November 13, 2009 in Outdoors

Weather gives Lookout edge

Bill Jennings
 

On the slopes

49 Degrees North

Ski Patrol Ski Swap, Stevens County Fairgrounds, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

While its Inland Northwest neighbors patiently wait for the next big storm, Lookout Pass Ski Area opens today.

It’s the second-earliest opening for Lookout in 10 years. In 2005 Lookout opened for the season Nov. 12. The ski area opened Dec. 12 last season.

Phil Edholm, president/CEO of Lookout Pass, groomed eight runs top to bottom on the front side of the ski area facing Interstate 90 on the Idaho-Montana border.

To ski and ride early in the Northwest, Lookout is usually the place. It doesn’t need a lot of snow, especially the wide-open cruisers open today, which have been meticulously tended in the offseason for more than 70 years.

“We’ve got better coverage now than in last two years when we’ve opened,” Edholm said. “The snow that fell last weekend has a high water content, so it packed out very well.”

People can expect a silky machine-tilled surface at Lookout today. With temp- eratures dropping and precip- itation in the forecast, there may be a light layer of powder on the corduroy.

Five mountains clustered in an area of about 400 square miles compose Spokane’s local group of ski areas. Each ski area tops out at about 6,000 square feet, give or take a few hundred feet. They share similar weather. But a microclimate often gives Lookout an edge.

Other local resorts total about 300 inches of snow a year. Edholm credits Lookout’s annual average snowfall of 400 inches to a fortunate pairing of weather phenomena called “orographic lift” and “continental effect.” The effects combine to create the microclimate that delivers generous allotments of high-quality snow.

Orographic lift occurs when moist Pacific air moves over steadily rising terrain. The air mass gains altitude, expanding as it cools. Less dense, cooler air can’t hold moisture like warm air, and lets it go as precipitation.

Ski areas in the Cascades have been enjoying significant orographic lift in the past week. But with no continental effect, snow there often has high water content, thus earning the label “Cascade concrete.”

Crystal Mountain near Mt. Rainier and Enumclaw opened limited terrain Wednesday. Mt. Baker near Bellingham opened Thursday with full operations after receiving 45 inches of snow in a powerful storm last weekend.

Edholm said orographic lift and continental effect converge over Lookout, located farther east than the other area hills on the crest of the Bitterroot Range. Here incoming Pacific storms meet the western edge of a colder, dryer continental air mass.

“The way the expressway turns south at the pass here is deceiving,” Edholm said. “Since we’re on the Idaho-Montana border, people think the highway runs east-west. But Lookout sits directly in the path of a trough where storms rise up from the south through Montana and nest right on top of us.”

Edholm said that when he drives east on I-90, as soon as he hits the point where the road turns south about a quarter mile from the ski area, the temperature drops about 2 degrees.

Weather around here tends to come from the southwest. When the Pacific air spills over the mountains above Lookout and hits the cold, dry continental air, it’s ready to unload lots of fresh dry powder.

Adult lift tickets are discounted to $23 through the weekend. Today is also Boomer Friday – people older than 40 can ski and ride for $20. All base-lodge amenities are in full operation.

Based on National Weather Service forecasts this week, there’s an 80 percent chance it’s snowing at Lookout as you read this.

Bill Jennings can be reached at snoscene@comcast.net

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