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The future of ski in NC: Resorts battle warmer temperatures as industry adjusts to new reality

Skiers and snowboarders at Beech Mountain ride the chairlift above piles of dirt in mid-December
Josh Sullivan
With winters getting warmer, cold temperatures have been inconsistent. That's forced ski areas to adapt in order to keep its patrons excited and business running.

Trevor Farrell and Emilie Walther work together at a restaurant in Blowing Rock. They were both off work and riding their snowboards at Beech Mountain Resort on a Tuesday last month. And at least Farrell had made one important discovery.

“E.W, you’re right,” he shouted at the top of Upper Shawnee’s Way to be heard above the hum of the snowmaking guns. “Taylor Swift is great riding music.”

Trevor Farrell is a student at Appalachian State University and an avid snowboarder.
Josh Sullivan
Trevor Farrell is a student at Appalachian State University and an avid snowboarder.

The skies were blue and the temperatures were cold enough — around 35 degrees. The start of ski and snowboard season in western North Carolina had been fickle, as bouts of rain followed extremely cold temperatures, making it difficult for many of the trails at the resort to open. Sugar Mountain opened operations up first, with Beech Mountain Resort opening for tubing around the same time. But it seemed that every time temperatures were low enough to make snow, rain shortly followed.

“Fifteen years ago, if we had a warm December, we may not have been able to sustain our conditions like we did,” Beech’s Director of Marketing Talia Freeman said. “But over the last five years we've completely overhauled our snowmaking system, we redid our pump house, we expanded our reservoir. Pretty much everything that you see on the hill is new within the last five years.”

Climate change has forced drastic changes in the snow sports community across the globe, but in North Carolina — where the temperatures fluctuate more and natural snow is often infrequent — it carries a much more immediate consequence to the industry than other skiing and snowboarding hubs such as Utah, Colorado or Vermont. Here, even if resorts have historically relied on making their own snow, temperatures still need to get cold enough to make that snow.

“I think for anyone in the ski industry, it's kind of like farming,” Freeman said. “You’re at mercy to the weather. It's not something that we're not accustomed to. It's been like this the whole time... So, you know, we've really just kind of capitalized on these short pockets of cold temperatures to get our base down, get our customers here, get them excited about skiing.”

A sign at the entrance of the ski resort reads Welcome to Beech Mountain..jpg
Josh Sullivan
Beech Mountain Resort in Watauga County is a southern gateway for skiers and snowboarders.

It is difficult to broach the subject of climate change without focusing on the negativity that surrounds it. The planet is warmer now. And the drastic changes needed to keep the world from even warmer temperatures are happening at a slower rate than most climate advocates would like. But Freeman says the conversation across the country is shifting to “alright, this is happening. How can we work around it?”

“Every few days, I get a reporter or someone that wants to talk about climate change,” Freeman said. “A lot of times I'm like ‘ugh’ — full transparency. Not because I don't think it's valid, or because I don't think that we're working to talk about it, or don’t have to make changes towards it. It's just that sometimes it turns into a doom and gloom story, when the story should actually be framed on what all these resorts across the whole country are doing to better push sustainability. You know? Educate their staff, educate their tourists, and really take better care of like the mountains in North Carolina and across the world.”

A 2018economic report from Protect Our Winters — a nonprofit focused on supporting climate action through the outdoor sports and recreation industry — states “in mountain towns across the United States that rely on winter tourism, snow is currency.” The report found that the winter tourism industry generates $12.2 billion annually, and that number hasn’t been adjusted for the outdoor recreation boom that came with the COVID-19 pandemic.

But low snow years have a negative impact on the economy, leading to a reduction in jobs and fewer patrons coming into the businesses that surround a mountain, such as restaurants, gas stations, bars, and gear shops. A 2012 report from climate researchers Elizabeth Burakowski and Matthew Magnusson found that the average day-tripper to a U.S. ski area will spend $141 in a single day outside of the resort.

A fine line for businesses

Jeff Johnson started snowboarding in 1995 and took over as the owner of Edge of the World Snowboard Shop in 2007. Since then, he has helped promote the sport’s culture in a region that often goes overlooked for its talented and passionate riders. But seeing as the shop sits just a short drive away from Beech Mountain in Banner Elk, its success relies on the success of the resorts.

The storefront of Edge of the World Snowboard shop on a sunny day in December.
Josh Sullivan
Edge of the World Snowboard Shop in Banner Elk has been serving the community since the 1980s.

“Our shop is considered an area shop, which means we're at the ski area essentially,” he said. “And if people aren't coming to the mountains, we don't see business. Not as much at least. We’re a very tourist-focused industry here.”

Heather Hansman is Outside Online’s environmental columnist, and the author of the book “Powder Days,” which takes a sociological look at the industry and all of the impacts that it has on the world it surrounds. But before that, she was a ski bum, starting at Beaver Creek in Colorado, where she scanned lift tickets and worked at a pizza place. When the snowfall was slight and foot traffic was lighter, Hansman could feel a real seasonal panic, wondering if she’d be able to make enough money to get her where she needed to go next.

“The ski industry, more than anything I can think of off the top of my head, is dependent on weather,” Hansman said. “If it doesn't snow and even if it's not cold enough to make snow...your entire business model goes sideways. That's the ski area. That's the retail shops, that's the restaurants, that's the hotels, that's the companies that make skis. A lot of gear companies. If it doesn't snow before Christmas in North America, they’re hosed for the year. It's a gamble. Skiing's kind of a gamble every year and in a lot of ski towns, the economy isn't particularly diverse.”

Thank you, faux snow

Of course, none of this would be possible without snowmaking. The act is one-part art, two-parts science, and has been around in some capacity since 1934, when it was invented for the set of the movie “As the Earth Turns”.

Powder Days Author Heather Hansman's headshot
Handay Kader
submitted image
Outside Online columnist and former ski bum Heather Hansman

In 1952, the first major snow-making equipment was installed at the now-defunct Grossinger Ski Resort in New York. Even back then, 60 years ago, management declared that artificial snow "is no longer a luxury, but an absolute necessity for our winter operation.” Nowadays, the National Ski Area Association insists that the snow itself is not artificial, but rather, only the process in which it is made.

Resorts imitate the snowmaking process by pumping water from a pond through a series of pipes and air compressors. When the pipes containing water and air converge, a more spherical, more durable snow exits the pipes and is sprayed all over the mountain. With heavy machinery, ski resort staff will push that snow across the rest of the mountain. That creates a varied terrain, which after 24 hours, can be groomed. All of this typically happens overnight, unbeknown to the average skier or snowboarder unless they happen to ride by a snowmaking gun on the mountain during operational hours.

That technology has come a long way since 1952. The NSAA makes it a point on its website to say that snowmaking is not a climate solution, but rather an adaptation to make snow at more marginal temperatures with fewer resources. And at Beech, a new snowmaking system called Latitude 90 allows for the snowmaking in marginal temperatures. In turn, that allows the mountains to open earlier, and provides a quicker rebound from unseasonably warm pockets of weather that have become more frequent in recent years.

“Sugar Mountain opened up a little bit before us actually, and it gets everybody excited,” Freeman said. “We opened up tubing first in the area and people, as soon as they see the first snowflake or first snowmaking effort... I mean, the phones start blowing up and people just are excited about coming. It's great.”

That comes at a cost, though. A high cost, though Freeman wasn’t able to put a dollar amount to the resort’s snowmaking operations. In a 2013 story from ESPN ahead of its winter X Games, it was reported that ski areas spend anywhere from $500,000 to over $3.5 million per season to make snow. In a more recent report, EMS Environmental said that its clients spend between $70 to $2,100 per acre-foot including electric, pressurized water delivery and compressed air delivery to each snow gun. That doesn’t even count for the cost of each snowmaking gun — between $5,000 and $38,000. And since North Carolina isn’t exactly known for epic powder days, the industry is dependent upon this technology for success.

“For as fancy and high end as it can look," Hansman says, "and for as much money as some of these big companies are bringing in for their shareholders — [skiing is] an economy that opens on or operates on pretty thin margins."

Josh Sullivan is a social media producer with WUNC’s digital news team.