Cataloochee by night

Ski area offers snow fun after the sun goes down
By Stina Sieg | Jan 07, 2013
Photo by: Luke Sutton Sure you've been to Cataloochee Ski Area, but have you been there at night? Open until 10 p.m. most evenings, night skiing (or boarding) is a whole new animal. A fun one.

It was Friday night, and I was feeling pretty lucky. Normally at 7 p.m. I would be watching a movie or eating dinner with a friend or cleaning my room at a glacial pace. Those are all worthy pursuits, but they simply aren’t night skiing. Night skiing — just the phrase had had me jazzed for days, and now here I was sitting on a swaying chairlift by myself as cold air swirled all around and the lights of Maggie Valley glowed behind me. I felt a serene calm mixed with a surge of excitement and a tingle of danger. I hadn’t been on skis in four years, and the more the lift cranked forward, the more I realized where we were going. This was headed straight to the top of Cataloochee Ski Area, with no bunny hill in sight.

A few minutes later, I managed to slide off the lift without a problem, which was heartening, and negotiated my way over to the sign marked “Easiest Way Down.” It was a winding, blue trail hidden under a cascade of snow blowers and a thin sheet of ice. Holding my breath and audibly telling myself I could do this, I headed down, doing my best to point my skis in a “v” shape like little children do and turn back and forth (like the adults do) to keep up appearances. The whole gamut of skiing culture was all around me, from the tiny but insanely advanced kiddos zooming past in their little helmets, to the cautious beginner adults, pausing frequently and slowly turning down the mountain with methodical intention. I was somewhere in the middle — well, the lower third, probably — and I was struck by how intense it all was. Every move, every turn, every bend of the knees took complete concentration. If, as Tom Hanks famously said, there’s no crying in baseball, then there’s definitely no day dreaming in night skiing.

My skis seemed to have a mind of their own, skidding, wedging and accelerating as they pleased until, finally, I was down the mountain. I was relieved, tired and, more than anything, hungry to keep going. After a few trips down the baby hill, I spent a few hours tackling almost all of the area’s runs, with varying degrees of success. On some, especially the wide troughs with gentle slopes, I felt like a rock star. A few others were less successful. Let’s just say that I think my poles are still somewhere toward the top of Upper Omigosh. And before that evening, I had never slid 30 feet against my will.

Night skiing, it seemed, was all about the sour and the sweet — the bonus of low crowds mixed with the fear of low visibility, the benefit of firm snow mixed with the terror (at least for me) of icy slopes, the lovely quietness of the mountain mixed with a downright Arctic cold. All these thoughts were breezing through my head, but being so new to Cataloochee, I felt a little funny describing a ski area so well-known and well-loved all on my own.

So, like any good journalist, I asked some strangers to do it for me.

The next evening, as darkness began to settle on the mountain, I started walking up to unknown folks, asking them to name the draw I was feeling to night skiing, though hopefully in less words.

What do you like about it, I asked 28-year-old Brett Miller as he waited in line for his pass.

“Convenience for us,” said the Greenville resident, simply. “We couldn’t get here during the day.”

The boarder was smiley and nice, adding that Cataloochee is the most family-friendly mountain around, but I was looking for something else. A reporter secret is that sometimes, regardless of how much we admit it, we’re searching for a certain answer. I wanted someone to describe to me that “je ne sais quoi” of night skiing. It was a laughably tall order, but even so, I moved on.

“It’s dark, and it’s fun, I guess,” answered 8-year-old Kyle Lunsford a few minutes later, before his mom, Denise, nudged him and answered as if she were he.

“And my parents say it’s usually cheaper,” she added, smiling.
On the other hand, 25-year-old snowboarder Logan Davis called the incoming darkness “creepy” and “a little scary,” but also admitted he was just starting out in the sport. First-time skier Caroline Morgan, 12, also said the mountain was “scary at first,” but stressed skiing was “a lot funner” than tubing. Neil Booth, a 64-year-old ski patrol supervisor, explained that he’s always skied nights during his 40 years patrolling — and he’s liked it that way.

It’s fun, he said, “and I like firm snow,” not that sometimes-mushy mixture that coats the slopes during the day.

All of this input was great, completely real and so graciously offered, but I still wanted more. Describe the indescribable, I wanted to unfairly ask people, but refrained.
I then happened upon two boarders, sitting in the snow at the end of their run. Both from Tennessee, the young men looked elated, happy to be at the beginning of their night. When I asked them why they liked boarding through the darkness, 16-year-old Ryan Mayes responded with an elusive “You can just do your thing,” while Donavan Davis, 26, was more matter of fact, explaining that there was less glare from the snow than during the day.

When asked to get more specific, Mayes described what I had been feeling the night before, almost to a T. It’s more peaceful, he explained, and you don’t have to worry about the sun.

“It’s something about ….” he said, trailing off. “It makes it so much better. I just love it.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, I thought.

Cataloochee Ski Area is currently open until 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, as well as some holiday Sundays, through March 10. For more information, including rates, trail maps and weather, visit www.cataloochee.com. The area may also be reached at 926-0285. The Guide would like to heartily thank Cataloochee management for their help with putting this story together.

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