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Ski season gets a longer run

Heavy and frequent snowfall has two Inland Northwest ski resorts predicting record attendance. Two others are extending their seasons by a week. And all of them agree on one thing:

This beats the pants off last year.

Lookout Pass, on the Montana-Idaho border, surpassed its attendance record for a single ski season. The resort expects 50,000 skiers and snowboarders to visit this year.

At Chewelah, Wash., 49 Degrees North announced that it, too, is on track to set an attendance record, anticipating 80,000 skier visits compared with an average of about 65,000.

Mount Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park secured permission from the Washington Parks Department over the weekend to bump back the ski resort’s closing date one week to April 9. That means it will be open to Spokane public school children who will be on spring break April 3-7. And it means it will match the closing dates of the region’s four other ski resorts.

When the snow kept on falling, Silver Mountain in Kellogg, Idaho, also decided to push back its closing date one week, to April 9, and to offer up “Silver Saturdays.” If business is decent the weekend of April 8-9, the resort will open April 15. And if attendance hits 1,000 on that day, Silver will open back up on April 22.

Though resort officials characterize this ski season as anywhere from “the best ever” to “an average, even slightly down year,” all agree the return to normalcy is widely welcome. Last year, some resorts closed early due to the paltry snowfall, some reported attendance that was one-third to one-quarter of normal, and one of Spokane’s best-known ski shops closed, due to a lack of business.

Brad McQuarrie, general manager of Mount Spokane, has marveled at the light snow that kept falling and falling over the past couple of weeks.

“It’s just been phenomenal. It just keeps coming and coming,” he said. “To have powder days one right after the other has just been phenomenal. We sure needed it after last year.”

And with more than 10 feet of snow remaining on the top of most local mountains, Silver Mountain marketing director Stephen Lane said people who switch sports as soon as the sun comes out miss some of the best skiing of the year.

“I hope people haven’t given up on winter,” Lane said. “We’ve got a lot of skiing left to do. That’s why we extended the season.”

The solid attendance and revenues have ski areas dusting off plans for improvements that were postponed last year. Most notably, 49 Degrees North intends to install a new ski lift to access its East Basin runs. Resort officials are hunting for a used triple- or quadruple-seat chairlift, said Gabe Lawson, sales and marketing director.

“I’m 90-plus percent sure it’s going to happen,” Lawson said. “We’re going to do it; it’s just finding the lift.”

Mount Spokane plans to spend $300,000 on a “winch cat” to groom steep runs and a “pipe dragon” to build a half-pipe in the terrain park.

“It’s a huge deal for us,” McQuarrie said. “We’ve been wanting to do that for a decade. We’re going to be able to groom areas we never thought possible in the past.”

Though the snow has been “absolutely incredible” at Schweitzer Mountain in Sandpoint, skier visits were average to “slightly soft,” said Sandy Chio, marketing director. Still, that won’t stop the resort from injecting $2 million into a massive renovation of the day lodge in the off-season, Chio said. A second floor restaurant and bar will be moved to the first floor and seating will be expanded upstairs, she said.

Lookout Pass, which plans to install a new lift in the summer of 2007, will put a new food court in the lodge, and expand the ticket sales area and rental shop, said Phil Edholm, president and general manager. And at Silver Mountain, work continues on the latest phase of condominiums at the village base and on a huge indoor water park, slated to open in the spring of 2007, Lane said.

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