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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Bill Jennings: Color coding works on the ski hill too

By Bill Jennings Correspondent

My mind wandered on the chairlift. I thought about to-dos that have to wait until tomorrow – or about how to get away for the next storm on the horizon.

Most of the time I thought ahead as far as which run to drop from next. With my mind free of conundrums thanks to this instinct, I wondered about the total scope of choices we have within easy reach.

To satisfy my curiosity, I looked at the five mountain resorts in close orbit around Spokane: Mount Spokane, 49 Degrees North, Silver Mountain, Lookout Pass and Schweitzer. A total of 326 runs are named on a map and marked with signage on the hill. Of course, many more are closely held. If you don’t know about them, they don’t exist.

Of those 326 runs that do indeed exist, 36 percent are designated advanced/expert, 44 percent are intermediate and 21 percent are generally recognized as safe for beginners. This is a close approximation of the variety at each mountain.

To make the sport safer, the National Ski Areas Association introduced a color-coding system for terrain in 1968. Everywhere in North America, runs are marked with the same symbols: black diamonds for advanced/experts, blue squares for intermediates and green circles for beginners.

“For the most part it’s the maximum slope gradient,” said Brad McQuarrie, General Manager at Mount Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park. “But that’s not the only factor. If a slope is too narrow for low-intermediates to check their speed you might want to make it advanced. A steeper slope that is wide open leans more toward intermediate.”

Calculating the slope gradient of a ski run uses the Cartesian coordinate system you learned in grade school. Divide the rise (total elevation) by the run (horizontal distance). It’s the same ratio as the slope “y/x.” For example, if the rise of a slope is 800 feet top to bottom, while the run spans 2,400 feet, the grade is 33 percent.

But ski area terrain has no universal standard. Difficulty is determined relative to the terrain within a single ski area. A resort’s black diamond terrain is only most difficult compared to the blue and green terrain within its own boundaries. Therefore, one ski area’s black could be another one’s blue, and vice versa.

Some basics about ski runs you can count on most anywhere. In North America, green circles are usually nice and wide with a gradient of less than 25 percent. Blue squares are also on the wide side and typically range from between 25 to 40 percent. Narrower, steeper slopes 40 percent and above are usually black diamonds. For comparison, the steepest plunges of Freya Street on Spokane’s South Hill are a mere 19 percent.

If a run is designated with either a green circle, blue square or black diamond, you can be sure it’s going to stay that way all the way down. Another thing you can usually count on is most blue squares have a green bail out to the bottom somewhere along the way.

I continued this idle pursuit by conducting a very unscientific Facebook poll to learn about the most popular runs in our backyard. Disclaimer: my Facebook feed is rife with ski bums. As one of them, I understand we have an image to maintain amongst ourselves. Yet a few blue cruisers were mentioned anyone could love: Marmot at Lookout Pass and Kaniksu at Schweitzer.

Lakeside Chutes and Headwall reflected Schweitzer’s wealth of challenging terrain. Those who thrive on steep tree skiing can’t get enough of the North Face Glades at Silver Mountain on a powder day. A big favorite is good old Two Face at Mount Spokane, a pure bump run best enjoyed “under the lights with music in my ear.”

An inarguable statement closed the debate: “All of them.”

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