When Lisa Lawrence lived in Moab, Utah, you’d have had to tie her to a snowplow to get her to Washington state for a ski vacation.
Now living in Tacoma, she’s gone from skiing five times a week to four times a year.
“The term ‘Cascade concrete’ is right,” Lawrence said of Washington’s famously challenging firm snow. “You just don’t think of Washington when you think of ski destinations.”
That perception has led to what the state’s ski industry calls “leakage.”
“We export many more ski vacations than we import,” said Scott Kaden, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Area Association. Based on the experience of the state’s top ski areas, they agree with Kaden.
In 2010, the industry gets a golden opportunity to plug the leak when the region takes the world stage for the Winter Olympics, 40 miles over the Washington border in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.
However, Washington’s less than ideal weather, lack of overnight accommodations and expansion limitations make it unlikely it can use the Olympics to springboard into the national spotlight.
Many in the industry believe the leak will have to be plugged by convincing more Washington skiers and snowboarders to take less of their business to ski destinations like Colorado and British Columbia.
“We need to be realistic about this,” said White Pass general manager Kevin McCarthy. “We aren’t going to be another Vail (Colo.), but we can make improvements that keep our skiers and snowboarders home more.”
In September, the state’s resorts incorporated their once informal marketing arm, Ski Washington. Stevens Pass general manager John Gifford, Ski Washington’s president, says the organization will use its first few meetings to “find the best way to make hay with the Olympics in our backyard.”
Its biggest obstacles will be the state’s wet and heavy snow conditions and U.S. Forest Service limitations on land development.
“We have great terrain but we don’t have the facilities to back it up if we want to become a ski destination,” said Crystal Mountain owner John Kircher.
Popular destination resorts such as Idaho’s Sun Valley and British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb have large villages with luxury hotels, spas, ice rinks, hospitals and four-star restaurants at the base of their ski areas.
Most of Washington’s ski areas have little more than cafeteria-style dining, a pro shop, a bar and a parking lot.
Crystal Mountain, The Summit at Snoqualmie and White Pass each has some lodging, but most overnight ski trips in Washington require at least a 30-minute drive from the hotel to the slopes.
And because Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia boast well-known destination resorts, Washington is fighting an uphill battle.
Local ski areas won’t be getting extra help from Olympia. The state Department of Tourism doesn’t track skiing’s economic impact and uses none of its $3.5 million budget to market any activity more than others, said department spokeswoman Michelle Zahrly.
According to a 2004 department survey, skiing isn’t a major draw for Washington. It accounted for 2 percent of overnight recreational trips – about the same as cycling and horseback riding. Hiking and beach visits led the way, each accounting for 17 percent.
Last season, Washington ski resorts had their second-most visits, 2.14 million, down about 13,500 from the 2001-2002 season.
Still, that doesn’t compare to popular destinations like Utah. Last season, 4.1 million skiers and snowboarders had a more than $800 million impact on that state’s economy, said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, the state ski industry’s marketing organization.
Kircher knows what would happen if he built a small village with condos at the base of Crystal Mountain on the northeast border of Mount Rainier National Park.
“We’d have the coolest regional destination resort you’d ever see,” he said. “And people would be trampling each other to purchase the condos.”
Such was the case in 2004 when Tamarack Resort opened near McCall, Idaho. In January 2005, the resort sold 134 properties ranging from $325,000 to $1.5 million in one day.
And Tamarack is quickly emerging as a major four-season destination resort, even luring President Bush for a summer vacation.
While Crystal’s 1,300 acres are 200 acres larger and more challenging than Tamarack, the Idaho resort has the one thing destination resorts must have if they want to erect mini-cities at the base of their lifts: Tamarack’s 800-acre base area is on private land.
All of Washington’s six major ski areas are on U.S. Forest Service land, meaning that if they want to expand they face reams of paperwork, detailed environmental impact studies and building limitations.
Crystal waited seven years and spent $5 million on consultants to get Forest Service approval for its current master plan to expand its terrain and hotel service. White Pass in Lewis County is four years into an effort to get the OK to double its terrain to about 1,200 acres.
“If we were on private land, this would have been done decades ago,” McCarthy said. “The Forest Service will never let Washington resorts expand so that we look like Tahoe, and that’s not a bad thing. In some ways the Northwest is the last bastion of wild lands, and we need to protect that. Just give us a couple acres.”
Should Washington determine it needs a destination resort to be competitive, the logical location would be Mount Adams in Yakima County. The Yakama Indian Nation owns the undeveloped east side of the 12,281-foot volcano and wouldn’t have to meet Forest Service standards.
“But let’s hope we don’t have to tape wings to that elephant,” said Chris Rudolph, marketing director for Stevens Pass. “I don’t think anybody really expects that to happen.”
In 2004, Mount Hood Meadows Development Corp. approached the tribe to build an 11,000-acre resort with 10 lifts, a casino, three golf courses and 2,500 housing units. The tribe declined because “it infringed on the environmental and spiritual integrity of the area,” said Ronnie L. Washines, editor of the Yakama Nation Review.
“This won’t likely happen in our lifetimes,” Washines said.
‘THE W FACTOR’
An even bigger challenge than public land limitations might be the Northwest’s weather.
As editor of California-based OnTheSnow.com, J.D. O’Connor gets daily inquiries from readers planning ski and snowboard vacations.
Few ask about Washington.
“The perception is that the Pacific Northwest has wet, heavy snow,” O’Connor said. “Most people want to go some place known for light powder, like Colorado or Utah.”
Washington’s major ski resorts typically get plenty of snow – an average of 395 inches a year – but the Northwest’s climate doesn’t produce the most skiable snow.
Compared to Utah, for instance, Washington’s snow falls in a wetter and warmer climate, making it more dense and quicker to freeze. Heavy powder and firm snow make skiing and boarding more challenging.
“If you can ski in Washington, you can rip any place in the world,” said Rudolph. “But ‘Come ski our hard snow’ doesn’t exactly make a great marketing slogan.”
Utah’s top resorts average 430 inches of snow, higher elevation and a colder, drier climate that assures fluffier snow.
“At Brighton, we can pretty much count on having good snow every year,” said Kircher, who owns the Utah resort and lives in Seattle. “Here, entire months of our business can swing on one precipitation event. You have good years and bad years where you are just breaking even.
“You have these plans, but the big ‘W factor’ impacts how much return you get from the capital you can put into a resort. So you work just to stay up to date and before you know it 10 years have gone by. That’s why in many ways Washington is behind a little bit.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Mount Baker Ski Area at the eastern terminus of Highway 542 in Whatcom County might best embody what some believe is the future image of the Washington ski industry.
Not only does the resort not have a hotel, but it also has no TVs in the bar or advertising on the walls. It even removed the Pepsi logos from the vending machines.
“We’re not a destination resort and we are making a strong effort to go in the opposite direction,” said Gwyn Howat, Mount Baker’s marketing director. “When people finally arrive here we want them to feel like they’ve arrived at a ski resort, not another corner of corporate America. … It’s the way nature intended it.”
Howat says Baker sacrifices about $50,000 in corporate sponsorships to maintain its image. However, the ski area has become a cult destination, especially for snowboarders.
As the local industry determines how to market itself to the world, many believe Washington should follow Mount Baker’s lead and promote itself as a counterculture destination.
“Not everybody wants to spend their vacation at a megaresort,” Rudolph said. “Some people just want good skiing – we’ve got plenty of that.”
Crystal Mountain and Alpental, one of The Summit at Snoqualmie’s four ski areas, already have national reputations for their expert terrain.
“Washington will never be a Colorado-style destination,” said Summit public relations manager Jon Pretty. “We need to promote ourselves for what we are – day-use ski and snowboard areas with great terrain.”
While this likely won’t draw the coveted fat-wallet family vacationers, it might lure the hardcore ski bums.
“People who come here are intending to experience their sport,” said Kaden of the Northwest ski association. “They’re not worried about spa treatments and five-star restaurants.”
COURTING THE SKI BUM
In the coming years, Crystal Mountain will open 600 more acres of skiing, add 250 hotel rooms to its base area, replace its summit lodge and build a base-to-summit tram.
While this will make it the closest thing Washington will have to a destination resort, Kircher’s view of the future isn’t so different from the just-the-basics approach of Mount Baker.
“I think we will always be almost 100 percent local,” Kircher said of his customers. “We talk about wanting to bring in people from out of state, but on weekends, we wonder if we can handle more people. The local day-use model is a good business.”
Dave Riley, general manager of Mount Hood Meadows, has similar plans for his Oregon day resort.
“With the exception of Mount Bachelor, Oregon is like Washington,” Riley said. “We have good skiing, but people don’t want to come here because, for the most part, your hotel is going to be 30 miles from the ski area. It’s a bit of a hassle when you can go stay at resort like Whistler or Sun Valley.
“We need to be looking at building modest, tasteful lodging at base areas like Crystal and White Pass. And we need to make it easier to get to the mountain, whether that be public transportation, trams or highway improvements.”
If for no other reason, he adds, such improvements are needed to keep up with local wants and population growth.
“Even if that’s not enough to get the guy in Chicago to get on a plane and come to the Northwest,” Riley said, “it might be enough to keep people in the Northwest home instead of taking their money to Colorado and Utah.”
50 TRAILS FOR SKIS AND SNOWSHOES
Nonmotorized Sno-Parks are some of the most popular cross-country skiing trail systems in the state. To use these trail systems, you must purchase a vehicle pass. Passes are $9 per day, $21 for a season pass and an additional $21 for a Special Groomed Trail pass. For more info, visit parks.wa.gov/winter.
* denotes Special Groomed Trail pass required.
OTHER WESTERN WASHINGTON TRAIL SYSTEMS
OTHER METHOW VALLEY/LEAVENWORTH TRAIL SYSTEMS
Craig Hill: 253-597-8497