By Randy Johnson (reprinted from The High Country Magazine, December 2014) Photography by Ken Ketchie
Anytime a major ski resort opens a top notch new slope, there’s excitement among skiers and satisfaction at the ski area. But this winter’s debut of Sugar’s new run is a truly big deal. It’s an exciting new place to ski, but the aptly named slope signals a new phase in one of the most influential careers in Southern skiing.
Let’s first tackle the size and scope of the new slope
Look up from NC 184 and it’s obvious—with seven hundred feet of vertical, 150 feet of side-to-side freedom, and more than a half-mile of slope, this expansion, says Kim Jochl, Gunther Jochl’s wife, and Sugar’s marketing and media maven, “will elevate who we are at Sugar Mountain and what skiers perceive us to be.” What Kim expects to be “her new favorite slope,” has “so many terrain changes, it’s more of what I’d call a complete ski slope, the kind I could compare to incredible slopes I’ve skied or raced on in other parts of the world.” That’s no small praise from the 1989 junior world ski champion and an eight-year member of the U.S Women’s Alpine Ski Team. The new slope starts high, connects to other trails way down low, and covers a never-before-skied swath of the mountain that’s so big it’s more reminiscent of runs in New England and the Rockies.
Kim sounds serious when she says the run is “imposing and enticing, too.” Early releases called the run “intermediate,” but the final judgment on difficulty will come when management and the skiing public have had time to let an awesome new experience sink in.
There’s a second level of significance for Sugar’s new run. It won’t have a “generic” name. It’s a signature slope, a namesake tribute—Gunther’s Way—conceived by Gunther’s wife Kim to honor his decades of dedication and commitment to Sugar. But Gunther, who has been at Sugar “forever,” Kim says with a chuckle, doesn’t just have a new ski slope to be proud of. In fact, the slope and its name reflect something not widely known. Sugar’s longtime general manager (since ski season 1976-77), and “part owner” (since the ‘80s)—is now the sole owner of the state’s biggest, now even bigger, ski area. The tale of how that happened is quite a story, indeed.
From The Alps to Banner Elk
Jochl’s father was originally a farmer outside the Medieval Austrian ski town of Kitzbühel, site of one of the World Cup racing circuit’s most challenging downhill contests. As World War II ended, Jochl’s dad bought a ZollHaus (customs house) just across the border in Germany north of Kitzbühel. Gunther was born in the German town of Sachrang, to an Austrian family, and grew up skiing in the Bavarian and Tirolean Alps. “Snow was our fun time,” he says. Gunther’s father was part owner in a surface ski lift that served the community and his parents operated a B&B. Today, after the busy Sugar ski season, Gunther, Kim and 14-year old daughter Olivia visit his mother in Sachrang. As many do in German speaking countries, Olivia calls Gunther’s mom “Oma,” grandmother in German. Sugar’s one-time Big Red slope has just been renamed “Oma’s Meadow” in her honor.
By the time he was eighteen, Jochl had become a fully certified ski instructor and part owner of a local ski school in his hometown. But Gunther was studying engineering, and “my mother told me, listen, if you want to be an engineer, you have to learn to speak English. The only way you’re going to do that is to go to the United States.” Jochl easily hooked up with a ski job in the States. European influence was strong in the ski industry, even in the South, and Horst and Manfred Locher of Bryce Resort in Virginia hired him to teach skiing (the brothers still run the resort). Austrian Sepp Kober, who launched modern Southern skiing at Virginia’s Homestead in 1959, helped popularize skiing in the South by staffing his ski school with Europeans.
In the early 1970s, Jochl found himself at snowy Munich Airport with two other instructors, dressed “in those furry boots we used to wear.” One of the other instructors “thought he was cool—he had a ring of Weisswurst around his neck,” a white Bavarian sausage made of veal and pork. They had to go through U.S. customs in New York, and the agent “took one look at the Weisswurst and said, ‘you cant bring that in.’ If we couldn’t bring it in we were going eat it. We sat down, ate our Weisswurst, and went back. ‘Can we come in now?’ The agents said, ‘No problem, guys!’”
From their international flight, a Pan Am 747, where the “stewardesses all spoke German,” the instructors got on a Braniff plane with a Texas-based crew. “With all this Texas slang going on,” remembers Jochl, “I couldn’t understand a word. I was thinking, what is going to happen to us?” Their second flight arrived at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC—without their luggage. With their luggage lost, and still dressed in winter clothes, the trio suffered through nearly 80-degree temperatures until Horst Locher rescued them at the airport. The group drove over the mountains of Shenandoah National Park, “and when you get over the first range, the mountains are pretty nice,” Jochl says. “I said, ‘Horst, this isn’t bad,’ and he says, ‘No no. We’re not there yet.’” They finally reached Bryce and even in the moonlight, Jochl knew this wasn’t the Alps. “I said, ‘Horst, where are the mountains!?! There are no mountains here!’ Horst said, ‘You’ll be alright.’” Jochl was amazed. “‘Horst, are you kidding,’ I said. ‘When is there going to be snow here?’” That’s when Jochl, who would soon have a degree in engineering, heard his first explanation of snowmaking. Three days later, the new ski teachers awoke to what “sounded like a jet engine.” Their condo was right beside the air compressor house and snowmaking had started. Future engineer Jochl, already interested in ski lifts and cable cars, was fascinated by snowmaking.
Mountains or not, Gunther loved it. “People were friendly as hell,” he says. “We taught skiing, partied, made decent money, met a lot of nice people.” Jochl taught a couple of years at Bryce, then, “after I graduated from college, I said, ‘what am I going to do? I’m going back to the States.’” He returned to Germany then moved to the United States for good, becoming a U.S. citizen in the mid-‘80s. Jochl’s mom wasn’t happy about his move, but he says, “I just fell in love with the life over here. People were just cool. Everything was cool,” he says with a hearty laugh.
By the mid-‘70s at Bryce, Jochl had briefly met future business partner Dale Stancil, who was very involved in Southern skiing. Upon his return to the States, Jochl says, “I was looking for employment. So I went to see Joe Luter, who owned Bryce, and I said, “Joe here I am, you need me.’ He gave me the job to run Blue Knob.” Jochl managed Blue Knob, Pennsylvania one winter, then, under Dale Stancil’s wing, he ran Sugar Mountain then during the following summer he worked at Massanutten, a ski area in Virginia. Following that summer he returned to Sugar Mountain for good. In 1976, Stancil told him, “we have a chance to lease Sugar Mountain.” Jochl had met Eric Bindlechner, Sugar’s ski school director, a year before, so Jochl and Stancil flew down to check out the mountain and Chessie MacRae, “picked us up at the airport. I always thought she was some lady,” Jochl recalls. This was at the height of ski resort bankruptcies in the South, all of them aggravated by a few poor weather winters but largely sparked by an overemphasis on real estate sales. Jochl says, “Sugar was a shambles … but not like Blue Knob. Sugar was a shambles with class.”
With Jochl’s management and great weather, Sugar roared back in winter 1976-77. He’s been at Sugar ever since. “From the first time I came here, I liked Sugar Mountain,” he reminisces. “You have these places that just grow on you, make you feel good. Sugar was one of those places for me.” Dale Stancil and Ray Costin bought Sugar Mountain and Jochl took over as general manager. The two owners split the mountain into two business entities, Sugar Mountain Resort, Inc., the operational side of the ski area, and a trust that owned the ski area acreage. Stancil eventually bought out Costin to become owner of Sugar Mountain Resort, Inc, and over time, Jochl became part owner. The two became fast friends and still are today.
He looks back at those mid-70s tough times in the ski industry as a valuable learning experience. “The ski areas didn’t go broke back then because of the bad times. They went broke because of the good times. Because of all the money they wasted.” In that quote, Gunther Jochl captures a philosophy of fiscal conservatism that fits perfectly with Southern skiing. Down here, almost all the snow on the slopes comes out of a machine. Jochl learned that top notch technology and sound management can indeed overcome climate—if you keep your eye on the bottom line.
Making it Happen
Jochl set about seeing that Sugar would be one of Southern skiing’s survivors. One thing he started doing was opening Sugar earlier than ever. “It used to be unheard of to start skiing before the 15th of December,” he says. “And that was from north of Virginia all the way down here. When I came here, I said, ‘it’s gonna get cold. What else do we have to do? Let’s make snow.’” Sugar started opening in November, and, “everybody thought we were nuts. Dale Stancil went into the bar at Bryce and the bartender said, ‘have you guys lost your marbles?’ By the time they were wondering what we did, we had fantastic skiing on Big Birch and made some money—and gotten great publicity.” The same thing happened this year shortly after Halloween—and The Weather Channel spent the weekend broadcasting live from Sugar.
To open ever earlier and easier, Jochl steadily increased snowmaking over the years—with one goal in mind. “Our snowmaking is so big now, but my biggest goal is to make snow to the top in one setup. Everybody wants to go to the top.” Besides good marketing, operationally it’s so much easier. “It’s such a process, making snow here and there. It’s so much better to just hit it all. That’s one thing Appalachian does. They hit the button, every snow gun comes on, and they cover the whole mountain,” Jochl says. Adds Kim Jochl, “They pulverize it.”
Slope grooming is another area where Sugar has led the way. The resort map says slopes, “are meticulously groomed and inspected at least twice a day …,” and you can be sure that Jochl is often personally making those inspections and driving the grooming machine. When he’s not, his professional team of groomers amplify his own efforts. Early in the morning, and again before nighttime ski sessions, Sugar’s impressive fleet of state-of-the-art groomers is climbing all over the mountain.
When Jochl arrived in the mid-70s, “nobody groomed,” he says, “it was awful. I would be grooming and people thought I was nuts, but we doubled our skiing numbers. I like to ski and I like to ski nice conditions—and our customers don’t want anything different than I want.”
Giving skiers what they want on the steepest slopes at Sugar requires the area’s only winch-assisted grooming machines. Just once, drop off the edge of Whoopdedoo in a groomer cabled to a summit anchor, and you’ll understand why years ago, the steepest runs at Sugar and all over the South routinely turned into icy, almost unskiable, mogul fields. No more. Jochl tackled and tamed that issue at Sugar, setting a region-wide example of what good grooming could give to the skier—and the bottom line. It doesn’t take long grooming Boulder Dash in a winch cat with Jochl, radio communications crackling in an instrument-festooned cockpit, to realize this guy is also an airplane pilot (as is his wife).
The Future Arrives
2010 was a turning point. Gunther Jochl bought out Dale Stancil to become sole owner of Sugar Mountain Resort, Inc. But the ski area acreage itself was still owned by a trust. A year later, Jochl purchased that ski area property. After realizing his dream of owning the entire resort, now, Jochl says, is the time to take it to the next level. He knew better than to make major improvements on land he didn’t own, so Sugar’s $1 million new slope and related snowmaking improvements are part of a bigger master plan.
“You can call it a dream, or a plan. For me it’s both,” he says. “What was good enough 40 years ago just isn’t good enough today. The fact is people just expect more and more of us. Did we have to build that new slope? No. Is it going to take care of a lot more people. No. But having that improvement, having something for people to talk about, and anticipate, is tremendous, and not just for us, for other local slopes too. That gets a conversation going about things happening in the Southeast. And that conversation doesn’t just cover us.”
What else is on the horizon? “Eventually we want a high speed lift to the top. That’s absolutely in the program—we just don’t know when.” There’s a long wish list. “We want a new rental shop,” he continues. “Our rental shop is big now, but a new building would offer a better flow, create more business, and add a lot to the creature comfort for the customer, which is still our number one priority here. Now, that we own the land, we’re in a position to do that.” There’s more. The ski area’s road access and parking will come in for finalization as other plans come into focus. “We have to continue to make it better,” Gunther says.
That process has shifted gears this winter. Even though many skiers only think in terms of slopes and lifts, engineer Jochl is never happier than when showing off his air compressors and water pumps. “You look at the ski area, and that’s great, but remember,” he cautions, “this place was built in 1969. The piping, pumps, compressors, all that stuff from 1969, we replaced all that this summer, with bigger pipes, better pipes, more efficient machinery, including a major upgrade of pumping capacity.” It may not be sexy, but pumping water and compressed air up the hill puts snow on the slopes. So do the ten new airless SMI snowguns that, Jochl says, were used to open Gunther’s Way early in the season.
Passion for the Sport
Jochl owns the whole enchilada now, but he says, “ownership or not, I couldn’t have worked any harder than I worked anyway.” Kim Jochl knows that work ethic. “There aren’t that many exceptionally driven people, but Gunther is one of them,” she says. “Along the way, he’ll bring a lot of people with him, but it’s not always just ‘come along.’ You have to want to struggle along with him, to work together to reach the goals, enjoy the success. It’ll be hard, but we’ll get there and it’ll be awesome.”
No wonder Jochl is generous with his praise for employees. Jochl knows ski season requires that people, “pull together, and pitch in together and I have great people here. They do that.” Some Sugar employees have worked at the resort for decades. Director of Mountain Operations, “Warren Hodges has been here forever, since 1969, since we opened,” Jochl recalls. “He wants to retire but we won’t let him. What would he do? He’d shoot every deer out there…” Those employees include Kim’s brother, Erich Schmidinger, himself a former ski racer. “He’s a good guy, a hard worker, who carries a lot of load for me,” Jochl offers. You have to have skiing “in your blood, and he does.”
For Jochl, ownership opens new opportunities for him, Kim, and Sugar. “It’s very humbling,” Gunther confesses. “We’re not big hoopla type of people. To me personally, this country is built on dreams, and of course, I had the dream that one of these days, I’m going to own Sugar Mountain. I just had to figure out how I was going to do it.” It hasn’t been easy. For Jochl, being a “foreigner was tough at times especially the business part. When you’re in a business negotiation, I often caught myself thinking, ‘if I could just express myself better.’ I had a hard time communicating, but that was my fault. I made the decision to go to a foreign country and they were kind enough to have me. Lucky for me, I learned fast.”
With Sugar’s bigger future coming into focus, Jochl looks around at a remarkable life. Among the ventures he’s undertaken while at Sugar include being the US distributor for Völkl Skis. Amazingly, as a junior racer in Bavaria, Jochl actually met Franz Völkl, Jr., the company owner who just died last summer, and was responsible for Völkl’s remarkable success on the racing circuit and innovations like carbon fiber and shaped skis. “I was one of those lucky kids who was sponsored by Mr. Völkl,” says Jochl. Mr. Völkl had a way of showing up at local races, and one day, “I was in a race and my binding pre-releases and I fall. I was a little whippersnapper, and I started throwing a tantrum.” When Jochl got to the bottom, Mr. Völkl gestured him over for a conference. “It was very short,” Jochl says. “He told me, ‘If you ever do that again you will never see another pair of my skis, you won’t even be able to buy them.’ My life stopped right there. This guy was my idol. It was like the biggest, ‘Yes, sir!’ you’ve ever seen. And I’ve been on his skis ever since.”
Years later, across an ocean, in Las Vegas, Franz Völkl personally offered to sell his US distributorship to the tantrum-throwing kid racer from Sachrang. Gunther said yes. It was through Völkl’s U.S. sponsorship of U.S. Ski Team athletes that Gunther met Kim, then Kim Schmidinger. Kim and her ski racing twin sister Krista Schmidinger came to Sugar as Völkl sponsored U.S. Ski Team athletes. They liked the place, bought a house, and Kim eventually graduated from ASU. In 1997, says Gunther, “you were single, I was single, we got married.” Franz Völkl and his wife were the only Europeans at the wedding. “And now we have Olivia,” Jochl sums up. “She and our dog named Snoopy are keeping us busy.”
Gunther Jochl has spent an entire, remarkable career building skiing in the South. Despite the cold and snow we get, it is a challenging climate for people who want to ski, but especially for the dreamers, the people like Gunther Jochl, who want to provide it. You don’t just walk outside and watch multi-feet of Champagne powder float down in Banner Elk (though we can hope). You have to operate topnotch high-tech equipment to make snow, and to groom it, and that costs a lot of money—and takes a lot of guts. In the case of Gunther Jochl—that dedication and passion led him across an ocean on a journey measured in far more than miles. A journey into a new language, new cultures, a new country, and the ancient Southern Appalachians, a unique challenge for a mountain man from the far younger peaks of the Alps.
Sugar’s slope “Tom Terrific” recalls Southern ski pioneer Dr. Thomas “Doc” Brigham, a founder of Beech, Snowshoe, and Sugar. “Gunther’s Way” is a new reminder that skiing in Dixie still has pioneers. For one of them, a uniquely “American Dream” is coming true.
Sugar Gets Sweeter
Sugar Mountain touted 115 acres of slopes on its Website—but this ski season, it’ll have 125 acres with a new slope that takes a left off of the top of Switchback just as it turns below North Ridge. The 150-foot wide slope alternates between a swooping descent of a gradual upper terrace and then a steep, challenging plummet. The slope bottoms out as it joins the base of the Terrain Park slope above Easy Street, where advanced skiers can grab a surface lift back up the mountain. A new view includes Grandfather Mountain.
The 2,900 foot slope, more than half a mile, boasts 700-feet of vertical drop. Jochl says, “If you put in a brand new slope and don’t expand snowmaking, you haven’t made much of an improvement,” so he added a massive new water pump that can push 1,000 gallons of water every minute up to ten new airless automatic SMI tower-mounted snowguns. All that will cost more than $1 million dollars, and includes hundreds of feet of new snowmaking pipe and changes in the resort’s pump house.
New Names Too
Besides changing Big Red to “Oma’s Meadow,” to honor Gunther’s mother (called “Oma,” or “grandmother” in German), Kim Jochl got inspired with her own idea for the new slope’s name. “I went up there and hiked the new slope alone … and I realized that this was going to be the best slope on the mountain, and it just dawned on me, this is ‘Gunther’s Way,’ this is Gunther’s slope, and nothing else but that name would be fitting.”
Previously, Gunther had indicated he didn’t want to name a slope after a person, so Kim set out to “figure out how I was going to tell Gunther that this was going to be his slope.” Kim decided to hijack the process, hoping “he won’t know until it’s too late for him not to like it,” she said with a laugh. But, she was, “reluctant to do something that important without Gunther’s approval.” Ultimately, she blurted out her idea. She knew, “for him it would just be uncomfortable to have a slope named after him.” Eventually, Gunther “probably talked to some people,” she says, and “a few days later he said, ‘Ok, let’s do it.’ And that’s how it played out.”
Kim thinks it’s “important to let this be a legacy for Gunther. It’s important when people have an impact, at a ski area or in a community, whether it’s my husband or someone else, to honor that. And a new slope like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I wanted to take advantage of.”
Gunther looks at it philosophically. With a slight shake of his head and a smile, he says, “You only debate with Kim for so long and then she wins.”
Randy Johnson is the author of Southern Snow: The Winter Guide to Dixie, a 1987 “cult classic” that will be republished in the near future. His new book Grandfather Mountain—Appalachian Icon: A History and Guide will be out from the University of North Carolina Press in 2015. Visit him at: www.RandyJohnsonBooks.com.