Written by Toni Sherwood
Before you book that trip to Aspen or Utah’s Snowbasin, maybe consider some of the fresh skiing options right here in your own Western North Carolina backyard.
Prime skiing conditions make February the best month for snow sports in the Western North Carolina region. It’s typically the coldest month; plus, temperatures remain steady, and natural snowfalls often complement the man-made snow. With the slopes in peak condition, and a President’s Day/Valentine’s Day combo weekend to celebrate, local ski resorts are hosting all kinds of events. But who really needs an excuse to get out on the slopes?
Family Fun Weekend at Appalachian Ski Mountain
Located in Blowing Rock, Appalachian Ski Mountain (ASM) prides itself on a consistent deep snow base accomplished with top of the line snowmaking equipment. In the past three years they’ve made huge investments in equipment upgrades. According to their website, their peak season base depths often exceed that of resorts out west.
The ASM Valentine’s Day Family Weekend event (Feb. 12-15) will light up the winter sky with fireworks, feature special hours, and offer a free family digital ski portrait. This year they’ve also expanded their late night skiing event, Midnight Blast, to every Friday and Saturday night, as well as Valentine’s Day Sunday.
Besides downhill skiing, ASM boasts an ice-skating rink and an App Terrain Park, which is a freestyle area for skiers and snowboarders. Freestyle is like a cross between extreme skateboarding, skiing, and Parkour. This network of three terrain parks got its humble start as a volunteer effort. Designed by those who love the sport, it is in constant flux as the course is updated regularly, and with dozens of rails, boxes, jibs, and jumps to maneuver, this park is a challenge to the body and mind.
The App Terrain Park will offer a special Ladies Park Night on February 20 at 7pm. A custom terrain segment of the park will be open to women skiers and snowboarders of all ages and abilities to learn and progress. Coaches will be on hand to offer advice.
Learn more at: www.appskimtn.com
Nighttime Skiing at Cataloochee Ski Area
With the sun setting by six o’clock, nighttime skiing is a great way to stave off the winter blues. It also makes for a fun date. You can snuggle up with your honey as you ride the lift and admire each other’s form as you race down the mountain.
The Cataloochee Ski Area is located just four miles off U.S. 19 above Maggie Valley, and is easily accessed from I-40. The fifty skiable acres include eighteen slopes and trails of various difficulty levels, along with the Cat Cage Terrain Park.
Cataloochee’s President’s Day Holiday Weekend event (Feb. 12-15) will offer special rates. They’ll also extend their Tuesday through Saturday twilight and night skiing schedule to include Valentine’s Sunday.
Sam Lloyd has been a ski instructor since 2003. Although he lives in Tryon, he regularly commutes to Cataloochee Ski Area where he teaches. For the past eight seasons, Lloyd has been focused on teaching special needs folks. He founded the Adaptive Ski Program at the Cataloochee Ski Area in 2007. “I have one student who’s a paraplegic,” Lloyd says. “She rides on a chair set atop a frame with a ski underneath it and a shock absorber.”
Adaptive skiing started in Europe around the time of WWII. The benefits of skiing for injured vets motivated the development of equipment to make it possible despite disabilities. For these athletes, the sense of freedom that skiing provides rivals other sports, while the multiple benefits include confidence building, increased balance, and even improved social skills.
Cataloochee has special ski equipment available for all types of athletes, including those with visual impairment, cognitive disabilities, developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, traumatic brain injury, and spinal cord injuries.
“Basically any physical, mental, or emotional disability,” Lloyd says. Lloyd is a veteran himself, and he teaches many injured veterans who benefit from the program. “It gets them back on track,” he explains. “Let’s say a guy lost both legs; suddenly he’s skiing again, and he knows he can do anything he wants to do. He sees life in a chair is not much different than life on legs.”
Wounded veterans always ski free at Cataloochee. They also have regular appreciation days for military personnel, law enforcement officers, and fire and rescue providers.
Lloyd says he will occasionally teach able-bodied students, but only when needed; his heart lies in teaching those with special needs.
Learn more at: www.cataloochee.com
Totally ‘80s Retro Ski Weekend at Beech Mountain
Beech Mountain hails as the highest town in the Eastern United States. With elevation in their favor at 5506, the average snowfall of 84 inches helps transform the mountain into a snow lover’s dream. And with 95 acres of skiable terrain, there’s plenty of open space to enjoy.
At the base of the slopes, the Alpine Village at Beech Mountain Resort has unique shops, dining, and a 7000-sq.-ft. ice-skating rink. The most recent addition is a state-of-the-art snow-tubing park.
At the top of the mountain, one can step off the chair lift into the 5506’, a skybar with a huge deck and a glass roundhouse. Grab some food and drinks while taking in the spectacular views.
Perhaps the most unique and outrageous event of the month is Beech Mountain’s Totally ‘80s Retro Ski Weekend (Feb. 18-21). Who can resist all day “retro skiing”? Get out your headbands and spandex and tease up that big hair for a totally awesome skiing experience. They’ll have live eighties music nightly, fun competitions such as the Pac-Man contest, Rubik’s Cube contest, and the Madonna look-alike contest. And of course there’s a late night eighties dance party for folks wanting to recreate the memorable era in style.
Beech Mountain also has an Adaptive Snow Sports Center to support adults with disabilities. Lloyd regularly participates in the Disabled Sports USA Adaptive Learn to Ski Event that takes place annually on Martin Luther King weekend.
Learn more at: www.beechmtn.com
Skiing is a skill to be mastered
A lot of us have tried skiing. Maybe we went with some friends who gave us their tips. We wore jeans, fell down, and bumped our heads—multiple times—to end up cold and frustrated. (Or was that just me?) Turns out, a couple of lessons can make all the difference between trying to ski—and enjoying it.
Michelle Long Shuford is one of the instructors at the French Swiss Ski College, which operates at ASM. She has been a professional ski instructor for 25 years.
“The instructors here [in Western North Carolina] are as good or better than the instructors out West,” Shuford says.
All professional ski instructors must meet national standards, but our region offers some unique challenges to skiers. “We have far more marginal conditions, from scant snow to more icy conditions,” she explains, “so skiing here is more challenging.” Shuford feels this is actually a positive thing that keeps her on top of her skiing game.
“We live in an area that can be 30 degrees tonight, and tomorrow it’s 55,” fellow instructor Lloyd says. “It’ll look like somebody took a cup of Slurpee and threw it on the slope.”
Although man-made snow is what makes our ski resorts possible, Lloyd notes that the new snow guns only make snow in certain humidity and temperatures, so even they have their limits. And the machines don’t run themselves. Often the snow has to be blown overnight, so while you are resting up for the slopes, a crew is hard at work preparing the snow.
Typically, three lessons will get you beyond the basics and into tackling the intermediate terrain, which is where the fun begins. That free-flying feeling that skiers love really kicks in once they can comfortably navigate the intermediate slopes.
Each slope is marked to let skiers know which skill level corresponds with it; a green circle signifies Beginner, a blue square is Intermediate, and a black diamond is Advanced. There’s even a double black diamond to distinguish the most challenging slopes.
“It’s also less expensive to take lessons in our region,” Shuford adds. With top-of-the line instructors available, why not give yourself a leg up? Skiing is a skill that, once mastered, will offer a lifetime of fun and fitness.
Find ski pals at Asheville Ski Club
When Shuford relocated to Asheville in 1993, she immediately got involved with the Asheville Ski Club. This active group makes regular trips out of the area to prime ski destinations. They also participate in local racing competitions and just-for-fun ski events. They hold monthly meetings to socialize and make plans.
Among the regular outings the ski club participates in are ski racing weekends. “There are five different weekends,” Shuford says. “We have teams and race against each other.”
But they are also racing against every skier in the country. “It’s sort of like a golf handicap,” she explains. “NASTAR [the National Standard Race ski race program] sets the numerical threshold everyone races against. You pay for a run and they time you. For your age and gender, you can score bronze, silver, or gold.” NASTAR then holds a final competition for all silver and gold winners.
“There’s lots of smack talk going on [but] it’s good camaraderie even if you’re not racing,” Shuford adds. “I don’t race anymore; I blew both knees out. I’m actually skiing at a better level now, but it got in my head.”
The Asheville Ski Club also makes several destination ski trips annually. They’ll be in Canada in February and Montana’s Big Sky in March. But if you’d like to join them, you have to register well in advance: These trips sold out last November.
Shuford loves networking with ski friends all over the country. “On those trips I tend to get together with friends in other clubs who I don’t get to see too often.”
The fateful meeting of Shuford and Lloyd happened through the Asheville Ski Club. The club was looking for someone to be a liaison with the Buncombe County Special Olympics. Shuford volunteered. She had plenty of experience coaching these athletes in college, so she was a natural to jump-start the program. One of the first programs she helped develop was a Dryland Clinic for Buncombe County Special Olympics.
This clinic is perfect for beginners to learn how to move their bodies in ski equipment. “You learn how to fall down and side step before adding sliding on snow,” Shuford says. “It’s also great for pre-season conditioning.”
But Shuford credits Lloyd for growing the program into what it is now, noting, “It really took off when Sam took over most of the organization.”
The Special Olympics Southeast Winter Games will take place at Appalachian Ski Mountain, February 7-9, and is open to spectators. “Anyone can come out and watch,” Lloyd says. “Sunday and Monday they practice, then Tuesday is the actual race.”
As much as he loves the region, Lloyd highly encourages his students to experience other destinations as well, not only to interact with larger and more diverse skiing populations, but also to meet skiers with similar lifestyles and interests.
Still, with so many great ski spots to choose from in Western North Carolina, Shuford admits that she has a hard time choosing her favorite. “It’s wherever I am at the moment—as long as I’m skiing and not working.”
“Everyone wants to ski the fluffy stuff,” Lloyd says. “But if you can ski in the Southeastern U.S., you can ski anywhere in the world.”
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