Legend of Mission Ridge might not make sense, but there's magic there

Legend of Mission Ridge ski area near Wenatchee might not make much sense, but there’s magic in the powder — and the price

craig.hill@thenewstribune.comMarch 30, 2014 

Good luck crashed at Wenatchee’s Mission Ridge in 1944, and, I guess, that was the biggest reason for our skepticism.

The B-24 Liberator wing my daughter and I had just skied up to was magical. The sign next to it said so. Rub it, and the snow will come.

At least that’s how the legend goes.

But, Kenzie and I wondered, how could good luck come from something that was so clearly unlucky for the six members of Walla Walla Army Air Base’s Flight Crew 22? All six died in the fiery crash.

I shared my doubt with Mission Ridge marketing director Jordan Lindstrom earlier in the day. He laughed.

“All I know is this,” Lindstrom said, launching into a story about how bleak this ski season looked during the holidays because of meager snowfall. At a loss, the ski area held a Bomber Wing Rub-a-Dub Party on Dec. 28. For three hours skiers and boarders ate hot dogs, partied and rubbed the wing. In February, Mission Ridge got 79 inches of snow — the third-best month in resort history.

“So, write what you like, but …” Lindstrom said, letting the facts make his point.

Good story, but that’s not what finally convinced us. That happened later.

MISSION MAGIC

Lucky wing or not, Mission Ridge is a magical place.

The sun shines more often, the snow is lighter and it’s closer to a city than any other ski area in the Washington Cascades.

And you don’t have to grow up here until you are 25.

The light snow and abundance of sun — both byproducts of its location on the eastern slopes of the Cascades — have long been Mission Ridge’s hallmarks. And it has long used its proximity to Wenatchee (12 miles away) to lure vacationers from Western Washington.

But recently it unveiled new lift ticket pricing it hopes will make the sport more affordable. Mission Ridge started offering youth prices to people 24 and younger. The cutoff used to be 18.

“It seems like a no-brainer,” Lindstrom told The News Tribune before the season. “Those 18- to 24-year-old people are just moving out of their homes and don’t have a ton of disposable income. Price really makes a difference to them.”

Clearly, word is spreading that Mission Ridge has one of the cheapest lift tickets in the Northwest.

“If Whistler is the $1,500 family weekend getaway,” Lindstrom said, “then we are the $500 family weekend getaway.”

The ski area is currently selling 2014-15 season passes for a family of four for $1,000.

Lindstrom says about 40 percent of its 100,000 skier visits per year come from Western Washington.

“Dry snow, sunshine, short lift lines, awesome grooming and good variety of terrain,” said Eric West, a Wenatchee resident who’s been skiing at Mission Ridge since it opened in 1966. “It’s a great mountain. … But it’s still one of the best-kept secrets in Washington.

“As much as we love it and want to share it, we don’t want a ton of people. We don’t want it to become another Stevens Pass (the state’s second-busiest ski area).”

SUN AND SNOW

There are two sides to Mission Ridge’s best attributes.

They claim they get 300 days of sunshine per year. This makes for lovely days and stunning Oregon-to-Canada views from the top of the Liberator Express chair.

But it’s not so great for compiling a snow pack. Mission gets 135 inches of snow per year, more than 200 inches less than any other ski area in the Washington Cascades.

Powder days here are like no place else in Washington, because the snow is so light and dry. But this fluffy snow isn’t good for building a long-lasting base.

As a result, some of the best steep runs such as the Bomber Cliffs have smaller windows of opportunity than the ski area’s neatly manicured intermediate runs.

But the locals say they wouldn’t trade Mission Ridge for anything.

“I’ve skied all over, and I’ve never connected with a place like I have with Mission Ridge.” said Jeff Ostenson, a Wenatchee-based filmmaker who graduated from Pacific Lutheran University. “I can’t imagine anything better than a powder day at Mission Ridge.

“It might not always be great, but when it’s good it’s amazing.”

SKOOKUM

Across the ski area from the bomber wreckage is more terrain packed with history.

The long intermediate run named Skookum doubles as the training ground for one of the most accomplished racing programs on the West Coast.

The team, coached by Ryan Shorter, won all three Northwest Cup titles last season and seven of 10 individual titles.

It produced 2011 U.S. slalom champ Colby Granstrom. Clare Wise and Brooke Wales went on to help the University of Colorado win the 2013 NCAA championship.

Tom Rothrock, member of Team USA’s 2002 Olympic squad, also raced in the program. But Mission Ridge’s most famous skier was Bill Johnson, the 1984 Olympic downhill gold medalist.

The racing academy’s reputation for developing good skiers in a disciplined environment was well-known in 1978 when Johnson’s dad was looking for a place to send his talented but mischievous son.

According to a 1984 Associated Press article, Johnson left his home near Mount Hood to train at Mission Ridge, but got in trouble along the way. Dick Knowles, Mission Ridge’s coach at the time, said the incident involved a stolen car.

A 2011 Powder magazine article said the judge gave him a choice: Prison or college. Johnson chose Wenatchee Valley Community College and the Mission Ridge race team.

Shorter has coached the program since the 2006-07, season and in that time he’s seen participation grow fourfold and the budget increase fivefold.

He credits the resort and community’s commitment to the program, Mission’s extensive snowmaking capability and the weather.

It might get less snow than some ski areas, but that coupled with the sunshine is ideal for racing.

“I talk to a lot of people who have great memories about racing here,” Shorter said. “It’s a magical place for ski racing.”

DOUBT RUBBED OUT

Skookum wasn’t in the cards for us when Kenzie and I visited earlier this month. Not only were racers from the U.S. and Canada using the course, but Kenzie hasn’t yet skied enough to master the finer points of the snowplow.

But she’d survived a rough first run on a beginner slope called Mimi and then rebuilt her confidence on the rope tow. Before lunch she skied an intermediate run named Castle and was looking for a challenge.

She wanted to go to the top of the mountain and see the magic bomber wing for herself.

On the chairlift ride up I told her the stories I’d heard from several locals. About how the ghost of the plane’s prop man supposedly still roams the area.

How a section of wing was taken from the wreckage in 1985 and displayed in the lodge. After several poor snow years, the wing was moved back up the mountain and mounted alongside a run above Bomber Bowl. As the legend goes, it started snowing immediately and now skiers and boarders rub it for good luck.

There’s even a shiny spot on the left side that’s supposed to be an especially lucky rubbing spot.

“Yeah, right,” said Kenzie as we arrived at the wing. She’s a teenager. She believes only about 10 percent of what I say anyway.

“I know.” I said. “It’s just for fun. Rub it so I can get a picture for Mom.”

She tapped it with her ski pole. Like I said, she’s a teenager.

We skied off, looking for the easiest way down. We traversed much of the ski area and settled on an intermediate run called Toketie.

It took nearly an hour to get down, but along the way something happened that melted away the skepticism about the wing.

It was only for about a few seconds and there were only a few flakes, but there was no doubt about what had just landed on my goggles.

It was snowing.

Mission Ridge

LIFT TICKETS: $55, $45 ages 7-24 and 62-69, $12 ages 70 and older and children 6 and younger

HOURS: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays-Mondays

ACRES: 900

#100LAPS TERRAIN PARK: 3.5 acres with a designated rope tow creating the potential for skiers and boarders to get in 100 run in a day.

LIFTS: Three two-seat lifts and one high-speed quad

TRAILS: 36 runs (10 percent beginner, 60 percent intermediate, 30 percent advanced)

SUMMIT ELEVATION: 6,820 feet

BASE ELEVATION: 4,570 feet

VERTICAL DROP: 2,250 feet

ANNUAL SNOWFALL: 135 inches

SNOW LINE: 509-663-3200

MORE INFORMATION: 509-663-6543, missionridge.com.

MORE TO DO

LODGING: Several Wenatchee hotels offer lodging and lift ticket packages starting at $148 per night for two people. missionridge.com/lodging-packages

DINING: McGlinn’s Public House in Wenatchee has been a popular aprs ski spot for more than 20 years. It serves an array of wood-fired pizza ranging from pepperoni to Thai chicken or Alaskan smoked salmon on a gluten-free crust. Locals also recommend Saddle Rock Pub and Brewery and Badger Mountain Brewing.

PYBUS MARKET: You might think you’ve taken a wrong turn when you see Pybus Market on the Columbia River. The “Public Market” sign looks a lot like the sign in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. A year old, the market is proving to be a popular attraction. pybuspublicmarket.org

PLAY MORE: The foothills around Wenatchee are loaded with trails for hiking and biking, and the 11-mile paved Apple Capital Loop Trail offers a scenic tour along the Columbia River. Bike rentals are available at Arlberg Sports for $10-50. arlbergsports.com

THE SCENIC ROUTE: It’ll take more than twice as long and cost more than driving, but Amtrak offers rail service from Olympia and Tacoma to Wenatchee. amtrak.com

MORE INFO: wenatchee.org

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 craig.hill@thenewstribune.com thenewstribune.com/outdoors theolympian.com/outdoors @AdventureGuys

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