Ski resorts wind down season

It's a safe bet that ski season is almost over when skiers and snowboarders start hitting the slopes in bikinis and Speedos.

That’s how Crystal Mountain will say goodbye Sunday to an up-and-down season.

The Bikini Downhill will pit 150 scantily clad men and women against one another racing for 2010-11 season passes.

The event is more than a com- petition, however. It will celeb- rate that the ski area survived an El Niño winter and that next season should be one of the most anticipated ever for ski resorts in Western Washington.

“The ski season started strong and finished strong,” said Tiana Enger of Crystal Mountain. “It was just the middle of the season that was slow.”

El Niño winters mean warm weather and less precipitation and in the Northwest can devastate the ski season, as was the case in 2004-05. That year, so little snow fell that ski areas were open an average of only 57.5 days.

As far as down seasons go, this one doesn’t compare.

“It’s definitely a relief,” said Guy Lawrence of the Summit at Snoqualmie. “It wasn’t the greatest season on record, but it was a good. ... We lost some energy through the meat of the season, but the smiles are back on people’s faces.

“The recent storms have injected enthusiasm back into the season.”

Scott Kaden of the Pacific Northwest Ski Area Association figures visitation will be a little below average this season but says it’s too early to know for sure. He’s still collecting data from regional ski areas.

Washington ski areas had 1.8 million skier visits last season.

White Pass closed Sunday and resort spokeswoman Kathleen Goyette said visitation was about the same as last season, when it drew 110,705 visitors.

At Crystal, spring storms meant the ski area had an above-average snowfall. The ski area is reporting 426 inches of snow for the season. It averages 360 inches.

While Crystal and Stevens Pass will close for the season Sunday night, two ski areas could remain open for a couple of more weekends.

Mount Baker plans to continue weekend operations through April 25. The Summit will decide whether it will continue weekend openings on a week-to-week basis, Lawrence said. It’s traditionally stayed open until May 5, but don’t count on that this year, he said.

Even before the season ends, skiers and snowboarders are looking forward to a 2010-11 season that will be packed with new attractions.

“It looks like we are in a jobless recovery,” Kaden said. “I think the (expansion and improvements) speaks volumes about how confident we are in the future.”

Crystal will install a gondola that will run from the base area to the top of Green Valley. It will be the first gondola at a Washington ski area. Enger says construction will begin later this month, though many of the parts won’t be delivered until May.

At the Summit, two lifts will be installed at Summit East, which has been closed since January 2009 because of a landslide that wiped out the main slope. Not only will the lifts allow Summit East to reopen, but they will give skiers access to Hidden Valley for the first time in 20 years.

The biggest changes will be at White Pass, where expansion 25 years in the planning will finally become a reality. White Pass will more than double its 635 acres of terrain and add a midmountain lodge.

“The big story next year will be the transformative impact the expansion has on White Pass,” Kaden said. “I can’t think of another one of our major ski areas that has doubled in size in one season.”

“It’s still going to be a mom-and-pop ski area; it’s just going to be bigger and better.”

Skiers will have to sacrifice a few weekends on the slope this season for next year’s upgrades.

Traditionally White Pass would stay open on weekends through April, Goyette said. However, the ski area closed Sunday so it could move equipment into place over the snow, limiting the effect on the environment.

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497