To most Seattle and Portland skiers, White Pass is akin to a neighborhood Sunday church: Everybody knows it's there, everybody knows they should go¿but few seem to make it.
It's not for lack of desire. Northwesterners have long heard about the deep, dry (by Cascade standards) snow and the town-square friendliness of the regulars. And, of course, everyone knows of the legendary Mahre brothers, whose Olympic careers began on the rope-tow at this Washington State ski area. Yet its distance (it's 3 hours from Portland and Seattle) and its relatively small size are reason enough for people to procrastinate making the trip. "Gotta get there one day," many skiers say, as they head instead to closer resorts such as Crystal Mountain, Wash., or Mount Hood Meadows, Ore.
In the candy aisle of Northwest ski areas, consider White Pass the Hershey's Kiss¿a small wallop of flavor in diminutive, simple packaging. Its 1,500 vertical feet and 325 acres boast open-throttle cruisers, brief heart-in-your-mouth steeps, nurturing beginner slopes and glade skiing among old-growth pines so imposing and tight that you have to wipe the bark off your sleeves after a nervous dance among their trunks. Top off the terrain with first-rate views of 14,411-foot Mount Rainier just 20 miles northwest, and this perennial "maybe next time" ski area jumps to the top of the "to do" list. So go ahead and make that 3-hour drive to White Pass for the weekend. You'll be pleasantly surprised at what awaits.
Lodging is tight at this little gem, and the trouble with planning an exploratory weekend at White Pass is this: Those who have discovered the area return again. And again. In short, skiers jockey early and hard for a weekend's reservation at the only on-slope lodging, the Village Inn Condominiums. Vacancies are rare at the small-but-adequate condos, but if you opt to stay there, make your reservations in advance. A better choice is to bunk down in Packwood, a little logging burg 20 miles west of the ski area where Highway 12 begins its corkscrew path into the mountains. Several humble motels and hotels dot the road. Most popular are the Cowlitz River Lodge and the historic, log-sided Hotel Packwood. You don't go to White Pass for the nightlife, you go to ski. So save yourself the Friday night hotel fee and head up early Saturday morning.
After working late on a March Friday, my friend and I opted for the typical Seattle skier's variation on the plan: Get up before dawn on Saturday morning to make the 3-hour drive directly to the mountain.
On The Hill
It's only fitting that White Pass sits high in a range called the Cascades, for many of the area's runs spill off 6,000-foot Pigtail Peak like the countless cataracts for which the range is named. Brief, vertiginous drops with monikers such as Outhouse and Mach V mellow into a few hundred yards of blue-run ease, only to plummet again down double-black hits such as Elevator Shaft and Cascade Cliff.
A curious layout for a mountain, it is sometimes terrifying to the low-intermediate skier who strays off-course and gets a dramatic introduction to verticality. But for the advanced, the quirky combinations of angles and planes are a hoot, as 15-year local Linda Watkins showed me after our arrival. "It's not big," she said of the resort's acreage, "but there's lots of variety. You can really spice 'em up."
Spice we did, beginning atop the mountain and bouncing down steep shots such as Little Colorado and Chair Run. We gathered ourselves on the blue runs that round out the steeps like the shallow end of a slide, then jumped into Round 2 on faces such as Execution, Paradise Cliffs and a pinched incline called Hourglass. After lunch, local Morry Ball ushered me into Rockslide Trees, one of a few experts-only glades with old pines so dark, close and foreboding I thought about leaving a trail of bread crumbs to find my way out.
Nearly every run at White Pass, it seems, eventually drains into Poma Bowl and Poma Face¿a wide and nearly treeless apron of blues and greens running to the sparse base area. While the funnel effect means the resort's only high-speed quad can get busy on weekends, a bit of a wait can be a welcome relief during a hard-charging morning of yo-yo-ing.
Weather, of course, is the biggest uncertainty for any Northwestern ski resort. But this area strikes a nice compromise with nature, bartering some of the region's storied snowfall¿White Pass gets about 350 inches annually¿for more sunshine and for snow that's closer to Styrofoam than Slurpee. The good weather reveals some stunning Cascade vistas. The panorama of little-known Goat Rocks Wilderness dumbfounds skiers when they look south, and to the north Mount Rainier's glaciated crown peeks over the Tatoosh Wilderness Area like Kilroy.
But the area's biggest claim to fame remains the twin Mahre brothers, who, as the sons of former mountain manager Dave Mahre, grew up 70 yards from the chairlift and now live about an hour east in Yakima. The brothers travel all over the world, but, as the locals boast, they still manage to ski here about 10 days each year.
Sure they do, I thought skeptically, until I looked up in the liftline. There glinted gold-medalist Phil Mahre's distinctive balding pate and country-boy smile.
"That is my favorite place to ski," brother Steve, the other half of the dynamic duo, told me with genuine earnestness a few days later. "It's not a big area, but it has everything a big area has¿just not much of it."
There's another reason for the brothers' loyalty: Skiing here is a small-town, salt-of-the-earth affair, as familiar and comfortable as an old pair of ragg wool socks. Fathers and sons work on the ski patrol together. An old school bell calls children to their morning lessons. Snowmobile bibs and logger suspenders outpace Bogner suits 50 to one. As a friend and native Northwesterner once summarized: "The big deal at White Pass is pretty much the absence of one."
Après-Ski and Dining
The downhome, friendly atmosphere extends to dining, lodging and après-ski. But when it comes to food choices, the quintessential small resort serves up basic fare such as hot dogs, nachos and beer. The pasta and espresso bars in the plain-Jane day lodge is about as fancy as lunch gets, and the only on-mountain dining at night is served in the lodge, as well. This may be the best dinner grub for 50 miles, but it's still hard to enjoy a juicy Kansas City Strip in a day lodge that smells like moldy athletic socks.
Down in Packwood where the dark nights are undisturbed by the flash of a traffic signal, nightlife likewise is pretty absent. Try the Blue Spruce or Peter's Inn, a honky-tonk with Budweiser, pull-tab games and a boozy mix of skiers and locals. A tip: Ski hard, and hit the sack early.
After an espresso at Ambrosia in Packwood, skiers wisely carbo load with a plate of lumberjack pancakes at the Club Café around the corner before heading up for the day's skiing.
On firm-snow mornings the corduroy cruisers such as Quail, Ptarmigan and Paradise that gently unscroll down the area's backside are a nice alternative to the steeps. Adjacent to them lies Pigtail Basin, where in the next two years¿courts willing¿the area's operators hope to add a second high-speed lift, five intermediate runs and a small day lodge.Skiers who tire of the cruisers can cross the road, snap on Nordic skis at the White Pass Nordic Center and disappear on 18 km of groomed trails that wind past moss-festooned ponderosa and hemlock in Wenatchee National Forest. Whether on skinny or fat skis, you can almost ski back to the car at day's end.
Catch White Pass on a good weekend¿with fresh snow¿and you won't even notice the drive home Sunday night: You'll be too busy planning your next weekend escape.