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Area ski resorts like what they’ve seen so far

General Manager Brad McQuarrie looks around the slopes at Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010. The park plans to open Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, along with many other ski areas in the region.  (Jesse Tinsley)
General Manager Brad McQuarrie looks around the slopes at Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010. The park plans to open Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, along with many other ski areas in the region. (Jesse Tinsley)

So far, it looks like La Niña is delivering as promised.

Ski resort operators across the Inland Northwest started cheering as early as last spring when forecasters began predicting the weather pattern that typically brings colder temperatures and increased precipitation to the Pacific Northwest.

Early snowfall allowed all five regional resorts to open by this weekend and pull in lucrative holiday-season revenue. Lookout Pass Ski Area, on the Montana/Idaho border, led the pack, opening more than a week ago; 49 Degrees North in Chewelah followed a day later.

Silver Mountain in Kellogg, Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, and Schweitzer Mountain in Sandpoint all opened on Friday, giving skiers and snowboarders more destinations to work off the turkey and stuffing.

“La Niña means great things for our region of the country,” said Dave Kulis, Schweitzer’s spokesman, last week. “With the cold and the weather that we’re seeing right now, we’re off to a great start. If this is any sign of things to come, we’re going to have a great winter.”

Brad Northrup, spokesman for 49 Degrees North, echoed the thought. He said when the La Niña forecast is combined with the pent-up demand he sees among skiers and snowboarders, “that just kills it, they’re ready to go.”

Silver Mountain reported a record number of season passes sold, and Mt. Spokane’s general manager, Brad McQuarrie, said the resort’s annual ski swap, held at the end of October, drew a record number of people.

Toss in a little Warren Miller, and skiers and snowboarders are whipped into a frenzy. The godfather of ski films’ newest offerings always make a fall stop in the Inland Northwest. At one showing of the 61st annual film, “Wintervention,” the full house at the Fox Theater in downtown Spokane cheered at scenes of expert skiers and snowboarders swooping through pristine powder. The result was nearly deafening.

For Mt. Spokane, the new snow couldn’t arrive soon enough, McQuarrie said. Last year’s below-average snowfall and resulting lower number of skier visits forced the resort to borrow money to complete standard summer maintenance, he said. The early snow report, he said, “saved our bacon. When it looks like it’s going to be an above-average season, you start breathing a little easier.”

This year, several Inland Northwest resorts raised lift ticket prices by a buck or two, but, in a nod to a continuing tough economy, tried to give customers a break elsewhere. Mt. Spokane cut $2 off midweek and night skiing tickets and Silver Mountain offered $199 season passes at the start of its sale if people bought them in groups of four. And while 49 Degrees North bumped its ticket price by $2, customers can get a $2 discount online.

Schweitzer Mountain launched its Ski-3 promotion, offering discounted prices if customers bought three lift tickets at once. The first round of the promotion, which ended in October, was so successful the resort brought it back, albeit at a higher price. Kulis credited its popularity to the fact that the tickets are good anytime and are transferable, which means they can be used by anybody.

Schweitzer also is offering ticket discounts online, such as its Sunday Solution, a half-day Sunday ticket that costs $25 online but is $35 at the ticket window. Also new this year at the Sandpoint resort is mobile ticketing and lodging reservations. The bar code on a customer’s smartphone will serve as a voucher at the ticket window, Kulis said.

“They’ll scan your phone and give you a ticket for your jacket,” he said.

Schweitzer also poured $1million into two new groomers, an overhauled motor on the Snow Ghost lift (Chair 6), motor and tower work on the Stella six-person lift and other tasks. At Lookout, skiers and boarders will find 60 new snowboards and 100 new pairs of shaped skis in the rental shop and more TVs in the bar. Mt. Spokane replaced the cable on Chair 4, improved the glades in that area and installed coin-operated lockers in the lodge.

Silver Mountain recently completed the replacement of the more than six miles of cable on its 3.1-mile-long gondola, which transports skiers from the parking lot off Interstate 90 to the resort’s mountaintop lodge. The $1million investment required the cable to be shipped from Switzerland then transported on two oversize-load trucks from Tacoma. Cable experts from Switzerland and Canada oversaw the 10-day project, Williams said.

“It’s the 20th anniversary of the gondola,” Williams said, adding that usage, not age, determines when the cable needs to be replaced. The steel from the old cable will be recycled, he said.

Skiers at Lookout will find enhanced glade skiing after the U.S. Forest Service removed a million and a half board feet of timber due to bark beetle infestation, said CEO Phil Edholm. The ski area operates on land leased from the Forest Service.

“That’s opened up some new glades, including Lucky Friday and Last Chance on the Idaho side and Buffalo Gulch on the Montana side,” Edholm said. “There’s some great new fall lines, with nicely spaced open trees.”