Weekend at Crystal Mountain

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At a fogged-over Crystal Mountain, Wash., after a spate of warm February days and freezing nights, the conditions are mostly rock-solid crust. But I have been skiing powder. This is the kind of mountain that rewards bushwhacking but punishes the uninitiated, so I've relied on guides to find fresh tracks.

One such guide is Larry Murdoch, an instructor with Mike Hattrup's Steep Skiing Camp. (Local skiers line up to be coached by Hattrup, a former U.S. Freestyle Ski Team member, ski mountaineering guide and head of K2's telemark division.) By the time I catch up with them, Hattrup and Murdoch have transformed a group of solid advanced skiers into off-piste gods. I follow Murdoch's students as they hop off the High Campbell Chair and scoot between rocks and over ice to get to a traverse that winds and hairpins between trees and stumps. Twice, we take off our skis and throw them over our shoulders, toe-stepping up steep inclines, first to a ridgepoint called The Throne and finally to Silver King, Crystal's highest peak at 7,012 feet.

We are sweating and light-headed from the climb, but each of Murdoch's students drops easily into the extraordinary pitch below, making perfectly linked S-turns. They're skiing, with confidence, on the same radical face Warren Miller featured in his 1999 film Fifty.

My other guide is Keith Rollins, a pro skier who's been skiing Crystal for 15 years. "I've skied a lot of mountains," Rollins tells me. "And this mountain, and maybe Jackson Hole and Blackcomb, are the steepest around. For challenging terrain, Crystal's one of the best, for sure."

Rollins takes me on the same traverse, but even farther out. After about 30 minutes of labor, we reach the lip of Silver Basin, where, by some geothermal phenomenon, pockets of cold air are trapped, keeping the snow dry and light even though the rest of the mountain is bulletproof. I watch Rollins swoop down, gliding effortlessly over the steeps, cutting a single, silent arc through the white.

A Shinier Crystal
Crystal is the kind of mountain where Rollins and his ilk look like an indigenous species and where confident skiers dare to dream of being great. But for the rest of the world, it isn't so hospitable. A scant 13 percent of its runs are for beginners. The best snow is, as I have learned, a 30-minute hike from the top of a chair from which every descent is double-black. And, as the weekend visitor discovers, dining and overnight options are limited.

Crystal's new owner, Boyne Resorts, isn't satisfied with this situation. Boyne-which also owns Boyne Highlands and Boyne Mountain in Michigan, Brighton Ski Bowl in Utah, Big Sky in Montana, and Cypress Mountain in British Columbia-bought the near-bankrupt resort four years ago, investing $15 million in immediate improvements: Now, high-speed six-packs whisk skiers to the top, parking lots are paved, and bathrooms are immaculate and energy-efficient. There is also spring snowmaking, a base-area surface that's never icy thanks to heated pavement, and expanded avalanche control and ski patrolling.

And Boyne's not finished yet. The company hopes to install a 100-passenger tram that would carry skiers and summer sightseers from the base area to what is now the Summit House (Washington state's highest restaurant) for breathtaking views of 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier, the state's crowning glory. And to the horror of backcountry elitists, there are even plans to install chairs to access the rugged North and South Country, where my bushwhacking guides have led me.

Base-area development proposals include a hotel that would add 100 guest rooms to the existing 176, and an amphitheater and meeting facilities to lure corporate retreats. A remote base lodge and three transport lifts would eliminate the parking problems in the mountain's narrow valley. Plus, three new restaurants and a sports bar are envisioned, to create more of a night vibe. If all goes according to plan, these amenities should be in pllace by 2010.

To Crystal diehards, Boyne's proposals raise lots of red flags. Even though he's an official ambassador for the mountain, Rollins can't help but wonder what kind of trouble will result when unseasoned skiers are lured into the backcountry by the new lifts. "It's already getting more and more used, with the new fat skis," he frets.

Environmentalists are wary, too, but Boyne hopes to have addressed their concerns with a $2.5 million Environmental Impact Statement that involves everything from the lichens on the trees to the archaeological concerns of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, located almost an hour's drive away.

All the same, those who like the modest scale of this day area point to Big Sky: The valley surrounding the Montana resort, also a Boyne property, has exploded in recent years with development and construction. But Boyne officials counter that Crystal simply can't spill beyond its current borders, surrounded as it is by Mt. Rainier National Park.

The goal, Boyne says, is simply to bring Crystal up to date. For example, there are, at present, no luxury overnight accommodations-save department-store heir Pete Nordstrom's private condo. The individually owned units of the Crystal Mountain Lodging Suites date back to the Sixties, as do the Crystal Mountain Hotels. And most of them couldn't be less desirably located (save the fact that they're near the pool), on a steep slope overlooking the parking lot. Many visitors opt to skip the base area altogether, preferring the 10- to 20-minute drive down Highway 410 to the more remote Alta Crystal Resort, featuring rustic chalet and loft units with wood stoves. (Because of the surrounding National Park, this is the only other accommodation nearby).

But there is one last overnight option: the quaint Alpine Inn, an old Austrian peaked-roof gasthaus, complete with hand-hewn gingerbread woodwork and alpine hearts painted on the doors. The rooms are comfortable but spare, lacking phones and televisions.

Although it's a ski-in/ski-out accommodation (by way of the back door), one hardly notices the Alpine Inn is there. To get to it from the parking lot, one must cross a narrow footbridge suspended over a gully. Tall hemlocks hide the building from view until you are nearly on the threshold, looking up at a red Austrian coat of arms.

In the small guest foyer, handsomely furnished with leather couches and mission-style rockers, there's always a fire crackling in the stone hearth. The hallways are lined with vintage photos from the early days of skiing at Crystal and Mt. Rainier-look for area pioneer Otto Lang.

Like a European mountain refuge, the Alpine Inn feels like a secret you've got to prove your mettle to be let in on. Tucked into a quiet corner of the building is Rainier Rides Ski & Snowboard Demo Shop, offering serious equipment and advice to hardcores. Starting at noon, mountain employees often gather to guzzle microbrews and swap tales by the roaring fire at the Alpine Inn's Snorting Elk Cellar. Next to this Bavarian rathskeller is the Snorting Elk Deli, which turns out tasty homemade pizza and sandwiches. Longtime mountain regulars dine in style at the Alpine Inn Restaurant, dark and intimate, done up with Nordic-style furniture, elk antlers and antique skis. The fare here is inventive, the wine list impressive.

It's a gem of a spot for a day area. And if the planned expansion is managed as sensitively as Boyne promises it will be, The Alpine Inn will remain, like Crystal itself, an elusive jewel-one that rewards those who make the effort to unearth it.

Check out Crystal Mountain Essentials for everything you need to know about the Washington State gem.