Midway through the winter of discontent, I rolled out of the North Cascades and crossed paths with a pair of skiers.
I was on a fat bike — a mountain bike equipped with enormous tires so it can roll over snow — and the skiers were skinning their way to where I’d come from so they could spend an afternoon skiing.
It was snowing hard, and there was plenty of powder waiting for them.
“What a terrible winter?” one of the men said as they set off.
All three of us laughed.
Last winter was, indeed, a terrible winter for those who love playing in the snow. On April 1, the Northwest Avalanche Center said the depth at Northwest ski areas was between 0 percent (Mission Ridge) and 35 percent (Timberline Lodge) of normal.
And while disappointing news was enough to keep many home for the winter, there were still plenty of places to ski in the Northwest. Even if it might not have been as good as normal.
Forecasts call for another El Niño winter (this typically means warmer than normal weather), although experts say conditions will be significantly better than last season. Still, it might be worth taking note of some of the places where skiing was pretty good last season even if conditions weren’t.
Just in case.
THE METHOW AND NORTH CASCADES
North Cascade’s Heli wasn’t slowed much by the weather last season, one of the benefits of using helicopters instead of chairlifts. Although in its November newsletter it said, “We definitely had fewer deep powder days than we have come to expect.”
Heli skiing might not be in the budget for most, but there were less expensive options to get in ski days.
“Conditions were pretty good in the Methow Valley and at Loup Loup Ski Bowl,” said John Gifford, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association.
There were patchy spots on the Methow Trails, but the grooming team managed to keep open much of the 120 miles of trails for most of the winter. Cross-country ski trails have the benefit of not needing as much snow as alpine hills to be skiable.
Loup Loup Ski Bowl is nearby between Twisp and Okanogan. It has 1,240 feet of vertical and 10 runs on 300 acres.
GONDOLA AND PARADISE BASIN
In bad snow years, finding snow is as simple as getting higher.
British Columbia is loaded with resorts that can whisk skiers and snowboarders high into the mountains. Whistler Blackcomb, Big White, Kicking Horse, Panorama and Revelstoke all run lifts above 7,000 feet. So do Oregon’s Mount Bachelor, Mount Hood Meadows and Timberline Lodge.
But those are long drives.
The dangers of backcoutry skiing aren’t apparent. In surfing you see this giant wave, and a random person is not going to be, ‘Oh, I got this. I’ll just paddle out there.’
Ingrid Backstrom, extreme skier
Over the last decade, Crystal Mountain and White Pass made investments to improve access to higher terrain, and it paid off last season.
The Mount Rainier Gondola at Crystal Mountain delivers visitors to 6,872 feet and the top of Green Valley. The valley is usually the first piece of terrain to open and last to close at the resort. It’s sometimes skiable well into July, but it wasn’t so easy to access before the gondola opened in 2011.
Before the gondola, skiers would have to ride the lifts back to the base area at the end of the day. “That’s not what chairlifts are meant to do,” Crystal spokeswoman Tiana Anderson said. The gondola fixed that problem.
Last season, Crystal was open 112 days. During the similarly miserable winter of 2004-05, before the gondola was installed, Crystal was open 71 days.
“It actually stayed really good up top,” said Ingrid Backstrom, a Crystal Mountain free-skiing coach.
White Pass opened for only 24 days in 2004-05, but in 2010 opened 767 acres of new terrain, all above 5,300 feet. Last year, White Pass was open for 110 days.
“And the skiing was pretty good up there,” said White Pass spokeswoman Kathleen Goyette. “A lot better than people expected.”
Backstrom skis for a living, so she doesn’t let poor conditions at resorts slow her down.
“If you were willing to do a little hiking, which I enjoy doing anyway, there was still quite a bit of good skiing to be had,” she said of last season.
She thinks more people are getting into backcountry skiing so they have more opportunities to ski in years that are hard on the resorts.
“And I think once they do it, they realize they can get good exercise going up and then ski down,” Backstrom said. “And people are more willing to get out. People have so much information at their fingertips that people want to get away, get out in nature more and more.”
But trips into the backcountry shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“You can’t just walk out there and be OK,” Backstrom said. “The dangers of backcountry skiing aren’t apparent. In surfing you see this giant wave and a random person is not going to be, ‘Oh, I got this. I’ll just paddle out there.’
“But conditions aren’t always apparent with avalanches. You could be on one side of the fence in a totally controlled area and think, ‘This is great, and it looks the same right on the other side of that rope.’ But what you can’t see is layers buried underneath and how dangerous it might be.”
Backcountry skiers should have avalanche beacons, probes, shovels and the skills to use them. And they should check conditions and ski with a skilled, equipped partner.
Backstrom tries to drive this point home when she’s coaching, even though her classes are typically inbounds.
“We try to model good decision-making with the kids,” she said. “Every morning, we talk about the avalanche forecast, the weather and the snow quality. It is important to get that conversation going so that people on the mountain know that if I go under the rope I’m really taking a risk today.”
Last year was far from ideal at Mount Bachelor, but it may have had the best conditions in the Northwest.
Thomas Carpenter, responsible for monitoring and posting conditions daily for the Bend resort, says the resort missed only two weeks of operations.
“We had people from the Tahoe area, the Seattle area, who have mountains super close, but they didn’t have any snow on them,” Carpenter said. “Mount Baker is a perfect example. It’s one of the best mountains in the world, and nobody could go there. It’s just that we got the weather, and other places didn’t.”
One factor working in Bachelor’s favor in subpar snow years is that its highest lift drops skiers and snowboarders off at 9,065 feet above sea level. Of the ski areas in Washington, Idaho and Oregon, nobody has lifts that travel as high.
“All of it was, we were getting snow mid-mountain up,” Carpenter said. “So we had this snow at the summit and maybe not that much at the base. We did a lot of snow farming and improved the snow at mid-mountain so it would last longer.
“Our grooming department is top notch. They turned into a snow farming department last season. We got a couple storms that kind of healed things. Even a couple inches helps. But the grooming department is what kept us alive last season.”