I’m grinning as I write this, and remembering to clip this year’s season pass to my bibs to ensure it doesn’t get left behind in what’s sure to be a chaotic scramble out the door as I try to remember what’s required for a day on the hill.
Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park, where I’m a season pass holder, has announced it will be opening with limited terrain on Friday, and 49 Degrees North is tentatively planning on doing the same.
Folks at Schweitzer, Silver, and Lookout, the region’s other hills, have already been riding lifts. This may be envy inducing for thrifty passholders at other mountains, but it’s typical: Storm systems moving in from the west sometimes drift around the more easterly ski areas, but the mighty wall formed by the Purcell, Cabinet and Bitterroot ranges forces air to rise, cooling it and releasing moisture in the form of snow.
Generally, the difference in opening days isn’t much of an annoyance. The resorts on the region’s eastern side might get enough snow to open by Thanksgiving, while those on the western side have to wait until early December. This year, however, has been different.
Heavy rains that fell on the evening of Nov. 25 melted nearly all of the region’s snow, resulting in a snowpack that was, in many parts of the Inland Northwest, the lowest in recorded history as of Dec. 2, according to a map shared by a local National Weather Service forecaster.
My recent hike up Mt. Spokane verified what I’d been told: below the Vista House – a gorgeous stone structure at the summit – a field of boulders that’s generally obscured and skiable by this time of year – was absolutely neither. The majority of the runs, although snowy, still had brush and trees showing.
The easterly resorts, with the help of their ideal locations – and one with the help of snowmaking – were able to recover from the rain in time to open with only a slight delay. Mt. Spokane, which has neither advantage, has a low-tech trick up its sleeve – one that turned a day that started with a skeptical hike up the mountain into an unexpected powder day.
Their secret weapon? Mowing and brush cutting.
Every fall, a crew armed with loppers (my mailman among them – thanks, Rick!) fans out over a number of the mountain’s trails, creating a surface that, I’ve learned from experience, can be skied with as little as four inches of snow and a pair of beater skis that don’t mind a little interaction with granite from time to time.
The resulting lawnlike surface completely transforms slopes that would otherwise be unskiable in a low snowpack, as a friend and I discovered, gawking in utter disbelief as we made turns through a foot of powder down Skookum and Pond Run. Glancing into the usually-skiable woods at the side of the run, the logs and branches that looked back at us made it crystal clear that we had the brush crew to thank for our fun.
As we reached the cat track back to Chair 1/Vista Cruiser where we’d parked, we looked down at a mountain crew just as ready as we were for the season to kick off: groups of snowboard instructors on the bunny hill reviewing the basics of teaching, new employees going through orientation, and the crew from Skytrac hard at work refurbishing Chair 2/Illuminator. Getting to the car, all smiles, it was impossible not to let the multiple groups of skiers and splitboarders preparing to hike up know what a treat they were in for.
Hiking for turns is fun and all, but there’s a reason I ski at resorts. I’m looking forward to putting away my beat up skis until the springtime and skiing 20 runs a day instead of one or two.
The season is on, Inland Northwest skiers and riders. Don’t forget your boots on the way out the door, and I’ll see you on the hill!
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