Washington skiers find groomed trails better than expected

Joel Attaway reared back and let a snowball fly.

The Graham resident was trying to knock a beer can off the top of a ski pole from about 30 feet away. He missed, then he missed again.

But on a warm Friday afternoon, 6,000 feet above sea level at White Pass, Attaway had just one word to describe what’s shaping up to be the Northwest’s worst ski season in a decade.

“Perfect,” Attaway said. “You couldn’t ask for any better groomed-run skiing. Seriously.”

Sure, in the middle of February he’d typically be skiing through the trees looking for stashes of powder, but Friday he was focusing on what he had — good groomed trails.

“It’s not as bad as a lot of people think,” Attaway said.

This weekend’s ski races at White Pass will continue as planned. The platter-pull is still operating, so newbies can hone their craft. And after being closed earlier in the week, White Pass plans to offer daily operations throughout school spring breaks.

“The news isn’t that there isn’t snow in the base areas,” Attaway said. “Everybody knows that. The news is that the skiing is pretty good when you get up higher. It’s great, actually.”

Thanks to crews grooming and moving snow, White Pass is one five ski areas that have been able to stay at least partially open despite a snowpack that’s 39 percent of normal.

One skier described the work White Pass grooming crews do to keep the ski area open as “the world’s most impressive comb-over.”

“In a year when we don’t have snow lower, and it seems bleak, the guys at White Pass have pulled a rabbit out of the hat,” Attaway said.

“Look at this,” he said, gesturing at the groomed run from a table he shared with friends and his wife outside the High Camp Lodge. “How can it get any better?”

White Pass poked fun at the scary ski season with a Friday the 13th Party.

Adults tossed snowballs at beer cans to win prizes from Yakima’s Bale Breaker Brewing Co. Children used an old ski pole to beat the candy out of a frowny-face sun piñata.

“There might not be a ton of snow, but we are definitely enjoying what we have,” said Jon Mullen of Moxee.

The ski areas believe they are dealing with a double-whammy of sorts. A significant snow shortage and a perception that conditions are even worse than they really are.

With images of exposed grass and shrubs circulating and the closure of the Summit at Snoqualmie, the state’s most popular ski area, other areas have had trouble convincing skiers and snowboarders that the slopes are worth the trip.

There’s even chatter that this is the worst ski season on record.

“Not even close,” said Kathleen Goyette of White Pass, one of the ski areas hit hardest during the 2004-05 season.

A decade ago, White Pass was open a record low 21 days. It’s been open 53 days this year and expects to be open 58 more.

And while the snowpack might not be any better than 2004-05 (Mount Baker reports it has 169 inches this year compared with 232 through February in 2004-05), much has changed at the ski areas.

Many have invested in summer grooming operations in which they clear brush on the slopes so they can open with less snow.

Crystal Mountain’s gondola allows it to whisk skiers and snowboarders over much of the poorly covered terrain to the better snow on its upper mountain. Mission Ridge has one of the Northwest’s largest snow-making systems. And White Pass has more than 700 acres of higher-elevation terrain it didn’t have a decade ago.

“The conditions above the 5,000-foot level are just excellent,” Goyette said. “We’ve got great coverage, wall-to-wall, on most of the runs up here. And there’s nothing better than skiing in the sunshine.

“It feels like a great spring day.”