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Want to hit the slopes in the Southeast? Here's what you should know before skiing, snowboarding
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Photo courtesy Tammy Brown, Cataloochee Ski Area.

When snowboarding or skiing, you’ll never forget the times you land the perfect jump or feel the bliss of carving through the smoothest, wavy powder after a fresh layer of snow has fallen. 

But you also never forget the times you’ve fallen — and fallen hard. 

I’ve had plenty of faceplants trying to avoid another skier on the mountain. A few bruised backs and sore ankles, too. And I’ve even broken a collarbone after getting blindsided by another boarder, which sent me end-over-end and sprawled out on the slope. 

Still, I know what I’m doing out there, believe it or not. If you ride or ski long and hard enough, the pain becomes part of the joy, in some ways, because it’s inevitable. 

All sports have their risks, after all, and the mountains are meant for those taking the long way home.  

Since its birth in the 1960s, and its emergence into the American mainstream in the ‘90s, snowboarding has been seen as one of the quintessential extreme sports along with rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, skydiving and BASE jumping.

Now an Olympic sport, snowboarding’s most accomplished riders also showcase their high-speed, high-flying trickery during the annual Winter X Games, which can give any viewer the rightful notion that snowboarding is indeed radical, even dangerous.

And the sport’s progression has rubbed off on skiing, where mogul-maneuvering, big-air chance takers have developed their own level of Olympic competition.

It’s true that snowboarders and skiers live on the fine edge that characterizes many so-called extreme sports.  

But I mean this as much literally as figuratively.

As a 20-year snowboarder, I’ve learned that maintaining your balance, speed and control when riding is all about carving on the edges of the board, slicing lines through the snow. Slip-ups, spills and crashes, sometimes leaving bruised egos and bruised bodies behind, happen when you lose that edge, or when you “catch” an edge unexpectedly.

Of course, carving on your edges can be easier or harder depending on the snow conditions.

A “powder day,” as it’s called when a fresh dusting of snow hits the slopes, makes for smooth, soft tracking.

But that’s mostly a western delight, more commonplace out across the Rockies and Sierras.

We get the occasional blizzard and inconsistent winter storm here in the Southeast, and those are certainly days to watch for because, if you’re lucky enough to catch a powder day, the travel is worth it.

But, often, winter in these parts brings conditions that can be a little more treacherous, such as icy, hardened slopes when the temperatures dip below freezing, or slushy, unsteady runs when the occasional winter warm spell strikes.

Few sports are as weather dependent, and for the inexperienced, poor conditions can make for a long day.

Even rivers for whitewater kayaking, for instance, are often dam-controlled, with fixed release schedules and water levels.

So, it’s a roll of the dice when it comes to finding that perfect day on the slopes.

Sometimes it’s early in the season, when a fresh, unexpected storm hits and dumps the fluffy white stuff all over.

And sometimes the best conditions don’t emerge until spring — March even — when a recent storm coupled with snowmaking meet a bluebird sunny day and the mountain feels like heaven.

It’s true that even ski resorts in the West make snow to supplement the slopes, but it’s downright necessary in our region.

A groomed snowpack needs a solid base — and a nice, groomed snowpack is about the best us Southerners can dream of when it comes to riding or skiing near home.

Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, is my favorite “local” resort.

At just a little more than two hours away, its proximity to Gainesville makes for an easy long weekend or even a single day’s getaway. 

Cataloochee has 18 runs of various difficulty, with 44 percent considered beginner, 39 percent intermediate and 17 percent advanced to expert.

The typical green circles, blue squares and black diamonds that delineate a slope’s level of difficulty are not a standard unit of measurement, and so trails with these markers can indicate a different set of hazards at other ski resorts. 

There are also high concentration areas, typically where trails converge near the base of the mountain, that snowboarders and skiers need to be cautious about. It’s considered good manners, and it’s the rules, to slow down when hitting these high-traffic areas just as you would in the busy spots of Lake Lanier.

Isn’t that right, summer boaters?

The mountain’s top elevation is 5,400 feet, with a base elevation of 4,660 feet.

There is a rental shop at the resort for all your gear needs, as well as ski school for beginner lessons, a restaurant and patio area when you need a break.

Be sure to pack a bottle of water and a light snack in your jacket — and don’t overdress. 

Cold winter days have a way of fooling us into thinking we’re not dehydrated when outside playing in the snow, but the first time your jacket unzips you’ll see the gout of steam and heat that’s built up on the slopes.

You’ll see plenty of young, hard-charging hipster kids jamming to their favorite tunes with headphones in their ears, but leave yours behind. The beauty all around is enough to make music in the mind, plus it’s a lot safer being able to hear the commotion of other snowboarders and skiers around you.

If it’s your first time up on the slopes, remember it’s the job of those at higher elevations to watch for skiers and snowboarders below.

Cataloochee typically opens for the season in the first or second week of November depending on snow conditions. 

And if you’re looking for a mountain getaway but aren’t that interested in the slopes, the resort town might still be what you need. Take in a drive along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, a hike to Soco Falls or shop along the main strip in Maggie Valley.

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