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Facing an unpredictable weather future, NC ski resorts are staying optimistic — and making snow

Skiers survey the winter landscape at Sugar Mountain Resort near Banner Elk, North Carolina.
North Carolina Ski Areas Association
Skiers survey the winter landscape at Sugar Mountain Resort near Banner Elk, North Carolina.

It’s the time of year when families pack the kids into the backseat along with the boots and blankets and drive up to the North Carolina mountains for a weekend trip to a ski resort.

North Carolina's six ski resorts recorded 781,000 visits last winter, generating some $244 million in economic impact, according to the North Carolina Ski Areas Association.

But winter weather, as we know, is becoming more unpredictable.

Kimberley Jochl, president of the North Carolina Ski Areas Association and vice president of the Sugar Mountain Resort near Banner Elk, spoke with WFAE's Nick de la Canal about how the state's ski industry is thinking about the future amid that uncertainty.

NC ski resorts gear up for another big season
North Carolina six ski resorts recorded some 781,000 skier visits last winter, which generated some $244 million dollars in economic impact, according to the North Carolina Ski Areas Association. But winter weather, as we know, is becoming more unpredictable. Hear a conversation with a ski resort expert here.
Skiers survey the winter landscape at Sugar Mountain Resort near Banner Elk, North Carolina.

Nick de la Canal: How are conditions up on the slopes today? Is it snowy up there?

Kimberley Jochl: Oh it's fantastic. I actually just got in from taking four or five runs early this morning. We've got a 41- to 87-inch base. About 95% of our mountain is open with 17 trails and five lifts, and we've got a big weekend coming up this weekend, MLK weekend, and looks like that's going to be a great weather weekend as well.

De la Canal: I was going to say, it looks like you might even be in for a little snow tonight, or maybe like a wintry mix.

Jochl: Yep. We'll see what we get, but we're definitely excited for some winter weather coming in this evening and then scooting away quickly so that people can travel, get on the roads and come on up and ski with us.

De la Canal: So Sugar Mountain is pretty high up there in elevation. The peak — correct me if I'm wrong — is 5,300 feet above sea level. By comparison, Charlotte is 670 feet above sea level, so I think you're about five-and-a-half Bank of America towers above us. So you guys should get snow pretty regularly in the winter.

Jochl: We do. On average, we get about 70 inches of snow. To date, we've got about 14 inches, and we're looking for a wintry, snowy season ahead.

De la Canal: But have there been any trends in snowfall that you've noticed — I don't know — over the last few years or the last decade?

Jochl: I really haven't noticed any trends up or down. What we've noticed is just ups and downs. Some years we've got 126 inches of snow. Some years we have 36 inches of snow. So over the past 30-plus years I've been here at Sugar, I've just seen it do what weather does: go up, go down, go up, go down, and there's nothing really predictable about it.

De la Canal: Is there anything unique about this year, I wonder? I noticed Sugar Mountain opened this year on Nov. 28, which I think was the latest opening date since 2001.

Jochl: It is technically a later opening date for North Carolina, but to put it in perspective, North Carolina ski resorts, particularly Sugar Mountain, Cataloochee also, tend to open very early in the winter seasons compared to ski areas around the country. A lot of the ski areas don't open until mid-December, early December. So for Sugar to open on the 28th is still an early opening.

De la Canal: You know, I said in the introduction that winter weather is becoming more unpredictable. And I know, like here in Charlotte, it's been a while since we've had any snowfall down here. Is that your experience up in the mountains? Are you seeing more unpredictability in the weather?

Jochl: All I know is weather is unpredictable. I don't see that it's more unpredictable or less unpredictable. For us, it's simply — it's what weather does, and what we are dealt, we deal with the best we possibly can, and our motto is always let's work with Mother Nature. What she gives us is what we're going to take and what we're going to do the best we absolutely can with.

De la Canal: And I guess also what definitely helps with that as well is having artificial snow makers. Is that sort of like a must these days for ski resorts in North Carolina? And I guess how are you thinking about the future of the industry here?

Jochl: Yes, snowmaking in North Carolina, we wouldn't exist without it. We're very fortunate, like you mentioned, to be at 5,300 feet, our peak, and then our base is 4,100 feet. So overall, we are very high, and that gives us optimal temperatures and weather to make snow. And as far as the future is concerned, it's just the unpredictability again. We're very optimistic about the future, simply because we see very strong demand.

Ski areas across the country, not only in North Carolina, are investing heavily in their infrastructure. Sixteen million dollars of investment went into the ski areas — the six ski areas in North Carolina alone during the '22-'23 season, and we continue to see incredibly large sums of investment — capital investment in our infrastructure. So if there's anything that indicates optimism in the ski industry, it's high demand and investment in infrastructure. So we're very optimistic and very excited about the future of skiing and the ski industry as a whole.

De la Canal: Kimberley Jochl is the president of the North Carolina Ski Areas Association. Thank you very much, and I hope you get some more runs in this weekend.

Jochl: Yes, thank you, Nick.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal