When the Summit at Snoqualmie finally fires up its chairlifts Friday morning, ski resort operators around the Cascades will breathe a sigh of relief, even though many have been open since early December.
“For a lot of people, it seems like if the Summit at Snoqualmie isn’t open, then it isn’t legitimately ski season yet,” said Tiana Enger, marketing director at Crystal Mountain, which has been open since Dec. 2. “Now that they’re opening, hopefully the message gets out and wakes people up.”
Summit West is scheduled to open Friday; Summit Central will open Saturday and Alpental will open Sunday, resort spokesman Guy Lawrence said.
“It’s actually pretty good out there right now,” Lawrence said Thursday after skiing a few test runs at Summit West.
The Summit is the state’s most visited ski area and the closest to a major population center. Located along Interstate 90, it’s also arguably the easiest to access and the most visible.
“We in the industry see the Summit as the billboard for our sport,” said Kathleen Goyette, marketing director at White Pass Ski Area, where the runs have been open since Dec. 12. “That is where so many people go to learn to ski. It is critical to our industry statewide.”
But with a base area just 3,022 feet above sea level, the Summit is almost 1,000 feet lower than any other major Washington ski area, making it most susceptible to late starts. And when the Summit starts late, it often means less traffic for the open ski areas.
“It’s human nature to drive over Snoqualmie Pass, see that it’s closed and assume everybody is suffering,” Goyette said.
White Pass saw fewer visitors than normal in December, though Goyette said she has yet to see the official numbers. While the White Pass snowpack was only 5 percent of normal on Jan. 1, according to Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, the ski area still opened 80 percent of its runs.
At Crystal, skier visits were down about 40 percent over the holidays, Enger said, even with a large amount of its terrain open and steep discounts offered to Summit season pass holders. (The Summit and Crystal are owned by Boyne Resorts.)
The Summit might unintentionally set the tone for ski season, but it gets a little help.
“No offense, but I think the media helps solidify that concept in people’s minds,” said John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Area Association and the former general manager of the state’s second most visited ski area, Stevens Pass. “But we understand. It’s been closed and that’s the fact of the matter.”
For better or worse, Gifford and others in the industry feel as if local news media are most likely to report about mountain weather from Snoqualmie Pass because of its location and popularity.
“But it goes both ways,” Enger said. “When they report that the Summit is opening, it’s like it flips on the light for people. It’s just the way it goes.”
The snow that’s finally allowing the Summit to open is benefitting the region’s other ski areas, too.
At Crystal, where the resort has opened on and off since Oct. 1, 8 inches of fresh powder could mean the popular Northway lift will open this weekend. As of Thursday evening, Crystal’s snow depth was 17 inches at the base and 54 inches at its summit.
At White Pass, where the base was 12 inches Thursday, three advanced runs opened thanks to 10 inches of new snow, and the ski area could be at full strength by Saturday, Goyette said. The snow depth was 60 inches at the summit.
Stevens Pass received eight inches of new snow Thursday. With a 43-inch base, it is operating all of its lifts, but not all runs were open. Mount Baker benefited from 14 inches of snow Thursday and reported a base of 78 inches.
Now that all of the Cascade’s ski areas are open, resort operators hoped Thursday’s storms were a sign of what the rest of the season holds.
Still, it’s probably too late in terms of the resorts’ bottom lines.
“It’s like in retail,” Gifford said. “If you don’t make it in November and December, it’s pretty hard to make it up.”
“You just have to hang in there and roll with the punches,” Lawrence said. “You have slow starters like this season, but you just hope most of the time you end up on the right side of the balance sheet.”
Rainier snowplay still needs more snow
Despite about a foot of fresh snow Thursday, there was still not enough to open the snowplay area at Mount Rainier National Park.
“We’re kind of watching it day by day,” chief ranger Chuck Young said. “At this point, we are not anticipating opening the snowplay area this weekend.
“As of right now, looking at the forecast, we are supposed to get some substantial rain into this weekend, so we don’t want people to get their hopes up.”
The problem has been the cycle of snowstorms followed by rainstorms. The snowpack grew as new snow fell, only to recede when warmer weather and rain came through.
On Wednesday, the snowpack at the Paradise snowplay area was 52 inches. Park officials want at least 60 inches to make sure vegetation is protected and that there is enough snow to build safety berms along the sled runs.
Park staff members also have to top off some 20 to 30 trees that sit where the runs will be groomed, Young said. They don’t want the tips to jut out as the snow gets packed down, posing a danger to sledders.
While the snowplay will not open, Young said, there still is plenty for winter visitors to the park.
“The snowshoeing, and skiing and snowboarding is great right now,” he said.
For information, visit the Summit at Snoqualmie website, summitatsnoqualmie.com.