By Randy Johnson
Closing out the 2018-’19 ski season at Sugar Mountain Resort on Sunday, resort owner Gunther Jochl got cheers from the crowd in the lodge when he announced that the ski area would install a second new high-speed detachable chairlift this summer.
The announcement came at the resort’s traditional “Burning of the Snow” ritual where local skiers and the resort’s employees and their families celebrate the end of another ski season with a bonfire on the slope.
Sunday was special in a few ways. Not only did Jochl tell guests that the old “brown lift,” a fixed-grip double chair on the Easy Street slope complex, would become a detachable quad this summer, but the resort closed out the longest ski season of consecutively skied days in its history—141 days, almost five months, from November 11, 2018 to March 31, 2019.
At 50 years old, the brown lift was one of the resort’s original chairlifts. The six-and-a-half minute ride to the top could carry 1,050 passengers per hour, “if the lift didn’t have to stop for beginners, which it did a lot,” Jochl said.
The new high-speed Doppelmayr quad will carry 2,400 people an hour and take a mere two-and-a-half minutes. And since the seats “detach” at the bottom and top, beginners have a slow, low-stress way to get on and off the chairs.
The new 1,800 foot, quad chairlift, which Jochl said his wife Kim “calls the Silver Bullet,” will boost the resort’s uphill lift capacity to 11,868 passengers per hour from 10,518.
“The majority of our guests are beginners,” Jochl said, “who go on to develop skiing and snowboarding as a life-long, family activity,” and for them, “replacing the original Easy Street lift is not just an upgrade, it’s an example of the continued commitment to offering our guests an exceptional mountain experience.”
“So, great news, we’re taking care of that old brown, it gets outta there, the old rattle-rattle,” Jochl said. He also noted to applause that the change will make the mountain’s maintenance staff happy. “We’re going to put in a new high speed, detachable chairlift specifically for the beginners,” he continued. “It’s going to be comfortable to get on and zoom to the top of Easy Street.”
Jochl followed up with more news, this time about the slope served by the new lift. The steepest, narrowest spot on Easy Street is called Fanny Hill because that’s where some skiers land when they fall down. “We’re going to take Fanny Hill and make it history,” said Jochl. “We’ll widen Fanny Hill to twice the width it is now. So big news for us!”
Both changes, part of a recent series of improvements at North Carolina’s biggest ski area, should greatly improve the quality and amount of skiing that lower-end skiers find at Sugar. In 2015, all levels of skiers benefitted from the new six-person, high-speed Summit Express. In 2016, upper-end skiers were thrilled with the opening of Gunther’s Way and the newly reconfigured GW lift that greatly improved access to the upper part of the mountain.
Sunday’s good news came on a final day of great skiing as the season ended with it snowing all day at the resort. As the sun finally came out and employees and skiers were listening to live music and enjoying free food and drinks, a snow cat appeared and pushed up a ring of snow above the lodge. Then a pickup pulled up under the lift, and a bonfire’s worth of flammables were tossed in, including another ritual, the Jochl family Christmas tree.
With so much great news for Sugar’s customers, it wasn’t a surprise to look out the windows of the lodge and see a season-ending last example of the customer focus at the resort. After pushing up the snow for the fire to come, the snow cat turned around, backed up to the lift, and made a some long grooming runs over the spring snow. Not a minute later, a group of skiers and boarders appeared at the top of the freshly groomed side of the slope. They stopped and discussed it, then all of them raced the corduroy down to the lodge, falling in a heap at the bottom, laughing and high-fiving the end of a great day.
When the slopes closed at four, it was poignant to watch a ski patroller, who almost appeared a little somber, as he kicked out the lift maze poles and rolled up the ropes for the last time. Then someone tossed a match, and the snow, it did burn.