By Craig Hill / The News-Tribune
The morning after the 24-year fight was over and White Pass Ski Area finally won permission to expand, Kevin McCarthy awoke with a weird feeling.
“I felt like a mercenary without a war to fight,” the ski area’s general manger said. “It was weird, but I’m over that now. Now I’m just excited.”
White Pass is leading the way this winter as Washington’s south Cascade ski areas enjoy one of their biggest years ever for expansion and upgrades.
The Summit at Snoqualmie will reopen Summit East for the first time since January 2009 with two new lifts and 65 acres of new terrain. Crystal Mountain will unveil a $5.5 million gondola, a first for Washington ski areas.
But White Pass is outdoing them all with a $9 million, 767-acre expansion that will more than double the size of the area and, some believe, change it’s role in the Northwest’s skiing scene.
“What’s happening at White Pass is very exciting,” said Scott Kaden of the Pacific Northwest Ski Area Association. “I can’t think of another time when a ski area in Washington more than doubled in size.”
Ski area operators hope the abundance of expansion and upgrades coupled with forecasts predicting a glut of snow will make for a good ski season.
“Everybody is really psyched about this season,” said Tiana Enger of Crystal Mountain. “There’s a lot of be excited about.”
Ever since McCarthy took over as general manager in 1984 he’s been working to expand the ski area into Paradise Basin.
Before this season, White Pass was the eighth-largest ski area (635 acres) in the state but drew the fifth-most skiers (116,683 per year over the last decade.)
With one lift, the Great White Express, servicing most of the area and many of the most popular runs merging onto the same cat track, White Pass was in desperate need of expansion.
The wilderness designation was removed from Paradise Basin in 1984 and McCarthy spent nearly a quarter century trying to get permission from the U.S. Forest Service to install two new lifts (a high-speed quad and fixed-grip quad), a lodge and open 767 acres of new terrain.
It was not an easy fight.
“We’re a pretty small player compared to the timber industry but we kind of got swept up with them because there was no getting around the fact that we needed to cut some trees,” McCarthy said. White Pass removed 15 acres of trees and installed lift towers over the snow to minimize impact to vegetation. “… But it wasn’t just one issue. It was the constant changing of the regulations.”
Final permission was granted in 2008, but there were times when even ski area officials asked McCarthy when he was going to throw in the towel.
“I thought it was wrong to give up,” McCarthy said. “I always believed it was the right thing to do.”
Now, at 1,402 acres, White Pass will be the fourth largest ski area in the state.
With the new terrain, all of which is classified for beginners and intermediates, McCarthy believes White Pass will finally solve its crowding and bottlenecking issues.
Thanks to the new High Camp Lodge, McCarthy believes many skiers and snowboarders will spend their entire day on the new terrain, relieving pressure on the original runs.
Kaden believes the expansion will change White Pass’ role in Washington’s ski scene. Previously perceived as the quaint ski area that promotes a family atmosphere, Kaden believes White Pass could emerge as a regional destination.
“It’s going to play completely different role in the market now,” Kaden said. “… It’s added a completely new facet to the mountain and I think it will be more attractive to markets within driving distance like Portland and Vancouver.
“This staycation concept, staying closer to home for vacations; I think more people are going to look at White Pass as a good place to go stay for a weekend.”
While more people discovering his mountain would please McCarthy, if its skier visits don’t change at all he’ll still be happy.
“Portland is not our main base of customers and neither is Seattle,” said McCarthy, whose ski area draws most of its visitors from the South Sound and Yakima. “We are doing this for the families who have always skied here. If we have shorter lift lines and more space, that’s what we want.”
The new Mount Rainier Gondola at Crystal Mountain couldn’t have a more appropriate name.
The ride finishes with a stunning in-your-face view of the mountain, which in a round-about way deserves much of the credit for gondola being there in the first place, said skiing historian Lowell Skoog.
It was in the 1940s and 1950s when talk of installing everything from a T-bar to a tram or gondola at Paradise that the National Park Service decided a ski area was not appropriate for the mountain, Skoog said. The search began for a location outside the park and Crystal Mountain opened in 1958.
The new gondola has 18 eight-passenger cabins with the capability to add 18 more. The gondola climbs 2,456 feet to the rim of Green Valley in less than 10 minutes, nearly twice as fast as the current trip that requires two lifts and two lift lines.
“Plus you can stay dry and warm,” Enger said.
Use of the gondola will not be included in the standard $65 lift ticket. Using the gondola will require an additional $8. There also will be an extra fee for season-pass holders to use the gondola too.
Enger expects the gondola will alleviate pressure on the rest of the ski area, creating shorter lift lines on busy days.
The gondola also will allow Crystal to offer new programs like “First Tracks Breakfast.” For a yet-to-be determined fee and a lift ticket, you can ride the gondola to the Summit House Restaurant at 7:30 a.m., have breakfast and then get in some early runs before the lifts open to everybody else at 9 a.m.
However, the gondola is much more than a new amenity for skiers and snowboarders.
“We are heading toward being a year-round destination,” Enger said. “And I don’t mean a destination resort where people come from all over the United States. We hope to position Crystal as a base camp to Mount Rainier.”
Crystal plans to use the gondola all year to transport visitors to the Summit House Restaurant where they can dine and hike.
Eventually the ski area would like to open the gondola to mountain bikers. Crystal Mountain is a popular mountain biking area. Enger says the resort does not plan to build mountain bike trails.
“The gondola project is very exciting because of what it does for Crystal year round,” Kaden said. “Some people say the best view of Mount Rainier is from Crystal Ridge and now people can enjoy it all year. Crystal is being a good neighbor to the national park.”
THE BIG UPGRADES
Washington’s three South Cascade ski areas have plenty new to offer this year.
Upgrades: 767 acres of new terrain, two new lifts and a new mid-mountain lodge.
Cost: $9 million
SUMMIT AT SNOQUALMIE
Upgrades: 65 acres of new terrain and two new lifts at Summit East.
Upgrades: New terrain park and the state’s first ski area gondola.
Cost: $5.5 million