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Bill Jennings: Mount Spokane ski area expansion adding 279 acres of terrain

In recent years every ski area within a two-hour drive from Spokane has expanded terrain, added lifts, cut new runs or built new facilities. Most mountains have since shifted their focus to less glamorous, yet fundamental projects such as brush cutting and glading.

Except for Mount Spokane. After more than a decade of public hearings, challenges, compromise, lawsuits and appeals, Mount Spokane won approval in August to expand terrain on the “backside” of the ski area.

“A majority of the runs have been cut,” said Brad McQuarrie, general manager of Mount Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park. “We started in August. There were fire restrictions at that point so crews could only go until 1 p.m. every day. We didn’t get as much done this year as we wanted to, but our focus was on the chair line.”

The initial expansion proposal made by Mount Spokane 2000 called for adding 800 acres to the ski area boundary. The ski area concessionaire was ordered back to the drawing board repeatedly before winning approval from the Washington State Parks Commission to proceed. The end result will be an addition of 279 acres.

About 80 acres of clear cuts on the west aspect of Mount Spokane will define the lift line, five runs, two connecting trails and a loading area. Some thinning and glading will be done between the clear cuts.

“I didn’t anticipate this, but you’ll be shocked when you see the view from the top of chair one now,” McQuarrie said. “Now that the lift line is there it’s the most beautiful view. You can see the whole chair line top to bottom.”

The new lift line for the “Red Chair,” a classic Riblet double acquired from Montana’s Bridger Bowl in 2013, extends 4,500 feet. It will be the longest run – and the longest chair ride – on the mountain. The 20-acre base area is cradled within a curve of the snowmobile road backside skiers use to reach the bottom of chair four. Three low angle runs will drop south of the lift line. The angle steepens somewhat on two runs north of the lift line.

“It’s an amazing pod of skiing,” McQuarrie said. “It’s going to be so much fun. I’m really impressed with the way the expert teams we hired laid it out. Most of our loading areas are very small, but this is a nice, big, open base. It’s going to be a great place to hang out and catch up with your group. I’d love to put a fire pit or a gazebo down there.”

The contractor clearing the timber plans to continue working until Thanksgiving. McQuarrie said both the contractor and the agencies involved prefer operating over snow to lessen the impact. Progress depends on when Mount Spokane State Park opens the snowmobile road.

The expansion plan also allows for limited glading (trees less than 8 inches in diameter) on the mountain between the new pod and terrain serviced by chair four. This is a steep, overgrown slope with great promise for tree skiing. It’s also where the ski patrol goes most often on search and rescue operations.

“After the breeding and nesting period next year we’ll concentrate on finishing the runs,” McQuarrie said. “Then we would like to glade out the other areas. It really needs to be cleaned up for forest health, safety and skiability.”

It always takes a lot of snow to make the backside skiable and this season will be no exception. Expect to find roped off gates and backcountry warning signs until coverage is adequate. Depending on the snow depth, McQuarrie wants to groom the new runs, open the gates and announce a grand opening.

He plans to have snow hosts and ski patrollers at the top and bottom to remind people that until next year, the experience still requires a long, physically demanding slog on the snowmobile road to the bottom of chair four. People who drop in any later than 2:30 p.m. could risk missing the last ride out when chair four closes at 3:30.

“We have to be careful,” McQuarrie said. “But at the same time I really want people to ski it. It’s going to be awesome.”