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Ski Resorts Wait for Winter To Arrive, Encouraging Forecast Brewing for Industry

Depicted today, Sugar Mountain Resort is the only resort open in the High Country. Photo by Ken Ketchie

By Jesse Wood

When will winter arrive for good?

That’s something the ski resorts in the High Country are asking themselves, and RaysWeather.com’s forecast through the weekend isn’t promising with highs in the 60’s through Wednesday.

Sugar Mountain Resort near Banner Elk is the only ski resort in the area to be currently open. It opened for a day in November after unveiling the new Summit Express before Gov. Pat McCrory. It then re-opened about a couple weeks later – perhaps for good if a cold snap arrives soon.

Currently, Sugar Mountain Resort has a base of 6 to 20 inches of snow coverage, which is a testament to the resort’s snowmaking ability as only 0.1 inch of snow has fallen so far this season and the temps have been unseasonably mild.

In addition to four slopes open to skiing and snowboarding, ice skating is open for morning and afternoon sessions. The ski school is operating and also the ski shop is open for Christmas shopping.

“We’re hanging in there,” Sugar Mountain Resort co-owner Kim Jochl said on Friday. “We’re going session by session at this time. Obviously it’s getting a little bit warm and the base is getting a little thin.”

“It looks like the middle to late of next week will be colder and we’ll start making snow again,” Jochl added. “Hopefully winter will arrive.”

Across the High Country in Blowing Rock, Appalachian Ski Mtn., which usually strives to be open for good by the big Thanksgiving weekend, opened briefly as well. Ice skating, however, is open for three sessions in the afternoon and at 7 p.m.

“It’s uncommon but not unheard of,” said Appalachian Ski Mtn. General Manager Brad Moretz of the weather and late opening of the resort for the 2015-16 winter season. “But that’s one of the unique things about skiing. You have to have the gift of weather to be able to do it.”

Moretz also pointed to the next week’s forecast and how just a two day cold snap would bring the slopes back to life.

“We might have the coldest weather so far this season coming up at the end of next week. That sounds promising,” Moretz said. “We’ve had 2/3 of the slopes open before on 32 hours of snowmaking and over half of that was some marginal snowmaking weather. I think we can get it done in a hurry and get to peak season form in spring fashion.”

As far as the ski resorts and ancillary business, the mild weather is having an impact. When the slopes aren’t open, winter enthusiasts aren’t coming up to the High Country to ski or snowboard and subsequently shop, dine and book a hotel room.

Just last month, the N.C. Ski Areas Association held a press conference to announce the state ski industry’s $200 million economic impact on the state’s economy.

The report found that 87 percent of visitors surveyed said their sole purpose for travelling up the mountain was to go skiing or snowboarding. Analyzed occupancy tax figures also found that winter lodging revenue tips the scale more so than in any other season, especially in Sugar Mountain and Beech Mountain, where more than 70 percent of annual lodging revenue is grossed in the months November through March.

For comparison those figures are 40 percent in Watauga County; 33 percent in Boone; and 29 percent in Blowing Rock. The study also noted that the six resorts in North Carolina employ 87 people year round and 1,787 on a seasonal basis.

“We’re getting down to the point where we are fully ready and we don’t have many things left on the punch list,” App Ski Mtn.’s Brad Moretz said when asked about how this warm weather is affecting employment.

Beech Mountain Resort, of course, is in the same overall predicament. It has made snow some in the past month and opened the slopes briefly.

On Saturday, Dec. 12, it will celebrate the grand opening of the remodeled Beech Tree Bar and Grille and Red Baron Room, a private club that will open its doors to the public for one day only during the celebration – with no snow on the ground in December.

The grand opening starts at 5 p.m. with $4 pints and other drink specials while the Harris Brothers play for a few hours.

The Beech Tree Bar was built during the ‘60s, when Beech Mountain was first developed, and the legendary Red Baron Room, located on the lower level, opened a few years later. This renovation is among several upgrades and improvements that Beech underwent this past summer. Read about them here.

Talia Freeman, spokesperson for Beech Mountain Resort, sent out an email blast to partners assuring the community recently that once the temperature drops, Beech will make snow as fast as possible.

“Thanks to upgrades over the summer, our snowmaking capabilities are at an all-time high and we’re poised to create quality conditions as soon as Mother Nature cooperates,” Freeman wrote. “In the meantime, join us for the grand opening of the Beech Tree Bar and Grille.”

Beech Mountain Brewing Co. will be open Friday-Sunday, serving from noon to 7 p.m., and Ski Beech Sports is open from 1 to 7 p.m., offering 10 percent of entire orders.

But good news is on the way!

In a Ski Southeast post, Brad Panovich, a meteorologist for WCNC in Charlotte, said that resorts will see snowmaking weather towards the middle of next week and colder trends beyond.

He also mentioned that temps in the teens are on the way in the following week, and natural snow should fall, too. He said this cold weather pattern should reinforce itself leading up to Christmas and a colder and snowier January.

“It’s been horrible start to season; let’s make no bones about it,” Panovich said, before delving into the encouraging forecast.