CHEWELAH - 49 Degrees North isn't just another quaint Eastern Washington ski hill, it's the state's second-largest ski area with impressive (as in low) prices.
It usually comes on the Bonanza lift as it creeps slowly toward the 5,774-foot peak and it usually involves wide eyes and a dropped jaw.
“First-time visitors are always amazed,” said LaVigne, a 63-year-old website designer who volunteers as a mountain host. “There is so much variety and so much terrain. It always surprises them.”
Approaching the top of the lift, it becomes clear that this hill in the Selkirk Mountains – about 50 miles north of Spokane – isn’t just another quaint Eastern Washington ski area. There are three large basins packed with intermediate cruisers and some of the Northwest’s best tree skiing.
In fact, here’s a trivia question that could probably win you a great number of aprs ski bets: What is the second-largest ski area in Washington?
The answer: 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort.
“Some people don’t even believe me when I tell them,” said Brad Northrup, the resort’s marketing director.
At 2,325 acres, the area is just 275 acres smaller than Crystal Mountain and almost 350 acres larger than the Summit at Snoqualmie’s four ski areas.
Don’t feel bad if you thought people in Washington only skied as far as east as Wenatchee’s Mission Ridge. The folks at 49 Degrees North understand.
Northrup said the ski area spends barely any money advertising in Western Washington.
“It’s a long way to travel (a six-hour drive from Tacoma) and if people are going to go that far they usually want slope-side accommodations,” Northrup said. “This is a ski mountain. This is not Disneyland.”
So the area, called 49 by locals, remains one of Washington’s best kept secrets – at least in Western Washington. Last year, the resort drew 77,416 people, nearly as much as Idaho’s Silver Mountain (78,595) even though Silver is just as close to Spokane and offers an indoor water park.
“It’s a family-friendly ski area that has something for everybody,” said Andi Trudeau, whose family owns the Nordlig Hotel in Chewelah. “It’s not ‘resorty,’ and I think people appreciate that. It’s just a comfortable place to go and ski.”
OUT OF A CLOSET
The birth of 49 Degrees North can be traced back to a closet at a Washington State University fraternity.
It was the early 1930s and the school was still known as Washington State College when Cy LaVigne, a student, found a pair of old 9-foot long skis in a closet.
“He and his friends had heard of skis, but they’d never seen them before,” said Sherry LaVigne, Cy’s granddaughter.
The young men took the skis to the snow-covered rolling hills around Pullman to test them out.
“But my grandfather wasn’t that impressed by the hills,” LaVigne said. “He was from Chewelah so he knew what mountains really looked like.”
So one winter Cy LaVigne brought the big planks to Chewelah and took them into the mountains with friends who were snowshoeing.
“He was having so much fun that everybody wanted to try it,” LaVigne said.
By 1936 a hut was built near Chewelah Peak and families started visiting to try the sport. In 1939, Cy LaVigne and some friends took an old Dodge car to the hut, put it on blocks and hooked a rope to the axel to create a rope tow.
After World War II, the skiing moved to nearby Angel Peak. A double-lift was installed and two narrow ski runs were cut through the trees.
“One run was called Marilyn Monroe and the other was called Mae West,” LaVigne said. “The boys did the work so they got to name the runs.”
LaVigne made her first visit to the old ski area as an infant. Her parents placed her in an open suitcase near the lodge window while they skied. But by the age of 3, LaVigne was skiing too.
The chairlift slowly wore out, and by 1968 the ski area was forced to close.
It reopened in its current location with three lifts on Chewelah Peak in 1972.
“It’s much bigger now,” LaVigne said. “But they’ve done a great job of maintaining that family atmosphere that it had back when it was just tiny ski hill.”
While the ski area claims to have it all, expert Western Washington skiers will be quick to notice that it doesn’t boast the double-diamond steeps you’ll find in the Cascades.
“It’s not the Cascades and there’s nothing we can really do about that,” Northrup said. “But we have some runs that are pretty steep and some of the finest glade skiing in the state.”
The best of the tree skiing is Cy’s Glades, in honor of Cy LaVigne.
“On powder days there are so many great gladed areas,” said Sherry LaVigne, a former Crystal Mountain ski instructor and Sumner resident. “There’s always enough fresh powder for everybody.”
While the tree skiing is what gives 49 it’s expert skiing, 70 percent of the terrain ranges from novice to intermediate.
“This is something most people really appreciate,” Northrup said, “because ... most skiers in the Northwest are intermediate skiers.”
The beginner Payday chair is set aside from other terrain so rookies need not worry about more experienced skiers zipping past.
“And you don’t have to be an expert to ski down from the top of the mountain,” Northrup said. “There are greens (beginner runs) all the way down.”
Currently skiers can take a short hike from the Lost Dutchman run to the 5,295-foot summit of Angel Peak to try seven runs that were cut in 2009. The ski area plans to install a new lift to service the terrain, perhaps as soon as next season.
Andi Trudeau says the Chewelah hotel she and her husband, Paul, own is full most winter weekends. She says this is because 49 Degrees North is one of the best deals in skiing.
Lift tickets are $51, but those staying at selected hotels in the region can get tickets for $27. Considering rooms at the Nordlig Hotel start at $51, a family can save enough on lift tickets to cover their lodging costs.
“We get most of our customers from Canada and Eastern and Central Washington,” Trudeau said. “But we have a couple that comes from Australia and people from Tahoe tell us it’s cheaper to travel up here for a ski vacation than it is to stay home.”
The ski area might also offer the biggest bargains in the industry.
Four nights a year, 49 turns on the lights and lets people ski from 3:30 to 8 p.m. for $4 and two cans of food. The food goes to the local food bank.
And for the final week of the season, everybody skis free. This year’s free ski week is April 4-10.
“Skiing is expensive,” Northrup said. “We know everybody can’t afford it, so we like to be able do things like this to give everybody a chance to try the sport.”
LaVigne says the best part of the deal is the lift lines.
“After the morning rush, there aren’t any lines,” LaVigne said. “My son drives over on the weekends from Bonney Lake because he says he can get in more skiing here than he can over there.
“We have it pretty good over here.”
So when Western Washington skiers say they don’t know about 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort, the locals here don’t mind. They like keeping the mountain to themselves.
Of course, they don’t mind sharing either.
“We don’t have a plush lodge and all those other amenities,” Northrup said. “But what we do have is good terrain and consistent snowfall. Those things working in concert make this mountain a real gem.”