LITTLE BUCK MOUNTAIN, Okanogan County - Using the word "little" to describe Loup Loup Ski Bowl doesn't do it justice.
The Loup, as the locals call it, has just one full-time employee, its chairlift is a hand-me-down and it draws fewer visitors than almost every ski area in Washington.
“We’re not little,” said Sharla Lynn, the Loup’s general manager. “We are a microresort.”
Like a good microbrew, this microresort focuses more on quality and character than mass appeal.
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Located on a finger of the Cascade Range separating the Methow and Okanogan valleys, a visit to the Loup might feel like a trip back in time.
An iron sits outside the rental shop for boards that need waxing. Old skis are used for the railing on the ski patrol hut. And kids still pay their dues by learning on a rope tow rather than a new, hands-free moving carpet.
“This little ski area has a lot of personality,” said Terry Larson, a member of the ski patrol. “It’s a very enjoyable place to be.”
The ski area and its 1,240 vertical feet of engaging terrain are run by the nonprofit Loup Loup Ski Education Foundation. The ski area opened in the 1940s as a rope tow on the south side of state Route 20, before moving north of the highway in 1958.
Of the 12 ski areas that report their visitor numbers to the Pacific Northwest Ski Association, only Hurricane Ridge, a small rope tow serviced-hill in Olympic National Park, draws fewer skiers than the Loup. Over the last 10 season, Loup Loup averaged 11,618 visitors per year. Hurricane Ridge averaged 3,190 visits. Meanwhile the Summit at Snoqualmie, the state’s most popular ski area, averaged 508,884.
“A busy day for us is 600 people,” Lynn said. “But even on a day like that you won’t have to worry about lift lines.”
A LIFT FROM CRYSTAL
Getting to the top of Little Buck Mountain was an ordeal before 1998.
Skiers waited in long lines at the base area to take the slow platter pull up what is now labeled an expert ski run.
“There are lots of great stories from people who fell off as kids and had to figure out how to get down,” Lynn said. “It separated the men from the boys.
“It was harder to get up than it was to ski down.”
While this made for great stories, it wasn’t great for business, said Ron Mackie, the general manager at the time.
“Basically people were standing around at the bottom of the hill,” Mackie said.
The ski area changed forever when one of its season-pass holders, Jeff Lauterbach, heard that Crystal Mountain was replacing its Midway Quad lift with the high-speed six-seat Chinook Express.
Crystal agreed to sell the lift to the Loup for $150,000. A bargain price, but still a fortune for a microresort.
Francis Crane, an apple orchard owner from Brewster, donated $50,000 and the ski area borrowed the rest.
Then, Mackie said, it was as if the entire Okanogan and Methow valleys willed the project to completion.
Volunteers drove the lift over from Crystal piece by piece. Welders, carpenters and electricians volunteered to build new towers (The lift came with only one). The lift was shortened and re-engineered.
“It’s just amazing to me that so many people would give not only their time but their money,” Lynn said. “It’s pretty groovy.”
The chairs and towers are now adorned with red and blue plaques commemorating many of the volunteers.
“In terms of time and money, there was probably $600,000 in donations,” Mackie said. “Everybody just got behind it and made it work.”
A DIFFERENT FEEL
Appropriately enough, the run under the secondhand chairlift is called Volunteer.
“Without volunteers this ski area doesn’t exist,” Lynn said.
Lynn is the ski area’s only full-time employee. The area has 16 employees during the season. Summer maintenance is done by community members – mostly teenagers – in exchange for season passes. The board is comprised of 15 volunteers.
Even the 45-member ski patrol is all volunteers.
The ski patrol refers to itself as the Geezer Patrol.
“Some of our younger members take offense at that,” Larson said. “We have members who range from their 70s all the way down into their high 40s.”
In addition to relying on volunteers, a microresort must be creative.
For decades Loup Loup had to use pit toilets until flushing toilets were installed five years ago, Lynn said. Part of the ski rental shop is a recycled bus.
When a Rossignal ski team broke down in Mazama, the team left its bus with the local diesel mechanic rather than buy a new engine. The mechanic donated the bus to the Loup. The end of the bus was cut off and it was attached to the rental shop.
“It’s funky, but it suits us well,” Lynn said. “We have a real flavor here.”
The secondhand lift and repurposed bus are indicative of the atmosphere at the Loup.
“I grew up in Lake Tahoe skiing at the mega resorts where there can be a lot of attitude,” Lynn said. “It’s completely different here. Nobody is going to look at you funny if you ski in your Carhartts. There is no attitude. It doesn’t matter what you wear.”
The Loup is one of the few Alpine ski areas in North America that is overshadowed by the Nordic skiing scene. Methow Valley is a mecca for Nordic skiing, but those who click in their heels at the Loup say the hill has everything they need.
“I’ve skied all the big hills and I’d just as soon hang out here,” said Jay Kehne, a board member who used to live in the Lake Tahoe area. “There are never lines and there is enough here to make anybody’s legs tired. I’m usually done by 3.”
With 1,240 vertical feet, the Loup has more vertical than three of the Summit at Snoqualmie’s four ski areas. And while it is smaller than most Washington ski areas, runs are not interrupted by Sno-Cat tracks as so many runs are at the state’s most popular resorts.
In addition to the main lift, the Loup has a short platter pull and a rope tow for beginners and a terrain park.
“It is a great place for the family,” said Dustin Mackie, Ron Mackie’s son. “When a kid goes down and hollers ‘Mom,’ about 10 moms turn their head.”
While you’ll find more challenging terrain around the Cascades, the Loup is no slouch.
In fact, the complaint Lynn hears most is that there is no easy way down from the top. The Double Z run is only marked green because it is the easiest way down.
“It is by no means a beginner run,” Lynn said. “You need to know what you are doing to go to the top of our hill. That is our one downfall.”