Three guys walk into Boone High School in North Carolina’s High Country to watch “Into the Mind,” a new breed of ski film that follows a skier’s quest to ski mountains in the Himalayas, Bolivia, and Alaska. Forget ski porn. This is ski art. Picture these three dudes, all skiers themselves, coming out of the movie psyched to make some turns. Picture them practically rabid for the powder stashes and tree lines that surround the small college town of Boone, N.C. The only problem? It’s early December, 50 degrees, and not a snowflake in sight. So picture the three dudes going to the local brewery to talk about skiing the powder stashes and tree lines that surround the small college town of Boone, N.C.
So goes the life and times of the High Country Nordic Association (HCNA), an unofficial, completely grassroots, barely organized group of free heel skiers who are somehow managing to expand backcountry ski access, legitimize Southern resort tree skiing, and proselytize the joy of ski touring to anyone who will listen. Covering a relatively snowy belt of the North Carolina mountains surrounding Boone, the HCNA is the southernmost Nordic association in the U.S. The terrain in the group’s backyard is incredible—5,000 foot peaks with forgotten fire roads, mile-high balds, and hill-side pastures, along with the occasional backcountry Appalachian Trail hut. But the snow is…fickle, at best.
“The snow is hit or miss for sure,” says Lynn Willis, a long-time telemark skier and one of the founding fathers of the HCNA. “It’s challenging being a skier in the South. The reality is, you spend a lot of time skiing at night getting blasted by snow guns.”
That’s not to say there isn’t any natural powder to be had. The mile-high mountains that line the North Carolina/Tennessee border outside of Boone get an average of 100 inches of snow a year, and most of it is packed into a couple of solid months between January and March.
“In 2010, it snowed almost daily for three months straight,” says Kristian Jackson, a professor of recreation management at Appalachian State, and founding member of HCNA. “I got 50 backcountry ski days in that winter. Most years we’ll see about 30 days with probably 10 good-to-great days. Even during warm winters, you can count on a handful of great days.”
It was enough snow to support a backcountry guide service during the ‘80s, and four years ago, it was enough snow to prompt Jackson, Willis, and Russ Hiatt to fill the hole left in the community after that guide service went under. The HCNA started as a message board to share snow reports, then quickly turned into an online hub for cross country and telemark skiers to plan off-piste ski trips. After the banner snow year of 2010, the group organized further, sponsoring backcountry ski films and spearheading an annual telemark festival at Beech Mountain. There are no membership dues, no official board, no non-profit status—just a group of skiers stoked on free heeling powder. From the beginning, the underlying purpose of the HCNA has been to grow that stoke in the High Country.
Russ Hiatt is a patrolman at Appalachian Ski Mountain and de-facto president of the HCNA. A teacher by profession, Hiatt’s singular purpose seems to be to get more people on telemark gear. “I love how contagious skiing is,” Hiatt says. “That contagion is the kernel of our group. We exist to get people excited about skiing.”
Every day, while patrolling Appalachian, Hiatt gets asked about his weird free heel skis and often prompts those curious folks to take a run on his own boots and skis. In Hiatt’s garage, there’s an arsenal of ski equipment that the HCNA has worked hard to collect. Only one shop in the entire state of North Carolina rents cross country gear, and nobody rents telemark gear. Hiatt’s garage fills that void. It’s like a lending library of boots, skis, and poles that anyone in the community is welcome to borrow.
“The biggest hindrance to people getting into Nordic skiing around here isn’t a lack of snow,” says Hiatt. “It’s the lack of gear.”
Jackson and the HCNA are also negotiating for more Nordic ski terrain at Beech Mountain, the highest ski resort in the East, and at Elk Knob State Park, one of North Carolina’s newest state parks, just north of Boone. Elk’s elevation (5,500 feet) and position on the western slope put it directly in a snow zone. A mountain directly west of Elk acts like a giant snow fence, depositing massive drifts onto Elk, which has a northern aspect with an open hardwood forest. You can ski the park now on a network of roadbeds, but Jackson has started discussions with the rangers about developing a legit cross country trail system throughout the park.
An expanded trail system at Elk and more tree skiing at Beech will be more feathers in the cap of the High Country’s impressive Nordic ski portfolio. The bald peaks, trails and roads surrounding Roan Mountain are already legendary, and locals in the know have access to privately owned snowy mountains close to town. Now, the free heelers are just waiting for the snow.
The fickle nature of Southern snow only makes the skiing more compelling, says Jackson. “The unpredictability of the snow turns ski touring here into a gift, because you know it won’t last. If you hit Yellow Mountain or Roan during one of those wild, snowy moments, it’s not like being in the South. You’re transported somewhere else.”