by Kellen Short
With natural and manmade snow blending in midair, the mountain opened at 9 a.m. with eight of 12 slopes, including two terrain parks -- more slopes on opening day than ever before in its 52-year history, the resort announced.
A 10- to 20-inch base greeted skiers and snowboarders willing to brave heavy winds on Wednesday, which gusted as high as 44 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.
"It's a lot windier than I expected," said snowboarder Margaret Gilmore, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill. Gilmore said she drove to Appalachian Ski Mountain from Winston-Salem on Wednesday with her little brother because she heard it was snowing.
It was those two to four inches of natural snow expected to fall throughout the day that helped boost excitement for those who hit the slopes Wednesday -- and those still longing to.
"It's pretty much the best piece of marketing that any of the ski areas could have, said Mike Doble, owner of SkiSoutheast.com and "unofficial spokesman for the North Carolina ski areas." ... This couldn't play more right into our laps, that's for sure."
The positive conditions have created a relatively early kickoff for App Ski Mountain and others across the region.
For Appalachian, which originally hoped to open Nov. 22, Wednesday's opening day is still the earliest opening date in five years, according to stats available on its website. The timing allows the slopes to draw in Thanksgiving weekend customers and represents a stark contrast to last season, when the mountain didn't open in full force until Dec. 22.
Sugar Mountain Resort was the first of the 17 southeastern ski areas to open on Nov. 13, Doble said, followed by Cataloochee in Maggie Valley a day later.
The West Virginia ski areas are also benefitting from heavy snow, including Snowshoe, which has reported 11 inches of natural snow already, Doble said.
Winterplace Ski Resort in Ghent, W.Va., plans to open Monday.
"They were debating waiting a week, but conditions are just so doggone primo they're opening Friday instead," Doble said.
In the High Country, Beech Mountain Resort plans to open Friday.
Several of the region's slopes have announced new additions this year which are expected to add to the fun.
Beech Mountain Resort will debut "5,506," a glass roundhouse bar at the top of the mountain where skiers can enjoy food and beverages indoor or on the outdoor observation deck.
Sugar Mountain Resort announced in October the construction of a new intermediate ski slope that drops off Northridge and Switchback.
The 2,000-foot-long slope is expected to be ready at the start of the 2014-15 season.
Appalachian Ski Mountain also boosted its schedule of Midnight Blast sessions, which allow skiers and snowboarders to ride until midnight, rather than 10 p.m., on select weekends.
The first Midnight Blast is set for tonight and Saturday night.
Each resort also continues to update its snowmaking and grooming systems to improve efficiency.
"Over the last five or six years, everybody was upgrading to the highest-tech snowmaking equipment because, obviously, that was key," Doble said. " ... They're looking for that next little thing that can bring people to them."
Those upgrades are important not just for the resorts' bottom lines but for the state as a whole. The overall economic value of the ski resort industry was $146 million, according to a study on the 2009-10 season commissioned by the Ski Areas Association.
The average per-person expenditure on a ski trip within North Carolina was $131.70, and nearly half of the 672,000 ski visitors came from other states, the study found. Each ski resort is ready to open them with open arms.
"Even though we're all brothers, they're trying to get that one little percentage away from one to the other," Doble said.