Dry Northwest winter has ski resorts hoping and scrambling

Staff writerJanuary 2, 2014 

When nature isn’t cooperating, there’s not a whole lot ski resort operators can do to drum up business.

But after a month of unusually low snowfall in Washington’s Cascades, some resorts are going to extremes.

At The Summit at Snoqualmie Pass, which is still closed to skiers and snowboarders three weeks into its normal season, crews scooped up 300 truckloads of snow from parking lots on Tuesday and hauled it to a tubing area a few miles east.

“We’ve been asking ourselves, ‘How do we fight back a little bit here?’” said Guy Lawrence, a spokesman for The Summit.

“Snow from the parking lot is perhaps not the best snow, but it’s better than nothing,” he said. “Instead of wasting that snow, we went for that and we got three lanes open and we’re now running day and night for tubing. It’s like one small victory on the board.”

The Summit, which includes of four ski areas — Alpental, Summit West, Summit Central and Summit East — is situated at the lowest elevation of the Cascades ski resorts and is suffering the most.

But all are feeling the effects of the drought.

Crystal Mountain, Washington’s largest ski resort with 2,600 acres of skiable terrain when conditions are good, is open for business, but just eight of its 10 lifts are operating.

The resort lowered ticket prices to make up for the less than optimal conditions. Crystal is charging $52 instead of $66 for daily lift-only tickets, and $60 for lift and gondola tickets, which are normally $74.

“While it might not be outrageously good conditions, people are still coming out and having a lot of fun,” said Tiana Enger, Crystal Mountain’s marketing director.

Enger said Thursday that the resort had received just 76 inches of snow so far this season, about 60 percent of what’s considered normal. At its base Crystal has just 13 inches of snow, half the normal depth. Still, the upper two-thirds of the mountain is well-covered, Enger said.

“We’ve had a slow start in terms of snowfall,” she said, “but the good news is, we’re open.

“At Summit they don’t have any money coming in and all their employees are on standby.”

To make things easier on snow-lovers, Crystal is honoring some Summit ski passes and offering cut rates for others.

“We’re extending them a little bit of love,” Engers said.

Skiers with gold passes at Summit can ski for free at Crystal, and holders of other less inclusive passes can buy daily lift tickets at Crystal for $25, about half price.

“We’re just hoping for more snow,” Enger said. “We’ve got some time. We just feel really fortunate to have what we have.”

Snow flurries and colder, drier weather forecast for Friday and Saturday have increased hopes at Summit that it might be able to begin a snow-making operation, at least on a small scale.

“We definitely intend to try to make something happen if we can,” Lawrence said. “Humid weather conditions don’t do you any favors, but as you get into any kind of a colder, drier situation, that definitely puts you back in a better position.”

The Mount Baker Ski Area, which is higher and farther north, has been spared some of the angst of other Washington resorts. An inch of rain fell at the Mount Baker resort on Thursday, but still the main runs were reportedly in good condition.

The National Weather Service is predicting six to 10 inches of snow in the higher elevations of the Cascades on Friday. That’s not enough to change much, but it does keep hope alive.

Ski operators say there’s a chance the season will turn around. In 1981 and 2005, dry conditions persisted through the winter, while in 1990 and 1996 heavy snowfall arrived in the second half of the winter and saved the ski seasons.

Washington is not alone in the snow shortage. Snowpack levels are lower than usual in Oregon, too. In the Oregon Cascades, counties are reporting snowpack levels less than 50 percent of average. Oregon’s Hoodoo Ski Area, east of Eugene, needs 36 inches of snow to open but had less than eight inches on Thursday.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693

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