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Ski Pacific: Sixty Snowy Years


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Steven’s Pass, Wash., has always drawn its nourishment from two sources, both of which are apparently inexhaustible: magnificent terrain only 80 miles east of Seattle and a seemingly endless amount of snowfall that blesses the Skykomish Valley.

The ski area opened in 1937, with one rope-tow powered by a Ford V-8 engine. That first season, owners Don Adams and Bruce Kehr charged skiers five cents per ride. Ticket sales for the winter totaled $88. Because the road to the resort was closed at the town of Scenic, skiers either hiked the remaining 5 miles up to the ski area or purchased a one-way rail ticket on the Great Northern Passenger Train for 18 cents. From Scenic, the train took skiers through the Cascade Tunnel, where they were then met by a school bus that delivered them to the ski slopes.

Entering its 60th season, and now owned by Seattle-based Harbor Properties, Steven’s Pass hosts more than 400,000 visitors annually on its slopes, which are located within the Snoqualmie and Wenatchee national forests. “A key to our success is geography,” says General Manager, Ron Nova. “We’re not far from Seattle, and the ski area has reliable snow conditions. Our amenities can’t compare to large resorts like Sun Valley, but we’re very service-oriented. And we have some of the best terrain in the state.”

Bisecting the eastern and western halves of the North Cascades, the harsh yet heart-stopping geography of Steven’s Pass attracts storm systems ripping up from Puget Sound. “The flow of cool air from eastern Washington drifts up the canyon, through the Steven’s Pass area and meets these storm systems to give us a steady pattern of snow,” explains Mountain Manager and Snow Safety Director Bill Williamson, who utilizes two forecasters, avalaunchers and an experienced patrol to control more than 200 slide paths within the resort’s 1,125 acre boundary. Last winter, more than 500 inches fell on the resort. To keep the resort accessible, the Washington Department of Transportation employs an M-60 tank, on loan from an army training center in Yakima. The tank lobs 105-mm shells into slide-prone chutes along Highway 2, the road to resort.

On clear days, visitors can view huge stands of Pacific Silver Fir, Mountain Hemlock and Subalpine Evergreen. And they behold powder-cloaked peaks punctuated by steep chutes and indented with wide bowls.

While intermediates enjoy the modest, cruiser pitches spread over the mountain, more than one third of the area offers adrenaline junkies rugged fall-line runs with enough cliffs, glades and deep shots to satisfy the most courageous. Consider Seventh Heaven Ridge-dropping into the double-diamond Bobby’s Chute or Cloud 9 can make one’s stomach churn like a whitewater raft trip. From the summit of Big Chief Bowl, experts can drink in views of the Cascades’ crest before plunging into the multiple bump fields of Trapper and I-5.

Steven’s Pass also has become the most popular nightclub for skiers in the state. With seven lifts lighted for night recreation, skiers and boarders can cruise more than a dozen runs and 700 acres of terrain, including the steeps off Seventh Heaven Ridge. In 1996, Steven’s installed Washington’s only high-speed quad open for night operation. Fully illuminated, it dumps skiers atop the popular Barrier Ridge area in six minutes. Tickets good from 5-10 pm cost only $12 midweek ($20 on the weekends).

Located on U.S. Forest Service property, Steven’s has no private cabins or overnight facilities, so it doesn’t draw destination vacationers. Instead, the area caters to the urbanites of Seattle, apple growers of Wenatchee and merchants and tourists of nearby Leavenworth. The resort has traditionally focused on children’s programs and ski schools. More than 20 private programs are offered, and some even include indoor lessons in Seattle or Bellevue.

And Steven’s Pass is one of only three resorts in North America to provide “sno-bike” rental and instruction. An updated version of the Ski-Bob, the sno-bike has two in-line skis which turn independently. The rider sits on a bicycle-type seat, steers the handlebar and uses mini-skis on his feet as runners on either side for balance. “They’re easy to handle and much easier to learn than even snowboarding,” says Andre Hirss, a PSIA instructor who co-directs the Steven’s Pass Ski School. “The more variety we offer, the more people will come to play. The sno-bike allows a broader range of people to enjoy the mountains.”

More capital improvements are on the way as Steven’s Pass approaches the 21st century. A new lodge with expanded food service is in the works. Upgrading the Jupiter lift in Mill Valley (on the mountain’s backside), from a fixed grip to a detachable quad is high on the wish list. Special ticket prices and events are planned throughout Steven’s 60th anniversary season, including the annual Madison Cup, the largest Easter Sunday children’s race in the state. Also this season, if you were lucky enough to be born during winter, you can ski for free on your birthday.

“Part of our celebration is 60 years of local ownership,” says Nova, who began skiing at age 9. “We’re still a small company with a loyal and large customer base. They’ve been the biggest part of our 60 years, and we want to continue to cater to them.”

Steven’s Pass is 78 miles from downtown Seattle, and has 11 chairlifts, three day lodges, 1,800 vertical feet of skiing and 37 designated runs. Steven’s Pass Nordic Center, located 5 miles east of the alpine area, offers 25 km of both traditional, tracked trail and skating lanes for all skiing abilities.
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