If you're turning to this article on Ski, Esq. expecting a legal story, you'll be sadly disappointed because this weekend marked a personal first. I skied in Dixie. Leading an intrepid group of Ivy Ski Clubbers into uncharted territory, I set off for Western North Carolina for the club's first annualCarpetbagger ski weekend, so called because many of our northern members would be flying south to “take advantage” of the full bounty of southern skiing.
|Sugar Mountain at sunset|
As an experienced ski journalist, I felt it was my duty to try and shine some light on the mystery of southern skiing that so many of us from the north had heard about, maybe even googled, but never experienced. Was it as bad as people make it out to be? I'd find out and see if I couldn't Northern apples to Southern oranges.
A few hours on Google had told me there were really only two places worth skiing in North Carolina – Beech Mountain and Sugar Mountain. Luckily both are located in close proximity with the quaint town of Banner Elk separating them. We rented a beautiful cabin in Banner Elk and would ski Beech on Saturday before concluding the weekend with a trip to Sugar on Sunday.
|Elk Laurel Cabin in Banner Elk, NC|
Saturday dawned clear and windy. In no particular hurry to hit the still-frozen slopes, we made it to Beech around 9:45. The drive up from Banner Elk is one of the prettier and windy approaches to a ski area I have ever seen. The drive involves a seemingly endless series of switchbacks ascending almost 2,000 ft. from the valley floor to the town of Beech (the highest in Eastern North America). From the town, a few more downhill switchbacks drop you in the resort parking lot.
Before I leap into my account from the day's on-slope adventures, let me say I had a great time. Lest anyone think my critique implies otherwise, I have come to believe strongly that skiing is a sport that is as much about people as it is about the mountain. I am quite confident I could have a great time skiing a 200 ft. trash heap covered in snow if I did it with the right people.
However, right from the get-go, my Beech experience was less than stellar. The resort had only one ticket window open and I stood in line for a solid 20 minutes to buy my $63 lift ticket. I then stood in line for another 20 minutes to board “North Carolina's fastest lift” – Beech's main express quad. I can honestly say that I have never seen an express chairlift move more slowly.
When planning the trip, I had difficulty deciding whether to take the club to Beech or to Sugar. Having never been to either, my dilemma arose because although Sugar has a longer vertical drop, I had assumed Beech's express quad would allow for more laps. This assumption proved incorrect because: (1) according to my AlpineReplay stats the express chair crawled along only about 1MPH faster than Sugar's double chair the next day; and (2) I waited in no less than a 15 minute line every time I rode it. When I tried to escape to the only other chair to the summit from the base, I found that the motor on the double was not in good shape, forcing the attendant to load only every other chair.
When I finally got to the top of the hill, the runs were generally short, but long enough to get up to almost full speed by the time you got to the bottom or were forced to play Frogger by avoiding the dozens of falling skiers around you.
Yes, perhaps the biggest difference between skiing up north and down south has nothing to do with the terrain, angle of the sun, or snow conditions. Rather, the biggest difference is the people. There are lots of them on not a lot of acreage and most of them seem to be at all times doing one of three things: (1) falling; (2) on the ground trying to collect their equipment; or (3) flailing about like a baby deer learning to walk. When not doing one of these three activities, you might also find them in the bar screaming SEC football slogans.
To illustrate, the highlight of the weekend for me was the following convesation between the bartender and a patron who was holding his scissored skis on his shoulder at the bar while ordering drinks. Any hope of my gettin
g served in next hour vanished as I heard:
Patron: I'd like six carbombs, eight fireballs, whatever kinda beer my (17) friends ova' there want and a “Roll Tide.”
Bartender: So, you like Alabama, eh?
Patron: I like “Roll Tide.” Yeehaw.
You just can't make this stuff up. The hordes of SEC fans, price, and slowness of the lifts notwithstanding, the snow was actually surprisingly good – a nice firm base that softened into spring skiing as the day progressed. My fellow Ivy Ski Clubbers enjoyed the Oz Run on the backside best, in large part because it is serviced by its own quad chair which had a shorter line for most of the day. By 3:30, the resort was unskiably crowded and we decided to call it quits.
Very often as a ski journalist, I find myself being led around by the nose from place to place. I never find such visits to be particularly informative since everyone knows to put their best foot forward. As a result, I always like to mention places that I visit unannounced which really surprise me, both good and bad. I found one such pleasant surprise at Brick Oven Pizza. By all accounts, I am a pizza snob. Growing up in NJ, I long ago learned to be disappointed by pizza from places outside the northeast, but Brick Oven Pizza had both great crispy pizza and one of the best beer selections I have seen. If you're going to ski Beech, it's a must-visit.
|Snow on the ground? in NC? You bet - 20″ the weekend before|
After a great day on Saturday that also featured some skiing, I set off to Sugar Mountain on Sunday, more curious than excited. Would Sugar be as crowded as it was on Saturday when we saw (again, you can't make this up) at least a dozen flannel-clad skiers piling into the beds of pickup trucks in a parking lot that must have been a full mile from the base? Roll Tide.
Right from the start, I had a feeling Sunday would be a better day. For starters, Sugar is a much bigger mountain than Beech. It may come as a surprise to many, but Beech's 1,200 ft. vertical drop is bigger than any ski resort in NC, TN, VA, MD, PA, CT, MA, or RI. If you drove west, you'd have to drive to Colorado before you found a ski resort with a bigger drop.
Don't misunderstand, Sugar is still quintessentially southern. During the course of my trip I came to understand that “Southern” in the ski sense really means a little bit jury-rigged, but undeniably clever. For example, my first trip up the mountain was on a double chair with 1 loading and 2 unloading midstations. I can't say I've seen that anywhere else, but the notion of creative problem-solving reminded me very much of the way so many villages in the Alps used lifts to tie together resorts in a cost-effective way.
Beyond the vertical drop, the real differentiator between Sugar and Beech is the terrain. Sugar's summit offers three expert runs, one of which – Whoopdedoo – actually would pass for steep in Vermont or New Hampshire. I came to appreciate the loading station on the summit double which saved several minutes on the chairlift each time up as well as thelong runout to the base through swarms of skiers engaging in the same three activities I saw at Beech the day before.
Although the terrain may ski a little more like Vermont than one might think, that's where the comparison's to the Green Mountain state end. Sugar Mountain has all the charm of a Soviet housing project. Old gray condos with plastic lawn furniture would normally catch anyone's attention, except for the fact that an even-more-Soviet-looking hotel tower looms above the ridgeline and is visible for tens of miles on all sides (see the picture above). Whoever designed it can be proud that restrictive zoning in mountain towns will forever have an “Exhibit A” on why laws need to be passed to prevent such concrete and steel monoliths from being duplicated elsewhere.
Oh yeah…and Roll Tide.