BY ASHLEY BATES
Gainesville resident Bill Hardman had never put on a pair of snow skis until he moved to Jackson Hole, Wyo.
But after three years of learning "backcountry mountaineering" — a winter sport where you climb up and ski down a mountain — Hardman was hooked. Now back in Gainesville, Hardman takes every chance he can get to ski in the mountains. Only problem is, when you don’t live in a place nestled in the Rocky Mountains, how do you get your winter sports fix?
Today, Hardman said, he makes shorter trips to either the Cataloochee ski area in Maggie Valley, N.C. or Beech or Sugar Mountain near Boone, N.C.
It’s a pretty good substitute for the icy powder covering the Grand Tetons, he says.
As the Winter Olympics begin in British Columbia, Canada — and as much of the East Coast gets blanketed by snow — many North Georgians have winter sports on the brain. But if you live in Georgia and love to ski, snowboard or ice skate, are you generally out of luck?
"It has been so cold they have had a great year up there," said Hardman, of the North Carolina skiing venues.
And while Jackson Hole averages about 400 inches of snow a year, he said the North Carolina slopes offer a decent alternative.
"They have been making snow as fast as they can make it at Cataloochee, and they have had great snow up there," he said. "They have about a 100-inch base and great snow, and that’s about two hours from here.
"And then you have the other two main options: Beech and Sugar (Mountains)."
Hardman added that it won’t break the bank if you want to experience skiing in North Carolina.
"It’s extremely affordable; at Cataloochee you can go there in the week and I think the tickets are like $30," he said.
Stephen Gram, a sales associate at Play it Again Sports on Dawsonville Highway in Gainesville, said it is hard for locals to participate in winter sports. But it is possible, with a little work.
"So far this season I’ve seen a couple snowboards come through here," he said. "We do a lot more with snow bibs and ski jackets; we sell those new down here, but that’s really as far as we go. We used to do a lot more with snow skis, (but) they have an expiration date on them and can become a liability. We sell ski bibs to people that are going up to the mountains and ... we actually sell sleds, but we are sold out now."
If skiing isn’t quite what you are hoping for as far as winter sports go, there is Scaly Mountain Outdoor Center in Scaly Mountain, N.C. The center, which is one of the closest snow activity venues to Gainesville, has snow tubing and ice skating for those who want to take it easy on the mountains. Snow Mountain at Stone Mountain Park also offers tubing through March 7.
"As far as tubing, the hill is 350 feet tall with a 200-foot drop," said Suzanne Canada, an employee at Scaly Mountain Outdoor Center. Tube riders can ride up the hill with a rope tow. There is also a 50-by-100 foot ice skating rink.
"We have lots of people come up from Atlanta, Gainesville, Florida," she said. "We have one of the biggest tubing hills around in this area, and it’s not just a straight drop; it does have a couple of little dips in it."
The cold weather and abundant snow this year have helped add to the fun at Scaly Mountain, she said.
"We’ve had more snow this year than we’ve seen in a long time," Canada said. "We did get about 6 inches last week that is still on the ground."
If your winter sports preference is on the ice, Ice Forum in Duluth specializes in club hockey teams, including the Junior Thrashers. The teams for youngsters run year round for all experience levels.
"The fall season is winding up; we are done in March. Then we go into our spring season, which is April 25 to June 19," said Robin Grant, Ice Forum’s hockey administrator.
Registration opened Friday and is available online. Preparation for the fall league begins in May.
"In the summertime we have camps and that sort of thing, and for the little ones we have Learn to Skate, Cross Ice and hockey initiation. And those run every eight weeks and in the summer they are six weeks," Grant said. "There is usually something that they can get involved in."
Still, the chance to play winter sports can be a challenge.
Grant agreed that if you are an avid winter sports participant, it can be tricky in Georgia.
"I would say most of the people that are here (playing hockey) are transplants from up North," said the Michigan native. "It’s challenging; it’s not like we have snowmobiling or the ice fishing like we do up North."
Hardman noted that no matter where he can get his skiing done, it’s more than a fun activity. Spending time on the ski slopes can even cleanse your soul.
"I guess what I love about skiing is just being in the mountains," he said. "The mountains can kind of breathe."
Pioneering skier and mountaineer Doug Coombs once said "‘The mountains are alive and they make you feel more alive,’" Hardman said. "And that is a pretty good description."