies and those temps combined with skier and snowboarder traffic to eat away at already limited base depths at Appalachian Ski Mountain, Cataloochee Ski Area, Beech Mountain Resort and Sugar Mountain Resort.

All ski areas with the exception of Appalachian dropped their reported base depths by a few inches. All four open resorts are showing “wear and tear” in the form of lots of brown patches showing through what was “snowy white” just two days ago.

Check the Snow Report

Appalachian Ski Mountain and Cataloochee Ski Area will both be open for day & night sessions today (Saturday) but Beech Mountain has opted for day sessions only today and Sugar Mountain (in something of an out-of-the-norm surprise) will be making a decision at NOON today as to whether or not they will be open for night sessions.

Appalachian and Sugar are both offering ice skating sessions today and Cataloochee has the only tubing hill open at this time.

All four ski areas are showing thin coverage and some bare spots and with temps pushing into the mid-to-upper 60s again today expect more to appear.

Based on what we are seeing right now and with one eye on the weather forecast, we’re thinking that there will likely be a resort closure or two after Sunday’s sessions. We’ll see and we’ll keep you up to date.

Feel free to email me at [email protected]

I  got out for my first runs of the season today at Cataloochee and had a solid day, actually a great first day given the challenges of high temps and no snow that have plagued the southeast thus far.

Trip Report & Photos by David McCue

To quote an obscure little band from the sixties: “Oh that magic feeling.” Laws of physics were suspended once again and lift off was achieved. The unlikelihood of it all blows me away every year that I drop into my first run.  Friday at Cataloochee is often my first day of the season, after gobbling turkey with my family in Sylva, and usually that is with my sons too but they’ve had the audacity to grow up and move elsewhere so I was solo today.

I arrived at 8 a.m. and found the next best parking spot available; apparently the director of ski patrol feels entitled.

cataloochee ski area, friday November 27, 2105
I couldn’t believe how empty the slopes were.

After a cup of coffee I hit the emptiest holiday slopes I have ever experienced.  For most of the morning I could never have looked around and counted more than 20 people on the slopes.  Just before noon I finally had to brake once or twice before skiing directly onto the lift.  Was there a bad turkey outbreak yesterday because the slopes were insanely empty today?

It may just be that folks can’t wrap their heads around what snow makers can produce now and how the groomers can make it last.

2015-nov-27-David-McCue001As far as the slope conditions;  it was choppy and stiff, a little rugged, early in the morning;  soft and fun but still not slushy when I left at one o’clock.  Significant patches of dirt were breaking through above the halfway mark, but almost none from mid-mountain to the bottom.  I’ll put it this way, my new skis still don’t have a scratch and I was not treating them with any special care (although I stopped treating skis with care a long time ago.)

I want to stress how surprised I was at the conditions and lack of crowd and as a result how much fun some of the new families and old regulars were having.  I don’t know with certainty, but I’m guessing they will manage to open the same amount of terrain tomorrow. If you can get there early you will have a great day in store.

By the way I may have mentioned this in an earlier column,  but check out the Slide in Five package that Cataloochee has put together this year, I think it’s pretty exceptional.

There is a bit of white at a few ski areas if you’re wanting to ski or ride today and resorts and ski shops around the region are offering some sweet deals on skis, snowboards, clothing, gear and accessories. Don’t forget that even those ski area which are not operating for skiing and snowboarding ARE OPEN with the shops, etc.

So if you’re looking for great gift ideas for that snow lover in your family or circle of friends – look no further than the ski areas and ski shops of the region.

A lot of ski areas are still playing the waiting game in terms of waiting for colder and more consistently cold air to make more snow and open – however there ARE four ski resorts that are open for skiing and snowboarding today and they are all located within the borders of the state of North Carolina.

In alphabetical order, they are:

Appalachian Ski Mountain – 45° and 8 slopes and trails, serviced by 5 lifts and a base of 12-24″ being reported. App is open for day and night sessions with skiing til Midnight with their Midnight Blast session from 5pm-midnight. Terrain park is open as well.

Beech Mountain Resort – 44° this morning and open with 6 slopes and trails, serviced by 2 lifts. The quad lift was flying this morning when I was touring the ski area webcams. Beech is reporting a “wet packed and variable” surface and they are only open for day skiing and snowboarding today. This is Beech’s OPENING DAY of the season.

Beech Mountain Brewing Company will open for the season today as well.  The brewery will operate Friday and Saturday from 11am to 8pm and Sunday from 12pm to 8pm. Under the guidance of new brewmaster Billy Smith, Beech Mountain Brewing Co.’s popular Blonde Ale recently won a bronze medal at the North Carolina State Fair.

Cataloochee Ski Area – 45.7° and open with 6 slopes and trails, with 3 lifts operating. Groomed conditions and tubing is open as well AND Cat is open for day and night sessions on Friday.

Sugar Mountain Resort – 39.9° and holding fort with the same 4 slopes and trails to the top of their mountain serviced by 1 lift – their new Summit Express, 6 pack chondoloa lift. Ice skating is open as well.

Here’s a couple of notes of interest in an effort to continue our “No Bull Reporting”.

First, evidently snow only melts at Sugar Mountain. Sugar is the only ski area to report a drop in base depths since the last round of snowmaking which took place days ago now. It’s been warm to say the least and we’re seeing some thin coverage areas already beginning to show and yet only Sugar is reporting a drop in base. Sugar’s base dipped 2-4″ over the last two days.

All others are still reporting the same snow as they did three days ago.

In fairness to Beech Mountain, they just opened today so there’s been no previous report of base, and they are reporting an 8-24″ base. Some thin coverage spots are already appearing at the merge of their “Crossover to Freestyle slopes”.

The forecast for today over at Maggie Valley, NC – home to Cataloochee Ski Area – is calling for a 64° high temp and sunny skies. App, Sugar and Beech should see temps in the 57-60° range as well and that won’t bode well for maintaining base depths.

The best snow or slope quality available today – is unquestionably at Appalachian Ski Mountain but even they have some thin coverage areas and some bare spots showing such as at the terrain park hill and off the left side of Big Appal.

2015-nov-27-SugarSugar Mountain Resort has re-aimed their base camera back over to the slope just enough to show good snow coverage at the base area. Late on Thursday I drove up and had a look at some the mid and top slope area and they too have some thin coverage areas.

Cataloochee looks pretty good as well and they’d probably get our “tip of the cap” at providing the second best conditions of the four ski areas that are open today.

The truth is – it is borderline miraculous that we even HAVE snow on the slopes at any resort because we’ve only seen a handful of snowmaking nights to this point in the early-season. I have received a bunch of emails about how great Snowshoe looks at the top of their mountain. No doubt, that they could be offering a trail or two. However with all of the guests that visit that mountain, they really want to provide a good bit of skiable terrain before they open.


Speaking of Visits…

A couple of weeks ago as we were covering the NC Ski Areas Association Economic Impact presser, the featured speaker, Dave Belin of RRC Associates reported a lot of great information. The most important data to take away from that meeting was the fact that the 2014-2015 ski season was the second most visited ski season on record for the state of North Carolina based ski resorts at 653,654 skier visits. The most visited season was during the 2009-10 campaign with 671,000 visits.

RRC Associates is a Rocky Mountain-based research firm that monitors skiing nationwide for the National Ski Areas Association. Belin’s presentation, streamed live on SkiSoutheast.com. You can watch the entire presentation by clicking here> NC Ski Areas Association Economic Impact

Among the good news was the fact that those 653,654 visitors last season generated $197.2 million in total economic impact.

2015-nov-27-NCSAAHOWEVER, during that presentation Dave Belin made a huge error in one of his comments and in the Powerpoint Presentation graphics.

Notice in the graphic to the right that Belin’s report states that with those 653,654 visits last season, North Carolina ranks “JUST AHEAD of West Virginia and Virginia”.


At 653,654 visits in North Carolina last season – that falls about 170,000 visits LESS than the ski areas of West Virginia.

I have purposely waited to see if any media outlet or anyone (period) would come forward and offer a correction. I’ve looked around at several newspaper and other online media websites to see if anyone else caught that error. If they did, they haven’t reported the error.

I know that many of these kinds of events are kind of “dog and pony shows” where the hosts can basically say whatever they want and we in the media just report it as news. I would have thought that those “in the know” within the management staffs of the NCSAA or even at RRC Associates would have caught that mistake – especially since they have all of the data for every state.

However, just to be fair and accurate, we’re going to go ahead and report the correction. While North Carolina’s ski areas pull a ton of traffic and while they DO an amazing, amazing, amazing job of generating hundreds of millions of dollars in economic benefit – they (we – because I too reside in the awesome state of North Carolina) rank behind the state of West Virginia in numbers.

Bad News Part …whatever…

The weather forecast for the next 10-15 days is, in two words, not good. In fact we should see some rain Sunday through Wednesday and there’s MAYBE 3-5 nights of the next 15 that will allow for snowmaking and a couple of those nights are borderline.

It’s not out of the question to expect that we could see ski area closures mid-week next week.

2015-nov-27-beechBeech’s base is the most suspect right now and they could see the start to their season happen much like Sugar’s did with only a couple of days of operation and then shut back down until cold air returns. We haven’t heard from Beech, but they COULD be planning to only ski and snowboard this weekend and then close during the week next week anyway.

Wolf Ridge Resort, over in Mars Hill, Wolf Laurel had hoped to get open today, but they were not able to.

All other ski resorts are simply stalled due to the weather and awaiting a change in weather patterns to something more winter-like.

There’s been a lot of weather chatter that Winter is on the way and that we will see a pattern shift more conducive to snow and snowmaking coming soon, but it really can’t come soon enough, right?

There are some “rain/snow showers” in the forecast towards the end of next week and into the end of the first week of December, but the low temps through December 10th or so – just doesn’t look all that “winter-like” just yet.

We’ll take the tact that Snowshoe’s marketing people are using as they posted today, “Winter is coming… soon! Colder temperatures are on the way and the forecasts are calling for a fantastic, snow-filled season.”

We have been getting some emails from concerned travelers who have mid-to-late December travel plans to the mountains. The truth is that it is much too early to worry about what the weather might be like just prior to Christmas. That’s nearly a full month away and the weather can turn on a dime up here. The winter forecast is for a snowy and cold one, with more than a few significant snow storms. That sounds great to us…so bring it on.


Enjoy your day and THINK SNOW! THINK COLD!

Also visit all of our Ski Resort WebCams.

Be sure to email us your thoughts about “SkiSoutheastTV“. Should we do it? If you don’t know what we’re talking about, READ THIS STORY and comment.

2015-nov-18-newsletterAlso be sure to sign up for our newsletters. It’s FREE and easy. Click in the signup to the right.

Email me anytime and about anything at: [email protected]