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Volume 15 • Issue 3 December 2019

Merry Christmas

“Pappy, We moved! Are you really sure Santa Bear will find our new den? December 2019

High Country Magazine


The valley leading up to Sugar Mountain in the early 1960s

Sugar Mountain A Half-Century of Innovation In The Beginning Sugar Mountain was a real estate venture that brought more than just skiing to the mountain. It brought wealthy residents, fancy dinners, year-round tennis and some of the highest-class amenities of any resort in the area ... until the economic downturn of the early 1970s


High Country Magazine

December 2019

Photo by Ben Milsaps


now guns power up hours before the first hint of sunrise on a late fall day on Sugar Mountain. From the base of the mountain at 4,100 feet to the summit at 5,300 feet, snow begins to cover the 125 acres of skiable land in preparation for another busy, fun-filled winter on the slopes. This year, Sugar Mountain Ski Resort celebrates its 50th year in operation, and a lot has changed on the mountain in the half-century since the first skier headed down the slopes during a time when southern skiing was trying to get off the ground. Sugar Mountain opened in 1969 and was the fifth ski slope to open in the

Sugar Mountain Resort as it looks today.

By Nathan Ham High Country at the time. Blowing Rock Ski Lodge (now Appalachian Ski Mtn.) opened in 1962. Hound Ears Ski Slope opened in 1964 before closing down later. Seven Devils Ski Slope (now Hawksnest Snow Tubing) opened in 1966, and Beech Mountain Resort opened in 1967. Sugar Mountain started as more of a real estate venture than anything and quickly started to find its own set of struggles, brought on in large part thanks to an economic recession in the early 1970s. Eventually, Sugar Mountain filed for bankruptcy in 1976.

With the future up in the air, in stepped Austrian-native Gunther Jochl. Gunther arrived in 1976 and took on the role of general manager after Ray Costin and Dale Stancil leased Sugar Mountain for one year out of bankruptcy court. Gunther remembers back to that first winter season beginning in 1976 when they started making snow on November 9. “To even think about snowmaking in November back then, you were labeled as a loony tune. We always did open in November,” said Gunther. Back then things were different on Sugar Mountain. At the time, the Big Birch

A Success Story Today with the Resort’s Focus on Snow Sports December 2019

High Country Magazine


New snow guns (above) need just a small compressor to make snow. To the top left is an example of a new snow gun using piped in compress air and water that still works great at covering the slopes in snow. To the left is the map off the computer interface of the numerous mounted snow guns along the slopes. These snow guns can be controlled right from the computer.

trail was the highest point on the mountain where the skiing would begin, which is roughly halfway up between the base and summit. Couple that with the financial issues, the resort was certainly nowhere close to what it is today. “Sugar Mountain was in receivership, so it was a mess. We were leasing it so

there were some big obstacles to overcome at the time. Lights only went halfway up Big Birch, there were no lights up the rest of the mountain. We had two water pumps and one compressor to make snow with. We had a snowcat sitting down there that had the windows knocked out with rocks that had to be repaired and slope lights were under attack from slingshots, those had to be fixed. It was quite challenging,” Gunther said. “Nevertheless, despite the challenges and calling us crazy, we made snow and opened in November.”

Operation and Equipment Challenges In 1976, if you mentioned Sugar Mountain Resort in the wrong crowd of people in the community, you would likely hear some not-so-nice remarks and maybe even a few profane streams of consciousness from residents. “The maintenance challenges that we had were enormous. To get equipment, nobody really wanted to do the job. So many people were hurt through this bankruptcy because they didn’t get paid,” says Gunther.

While the technology has made major advancements over the years, the general idea of making snow has not changed. This photo (above left) was takenwhen the resort opened inside the original pump house at Sugar Mountain that controlled snowmaking machines (above right). 42

High Country Magazine

December 2019

50 Year Time-Line of Sugar Mountain

Gunther Jochl became Sugar Mountain Resort’s GM in 1976 and purchased the resort in 2010. In the fall of 1977, Gunther’s second season at Sugar Mountain, he was presented with an option to purchase the resort, which he did. “We used the same equipment, we updated a few things but nothing major until the sale went through. Then we could start making some real changes,” said Jochl. “We put lights three-quarters up the mountain and then went all the way to the top.” Early on, snowmaking was done using two water pumps and one compressor, some older Ratnik snow guns and some HEDCO electric fan guns that all had to be moved around the slopes to each trail. Some of the old snowmaking guns even had a Volkswagen motor on there to power the equipment. In addition to the snowmaking process, a lot of other projects had to be completed with limited resources. Gunther remembered him and his staff putting up poles for a new lift with two front loaders and his Chevrolet Blazer

Kim and Gunther Jochl have worked together at Sugar since 1993.

1969 - Sugar Mountain Company opens with four lifts and eleven slopes. 1976 - Sugar Mountain Company files for bankruptcy. 1976 - Current Sugar Mountain Resort, Inc. operates the facility with an option to purchase. 1978 - Sugar Mountain Resort, Inc. purchases the assets from the bankruptcy court. 1982 - The Red Slope and Red lift are built. 1984 - The Gray/Summit #2 lift is built. 1991 - The Annual Oktoberfest begins. 1993 - Hiking and mountain biking trails open. 1994-2007 The Showdown at Sugar Mountain Bike Competition is hosted. 1994 - New Ski /Snowboard School and Ski Patrol buildings are built. 1996 - Sugar Mountain Resort receives the National Ski Patrol distinguished service award. 1997 - Summer chairlift rides begin. 1998 - Sugar’s double Black Diamond slope, Whoopdedoo opens. 1999 - The Tubing Park opens. 1999 - The Terrain Park is added. 2000- Snowshoeing becomes another activity at Sugar Mountain. 2003 - Annual Sugarfest Celebration begins. 2003 - Sugar Mountain Resort and local meteorologist, Ray Russell team up to provide customized local weather forecasting using on-site weather stations. 2004 - Sugar Mountain Resort receives the Employer of the Year award by the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina. 2004 - Improving the snowmaking infrastructure begins its five-year overhaul plan of replacing and enlarging all air and water pipes. 2004 - A Magic Carpet conveyor lift replaces the thirty-year-old rope tow in the beginners’ area. 2006 & 2007 First National Mountain Bike Competition hosting 900-1,200 competitors from eight countries and forty-three states and territories. 2005 - Yellow/Summit #1 and Green lifts receive new chairs and drive-stations. 2005 - Sugar debut’s live-streaming web-cams. 2006 - Sugar Mountain Resort’s Ski/ Snowboard Patrol is awarded the outstanding patrol in the Southern Division for the 2005-06 season. 2006 - Sugar Mountain Resort receives the Alfred Adams Leadership Employer of the Year Award from the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce.

2006 - Easy Street lift receives new chairs and drive station. 2007 - Sugar Mountain Resort and the Village of Sugar Mountain Tourism Development Authority build the Dave Nixon Pro Shop which houses tennis, golf, iceskating and tubing. 2007 - Ice-skating opens. 2008 - Sugar records a record one hundred forty consecutive skier days. 2009 - Sugar celebrates forty years! 2010 - Gunther Jochl purchases Sugar Mountain Resort, Inc. 2011 - Gunther Jochl purchases the Sugar Mountain Trust. 2012 - Sugar hosts weddings. 2014 - Sugar’s game changing slope Gunther’s Way opens. 2014 - Ten new SMI snow-making machines are purchased for Gunther’s Way. 2014 The pump house is redesigned and rebuilt to accommodate an additional 1,000 gallon per minute vertical water pump. 2014 - Big Red slope is renamed Oma’s Meadow after Gunther’s mother, Marianne Jochl, who was born in Romania in 1927. Oma is a term of endearment in German speaking countries and means grandmother in English. 2015 - The Summit Express, a six-seater, detachable, high-speed chairlift/chondola manufactured by the Austrian based company, Doppelmayr is installed. 2015 - The Little Gray chairlift, formerly known as the Summit #2 chairlift, is shortened and ferries skiers and snowboarders to the top of the Easy Street Extension slope. 2015 - The Little Gray provides access to the lower and north sides of the mountain. 2015 - The GW chairlift is installed. It transports passengers from the base of Gunther’s Way slope to the mountain’s peak. 2015 - The new lift configuration increases the uphill transportation capacity from 8,800 people to 10,518 people per hour. 2018 - Built a lift-serviced bike park which includes Sugar’s signature expert terrain and newly built beginner and intermediate trails . 2019 - Sugar records a record one hundred forty-one consecutive skier days. 2019 - A four-seater, detachable, highspeed chairlift replaces the fifty-year-old, two-passenger, fixed grip Easy Street chairlift, increasing the Resort’s overall uphill capacity from 10,518 passengers per hour to 11,270 passengers per hour. 2019 - Sugar celebrates 50 years!

December 2019

High Country Magazine




4420’ 6612’ 3601’ 4315’ 3859’ 10350’

33,157 FEET


Ski lifts at Sugar Mountain Resort have the capability to move over 11,000 people per hour up the mountain.

GUNTHER’S WAY LIFT: 21 k-lbs EASY STREET EXPRESS 12.9 k-lbs OMA’S LIFT: 16.4 k-lbs LITTLE GRAY LIFT: 13 k-lbs GREEN: 23 k-lbs SUMMIT EXPRESS: 37 k-lbs

TOTAL: 123.3 k-lbs (62 tons)

OR - 11270 people per hour/170 lbs per person

2 Million lbs per hour (960 tons per hour)

Sugar Mountain has seven snowcats to groom snow. This snowcat features a winch to anchor itself to the top of the mountain.



891’ 247’ 462’ 283’ 402’ 1133’

3,418 FEET



High Country Magazine

153 139 84 59 104 317

860hp December 2019

The original 8-inch water pipes were replaced with 14-inch water pipes to allow for more water flow and more efficient snowmaking.

Number of Snow Machines

Number of Managers

Number of Snow Grooming Machines

Number of Employees

7 Number of Departments

Gallons of Water Pumping Capacity


4,600 gallons




Gunther’s Way Opens in 2014 Pictured here are Kim and Gunther Jochl during the ribbon cutting ceremony that took place on November 20, 2014 on what has become one of the most popular ski slopes at Sugar Mountain, Gunther’s Way. The slope has 10 automated snow guns stationed on that trail alone. Gunther’s Way sits on nine acres of land and is 150 feet wide and 2,900 feet long with over 700 feet of vertical - and is considered an advance/intermediate level slope. that had a wench on it. Despite some of the early changes, it was still tough to get area residents to support the ski industry on Sugar Mountain. “The bankruptcy left a weird mentality with a lot of people. People didn’t like the skiers even though the skiers made the money for them. It was hard for them to understand at the time. Skiing was part of the real estate deal. It was a private resort,

they wanted to keep the skier numbers down and just have the members ski. You can’t support it that way. It wasn’t really known to the locals because they weren’t part of that crowd,” said Gunther. “The setup then was a setup to fail. I felt bad for a lot of the local people that got burned. Over the years, people that became my friends, I heard stories that were just terrible. It breaks your heart that these kinds

of things went on. I think one of the big differences people found out over the years is I pay my bills. Everybody deserves to be paid.” Eventually, most of the local community bought into what Gunther and his staff were putting together at Sugar Mountain. “We brought some stability to this. The real state market was dead, the place was bankrupt in the mid-70s, it took some kind

BEFORE December 2019

High Country Magazine


The views at the top of Sugar Mountain’s 5,300-foot summit truly are breathtaking. In the foreground is the top of the Summit Express lift with the unmistakable face of Grandfather Mountain on the horizon and the Sugar Top condominium complex in between. of transition for people to understand. You would notice the gas stations and restaurants start to develop and all of a sudden, real estate picked back up again. Jobs were more secure because of what we did here. All of a sudden there were a lot of things built, all of the country clubs were built. I think that is all a result of the boom the ski industry created. Locals realized it wasn’t a bad thing and it was working for them,” Gunther recalled.

Overhauling and Innovating Begins With the purchase of Sugar Mountain Resort completed, Gunther turned his full attention to upgrading the snowmaking capabilities on the mountain. The first big investments included upgrading 46

High Country Magazine

the air compressor output and the snow guns. The new snow guns included fan guns from Snow Making, Inc. (SMI) that offered some of the highest quality and most efficient snowmaking equipment on the market. “Then we decided we needed more air, you use a lot of it to make snow. Up until then, we had just one huge compressor with an output of 2,500 horsepower. So we added four more, 600-horsepower compressors, basically doubling our output,” Gunther said. “When you look back then, we made snow with what they had here, but quickly we had to add more guns and have more capacity.” The upgrades continued into the mid1980s when the process began to upgrade all of the water pipes.

December 2019

“The water originally came out from eight-inch pipes, so we sized that up to 14inch pipes. That gave us four or five times as much water. It increased capacity and we wanted to make sure it was big enough and able to handle more pumps and better pumps,” Gunther said. “There has always been a plan in my mind to move to the next stage, I always had an idea of what I wanted to do next.” Gunther added that the final phase of pipe installation and water line replacement was completed this year. Slope grooming was also a major addition to the tasks that employees would undertake to provide the best possible ski conditions. “People want good skiing. One of the things I changed immediately when I came


is sweeter. SUGAR MOUNTAIN RESORT Celebrating 50 years 1969-2019 Sugar Mountain, NC December 2019

High Country Magazine


It doesn’t take long riding with Jochl down a slope like Whoopdedoo in a high-tech, winch-assisted groomer, communications crackling in an instrument-festooned cockpit, to suspect this guy is also an airplane pilot (as is his wife Kim). PHOTO BY RANDY JOHNSON

here was we started grooming slopes. Nobody groomed slopes back then. We constantly groomed slopes to make it nice and smooth. It was a lot of work, but we did it,” Gunther recalled. The invention of automated snowmaking guns and the invention of Snomax gave Sugar Mountain two more big-ticket investment items that would make the snow quality and coverage better. “Snomax is tremendous for making more snow. It’s not cheap; we probably spend $50,000 a year on Snomax. It is a natural product that provides a nucleus to build a film around it so water can freeze faster. We wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t natural, I have no benefit from polluting my own mountain,” says Gunther. “When I

first came here, there was no wildlife, maybe just a few groundhogs. There are so many animals here now, you see maybe too many deer. It’s a sign that things are healthy and that’s a good thing. Skiing and the winter sports that we provide are supposed to create something in nature that is nice.” SMI has been one of the go-to companies for snowmaking guns, and that remained the same for when the purchases of automated snow guns began. “SMI I think is the best snow gun out there that we’ve tried. We have a lot of automated guns on the mountain now. The initial investment for just one automated gun is not cheap, but when you look at the efficiency of how much it costs you to make snow and to convert water to snow,

Pictured here are long-time members of the Sugar Mountain team. Left to right - Floyd Jones (who has been at Sugar Mountain since 1969), Ronnie Woody, Erich Schmidinger and Glen Horney. 48

High Country Magazine

December 2019

it’s still cheaper that way,” says Gunther. Around five years ago was when Sugar Mountain started ramping up its purchase of automated snow guns. That coincided with the construction of Gunther’s Way, one of the most popular trails on the mountain. There are 10 automated guns on that trail alone and they all make great snow. Automated snow guns require very little human interaction, although they still do need a little bit of that human factor just in case a problem with the snow guns may arise. The guns are set up to start at a certain temperature. When that temperature hits the mark, the snow guns are each individually controlled by a computer and they will start making snow. Currently, there are between 140 and 150 hydrants for snowmaking guns on the mountain.

The Beauty of It All The appearance of Sugar Mountain Resort has changed so much in 50 years, but a lot of the things on the mountain are still the same. Whether it be the great views, the great customers or the years of dedicated employees and staff, Sugar Mountain stands to remind us that patience, hard work, and love for what you do can

The “Summit Express” team that helped construct the six-seat, chairlift/ gondola celebrated with a party upon completion of the project in 2015.

Skiers and snowboarders of all ages fill up the slopes each winter, either learning the sport or taking their skills to a higher level. go a long way. Gunther met his future wife, Kim, in 1990. They ended up getting married in 1997. Kim, who began working at the resort in 2001, currently serves as Sugar Mountain’s Vice-President and Director of Marketing. “We have constantly looked at things and built things to continuously improve and try to make everything better. We see what the customer wants and try to put the money in the right areas to do what needs to be done. I’ve got a good crew that knows what needs to be done,”

said Gunther. “We have excellent people for today’s standards. You can’t forget all the staff that help do this. I have 20-some managers sitting there in a meeting. We’ve got a lot of departments here.” Longtime workers like Warren Hodges, Keith Lane, and Floyd Jones became friends as well as loyal employees. After being here for 43 years, Gunther still loves being at the top of the mountain and gazing off as far as the eye can see at what beauty surrounds the High Country. “The beauty has never left. I’m out there every day. I’ve seen it 100 times a

year for 43 years, I can’t get enough of it. It’s amazing and that feeling has not gone away. That’s the way it was then and the way it is today. I go up there and I sit there at the peak of the mountain. Tennessee is one way, Virginia is one way, Charlotte is one way. It’s beautiful,” Gunther said. “The beauty hasn’t gone away and we have made things better because that’s what the consumer and the market want. The big change from then to now is you see the approach and the attitude, but our goal has never been different. It’s to make it a good, pleasant experience.” t

Todd Bush Photography Serving the High Country with Premier Scenic, Lifestyle and Commercial Imagery for over 25yrs Scenic photos available at Banner Elk Artists Gallery in the historic BE elementary school near the heart of town


banner elk nc December 2019

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