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Extended Season For Some Northwest Ski Areas, But Profits Scarce

Tom Banse
Notice the brown hills around Sun Valley in this Dec. 29, 2013 file photo. Snowmaking allowed the famous resort to operate during the crucial holiday period.

Thanks to late-season snow that fell in many areas, some Cascade ski areas will welcome skiers and snowboarders well past Easter.

There will be end-of-season parties at at least nine Northwest ski resorts this weekend. Timing means everything for the bottom line of these resort companies. But a strong finish doesn't necessarily make up for a late start like we saw this season.

On a classic spring skiing day at the White Pass Ski Area in Washington's South Cascades, you will enjoy blue skies, warm breezes, a deep snowpack that will probably last until June and a snowcapped Mount Rainier sitting glorious in the distance.

It's enough to make you forget about the rocky beginning to this year's ski season.

"Today is a great day to finish off," said Carrie Fox of Olympia. "Snow is a little sloppy, but you can't beat 70 degrees and skiing without your coat on."

Fox chaperoned a gaggle of school kids for a happy season finale. Nearby, Rodney Eells of Yakima admits he questioned earlier in the season whether he'd get his money's worth from his season pass.

"I wasn't sure if I would be able to come up enough times to make it worthwhile," he said. "But I think if I can get one more visit up here, I'll be alright."

Kevin McCarthy, general manager of this ski area, says the business started slow this year, then picked up.

"I feel more thankful at the end of this year than I have ever," he said. "Difficult year, but we're all going to survive. Put it that way."

As you might remember, it was cold but very dry up until the end of January. That meant too many skiers stayed home during the crucial make-or-break weeks around Christmas, New Years and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holidays.

"We had a fabulous February, [which] made it up a little bit," said McCarthy. "March was pretty good also, but you don't make it up at this time of year. You can continue to have a good year, the second half. But at times, it is 25 percent of your business during those two to three weeks at Christmas."

Higher elevation resorts like White Pass, Mt. Bachelor and Mount Hood can extend their seasons given ample spring snowpack. But there's a point of diminishing returns when other sports beckon.

McCarthy jokes this place will run out of skiers before it runs out of snow.

"Everyone just loves the change of season. And they can't wait to start the next, even though in the springtime it could be cold, nasty and windy. But we're out there, trying to golf," he said.

So the bottom line: the 2013-14 ski and snowboard season will be unprofitable at White Pass. McCarthy figures the loss will be small, especially compared with the disasters suffered by some other Northwest resorts.

Mount Ashland in southern Oregon never opened at all due to lack of snow. Hoodoo Ski Area experienced the latest opening in its history. The Summit at Snoqualmie and Idaho's Soldier Mountain and Magic Mountain also had short seasons.

One phenomenon worth noting is how competing resorts came to each other's aid this year. Some of those with enough snow to operate honored season's passes from properties that didn't.

Erratic snow also tested the resilience of Nordic ski areas, including the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association in north-central Washington. The nonprofit's director, James DiSalvo, says daily ticket sales decreased about 20 percent versus last season.

"What we have found is that we can handle a year like this. What we can't handle is two or three, or four consecutive years like this," he said.

Consequently, DiSalvo is keeping a close eye on signs of a possible El Nino weather pattern. That Pacific phenomenon typically brings warmer winter temperatures and poor snowpack to the Northwest.

Projected Closing Days For Selected Northwest Ski Resorts:

  • Mission Ridge: April 13 
  • Mount Spokane: April 13
  • 49 Degrees North: April 13 
  • White Pass: Daily to April 13, weekends through May 4
  • Crystal Mountain: Daily to April 20, weekends through "at least" May 18
  • Summit Central: April 20
  • Alpental: Weekends through May 5
  • Mount Baker: Fri-Sun. through April 20
  • Stevens Pass: April 27
  • Ski Bluewood: Closed April 6
  • Mount Bachelor: May 25
  • Mount Hood Meadows: Open daily through April 27, and at least the first two weekends in May
  • Mt. Hood Ski Bowl: April 13 
  • Hoodoo Ski Area: April 13
  • Willamette Pass: Closed March 31
  • Anthony Lakes: Closed April 6
  • Mount Ashland: Did not open at all in winter 2013-14
  • Sun Valley: April 20
  • Bogus Basin: April 13 (after two extensions)
  • Brundage: April 13 
  • Schweitzer: April 13 
  • Silver Mountain: Saturdays only, through April 26
  • Soldier Mountain: Short season, closed on March 2
  • Magic Mountain: Short season, closed on March 16
  • Whistler Blackcomb, B.C.: May 26
Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.