The temperature was 17 degrees an hour before sunrise Saturday when Crystal Mountain skiers began queuing up to become the first to ride Washington's only ski area gondola.
That two-hour outdoor wait for the 9 a.m. inaugural trip up the mountain was well worth whatever discomfort those hardy skiers experienced, said Crystal Mountain spokeswoman Justus Hyatt. The new year’s first day dawned with a nearly cloudless view of nearby Mount Rainier and the snow-tipped Cascades.
“If we had been able to start using our new gondola when we planned originally, the first day wouldn’t have been nearly as spectacular,” she said. “This was the clearest day we’ve had in weeks.”
The launch of the 17-cab Mount Rainier gondola system at Crystal had been delayed by weather and mechanical issues.
Construction of the $5.5 million gondola began in April, and the ski area had hoped to unveil the lift Dec. 10. Among the problems that caused the delay was the loss of a $40,000 gondola cabin. During a windstorm, the 8-person cabin was blown from the upper terminus of the gondola and rolled down a slope.
The cabin could not be salvaged, and the lift opened with 17 cabins instead of 18. Crystal Mountain spokeswoman Tiana Enger said five new cabins have been ordered and are expected to arrive in the middle of January. Enger said the cabins are shipped five at a time and the ski area will continue to order cabins until they have 32.
The opening of the gondola – built by the Austria-based company Doppelmayr – was delayed again Dec. 21 when the cable stretched more than 3 feet, requiring it to be tightened and re-spliced. Enger said this is not uncommon and that there were never any safety concerns.
Other than a couple of momentary halts to the gondolas’ upward progress Saturday, the new skier transport system operated flawlessly, said Hyatt.
Before the skiing day ended, more than 3,000 skiers and sightseers had taken the 9-minute, 39-second trip from the ski area’s 4,400-foot elevation base to the 6,856-foot Summit House. That restaurant and mountaintop gathering place has a panoramic view of Mount Rainier and the lesser peaks surrounding it.
The gondola proved far more popular than the two connecting chairlifts that formerly were the only way for skiers to reach the Summit House. Once the gondola began operating, waiting lines averaged 20 minutes for the gondola while the lines for the chairlifts were minimal.
The spectacular weather and the new gondola attracted a near-capacity crowd, Hyatt said, but Crystal didn’t have to turn anyone away as it did Thursday when the 3,000-car parking lot reached capacity.
The combination of fresh powder and holiday vacations combined that day to create an overflow crowd even without the gondola operating.
The Mt. Rainier Gondola is the biggest step yet in turning Crystal Mountain into a year-round resort.
While the lift will get its first use from skiers and snowboarders, the lift will be used for sight-seeing and service to the Summit House restaurant during the summer as well.
The restaurant, the highest in Washington, will offer brunch, lunch and sunset dinners in a setting that includes an in-your-face view of Mount Rainier. In the summer, the ski area also plans to offer horseback riding, disc golf and access to trails that can be explored by foot or mountain bike.
In the winter, skiers and snowboarders can use the gondola for $8 in addition to their regular $65 lift ticket. The lift to the top of Green Valley has traditionally required two chairlift rides that take more than 18 minutes.
Scenic rides in the gondola range from $8 for children 10 and younger to $17 for adults.
The gondola is supported by 13 towers and travels 800 feet per minute with the ability to move 600 people per hour.