Spokane Journal of Business

High Hopes on the Slopes

Mild forecast hasn’t dampened optimism of ski resort operators

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The first flakes flew at Schweitzer Mountain Resort, north of Sandpoint, on the final days of October.
-—Schweitzer Mountain Resort

Inland Northwest ski resort operators say the early start to ski season last year has skiers eager to hit the slopes again, despite forecasts that an El Niño weather pattern is bringing a warmer and wetter
winter season. 

“Things are looking good, and we’re gearing up for another great season,” says Brad McQuarrie, general manager at Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park. “It’s hard to say how the weather will turn out, but we’re still expecting plenty of snow up on the mountain.” 

John Eminger, president and owner of 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort, says season pass sales are up this year for the ski hill northeast of
Chewelah, Wash.

“I’m not going to lose any sleep over the forecast, as ski areas are usually high enough up to get enough snow,” he says. “A milder winter may just mean less snow in town and on the roads, which would actually make it easier for people to travel up to
visit us.”

Brian Breffel, general manager for Lookout Ski Resort, on the Idaho-Montana border, says it’s too early to tell just how the weather will affect the season.

“You take what you get; that’s the nature of the ski business,” he says. “We’re not too worried at the moment. It’s usually best to plan for a good year and adjust things as you go along.”

Last ski season, snow came early with plenty falling in the mountains, following a similarly cold and snowy winter the year before. Some hills already received their first snowflakes of the season during the final days of October. 

 

Mt. Spokane 

While Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park, about 30 miles north of Spokane, is one that’s already had some snow, McQuarrie says crews are still working to wrap up some recent construction projects before opening.

“We’re adding a new chairlift, and we’ve nearly completed a new learning center to house our ski school programs,” he says. “We’re hoping to wrap up the remainder of construction in time for an early November opening.”

According to McQuarrie, the new lift will provide access to seven new runs and a total of 279 more acres of terrain. 

“This new lift adds almost another third of size to the current ski area, and it’s the first major improvement here since the 1970s, so we’re excited to be opening it,” he says.

The soon-to-be-completed Mountain Sports School learning center is a 3,800-square-foot building, designed by ALSC Architects PS, of Spokane. The building is located at the bottom of the resort’s main parking lot ramp.

McQuarrie says the building will include office space for more than 100 instructors and a warming area for parents and children. The bottom floor of the building will contain storage and a large shop area with mezzanine for the resort’s mountain operations department.

McQuarrie says a new retaining wall has also been added around the expanded learning area slope, providing enough space for a new surface lift.

Additional work at Mt. Spokane prior to the start of the season has included new night lighting, slope maintenance, and run improvements.

McQuarrie says the resort held its annual job fair the last weekend of October and plans to hire about 300 employees for the season.

“We set a new record for season pass sales this year, about 500 more than last year,” he says. “We consider that to be pretty significant.” 

Mt. Spokane has six chairlifts, 52 runs, and a vertical drop of 2,000 feet.

Full-price adult lift tickets are $59 on weekends and holidays, and $45 on midweek, non-holiday dates.

 

49 Degrees North

At 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort, about 60 miles north of Spokane, Eminger says he’s optimistic for another good season.

“In the Pacific Northwest, our population is growing, and a big reason people move here is to enjoy outdoor recreation,” he says. “We’re fortunate that the ski areas here are all well managed and operated, which keeps them coming back year after year.”

Eminger says 49 Degrees has some snow already but likely won’t open until closer to Thanksgiving.

“We’re not sure yet when we’ll open, but usually it’s around Thanksgiving, give or take a week,” he says. “With more snow production, we could potentially be open sooner.”

This past off-season, Eminger says, “We gave Chair 4 a new tow rope, which was an epic six-week process,” he says. “We’ve also converted two of our yurts to include a bar, as well as a food and warming spot in one of our more remote areas.”

Eminger says the resort also has increased its snow-production capabilities and slope maintenance this year, and also has moved some of its webcams to different summit areas.

“We’ll be starting a new women’s club on Mondays, and we have several military and veterans events planned again this year,” he says.

Eminger says season pass sales are up 12 percent over last year, and the resort will continue to sell lift tickets through Costco.

“Season pass sales, and interest in general, I perceive to be very good,” he says. “This year’s job fair saw about 500 applicants, and we plan to hire between 150 and 175 people for the season.”

The 2,325-acre ski area has seven lifts, 82 runs, and a vertical drop of 1,850 feet.

Adult lift tickets are $59 on weekends and holidays and $49 midweek.

 

Silver Mountain 

Silver Mountain Resort, near Kellogg, Idaho, about 70 miles east of Spokane, is preparing to for a post-Thanksgiving opener this year, says the resort’s general manager Jeff Colburn. 

“We’re on pace to open the day after Thanksgiving,” he says. “We got about 4 inches of snow yesterday (November 4), so it’s starting to stack up nicely.”

Colburn says the resort held its job fair a week ago and is close to having a full staff of 150 people. He says season pass sales are also up from last year.

“Season pass sales are doing great. We’re actually a bit ahead of last year so it’s a good position to be in,” he says. 

Colburn says Silver Mountain also has added four new runs and widened a fifth, in an effort to offer experienced skiers steeper terrain.

“We’ve increased grooming to add some higher-angle stuff this year,” he says. “It should make for some great skiing.”

Colburn says the resort also has remodeled the food court at its lodge this year to speed up the flow of lunchtime traffic and has expanded its menu.

“This year, we’re also offering the option of online booking for all of our ski school and tubing,” he adds. “Tubing has started to become a popular part of our winter offerings here, as it’s a sport anyone can do and have fun with.”

When considering a potentially mild winter in the forecast for the area this season, Colburn says the resort wants to be ready for anything.

“There are always conflicting reports,” he says. “We have limited snow making so we try to make sure our runs are well maintained and ready to go. All you can do is expect the best but be prepared for the worst.”

The 1,600-acre Silver Mountain Resort has 74 runs, two terrain parks, and a vertical drop of 2,200 feet. In addition to its famous gondola, Silver Mountain has five chairlifts on the ski hill and a conveyer lift on its
tubing hill.

Adult full-day lift tickets are $57 most days and $62 during holiday periods.

 

Lookout Pass

At Lookout Pass, located about 90 miles east of Spokane, just off of Interstate 90, the resort staff is just waiting for enough snow to start the season, Breffel says.

“Like many of the area resorts, we’re coming off a record year last year and a strong summer too,” says Breffel. “We have the hill prepped and ready, so now we’re just waiting on snow.”

He says season pass sales for Lookout are close to 10 percent higher than last year, with the resort’s early pass sales having just ended.

“We’ve got a couple of new ski programs, including a season rental program and other packages geared toward beginners,” he says. “We also have a new ski school instructor who is experienced in kids’ programs.”

Breffel says the resort completed its job fair Saturday but is still hiring for open positions.

“We hope to have between 140 and 150 employees this year,” he says.

Breffel says the resort started work during the summer on a new development that eventually will add 14 new runs and two new chairlifts to the backside of the mountain.

“We started the project a bit later than expected, so we’ve only just started laying out the runs and creating an access road,” he says. “By next year, we hope to have all of the runs and the first lift ready to go.”

Breffel says the new development will nearly double the resort’s skiable terrain to 1,023 acres and increase its vertical drop to 1,650 feet.

Lookout Pass currently has four lifts, 35 named runs, and a vertical drop of 1,150 feet.

Adult lift prices are $47 on weekends, $49 during holiday periods, and $44 midweek.

 

Schweitzer 

Schweitzer Mountain Resort, just north of Sandpoint, Idaho, also hopes to open the first Friday after Thanksgiving, says the resort’s marketing manager Dig Chrismer.

“It’s all weather dependent,” she says. “There’s talk of El Niño, but it sounds like it should be at least an average winter, which would still be a good season.”

Chrismer says the resort has made several capital improvements for this season, including upgrades to its Wi-Fi services and a new agreement with a transportation provider.

“We have a new partnership with the Selkirks Pend Oreille Transit bus system that will enable bus riders to travel directly from Sandpoint or Ponderay to our Red Barn parking lot at the base of the mountain for free,” she says. “It’s a fantastic new service that will hopefully make it a bit easier for guests to get here and navigate the mountain.”

Chrismer says season pass sales have been strong again this year. The resort has almost finished hiring staff and should have about 600 employees total at peak season.

“We’re hoping for a good season,” she says.

The 2,900-acre ski area has four terrain parks, 92 runs, and a vertical drop of 2,400 feet.

Adult full-day lift tickets are $81, although lift tickets are on special through Nov. 15.

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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