2005 | Snow business

25 highs and lows of Northwest skiing

November 6, 2005 

A snowboarder catches air at Crystal Mountain, which is a favorite destination for Northwest skiers and boarders.

JANET JENSEN/THE NEWS TRIBUNE FILE

Last season’s tropical winter might have kept you from using your ski poles, but it couldn’t stop our ski poll. In pursuit of the best – and occasionally the worst – Washington has to offer, we conducted a survey that’s about as scientific as your horoscope. We circulated informal questionnaires to our readers and polled a couple dozen skiing and boarding experts from ski shops and the pro ranks around the state. Some responded with insightful answers, others with too much information (two Olympia readers say they like to ski naked) and some just asked us to leave them alone. Check and see how your favorites compare.

BEST SKI AREA
Pros: Crystal Mountain
Readers: Crystal Mountain
TNT: Crystal Mountain

BEST BACKCOUNTRY
Pros: Crystal Mountain
Readers: Crystal Mountain
TNT: Crystal Mountain
One expert skier actually laughed at this question. You can find world-class backcountry at Alpental, Stevens Pass and Mount Baker, but Crystal has a clear edge here until expansion moves the North Country inbounds as soon as 2008-09. Photo guides of the backcountry are sold at Greenwater Skis (360-663-2235) for $5, with proceeds benefitting the CMAC racing team.

BEST LESSONS
Pros: Summit at Snoqualmie
Readers: Summit at Snoqualmie
TNT: Summit at Snoqualmie
Not only is the Summit’s ski school the biggest in the state with about 500 part-time instructors, but also some argue that it sets the tone for skiing in the entire state. Because the Summit is the easiest ski hill to drive to from Seattle and Tacoma, most people tend to get hooked on the sport at the Summit before exploring the state’s other areas.

BEST RENTAL SHOP
Pros: Crystal Mountain
Readers: Crystal Mountain
TNT: Crystal Mountain
It can be shoulder-to-shoulder at the Crystal rental counter on busy days, but the shop runs like an assembly line. They can get you on the hill as quickly as you can figure out how to squeeze your feet and those thick wool socks into a pair of rental boots.

BEST APRÈS SKI
Pros: Crystal Mountain
Readers: Crystal Mountain
TNT: Crystal Mountain
Aha, a trick question. The nightlife stinks in a state full of day resorts. However, Crystal’s BullWheel Pub has live music on weekends, and the famous Snorting Elk Cellar keeps the microbrews coming as late as the crowd stays. “In terms of nightlife, we probably rate a minus-50 nationally,” says Crystal general manager John Kircher. “But for Washington, we’re a 10.”

BEST RUN
Pros: Upper International, Alpental
Readers: Queens Run, Crystal
TNT: Iceberg Gulch to Deer Fly, Crystal

HARDEST RUN
Pros: Pinball, Crystal
Readers: Upper International, Alpental
TNT: The Throne, Crystal

BEST STEEPS
Pros: Crystal Mountain
Readers: Crystal Mountain
TNT: Crystal Mountain
You can find some nice steep runs such as Powder Bowl and Exterminator, but for heart-in-your-throat runs, head to the South Country and hike to the top of Silver King or the Throne for runs as steep as 50 degrees. Check with the ski patrol for tips before you go.

BEST LODGE FOOD
Pros: Campbell Basin Lodge, Crystal Mountain
Readers: Campbell Basin Lodge, Crystal Mountain
TNT: Campbell Basin Lodge, Crystal Mountain
Crystal’s mid-mountain lodge opened last year and offers tacos and burritos at the Northwest of the Border counter, sandwiches from the Downhill Deli, and chicken kebobs at the Slopeside Stir Fry. And if you want your typical ski lodge fare, like a bowl of chili or a slice of pizza, you can get that, too.

BEST ROADS
Pros: Summit at Snoqualmie
Readers: Summit at Snoqualmie<
TNT: Summit at Snoqualmie
Comparing access roads to the Summit is like comparing the Seattle Seahawks to the Washington Huskies. It’s just not fair. Interstate 90 makes getting to the Summit easy, while lesser roads approaching other resorts are plowed but more adventurous. “The rest of us clearly aren’t as convenient,” Stevens Pass general manager John Gifford says. “It’s pretty tough to compete with I-90.”

WORST ROADS
Pros: Mount Baker
Readers: Mount Baker
TNT: Mount Baker
Baker general manager Duncan Howatt insists the final eight miles of Highway 542 to the resort aren’t as bad as its reputation. However, the road is windy and slow even in the best conditions. Baker offers extensive bus service if you don’t want to drive.

BEST BASE LODGE
Pros: Stevens Pass
Readers: Crystal Mountain
TNT: Stevens Pass
Crystal’s four-story base lodge offers a pub, several food options and plenty of room to take a break. Stevens Pass offers three separate base lodges that have stores, restaurants, a coffee shop and wireless Internet access.

BEST SNOW
Pros: Mount Baker
Readers: Mission Ridge
TNT: Mount Baker
Maybe Mission Ridge gets better snow, but nobody gets more snow than Baker. And after a season like last season, any snow is good snow. Baker set a national record in the 1998-99 season with 1,096 inches. Mission Ridge gets less snow, but on the east side of the Cascades it gets lighter, drier snow. “It’s more like the snow you get in Idaho,” Mission general manager Mark Milliette says. “It’s not that heavy maritime snow you get on the west side.”

BEST SKI PATROL
Pros: Crystal Mountain
Readers: Crystal Mountain
TNT: Crystal Mountain
From handing out avalanche-dog trading cards to striking up conversations on the lifts, Crystal’s ski patrol has made an effort to connect with skiers and boarders. “I’ve often wondered if people know what’s going on when those explosions rattle their windshields at 8:30 in the morning,” Kircher says. “The ski patrol puts in a lot of work each morning just to make the mountain safe.”

BEST MEDICAL CLINIC
Pros: Crystal Mountain
Readers: Crystal and the Summit
TNT: Summit at Snoqualmie
Both resorts are working to upgrade their on-site medical clinics. Both have portable defibrillators. Kircher wants to add an X-ray machine at Crystal. The Summit West is across the street from the Snoqualmie Pass Fire Department, where many volunteer firefighters also work for the Summit.

BEST CHAIRLIFT
Pros: High Campbell, Crystal
Readers: Rainier Express, Crystal
TNT: Rainier Express, Crystal
High Campbell accesses nothing but double-diamond runs such as Powder Bowl and Campbell Basin. It’s also the lift you’ll need to access the even steeper South Country runs. Rainier Express has a much wider selection of popular runs for intermediates (Lucky Shot and Green Valley), the advanced (Iceberg Gulch and Snorting Elk) and experts (the North Country).

BEST PARKING
Pros: Crystal Mountain
Readers: Crystal Mountain
TNT: Mount Baker
If you get there early, no place beats Crystal. It can be hard to find a spot by Baker’s Heather Meadows Lodge, but some roadside parking allows you to ski to and from your car.

WORST PARKING
Pros: Summit at Snoqualmie
Readers: Crystal Mountain
TNT: Stevens Pass
That’s right, the readers picked Crystal for best and worst parking. Get to the slopes early and you can park 30 yards from the ticket counter. Get there late on a busy day and you could have a 3/4-mile walk. The Summit can get crowded, and at Stevens Pass you’ll likely have to walk across U.S. Highway 2 in your ski boots to get to the hill. On rare occasions skiers have turned around without skiing at Stevens, because they couldn’t find parking, former resort spokeswoman Lori Vandenbrink said last year.

BEST PLACE TO GET GEAR STOLEN
Pros: Summit at Snoqualmie
Readers: Summit at Snoqualmie
TNT: Summit at Snoqualmie
Summit spokesman Guy Lawrence says thieves come to the slopes just to steal snowboards. He suggests locking up your gear when you’re not on the slopes. The Summit is installing new surveillance cameras for this season.

BEST TERRAIN PARK
Pros: Summit at Snoqualmie
Readers: Summit at Snoqualmie
TNT: Summit at Snoqualmie
The Summit edged out Stevens Pass, something even youth marketing director Krush Kulesza admits wouldn’t have been the case a few years ago. The resort has committed itself to having the state’s best terrain park, including adding 50 new jibs for this season.

BEST EVENT
Pros: Mount Baker’s Legendary Banked Slalom
Readers: White Pass’ Winter Carnival
TNT: Mount Baker’s Legendary Banked Slalom
White Pass’ Winter Carnival is loaded with everything from ski races, demo day and kids’ tubing runs in a snow castle. Mount Baker’s Legendary Banked Slalom is the oldest snowboard race in the nation. The winner gets the Duct Tape Trophy.

BEST EASTERN WASHINGTON SKI AREA
Pros: Mission Ridge
Readers: Mission Ridge
TNT: Mission Ridge
Mission is one of the state’s most underrated hills, and it’s the state’s only area that’s home to two current members of the United States Ski and Snowboard team. Both Olympic slalom specialist Tom Rothrock and Olympic snowboarding hopeful Ryan McDonald call Mission home.

BEST REGIONAL SKI AREA
Pros: Whistler Blackcomb<
Readers: Whistler Blackcomb
TNT: Whistler Blackcomb
Idaho’s Sun Valley, Oregon’s Mount Bachelor and Montana’s Big Sky would have received a lot more votes were they not competing against a resort that is regularly voted the best in North America. Whistler Blackcomb will host skiing events at the 2010 Olympics.

BEST NIGHT SKIING
Pros: Summit at Snoqualmie
Readers: Summit at Snoqualmie
TNT: Stevens Pass
No resort has more night terrain than the Summit, which added more lights for its terrain park this season. Summit West is freshly groomed at 4 p.m. three nights a week. Stevens has a little less night terrain than the Summit, but lights up more challenging terrain than other resorts.

BEST CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING
Pros: Sun Mountain Lodge
Readers: White Pass
TNT: White Pass
Sun Mountain Lodge in the Methow Valley has 37 miles of trails, and most are groomed for skate skiing. “It’s a great place for beginners and absolute experts,” cross-country author Steve Hindman says. “It has everything.” White Pass also is extremely popular thanks to its variety of terrain, its scenic loop around White Pass Lake and its quality grooming.

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