Cataloochee's 51st season in full swing

Ski area a Maggie mainstay since 1961
By Stina Sieg | Dec 15, 2011
Photo by: Luke Sutton Cataloochee's slopes are primed and ready for this season's skiers and boarders.

hen Tom Alexander founded Cataloochee Ski Area in 1961, he wasn’t out to create a flashy, exclusive resort. Instead, he was looking to give his ranch hands some much-needed winter work and his Maggie Valley neighbors a little something to do in those chilly months. He ended up creating the state’s first ski area — one that soon became known as the spot for families to get an easy-going, friendly introduction to the sport. Now in its 51st season, Cataloochee has kept close to its down-home roots.

In the words of Tommy Woody, who’s spent most of his life working on the slope: “We’re down to earth, so to speak.”

It’s been this way as long as he can remember, and that’s quite a bit. Woody, who has always lived about a mile from the slope, began skiing its runs when he was 3. He has been a fixture at the rental shop for 31 seasons, since he was 14. And he’s proud of it.

“I’m Cataloochee through and through,” he said. “I’ll probably be here until I die.”

He’s had this kind of dedication for decades, even when the place was far less high tech than it is now. Back when he began, snowboards had yet to be invented and skis were much wider, bulkier things. In the years since, the science of skiing has improved dramatically, as has Cataloochee. With a few chuckles, he recalled how the ski area used to have just one lift, and how he used to cover the runs’ bare spots with hay. Nowadays, skiers and boarders have three lifts to take them up the mountain and much more snow than the sky could ever provide. Famous for consistently being one of the first ski spots to open every season in the Southeast, Cataloochee is also known for its 100-plus snow machines.

“I think we probably have one of the largest snow making operations in the East, for sure,” Woody said.

Chris Bates, the ski area’s general manager, also has a lot of pride in Cataloochee’s ability to improve upon Mother Nature’s annual snow crop. While it may sound counterintuitive, he explained that their man-made snow is often more skier-friendly than the nature-made variety because it’s “more consistent.” His staff can choose how moist or powdery their snow should be and then blanket the place in layers many feet deep.

This ability to literally create winter can make the ski area a frozen oasis, even when it’s surrounded by cities still sweating through Indian summer.

“I hear stories all the time,” Bates said, “like: ‘I left Atlanta and it was 70 degrees this morning, and we’re here skiing this afternoon.’”

He sees this relatively close proximity to pretty much anywhere in the Southeast as one of Cataloochee’s biggest drawing cards. For people in nearby states, coming to Maggie Valley means foregoing a much longer trip to the pricier, bigger slopes of the Northeast, many of which still can’t beat Cataloochee’s early opening date. He pointed out that last Tuesday his ski area was the only one open south of Vermont on the entire East Coast.

“We get folks from all over,” Bates said, “and most are just thrilled to see snow and go skiing and sledding down the mountain for the first time.”

Cataloochee isn’t cloyingly posh, and Bates and his staff don’t pretend it is. It seems that what it lacks in extravagance, the small-town mountain makes up for in down-home warmth. In the words of Alex Aumen, the founder’s grandson, the slope is known for its “family atmosphere, just great, great, nice people, good customer service.”

Aumen estimates that he has spent about half his life, 20 or so years, working at the ski area. While the business has changed hands since Alexander first opened it up, Aumen believes its tone has remained the same. Just as it was when he was growing up on these runs, he believes Cataloochee is conducive to learning, regardless of someone’s age. He described it as an intimate, low-key spot that also happens to give Maggie a unique winter identity.

“We have a huge reputation for excellent quality,” he said.

That’s what has kept him, Woody and others at the ski area for decades. Woody, who has cleaned, waxed and adjusted every one of the business’ thousands of skis and boards, described a trip to Cataloochee as being like a visit to a relative’s house. That’s how welcomed he and his coworkers hope their visitors feel.

“We want them to leave here feeling like they’re part of our family,” he said. “That’s what we like.”

If Cataloochee’s long history is any proof, that’s what its customers like, too.

Cataloochee Ski Area is currently open for the 2011-12 winter season. For more information about its schedule, current conditions, pricing, trail map and more, visit www.cataloochee.com or call 926-0285.

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