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Slopes gain some new angles

Resorts tout upgrades as snow season nears

El Niño might be the forecast for this winter, but the weather system that frequently means warmer temperatures and less snowfall doesn’t have Inland Northwest ski and snowboard resorts running scared.

Quite the contrary.

Lookout Pass is opening Friday, one of the earlier opening days in recent years. Mt. Spokane has moved up an employee orientation day so the mountain can be ready to go as soon as early December. And other resorts are anticipating opening days that are earlier than normal. Resort managers say the snow that’s falling is a good high-density snow, perfect for building a solid foundation for the season.

“It’s rolling every day. We have snow in the forecast. It’s just a perfect start so far,” said Brad McQuarrie, general manager of Mt. Spokane. “We’re completely covered everywhere.”

As the Inland Northwest’s 2009-’10 ski and snowboarding season launches, the region’s five resorts – Lookout, on the Montana-Idaho border, Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, 49 Degrees North in Chewelah, Silver Mountain Resort in Kellogg and Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Sandpoint – are trying to entice visitors with improvements they’ve made in the off-season. They include more terrain, expanded parking, better lodging and new deck space for that mountaintop lunch break in the sunshine.

Perhaps most noteworthy, 49 Degrees North completed an expansion that will add seven runs and more glade skiing with the addition of Angel Peak, a 5,295-foot subpeak of the Chewelah Mountain crest. Schweitzer completed a snowmaking system that will allow the resort to dump 18 inches of snow on its upper mountain, near the Great Escape Quad. Lookout Pass added a deck to its Summit House restaurant and an acre of parking. Mt. Spokane added a lift-assisted tubing park and remodeled its lodge to create more seating. Silver Mountain remodeled its Mountain Haus lodge and made improvements that will enable it to open one chairlift earlier on heavy snowfall days.

With El Niño in mind, several resorts groomed runs closer to the ground to ensure they could open with less snow.

“We just basically groomed and mowed our runs,” said Brad Northrup, marketing director for 49 Degrees North. “It looks like you could go out and play 18 holes on them. I skied this base with 10 inches of consolidated snow on it.”

However, Northrup said, El Niño usually means wetter weather in this region. That, combined with arctic blasts coming down from Canada, usually means snow, he said.

Northrup said he believes 49 Degrees is the only resort in Washington that added so much new terrain. In addition to the seven runs on Angel Peak, about 200 acres were thinned to add glade skiing. Skiers and snowboarders will have to hike to the upper half of the terrain, with the lower half accessible via an existing chair. Planning is under way for a new chairlift to access the peak in 2011.

Lookout Pass added an acre of parking and thinned dead lodgepole pines to further open up two gladed runs. Two other runs were reconfigured to improve spacing and transitions, and the ski area added inventory to its rental shop, said Phil Edholm, president and CEO.

“The last two years were the best ever,” Edholm said. But, he said, “Our coverage right now is better than when we opened the last two years.”

Silver Mountain’s lodge remodel included improving flooring in the gondola bay and fixing a leaky roof in the primary cafeteria seating area. The chairlift station at the bottom of the resort’s longest run was reconfigured to make it accessible for plowing. Snow buildup frequently delayed the opening of that chair, which leads to the resort’s longest top-to-bottom runs.

“The powder lovers are going to love that, when we get that baby open earlier,” said John Williams, the resort’s marketing director.

Taking advantage of its indoor water park, Silver Mountain also is offering Thursday “ski and surf” packages, in which people can purchase $59 lift tickets ($10 above regular ticket prices) and access the water park after skiing. “We’re going to have the best après-ski party in the West and the only one at the beach,” Williams said.

Mt. Spokane’s new tubing park will be open on weekends and holidays, when a three-hour pass will cost $10. In the resort’s lodge remodel, an interior wall was removed, letting in more sunlight and adding between 35 and 50 seats, McQuarrie said. After two seasons of a seven-days-a-week schedule, the resort will return to its Wednesday through Sunday schedule.

“People really enjoyed Powder Wednesday,” McQuarrie said. “I think we heard more complaints about losing Powder Wednesday than kudos for being open more.”

The mountain also plans to be open this year for spring break season. Beginning March 19, it will offer “daylight savings hours,” opening for an additional two hours each evening, until 6 p.m., McQuarrie said. “Nobody wants to go home at 4 that time of year,” he said.

Schweitzer’s new snowmaking system is the culmination of two years of work. Last year, the resort installed 6,000 feet of snowmaking line, 16 hydrants, a well and pump house. This year, Schweitzer finished the system by building a lined reservoir pond near the top of the Great Escape Quad.

Schweitzer’s snowmaking system turns on automatically when conditions are best for making snow and turns off to conserve energy when they are not. Schweitzer also converted 12 deluxe units in its Selkirk Lodge into family suites that comfortably sleep five. This will allow families to book one room instead of two, decreasing costs, the release said.