Everybody did it: When you finished your turkey sandwich, or chicken noodle soup, or four slices of mid-afternoon pizza at Welborn cafeteria, you put all of your dishes on the conveyor belt, save for one very important item: the pale yellow plastic tray. You smuggled it under your coat, or carted it casually under one arm, like a chemistry book. As you walked out onto Sanford Mall, you half expected someone to yell, “Stop! Put that down!” But, of course, no one ever did. So you’d continue on your way, toward Bowie or Winkler or Eggers Hall, where you’d pop into your dorm room to stash the tray for later — for the mountain.
You waited for a fresh blanket of snow. A full moon was a bonus: It helped to see your feet as you climbed to the top of Suicide Hill or Stadium Hill or the tiered, rolling lawn in front of Justice Hall. Eyes squeezed shut, you took a running start, hopped onto the tray, and let the powder and incline do the rest. You didn’t hold on for dear life, because there was nothing to hold on to. It was a singular moment of joy, the kind that can only be found in those four years between childhood and adulthood.
From January to February of 1980, 980 cafeteria trays vanished from Appalachian State’s dining halls. By 1991, an average of 7,500 trays were being stolen each year, a $60,000 loss that inspired the university to sell actual sleds in the cafeteria throughout the winter. You see, as a student at App State, finding a steep, snowy hill to fling yourself off of is as intrinsic to the college experience as all-nighters or regretting an 8 a.m. class.
And that’s largely thanks to one man and a mountain.
Outside of the Swiss-inspired ski lodge at Appalachian Ski Mountain, with its charming, carved wooden eaves painted in the resort’s signature orange, Jim Cottrell is taking another turn on the ski lift. At 72, he can carve circles around his grandkids on the slopes.
For 50 years, Jim, a Boone native and Appalachian State alum, has been teaching college-credit ski classes to newbies and powderheads alike, making him a kind of snow guru at the home of the Mountaineers. App Ski Mountain, the state’s second-oldest ski resort, opened as Blowing Rock Ski Lodge in 1962. As the head of the resort’s ski patrol in 1968, it didn’t take Jim long to realize that most Southerners didn’t know much about skiing. So he helped shape a new kind of learning experience.
A year later, Jim and a partner, Jack Lester, established the French-Swiss Ski College at App Ski Mountain, and set up seven college-accredited ski programs across North Carolina. At the end of three years, they’d partnered with 43 schools across the Southeast. “It was very popular right away,” Jim says. “There weren’t any skiers in the South at that time, and we were offering the only program. We created many lifetime participants. It was a major part of the development of Southern skiing.”
By the late ’80s, Jim started to see something else develop in Boone: a ski culture. “The sport was influencing students to come to App State specifically for skiing,” he says. “The industry had time to mature, with Beech, Sugar, and App Ski Mountain — this was the hub.”
It was January 1988, and snow boots, goggles, and jackets were making melty puddles in a warm corner of the App Ski Mountain Lodge. A handful of college-age instructors were kicking back, scoping out snow bunnies. It was ASU night, which meant an especially high number of cute prospects. Robert Baker spotted her first. He pointed into the crowd and told his friends, “She’s the one.” An App State junior and second-year ski instructor, Robert had a lesson to teach that night, but when he met his group on the slopes, there she was again: Tracy. “Her boyfriend introduced us,” he says, laughing. She and Robert have been married for 27 years.
“I knew he was special during that first lesson,” Tracy says. “What I remember the most is how hard he worked to remember each student’s name — even though he called me Teresa instead of Tracy a couple of times.”
Robert balks: “That was just my way of flirting!”
It worked. In Boone, plenty of romances got their start with frozen noses and toes, and many a friendship was forged on the mountainside, too. “Oh, we had a couple fun traditions,” Robert says. Like the rivalry “football game” between ski instructors and ski patrol: The teams passed a football back and forth as they skied down the mountain, trying to get the ball into a trash can at the bottom. “There were no rules,” Robert says. “You could ski over people, knock ’em down, tackle them. There were dog piles, broken noses, broken skis, all that.”
And there were late nights, too. “After hours, we’d go up to the top of the mountain and sled down using whatever we could find,” he says. “Rafts, ski patrol sleds, lunch trays, you name it.”
Robert worked at App Ski until 1994, when he and Tracy moved out of state — though not before they got their 18- and 24-month-old sons out on the mountain. But, after 16 years away, the Bakers and their five kids felt the pull of North Carolina again. “One day, I took the boys skiing,” Robert says. “I was in the lodge on my laptop, and Jim walked by. He asked me, ‘Do you ever think about working for us again?’ ” The next year, in 2010, Robert returned as an instructor, and he’s been there ever since.
These days, App State wisely continues its practice of selling sleds in the dining halls when it snows. And in 2014, the university’s landscape services planted 41 new trees on Suicide Hill — ostensibly for beautification. App Ski Mountain now features 12 slopes and three terrain parks, and college classes offered at the French-Swiss Ski College remain an important part of Southern skiing.
“From those classes, we are creating ski patrolmen and instructors,” Jim says. “It’s a wellspring of people who go on to work in the industry.” Many of those students are the second or third generation to go through the program. Both Robert and Jim often see the children of former coworkers and students on the mountain. “That’s the beauty of it — seeing the people who have gone on to make skiing a part of their lives,” Jim says. “I have grandchildren of people I taught in my classes today.”
Naturally, Robert’s kids have been following in his tracks since they could fit into parkas. His three sons, Kellan, Ryan, and Drew, all work (or worked) at App Ski while going to school in Boone. “The best part is having a bar-setter like my dad to look up to,” says Ryan, a senior at App State.
For the Bakers, skiing is more than just a family tradition: It’s a way to connect. The sport brought Robert and Tracy together, and it’s what brought them home again. “When I started back to work here, I thought I might continue for just a couple of years,” Robert says. “But the thrill of skiing came back to me — it was like I never left.”