Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Oby Morgan & courtesy of Sugar Mountain
Back in the 1960s skiing became sexy. Television followed the sport to competitions around the world, giving American audiences close-up looks at an international roster of fine-tuned athletes—both male and female—looking cool in their sleek racing outfits and flying down a mountain at impossible speeds on shiny skis emblazoned with colorful logos. And lurking just below all that athletic accomplishment was the unstated fantasy: Ski all day, party all night. It didn’t take long for a young generation to head for the mountains.
Against this backdrop, a 20-year-old Austrian engineering student, who also happened to be a competitive ski racer, decided to come to the United States to work on his English language skills. “In engineering you needed to be fluent in English. It was very important,” Gunther Jochl says, looking back more than 40 years. He came here from Sachrang, a little Alpine village near the German border, where “I grew up skiing every day. We had snow from November to April.” While he was still a student, Gunther found work at resorts in Pennsylvania and Virginia. “And when I graduated from school I said I want to go back to America.”
With his engineering degree in hand, Gunther returned to America and to the ski slopes. He got a job managing the Blue Knob resort in Pennsylvania, where “one day a guy walks in. His name is Dale Stancill. He says to me, ‘I just bought the place.’ We’ve been friends and partners ever since.” Stancill was always on the lookout for an investment opportunity, and “I was a facilities guy,” Gunther says. “I was interested in the engineering part, the building and construction and design.” Their different interests meshed into what became a long-term partnership.
Timing was on their side. The ski industry was booming. A 1980 study by the University of Colorado concluded that by the mid-’70s, more than 14 million Americans had caught the skiing bug, that they spent more than $404 million on ski equipment—and that the sport was growing at nearly 10 percent a year. It was a perfect “right place, right time” scenario for an Austrian ski instructor with an engineering degree and a sharp business sense.
Adding to the opportunity was the fact that, while skiing was booming, the rest of the economy was in a colossal bust. The recession of the mid-1970s buried the dreams of real estate developers nationwide—and caused an avalanche of debt for the developers of a ski resort in Avery County, North Carolina. The Sugar Mountain resort, a community of single-family homes, condos, a golf course, and a tall, steep mountain, went into bankruptcy in 1976. The bankruptcy court leased the place to Gunther and Dale Stancill for a year, and they went to work.
“It was a disaster,” he says. “The original developers didn’t know how to run it. They had three chair lifts, and they would just stop. Mystery stops. No one knew why. They’d have people sitting in the chair half-way up the mountain and the lift would stop. Once we took over there were no more mystery stops.” The engineer grins. “When I came here there was very little of anything. They didn’t know how to groom the slopes. They didn’t know how to operate the lifts. It was a disaster.”
He points up the slope from the main lodge as he continues the story. “A lot of these buildings up there were already here. There was a motel up there with 32 rooms that we had to get rid of. Asbestos. Right now it’s a parking lot.”
Dominating the view as he looks up to the ridge is a massive 10-story rectangular condo complex called Sugartop. In 1983, the plans for Sugartop were expanded from five to ten stories, igniting fierce and widespread opposition in the town of Banner Elk and eventually throughout Avery County and statewide. The fight became so intense that the state legislature passed the Mountain Ridge Protection Act, which prevents high-rise developments along North Carolina’s ridgelines. The development was completed shortly after and today it remains a controversial addition to the mountain ridge.
“I was a bystander,” in the fight over Sugartop, Gunther says. “I don’t own it and I didn’t get involved.”
Long before Sugartop, Gunther had his hands full managing much more than a ski slope. “First year we were here I did security for the whole mountain, all the road maintenance, and the ski resort. We worked hard. Before we got here, their best year was 80 thousand skiers. In my first year, we did 160 thousand. And we were also renting 300 living units on the mountain. At that point we didn’t own it, we were just leasing. So in springtime, we just locked the doors and we left.”
But not for long. The next season they were back, and they made a deal with the bankruptcy court to lease the resort for another season and then purchase it.
What they bought was a mountain with four lifts, eleven slopes, and some snow-making equipment. “When I first came to this country I heard of snow making but I thought this is crazy,” Gunther says, but soon he is praising the capabilities of the latest computerized snow making guns that stud the slopes of his mountain. He explains the temperature sensors that activate the guns when the weather is cold enough to turn the water into snow. “We just bought 10 more of these,” he says. “We now have 25 of them,” plus another 30 of the non-automated snow guns.
He shows off his new 2,500 horsepower compressor that drives four pumps capable of pumping 4,000 gallons a minute. He quickly runs through the math. “That’s forty thousand gallons in 10 minutes,” he smiles. “It’s 240,000 gallons an hour. At 20 degrees outside temperature we can cover the entire mountain with more than a foot of snow in just 36 hours.”
The air compressors and water pumps are housed in a pump house which is larger than an average single-family home. “If we don’t have a pump house, we don’t have snow. If we don’t have snow, we might as well not be here,” he says. His reliance on man-made snow is so complete that he now says, “Natural snowfall gets in our way. People are afraid to drive in it, so they stay home.”
Gunther shows off his pump house with pride in his voice as he explains in an engineer’s detail the technical mechanics of it all. The new compressor is merely the latest in a string of improvements that date back to those bankruptcy days. His other big project this past summer was to build a new run, which will increase the original 11 runs to 21. Sugar Mountain ski areas now cover 129 acres. The longest trail is a mile-and-a-half with a vertical drop of 1,200 feet. The trails include one designated as a Double Diamond, the most difficult category of skiing terrain. It is recommended only for expert skiers.
“We’re approved to host both national and international races,” Gunther says. “We don’t have a trail long enough to do downhill or super G races, but we can host slalom and grand slaloms.” He pauses to emphasize the competitive quality of his mountain, and then slides into a description of its creature comforts. The mountain now has four double chair lifts, one triple chair, two magic carpets, and a handle tow. Getting to the top is not a problem. And he’s expanded the scope of his attractions to include snowboarding, tubing, snow-shoeing, and ice-skating.
“We own all the ski facilities with probably around 400 acres total,” he says. “We own the tennis facilities, which we freeze for ice-skating. And some other land that we don’t do anything with now. We use the golf course in the winter to tube on it.”
While he was busy making additions to the resort, he found time to become an American citizen in 1986.
[quote float=”right”]In 2011 he approached Dale Stancill with a proposition. “It’s time I bought you out,” he says. “We’re still great friends, but he had other business interests and I was ready to take full control of this.”[/quote]Meanwhile, his business was becoming as big as his mountain. Thanks to his snow-making equipment, Sugar Mountain is open for skiing from mid-November to March, about 130 to 140 days a year. Gunther shies away from revealing how many people visit his resort, putting the number “above 200 thousand a year.” They come from as far as Florida and Louisiana, making North Carolina skiing a significant contributor to the state’s tourism industry. The North Carolina Ski Areas Association commissions a periodic economic impact report. The most recent concluded: “The overall economic value of the ski resort industry to the State of North Carolina was $146 million for the… 2009-10 season.” An updated report is scheduled for release next year. The ski areas association includes six resorts statewide, and Gunther says Sugar Mountain is the biggest of them all, “by far.”
His big business requires a big commitment. During skiing season, Gunther estimates he works about 13 hours a day, seven days a week. He skis early every morning and admits that by the time he gets to the bottom he’s compiled a list of chores for his staff to do. “We ski day and night,” he says. “And there’s always something. In peak season we have more than 400 employees working the ski area and another 100 in food service.” He has a permanent full-time staff of 40.
In 2011 he approached Dale Stancill with a proposition. “It’s time I bought you out,” he says. “We’re still great friends, but he had other business interests, and I was ready to take full control of this.” He waves his arm in a broad arc. “Now Sugar Mountain for the first time ever belongs to one person.”
But Gunther still has a partner. In 1997 Kim Schmidinger became Mrs. Jochl. (The name is pronounced Yokel, and, yes, they’ve heard all the jokes.)
Gunther and Kim met in 1990 when, in addition to nurturing his mountain resort, he took on the American distributorship of Volkl skis. Kim was a member of the US Ski Team, and she skied on Volkl. Their professional relationship developed into a friendship, and when she went down with a knee injury she came to Sugar Mountain to do her rehabilitation.
“I had a lot of injuries,” she says, launching into a story complete with the highest of highs and lowest of lows. “I think I had five knee surgeries and one reconstruction. My whole life from the age of two was skiing and competing and I loved it. I traveled the world with the US Ski Team. In 1989 I was junior world champion in giant slalom. It was fantastic but there’s a lot under the surface that goes along with that, and I retired at 23—who retires at 23? But that’s what skiers do. We retire and move onto a new life.”
Kim was moving on from a life that began in Lee, Massachucetts, where she and her twin sister, Kristen, both established themselves as world-class skiers. Their talents took them to the international circuit, and—in Kim’s case—to those five knee surgeries and the realization that it was time to move on.
“I was ready to retire,” she says. “I was physically, mentally, psychologically drained. I was used up. And then when I quit it was like, ‘Freedom! Wow!’ I could go to college; I had my whole life ahead of me.
“After I quit I came right here. My sister and I had a house here, Gunther gave me a job, and I went to Appalachian State. I could have made a lot of different choices, but everything was set up for me here, and I needed to earn money so I took the logical route, which was to come here and finish school.”
[quote float=”right”]“I traveled the world with the US Ski Team. In 1989 I was junior world champion in giant slalom. It was fantastic but there’s a lot under the surface that goes along with that, and I retired at 23—who retires at 23?”[/quote]Kim’s says her biggest surprise in North Carolina was “the mountains. Initially, when I heard about skiing in the South I was like every other New Englander: ‘You have mountains down there? You have snow down there?’ And when I finally got here, I realized this is beautiful. The mountains are steep. They’re challenging. And higher than the mountains in New England. Sugar Mountain is higher than most ski areas in Vermont and Maine. It took a while for all that to sink in. I was a New England snob.”
Kim soon got over her misconception about southern skiing, and five years later she and Gunther were married. Now they go to junior races to watch—and coach—their 14-year-old daughter, Olivia.
Kim is listed as vice president of Sugar Mountain, and Gunther says her main contribution is that “she’s got my six,” using the pilot’s term for his back. Both of them are pilots, and they each fly their own planes.
And they each have no trouble listing a busy roster of future improvements for the resort. “We want a high speed quad,” she says, describing a four-person chair that detaches from its cable for easier passenger access. “Then I’d also like to see a play area for kids up on our beginner area in the woods. It will have little houses they can ski through and little mountains they can go up and down. It’s part of the learning process. The kids are out there having fun and learning how to ski in the process.”
Gunther is nodding his agreement as Kim goes on with her wish list. “We’d love to have a restaurant at the top of the mountain. On a clear day you can see all the way to Charlotte from up there. We’ll feature excellent food, and we’ll call it the Summit House.”
Skiing now dominates winter tourism in the High Country. Perhaps the advances in snow-making technology would have made it inevitable, but when Gunther looks back over his years at Sugar Mountain, he sees a genuine accomplishment. “We took skiing seriously, and we took it to a different level.”