Slushing through Dixie

Agreed, Beech Mountain is not exactly an Alp, but a few blasts from the big North Carolina snowmaking guns mean the race will go on
March 05, 1973

All skiers know that their sport has its basics: mountains and snow, to start with. And that winter carnivals are the sort of activity one has to stage at, say, Dartmouth or Quebec. Therefore, it follows that anything called the Snow Carnival of the South, in Beech Mountain, N.C., has got to be a disaster. After all, it's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

Well, all this might have been true once, when snow mainly came from the sky, but sometime recently, while nobody up North was paying attention, snowmaking guns reached the size of howitzers and—swoosh!—skiing has come to the Southland.

There was Beech Mountain, right where it has always been, amid the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northwest corner of North Carolina—just south of Virginia and east of Tennessee. It not only served for the third year as a stop for skiing's pro tour (Killy and Sabich et al.), but for the fifth straight year as the setting for the pleasantly low-key Southern Intercollegiate Ski Championships. And the festivities demonstrated that the sport has now begun to fight the likes of golf and tennis for attention on college campuses from Fairfax, Va. to Tallahassee, Fla. Well, sort of fight.

The Southern Intercollegiate is the snow baby of Dr. H.C. Evans Jr., president of Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C., a town located at the foot of Beech Mountain. In addition to the 650-student coed junior college, Banner Elk features one traffic light, one cinema and three gas stations. For recreation you take what you can get around Banner Elk and improvise the rest, which explains why skiing has been a popular activity on the campus since the founding of a club called "Clan Skiing Zero" in the early 1930s.

The sport rose well above zero level in 1962 when the first area skiing facility opened just outside nearby Boone, N.C. After that it seemed natural to make skiing a part of the physical education program at Lees-McRae during the winter of 1967-68, when Beech Mountain opened, and now 450 members of the student body—that is 70%—take skiing for academic credit.

Despite the fact that a surprising amount of snow can fall on the Southland—and has this winter—the many ski complexes that have opened in Dixie during the last few years depend on snowmaking equipment for survival. Beech Mountain, with a vertical drop of about 800 feet, a longest run of just over a mile and a half and no slope that could really be assigned an expert rating, is hardly a threat to the Rockies. Still, it is the best ski resort in the South and its ability to make artificial snow may be unsurpassed anywhere in the world. It has 85 conventionally sized snow guns, plus two 12-nozzle Hedco snowmakers that look as big as jet engines. No need to wait for storms: anytime the temperature dips into the mid-20s the resort can keep its five miles of trails and slopes completely blanketed with snow. Two days before the pros were ready to race there this February the mountain offered a mud-grass-and-ice look that bespoke spring thaw more than winter carnival. Then the mercury fell, the snowmaking equipment was turned on and by the weekend the pros and 7,000 recreational visitors had a thick blanket of firmly packed snow.

When the college crowd arrived for the Southern Intercollegiate the weather had turned warm again, but plenty of snow remained. The entry list for the two-day slalom and downhill competition included 32 men and six women from 11 schools and, despite its Southern locale, the meet seemed to shape up as an old-fashioned duel of North against South.

"Practically all of the hotshot skiers at Southern schools are former junior racers from the North," explained John Chandler, a native Tennessean and a pretty hot skier himself. He was competing for the University of Tennessee Snow Ski Club, which claims the surprising total of 700 members, most of whom do their schussing on a modest hill in nearby Gatlinburg. "Us Southern boys aren't nearly as smooth as they are, but we can still get there pretty quick."

The two-man Vol team of Chandler and Bill Akers was homegrown, but the four-man group from the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn. included a skier raised in New Jersey and Long Island, another from Minnesota and one from Shelburne, Vt. The top skier from Florida State in Tallahassee was Ray Runyan, originally from Wilton, Conn. The Clemson ski team, representing a 45-member club founded last year by Erik Rhodin of Bronxville, N.Y., included Rhodin, Paul Aaron of Gloversville, N.Y., Mark Bishop, a slim sophomore from Pittsfield, Mass. who won the combined title in 1972, and a German from Stuttgart whose name, Wolfgang Funk, aroused suspicions that he was racing under a pseudonym and might be a ringer from his country's national ski team. If so, Wolfgang was cooling it.

"At home I play mostly soccer and run track," said Wolfgang, who came to Clemson last year. "No ski racing for three years and now I find myself doing it down here. Doesn't make sense, no?"

The competition was pure corn pone: instead of totaling the times of two heats, as is usual, only the best time counted. A skier could therefore rise up from a wipeout in the first heat and try again in the second. The skier who compiled the fastest total time in the slalom and downhill was declared the individual champion. The team trophy went to the school whose two fastest skiers posted the lowest combined average.

The slalom was run through a 25-gate, 400-yard course set up over Beech Mountain's Shawneehaw Chute, where the chief difficulty is a generous dappling of moguls. Tennessee's Akers, shoulder-length hair streaming out from beneath his wool cap, took the first-day individual lead with a best slalom heat of 28 seconds flat. But Clemson, with Bishop finishing third in 28.4 and Wolfgang Funk fourth at 28.8, led Tennessee in the team event because Chandler could do no better than 31.2. "It will have to be flat out in the downhill tomorrow," he said.

But tomorrow dawned more out flat than flat out. By race time billows of fog were rolling down the Shawneehaw Chute, obscuring most of the course, and a chilling rain had transformed the laboriously crafted snow into heaps of slush. Meanwhile, a gusty wind began to sweep gate poles and flags off the course and into the bordering woods. Only a sturdy half dozen or so officials and gatekeepers turned up for the downhill event. Two Lees-McRae coeds were drafted to serve as official gatekeepers on the 15-gate course—although they weren't quite sure what that duty entailed. On the sidelines, two racer parents, one sister and the girl friend of the lone skier from Maryville College filled out the cheering section. The girl friend, shivering and wet, stayed only long enough to see her guy come ghosting past early in the second heat. Then things got worse. By the time the second heat was half over only the faithful parents were left as spectators—the last hurrah—and many of the red and blue poles were either missing altogether or had been knocked and scattered over the course.

Happily, Clemson had pretty much wrapped up the team title in the first heat, but Bishop needed to make up eight-tenths of a second to catch Tennessee's Akers for the individual crown. Somewhere up there he started. Then, long after he was due at the finish line, he suddenly came gliding gently out of the fog and stared at the puzzled officials and timers huddled silently around the scoring table. "Hey," he asked. "What's happened to all the gatekeepers? No one's up there to put the poles back in."

So many of the gates had been missing that Bishop was given another final run. But it was no use. He could not make up the margin on the slushy course and he finished third behind two Southerners, Akers and Mike Fisher, a Charlottesville, Va. native who attends Appalachian State.

"I was kind of relieved when I came South and figured my ski-racing days were over," said a bemused Bishop, who majors in forestry. "The hotshots around home were just too tough. I was pretty surprised to learn that Clemson had a ski club, but I signed up to race because I figured the pressure wouldn't be too much. Now look. The hotshots are turning up down here."