Washington ski resorts tested by climate and pandemic

With interest in snow sports on the rise, ski areas look for ways to remain sustainable and satisfy skiers

General manager Rikki Cooper keeps an eye on the Great White Express lift line at White Pass Ski Resort

General manager Rikki Cooper keeps an eye on the Great White Express lift line at White Pass Ski Resort, on Feb. 6, 2022, near Naches, Yakima County. Cooper frequented the slopes while growing up in Sequim. (Stephen Brashear for Crosscut)

David Severn was 2 years old when he learned to ski at the White Pass Ski Area in Central Washington. 

Like many others, he started by holding on to his father’s legs as he skied.

Eventually, he started skiing on his own. His dad recalled Severn crashing after going very fast during one of those early trips. When his dad went to check if he was OK, he found a laughing child. 

Many decades later, Severn would watch his own 5-year-old son laugh after a fall. He wants other families to make memories skiing together in the future, too. 

The future for White Pass — and ski resorts across the U.S. — hinges on their owners and operators tackling many issues and opportunities, including increased demand for skiing during the pandemic, staff shortages, climate change’s impact on snowpack and the ongoing challenges of running capital-intensive operations. 

Owners and operators have taken several different approaches to respond to those challenges, such as finding uses for their ski areas during the off-season. Others seek an infusion of capital or fresh eyes through new ownership. 

For Severn, ensuring the resort’s long-term stability meant joining a group of Yakima businessmen to buy White Pass in December. The former owners had been quietly searching for new owners for several years, hoping to find a new generation invested in the area’s continued success. 

“We had an interest in maintaining the culture and feel of the place,” Severn said. “We thought it was a great opportunity to get ourselves involved.” 

A child skis past the Day Lodge at White Pass Ski Resort. Feb. 6, 2022, near Naches. (Stephen Brashear for Crosscut)

Going corporate

While White Pass continues to have local ownership, large companies have acquired ski areas in the past few years, said Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications at the National Ski Areas Association. 

A dozen U.S. and Canadian companies own more than 100 resorts in the U.S. and Canada, among other countries. The two largest,  Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Company, both in Colorado, own nearly half of them. 

For those companies, 2018 was a big year for major acquisitions in Washington state. In May,  Michigan-based Boyne USA bought Summit at Snoqualmie, at the border of King and Kittitas counties. That was followed with Vail Resorts purchase of Stevens Pass, about 85 miles east of Seattle, in August. and Alterra's acquisition of Crystal Mountain, located in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Pierce County, in October. 

“Conglomerates that own many ski areas generally have operational experience and increased access to capital, which is critical for maintaining a ski area for the future,” Isaac said. 

But the majority of ski resorts in the U.S. remain locally owned or run by nonprofit organizations, she said. Such a model may work well for ski areas that serve the surrounding community rather than cater to out-of-state tourists. 

There are advantages to different ownership models, depending on the ski area’s needs, Isaac said.

“You have to know who your audience and your guest base is,” she said. “You also have to be honest about your operating overhead.” 

Skiers and snowboarders make their way down a slope at White Pass Ski Resort, Feb. 6, 2022. (Stephen Brashear for Crosscut)

Accessibility to the community

The Loup Loup Ski Bowl, a ski area about 15 miles east of Twisp in north central Washington, is among 33 of the 337 members of the National Ski Areas Association run by a nonprofit. Generally, those areas have a strong loyalty base and focus on strengthening the community, Isaac said. 

“You generally focus on the next generation of skiers and riders,” she said. “It’s focusing less on the destination guests and more on local community guests.” 

The nonprofit that runs Loup Loup has prided itself on its ability to provide experiences that are financially accessible to those who live in the area. A weekend day pass at Loup Loup is $60, about half of the $129 price at Stevens Pass. Loup Loup also provides free and discounted passes to local students.

But like other ski area operators, Loup Loup needs to figure out how to continue providing lower prices while having enough to cover overhead costs. 

And there’s also the issue of changing weather conditions, namely shorter winters. Over the last decade, a typical ski season went from 60 operating days to an average of 45 in recent years, said Brent Nourse, Loup Loup’s executive director. And this season, there's no guarantee the ski area will reach that many days. That means fewer days to generate revenue. 

Kevin McCarthy, former general manager and current board president at White Pass Ski Resort, helps a young snowboarder onto the tube lift, Feb. 6, 2022. (Stephen Brashear for Crosscut)

Last summer, Nourse started in the newly formed executive director position of Loup Loup. Along with maintaining the day-to-day operations, Nourse is tasked with making a plan to keep the nonprofit — and the ski area it runs — financially sustainable. 

Raising prices isn’t an option, Nourse said. “We would, for lack of a better term, ostracize the population segment we’re here to support."

The ski area saw one way for long-term financial sustainability: year-round use. Those plans would include mountain bike paths so Loup Loup could be used in the summer, and starting a year-round outdoor school that would offer lessons in climbing and biking, along with skiing. That would generate new revenue. 

This expansion would provide additional opportunities for youth in the community, and having more opportunities may prompt more people to donate to the foundation. 

“It’s not enough to ask and beg for money, we also have to be responsible [with funds],” he said. 

General manager Rikki Cooper, right, gets a hug from Matthew Owen of Selah, Yakima County., in a lift line at White Pass Ski Resort, Feb. 6, 2022. Owen's family has been skiing at White Pass since the 1950s. Cooper frequented the slopes while growing up in Sequim. (Stephen Brashear for Crosscut)

White Pass transition

Kevin McCarthy, who had served as general manager and co-owner of White Pass for several decades said the 2014-2015 season had him thinking seriously about the area’s future. That year, mild and dry weather provided little to no snow on the state’s ski areas. 

Being shut down because of the weather could have created a precarious financial situation, but a lender came through, providing loans to cover snowmaking that would provide sufficient terrain for skiing.

“It did save us that year,” McCarthy said. 

Still, the experience made McCarthy and the rest of the White Pass ownership group take a serious look to the future — namely to do what’s necessary to be prepared for more bad seasons. 

“It just dawned on us that we needed a different ownership makeup and one that had a little more financial horsepower,” he said. 

However, the bottom line couldn’t be the only factor. McCarthy also wanted new owners committed to preserving the local family-friendly ski hill environment. 

“And the fact of the matter was most of us on the board were getting well into our 60s,” he said. It was time for the next generation.” 

The start of that new generation came last July with Rikki Cooper taking over the general manager position. Cooper has skied on White Pass since she was a child and had done a variety of jobs on White Pass, including accounting at the White Pass administration office. 

Like Cooper, White Pass’ new owners — David Severn, Andrew Sundquist, Dan Plath, Adam Dolsen and Patrick Smith — grew up skiing at White Pass and have continued to visit with their spouses and children, ranging in age from 2 to 15. 

Severn said his group isn’t looking to make major changes yet, and is putting its trust in the experience of Cooper and on McCarthy, who remains on staff to aid in the transition. 

“I think the main thing is just to learn as much as we can from Kevin and Rikki,” he said.

Friends Colette Treadway, left, and Bridget Gehring snap a selfie in front with Mt. Rainier as the backdrop at White Pass Ski Resort, on Saturday Feb. 6, 2022, near Naches, Wash. The two Seattle Pacific University students were on their first visit to the resort. (Stephen Brashear for Crosscut)

Preventing overcrowding

During one Sunday in January, White Pass was busy but not overcrowded. Parking lots were full, but visitors could find a spot within a reasonable time. Waits for the chair lift were short. The lodge buzzed with activity, but there were still empty tables and seating areas. 

The magic number for White Pass is roughly 4,000 visitors. Anything more would be too many.  Cooper and the rest of the the resort’s staff pays close attention to season pass and day ticket sales to ensure they don’t go overcapacity.

Many White Pass projects in the works, such as a new building at the base of the mountain, a new lift and expansion of its Nordic area — where people go for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing — aim to better accommodate new and longtime visitors. 

“Right now we’re at a nice point. The parking lots are full, the lift lines are full, the lodges are just full,” Cooper said. 

Capacity challenges are on the mind of every ski area operator and owner. And the challenges were exacerbated during the pandemic, which brought increased demand in all recreational activities. There were roughly 59 million U.S. ski resort visits during the 2020-2021 season, the fifth-highest total dating back to the 1978-1979 season, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

And, like many other sectors, ski resorts are dealing with staffing shortages, making it more difficult to operate at full capacity. 

Stevens Pass, owned by Vail Resorts, brought in local and lifelong Stevens Pass skier Tom Fortune, left, as interim manager last month. (Courtesy of Adam Sanders/Stevens Pass)

In recent months, skiers have expressed ire at Stevens Pass as it closed many of its ski trails because of staffing shortages. More than 44,000 people signed a petition asking Vail Resorts to be held accountable for the inability to access ski areas, as well as a deterioration of the overall experience. 

Central to the issue were Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass, which were supposed to provide access to multiple Vail Resorts ski resorts throughout the U.S. and Canada. Petition commenters said they were angry about spending money on passes that ultimately did not provide sufficient access. 

Companies like Vail Resorts use season passes, which enable access to multiple resorts they own, as a means to bring in cash. It also provides a boost to their bottom line for stockholders, as many of these companies are publicly traded, said Heather Hansman, a Seattle-based ski writer and author of Powder Days, a book looking at the impact of the business of skiing on its culture. 

“[Stevens Pass] sold more passes than they had capacity for,” she said. 

In a move to fix the problem, Stevens Pass brought in Tom Fortune as interim general manager last month. Fortune grew up skiing at Stevens Pass and started his career there. 

Since arriving, Fortune has written numerous blog posts and Facebook messages to update customers on several issues, including capacity. The ski area is also offering season pass holders an opportunity to get a discount for the next season’s pass for just Stevens Pass or a credit that could be used on the resort’s restaurant, ski school or retail areas if they purchased or renewed an Epic Pass. 

Fortune said he felt staff have made progress in opening more portions of the resort. He said Stevens Pass has been able to open more terrain through streamlining of the hiring process and by reaching out to former employees. 

Frequent communication is crucial in regaining the trust of consumers, he said. Feedback has been crucial, as they work to increase the availability of its ski terrain.

While Stevens Pass’ woes have been the most public, it’s hardly the only ski area dealing with capacity challenges, said Hansman, the Powder Days author. 

“Everyone is trying to figure it out,” she said.

At White Pass, that meant selling fewer season passes and day lift tickets. McCarthy said it’s essential not to let the lure of additional profits come at the cost of the customer experience. 

Capacity issues can hurt the entire industry, not just an individual ski area or resort, he said. One bad experience could discourage people from returning.

Or it might prompt overcrowding at other ski areas taking on customers turned away elsewhere. 

“That’s the worst thing you can do: Invite somebody up and then send them home because ‘Oh, we invited too many people,’” he said. 

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