Local ski resorts are open

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter A skier hits the powder in the Cascades last winter. Local ski areas have new lifts, more terrain and more food options. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter A skier hits the powder in the Cascades last winter. Local ski areas have new lifts, more terrain and more food options.
— image credit:

John Naye
Snow Sports

I received an e-mail last Friday stating Whistler was opening for the snowsport season on Saturday, with a base snow total of about 40 inches. So it is now official: the season has opened for gliding, riding and snow sliding. Based on temperatures here locally, however, we will need some colder days before we can wax the boards and make our first fresh tracks.

Putting labels on snowsport resorts is admittedly arbitrary, but I would say our local resorts are Crystal Mountain, Stevens Pass and the Summit at Snoqualmie. These three can be reached from Mercer Island in less than two hours each. Then come other Washington resorts such as Mission Ridge, Mount Baker, White Pass, Mount Spokane, which would normally dictate at least a weekend trip. Last are the regional and destination resorts in Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.

While we wait for some snow to fall, resort operators have been putting the finishing touches on their off season “to-do” lists. Let’s take a look at the most significant of these changes.

The biggest news comes courtesy of Crystal Mountain, where a new chairlift was purchased last fall for the north backcountry. The $2 million lift, accessed via the Green Valley chair, will open 1,000 acres of bowls, chutes and cliffs previously accessible only to backcountry skiers and snowboarders who hiked into it. It will also increase the amount of Crystal’s lift-serviced ski terrain by 77 percent to 2,300 acres, a very large increase indeed.

The name for the new chairlift is “Northway.” It will deposit skiers at the top of Northway Peak after a ride of just under 10 minutes. From there, skiers will have a wide choice of skiing Snorting Elk Bowl, Northway Bowl, Paradise Bowl and Bruce’s Bowl, following Right Angle Ridge to a variety of expert glades and chutes, or heading farther north to drop into places like Morning Glory Bowl and Brand X. Several new trails are to be constructed that will feed into the bottom of the new lift.

The lift equipment itself is unusual in these days of high-capacity, high speed detachable lifts. Northway is a double chairlift that will move along at a faster-than-standard rate of 550 feet per minute but will limit skier capacity in the new terrain to 1,200 people per hour. This will increase the existing 19,110 people per hour lift capacity to 20,310. “It’s about the skiing,” said General Manager John Kircher, whose parent company Boyne Resorts owns Crystal Mountain . “I’m sure people appreciate the big high capacity lifts that we have on the front side of Crystal. We have a job to do handling the crowds here but we all see how fast the snow gets tracked out. The new lift in the North Country is designed to provide access but keep the snow quality higher.”

Another change at Crystal was a much needed renovation of the Summit House, the highest restaurant in the state of Washington. Perched atop the Rainier Express Chairlift, the Summit House will still serve up breathtaking views of six of the Northwest’s most renown volcanic peaks, but the food service will change considerably. Rather than cafeteria style as it has been in the past, this reststop will feature a sit-down dining experience, complete with wait staff, tablecloths and a new menu featuring charbroiled steaks, fresh Alaskan halibut, a variety of salads, and more.

If you are in a hurry to get back on the slopes, you can still find quick “grab-n-go” items like soup, chili, hot dogs, cookies at the Express window located off the Summit House deck area.

Although you won’t notice this next change as much as the ones at Crystal, there is a new sheriff in town at the Summit at Snoqualmie. During the off-season the former owners sold the resort to a Florida-based REIT, which then turned around and hired the Crystal Mountain management team to run the Snoqualmie resorts. So now two of the three main local ski resorts will be operated under the direction of Crystal’s management, though for this season at least all the prior management personnel will still be on-site at Snoqualmie. I wouldn’t mind being a fly on the wall at management meetings, as the transition could be somewhat amusing.

The main change (and benefit) for the consumer is the ability for one resort’s season-pass holders to get limited access to the other. A person who owns a full season pass at Crystal can get up to 10 free days at Snoqualmie, and a Big S pass holder at the Summit can upgrade the pass for a fee and receive access to Crystal for five days, and to other Boyne resorts as well, such as Big Sky, Mont.or Brighton, Utah.

Tiana Enger, marketing manager at Crystal, told me that because the change of ownership occurred just recently, operations at the Summit will remain the same as last year, with the only possible change being an upgrade in the quality of food served.

Moving east in Washington, Mission Ridge’s major improvement occurred off-slope on the final four miles of access road from Wenatchee to the area. After installing guard rails and widening and resurfacing the road, management had enough money to also expand the parking and upgrade the snowmaking system.

Heading south to Oregon, Mount Bachelor made several improvements to the on-slope experience by regrading and recontouring some of the runs and jumps. Mount Hood Meadows remodeled the North Lodge - to create more attractive and welcoming restrooms on the first floor - and refurbished the Yellow. And on the other flank of the mountain, Timberline installed the Jeff Flood Still Creek Basin Chairlift, which serves eight new trails in the Still Creek Basin. This high-speed quad provides lift access to approximately 220 acres of new terrain and is Mount Hood’s longest chairlift (6,700 feet).

And last for today, Whistler-Blackcomb Resort hopes to have its Peak-to-Peak Gondola open by December 2008. There is no doubt this will be a very spectacular lift-riding experience.

Ski you later.

John Naye is a Mercer Island resident and the President of the Western Region of the North American Snowsports Journalist’s Association. His e-mail is

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