Ski resorts’ season off to booming start

Backcountry skier Jeff Zickler of Spokane begins walking up the snowy slopes of Mt. Spokane in anticipation of a fun ride back down Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010 at Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Backcountry skier Jeff Zickler of Spokane begins walking up the snowy slopes of Mt. Spokane in anticipation of a fun ride back down Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010 at Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Prime conditions bringing more visitors to region’s slopes

Outstanding conditions have brought an avalanche of skiers to Inland Northwest resorts, operators reported Monday.

An early opening for most ski areas got the season off to a strong start, but skier belief that La Niña would again produce the heavy snows that carpeted slopes in 2008 had season pass sales schussing before the first flakes fell.

Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park General Manager Brad McQuarrie said December business doubled that of 2009.

Spring season pass sales set a record the area’s managers thought might cannibalize fall sales, but that did not happen, he said.

Instead, McQuarrie said, skiers saw forecasts La Niña would return after a one-year vacation. And from downtown Spokane they could see the summit turn white from the record November snowfall, he said.

Cold the last few days discouraged night skiing, McQuarrie said, but daytime temperatures were about 20 degrees warmer than downtown readings, and the area was above the cloud cover.

“I can’t imagine a better start to the season,” he said, adding that this has so far been the best in his 10 years at Mt. Spokane.

At 49 Degrees North, spokesman Brad Northrup said parking lots have been full, and the lodges are as crowded as they were in the pre-recession years of 2006 and 2007.

He credited the snow – 30 inches in 10 days – and its “smoky” nature.

“It’s just bone dry. That’s what people live for,” Northrup said. “It’s amazing to see in December.”

Lookout Pass President Phil Edholm said skier visits in December were up 29 percent over 2009. Season ticket sales had increased 31 percent through the end of November, he said.

Base snow depths have ranged from 50 to 92 inches, Edholm said, but Idaho and Montana road maintenance crews have done a “wonderful job” keeping adjacent Interstate 90 clear.

He said that’s important for an area that sells season passes as far away as The Dalles, Ore., and draws 6 percent of its weekday visitors from the Tri-Cities.

New Year’s Day visits may have been down slightly due to the cold or televised football, he said, but snow falling Monday morning with more forecast for later in the week should sustain excellent skiing.

“Snow trumps the economy,” Edholm said. “It’s shaping up to be a good winter.”

West about 20 miles on I-90 is Silver Mountain, where skier numbers also jumped by double digits, General Manager Jeff Colburn said.

“I think people are into getting out and having fun,” he said.

Colburn said the snows have fallen without the winds that have sometimes shut down Silver’s gondola, which received a new cable just in time for the start of the season.

Schweitzer Mountain Resort already is closing in on one-half the 300 inches of snow that falls in an average year, President Tom Chasse said.

He said December skier visits were up almost 19 percent over 2009, boosted by a 7.3 percent increase for the holiday period.

Lodging occupancy improved by 9.1 percent, retail sales and equipment rental by 8.4 percent, he said.

Chasse noted the holidays are the first of three periods critical to ski area fortunes; the others are the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and the week of Presidents Day in February.

“To have positive results for the December holiday week is like getting an early lead in a nine-inning baseball game,” Chasse said.

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