November 24, 1996

Just Enjoy The Snow Silver And Schweitzer May Have Some Headaches To Deal With, But Skiers Will Only Notice Better Grooming, Other Improvements

Eric Torbenson Staff writer
 

How does snow that’s in receivership feel compared to regular snow? Is it true that they’re going to replace Kellogg’s Gondola with a 3-mile-long rope tow?

That’s what Inland Northwest skiers wonder when thinking about the big dogs of our little corner of the ski world, Schweitzer Mountain Resort and Silver Mountain Resort.

The answers are as follows: skiers won’t notice anything different at Schweitzer, now in receivership while its owners sort out financial quagmire; and no, the trademark gondola in Kellogg isn’t going anywhere, despite its new owners trying to develop another ski resort in Oregon that needs a gondola just slightly shorter than the one at Silver.

It’s been the most eventful off-season ever in Inland Northwest skiing, with practically every ski hill in these parts having some sort of ownership change or crisis. But forget all that. Let’s talk powder. Let’s talk chutes and glades. Steeps and deeps.

It’s all here for us, and Silver and Schweitzer boast some of the best conditions you’ll find in the West. Well, on most days, at least.

How both of these resorts got into financial doo-doo in the first place has a lot to do with Mother Nature. Ask any well-traveled skier: When we get a few sunny, not-so-windy days following a wonderful powder dump, our slopes can squeeze the adrenal glands of even the most dedicated powder-hounds.

What we lack is that consistent snow-overnight, sun-the-next-day mojo that those Utah and Colorado haunts enjoy.

We’ll get the snow part - Silver piles up more than 220 inches a year on average, and Schweitzer boasts 300 - but we’ll also get visits from Mr. Gale Force Wind and Mr. Soup-thick Fog. Winds knock out Silver’s gondola and even Schweitzer’s quad lift. Fog enshrouds Schweitzer so heavily at times that skiers have only gravity to suggest which way is down.

Our season’s shorter than most, and the weather can turn a pleasant morning into a Jack London short story in a hurry. Both of our fair ski hills have tried to sell themselves as “destination” resorts, pricing their lift tickets accordingly, but the unpleasant truth appears to be that not enough of skiing’ bourgeoisie agreed.

The big news from Kellogg this year is cheaper ticket prices all the way around. Silver dropped its weekday lift tickets from $31 for adults to just $20. Weekend rates fell to $28 as well. The idea is to pack more bodies on the hill.

The move doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Clearly, something had to change in the world of the Inland Northwest ski resort. Silver’s original investors got soaked and, after six years, sold the place for a refrain, not even a song. Schweitzer’s owners are a misstep away from mailing the keys back to the bank.

But worry not, eager skier. Just pack up the sport utility vehicle and ski ‘em both. While they’re still here.

The best thing about Schweitzer and Silver is that they really do have amenities and niceties that rival the Whistlers and other suave ski retreats. What Silver and Schweitzer lack are long lift lines, crowded slopes and the subtle waft of snobbery that settles over tonier spots.

Midweek skiing at either hill can give skiers the feeling of owning their own world-class resort, because they can find tree skiing, powder chutes or mogul fields all to themselves. For hours.

Both Silver and Schweitzer have improved their grooming habits, sinking cash into fancy Italian groomers and aggressively getting after more runs than before. Silver Mountain has another Prinoth groomer from Italy to match the one they bought last year. The mountain’s new operators have sunk a fair amount of cash into the place, upwards of $400,000.

A new computer system, new paint for much of the base lodge and nifty new snowmobiles for the staff aren’t amenities that skiers will dance jigs for, necessarily. But for Silver’s employees, it means the new bosses are serious about making a go of it. Morale should improve from the dark-clouded ownership days of old, and that means even better service from Silver’s staff.

Schweitzer’s big capital improvement project was rebuilding the Great Escape quad lift. It won’t be ready for use until mid-December, which will disappoint Thanksgiving skiers but be a relief to the Christmas/New Years crowd.

For a million bucks, skiers will get enclosed terminals on the top and bottom of the big lift. That means no more snow and ice caking up on the platforms and making the whole loading/unloading process more dicey than it already is. Schweitzer’s management says you’ll love it.

Schweitzer also features a new Terrain Park this season for snowboarders and skiers. The park features luge turns and a nice new half-pipe to catch the big air and come down fakey for more. (That begins and ends the snowboarder lingo segment of this piece.)

In an move that will elicit some groans from frequent day skiers at Schweitzer, a shiny new building next to the Day Lodge has temporarily swallowed a chunk of the big parking lot at the mountain. The Lazier Building will feature a restaurant, shops and condos when finished next year. Schweitzer promises to clean up the construction site to give back as much parking as possible. They say just six parking spaces will be lost in the mix. We’ll just have to see.

Building more lodging in Kellogg looks to be a high priority for Silver’s new owners, Eagle Crest Partners.

The company’s sister outfit, Trendwest Resorts, coordinates timeshare condos at nearly 20 resorts up and down the West Coast.

The company’s track record is to turn even out-of-the-way places like Kellogg into four-season resorts, adding rooms and even fancy golf courses to lure people.

Optimism remains high in Kellogg that Eagle Crest has similar plans in store for Silver Mountain, with rumors that the company will break ground right next to the base lodge for a three-story hotel/condominium complex. Stay tuned.

Brush cutting, the ski slope equivalent of oral hygiene, makes for better opening-day and spring conditions, and both resorts have made concerted efforts to take out the snags that can turn knee ligaments into spaghetti in the flash of a ski tip.

Silver Mountain did extensive work this summer on Centennial, Silver Belt and the Junction runs. A big plus: Silver Belt’s upper portion has been widened, and it should lose the nickname “Bowling Alley” because of it.

Guest services abound at both hills - good day care for non-skiing tots, complimentary ski check (though Schweitzer charged a buck for that last year, enraging some skiers) and the usual fee services for ski tuning and waxing.

Both joints have some pleasant bars gushing microbrews and apres-ski ambience. Sandpoint has plenty of places to continue to celebrate your successful navigation of the slopes, but only if you can make it down the access road/toboggan run.

Kellogg’s attempt at Alpine Villagedom is fledgling but trying awful hard, with bars that have real mining flavor to them. That doesn’t mean your drinks taste like lead and zinc.

As for the actual skiing itself, suffice it to say that any level of skier will find plenty of the type of terrain they thirst for at both places.

Schweitzer has a mild advantage over everyone else because it’s two, two, two ski bowls in one resort. Silver’s expert section requires a fair amount of snow to be really skiable, but when it is, it’s among the best in the West.

The early season snowfall suggests that this may be a slightly better ski season for the two big dogs than usual, and certainly a heckuva lot better than last year’s fiasco that featured plenty of moisture but not enough cold.

Things got so bad in the region that some ski resorts were open less than two weeks last year. Mount Spokane didn’t even open until after the New Year. Let’s put those horrid memories behind us.

Both ski areas will have classes and rentals for the new hourglassshaped ski technology. Also called “parabolic” or “shaped” skis, the new technology works this way: a wide tip and tail with dramatic side cuts creates the ultimate turning edge. Bottom line: skiers turn easier. Skiing becomes more fun. Pay no attention to fears that turning will become so easy with these new skis that tender knees will be torqued into oblivion.

Both Silver and Schweitzer will rent you a pair of these babies and teach you how to carve gracefully. As with all things new and exciting, you’ll pay a small premium for the thrill.

Both Silver and Schweitzer have some of the best ski schools you’ll find. Group lessons, private lessons, patient instruction for the wee ones, it’s all there. Both of these hills attract top-shelf instructors from around the West.

So rest easy, anxious carvers of the various kinds of snow out there: powder, mush, corn, receivership. The big two have had a rough spring and summer, but they’re as wonderful as you remember them. Get up there.

, DataTimes


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