When you step off the gondola at Crystal Mountain, it’s hard to beat the view.
“There’s Mount Rainier, right in your face,” says Bill Price, who has been skiing at Crystal since the 1960s. The state’s signature peak stands just 12 miles away, and on clear days, you can see all of Rainier’s volcanic relatives, from Mount Baker near Canada to Mount Hood in Oregon.
“It’s just a beautiful area to ski,” says Price, president of Ancient Skiers, a Northwest-based ski club with more than 1,000 members.
But Crystal is more than just view property. Washington’s largest and highest-elevation ski resort has the amenities – with a top-of-the-mountain restaurant, two lodges, a gondola and four high-speed lifts – to match some of the best ski resorts in North America.
Over the summer, Crystal got even better, with more than $1.5 million spent on a laundry list of small-scale improvements. In the next decade, Crystal has much bigger plans to expand with new lifts, terrain, additional snowmaking and construction of a larger base village with overnight lodging.
With a 3,100-foot vertical drop and 2,600 acres of terrain, Crystal sprawls into several mountain basins and has lifts going to four separate peaks. About 65 percent of the resort is intermediate and beginner terrain, but what sets Crystal apart is its advanced skiing.
“Our terrain is wonderful,” says Kim Kircher, head of the Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol. “We have a ton of steep skiing.”
Some of the radical drops at Crystal couldn’t be skied elsewhere because the snow wouldn’t consolidate and hold to the cliffs where it falls, Kircher says.
“We have a maritime snowpack, so it sticks to all that steep stuff,” she says. Cliffs and chutes are part of many of the advanced runs.
Crystal’s steep terrain was ideal for a Freeride World Qualifier competition last March that drew elite skiers and snowboarders from around the world. The men’s winner from that event, Mark Mikos of Crested Butte, Colorado, remembers Crystal as having fantastic terrain.
“The first day we arrived it was dumping,” Mikos says. “We spent the day choking on snow as we skied steep gnarly chutes, floated down pillow lines and sent cliffs left and right. There was terrain everywhere.”
Most of the advanced terrain at Crystal is accessed from two chairlifts.
Chair 6, in the Campbell Basin area, is a short double chair that rises nearly 1,000 vertical feet to Silver Queen peak (7,002 feet). All runs off Chair 6 are considered expert, with many dropping into chutes and cliff zones.
Chair 6 also offers access to the South Backcountry – hikeable side-country terrain within the ski area boundary. The vast South Backcountry has some extreme drops off Silver King peak (7,012 feet), Crystal’s high point. The Southback, as it’s known, also includes Avalanche Basin and Silver Basin, two great places to catch some powder turns.
Gates to the South Backcountry are only opened after avalanche work has been completed by the Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol.
“It has a backcountry feel, but we do avalanche control so you have that feeling of safety when you’re out there,” Kircher says.
The other advanced-only chairlift is Northway, a long double that rises nearly 2,000 vertical feet from a basin along Crystal’s north boundary. The double-diamond drops off of Northway Peak (6,776 feet) are steep and north-facing, offering cold, protected snow. Other cliffy drops fall off ridges lower on the mountain.
It’s not all double-diamond challenges at Crystal. Some of the ski area’s very best snow is found in the predominantly intermediate terrain of Green Valley. The upper-elevation Green Valley frequently opens in November and closes as late as July in big snow years.
Elevation is one of Crystal Mountain’s best attributes. Because it is higher than other resorts in the Washington Cascades, it frequently has better conditions, particularly during warm, wet storms.
Crystal’s base at 4,400 feet is 1,400 feet higher than Snoqualmie Pass. Its top elevation is the highest in the state.
Having skiing that high means the snow quality holds up on the top of the mountain, Kircher says, when lower slopes have wet snow and even rain.
“The upper reaches of our mountain make it so that even on a marginal day, you can find that good, drier snow,” she says.
Once the day is done, lodging and dining options are available at the ski area base.
Condominiums and hotel rooms are available overnight on the mountain and a short drive away at the Alta Crystal Resort. For drinks and pub food, the lively Snorting Elk Cellar, in the basement of the Alpine Inn, is the place to hang out and hoist as you boast about your day.
John Nelson is a freelance outdoors writer based in Seattle. Follow his blog at skizer.org.
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