When I found myself in nearby Hickory, North Carolina, last week, I decided to dash over to Sugar to make some sweet turns. Thursday promised sunny, 60 degree weather, but Sugar still had a very healthy 20-40 inch base. I stormed out of my hotel at 7:30, anxious to get some tracks in while the snow was still cold and fast. The drive from Hickory to Banner Elk took a little over an hour. I enjoyed gazing at some of the high North Carolina peaks as I made my way through the Pisgah National Forrest on Highway 181. The resort actually routed me back to Hickory through Boone, but the 181 route had less traffic and was actually faster, and certainly more beautiful.
Turning into Banner Elk, I got excited when I looked up to behold the 5,300 foot Sugar Mountain glistening in white! From the road, Sugar looks far more impressive than any mountain in the Mid-Atlantic. It also sports more skiable vertical than any Mid-Atlantic peak save Snowshoe. Furthermore, despite all the warm weather, Sugar’s excellent snowmaking team had managed to cover nearly the entire mountain with a decent base. The mountain’s unusually high altitude means that it often holds snow better than many mountains here in the Mid-Atlantic.
My excitement waned a bit when I got on the yellow chair - the main lift up to the summit from the base lodge. The mountain was first developed in 1969 and this lift looked almost as old. Needless to say, it was agonizingly slow! The summit of Sugar is currently served by two slow doubles, and there are no plans in the immediate future to install any new, high-speed lifts.
I began my southern ski adventure on Northridge, a blue trail that looped around the steep, upper headwall of the mountain. The snow was still frozen, granular for my first run, which enabled me to slice down the nearly empty mountain at healthy GS speeds.
Worried about the impending warm-up, I decided to head next for Whoopdedoo - the only double black diamond south of Shay’s Revenge. To prevent newbees from accidentally venturing onto this trail, the run was fully roped off. I actually had to ski through a gate with a big “Experts Only” sign over it to access the trail. I peered over the lip of the run and looked down. Before me stood a steep, 60 percent drop with almost no recovery zone at the bottom. To exit the trail, you make a quick left turn at the bottom onto Switchback or else you eat wood. Two rather pale looking boarders standing next to me, said, “You first dude!” Never one to ignore a challenge, I pushed off. I cut some pretty conservative first turns and then let it rip at the end. This proved to be a mistake because there is small lip at the end which launched me into the air. I had to cut a very hard turn at the end to avoid hitting the line of trees at the bottom.
Sugar Mountain flattens out considerably once you get beyond the headwall. In fact, the mountain management encourages less confident intermediates to get off at the mid-station, and leave the upper mountain for experts only. For those new to the sport, the broad, gentle boulevards of the lower three quarters of the mountain are a dream. After the challenge of the upper mountain, I also enjoyed cooling off on these gentle, lower runs.
By 11:30 a.m., the snow started getting mushy so I headed for the lodge to grab a bite. The Sugar Lodge appeared spacious and the food was your average lodge fare: burgers, fries, and rings. The place was empty the day I was there but according to Communications Director Kim Jochl, it is packed on weekends.
I made one more run before calling it a day. By noon, everyone was skiing in shirtsleeves and the snow was truly Spring-like. Since they had not been waxed recently, my skis really started sticking to the surface, slowing me down considerably. I will be sure to stop by Ski Chalet for a wax job before enjoying any more Spring Skiing.
John Sherwood is a columnist for DCSki. When he's not hiking, biking, or skiing, he works as an author of books on military history.