WHITE PASS - Mark Baldwin remembers visiting White Pass Ski Area in 1964 and looking at a large map in the lodge that outlined a proposed expansion into an area now known as Paradise Basin.
On Friday afternoon, Baldwin rode chair No. 3 on the new Basin Quad lift as part of a fundraiser preview of the long-promised expansion.
“Here we are, 2010, and we are finally skiing here,” the Yakima resident said. “It’s been a long wait, so this is pretty special.”
This morning at 8:45, the $9 million Paradise Basin expansion opens to the public. The terrain includes 767 acres with a sweeping view of Mount Rainier, two new lifts and a 5,600-square-foot lodge that general manager Kevin McCarthy says will open in a couple of weeks.
The expansion bumps the quaint ski area from the eighth-largest to the fourth-largest in the state.
It’s also the first of three major ski area upgrades in range of the South Sound to make their debuts this season. Crystal Mountain’s $5.5 million gondola is scheduled to open Friday. The Summit at Snoqualmie will reopen Summit East during Christmas week after a two-year layoff with two new lifts and 65 acres of new terrain.
Among the White Pass skiers sampling the new lifts and rolling runs Friday was Andy Mahre, an extreme skier who starred in this year’s Warren Miller movie “Wintervention.” His dad and his uncle, Steve and Phil Mahre, learned to ski at White Pass and went on to win silver and gold medals, respectively, in slalom at the 1984 Winter Olympics.
His grandfather, Dave Mahre, was a former manager at White Pass and worked at the ski area until he died in 2005.
“It’s very special for me to be out here,” said Andy, who lives in Naches, near Yakima. “It couldn’t be any more perfect. I’m sure my grandfather would have loved to have seen this.”
All but three of the new runs in Paradise Basin are unnamed, but that will change next season.
McCarthy decided to let skiers pick the names. As the first season unfolds, he said, the true personalities of the trails will surface.
White Pass marketing director Kathleen Goyette says White Pass will start collecting name suggestions in March.
While the Paradise Basin dream was hatched nearly half a century ago, the first big breakthrough came in 1984, when the National Forest Service removed the wilderness designation from the land. McCarthy took over as general manager that year and has been working on the expansion since.
The growth plan was necessary to alleviate pressure on the original terrain. While White Pass was only the eighth-largest ski area in the state, it drew the fifth-most skiers (116,683 per year over the past decade). The terrain was never conducive to large crowds because nearly all of the most popular runs merged onto the same cat track, creating ample opportunities for accidents and frustration.
The expansion, along with the new High Camp Lodge, will allow skiers to spend all day in Paradise Basin. Unlike expansion projects at Crystal Mountain in 2008 and Stevens Pass in the 1980s, White Pass has opened a new area loaded entirely with intermediate and beginner terrain.
“Instead of everybody funneling down to the same lift, all of sudden we have almost 800 new acres for people to spread out in,” Mahre said.