Is this ski season cursed? All signs pointed to a great comeback season—a predicted La Niña, vaccines to tackle Covid, and a rise in unlimited season passes. But halfway through January, every local ski area suffers from some form of calamity.
First the snow failed to materialize in November; Crystal Mountain sped past its hoped mid-November opening without enough of the white stuff, and Stevens couldn't make their planned December 3 debut. But snowflakes eventually fell, and the Washington Cascades currently sit close to 100 percent of normal snowpack.
But Stevens Pass had 99 problems, and the delayed snowfall was but one. The ski area and its parent company, Vail Resorts, garnered the bulk of the attention for its rocky year; only a handful of the mountain's 10 chairlifts opened at first, leaving huge swaths of terrain inaccessible. "Omicron/Covid has had a particularly difficult impact, especially at Stevens Pass, and staffing challenges hit the resort harder than any of our others due to some of its unique characteristics," says Pacific Northwest communications manager Tom Dukeson. Though Vail Resorts reported a 76 percent increase in the number of Epic Passes sold internationally, there was little actual skiing to do in Washington. (Frequent Highway 2 closures, where Washington Department of Transportation plows and does avalanche mitigation, didn't help.)
Seattle filmmaker Jeremy Hunter Rubingh launched a Change.org petition in late December, complaining "We are disgusted with the mismanagement of the ski area" that had been acquired by Vail Resorts in 2018 for $64 million; the signers grew into the tens of thousands, helping inspire media coverage of Vail's overcrowded and partially open ski mountains across the country. "People have had enough of the corporate exploitation," says Rubingh of why his petition went viral. "Corporations not valuing employees and not paying a livable wage—and then complaining they have a talent shortage."
In mid-January, Stevens Pass General Manager Tom Pettigrew stepped down and an interim big boss, Tom Fortune, came in; Fortune had previously worked at Stevens Pass before managing Vail properties near Lake Tahoe. In his first week, Fortune promised to address the issues and has already revved up an additional chairlift at Stevens; Dukeson notes that they hope to open more terrain soon.
Crystal Mountain, owned by Alterra Mountain Company and under its unlimited Ikon Pass, stands as Stevens Pass's southern rival. After traffic backed up toward the Mount Rainier–area resort in late December and parking lots filled to capacity, Crystal announced a plan to require skier reservations; a few days later they pivoted to weekend parking reservations and expanded shuttle service from Enumclaw. The rush to use the unlimited Ikon Pass went from a physical backup at 7am on a weekend to a panicked online grab for reservations when they are released on Tuesdays; the supply of weekend spaces is snatched up in minutes. Complaints ballooned on social media.
Though Summit at Snoqualmie, the closest slopes to Seattle, does not fall under one of the two national mega-passes (its owners, Boyne Resorts, own a mere handful of others), it has seen mogul-sized bumps in its season. Despite record snowfall on slopes that often suffer rain, power issues have caused several closures. Marketing director Karter Riach says it's much more than normal—they've had more than half a dozen major outages since Christmas, including over Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend. Backup generators can keep some lifts going when electricity is not available, but Summit had to refund both ticket buyers and tubing customers.
Rubingh, who makes films about climate change and public land use, admits that he wishes he could get as much attention for those causes as he has for a bummer ski season. He cites Mount Baker Ski Area, independently owned but almost three hours from Seattle, as the rare ski area with affordable access. Still, he's cautiously optimistic about the movement at Stevens Pass after January's avalanche of negative press—though the clock is ticking on a season that only lasts through early spring. "I think time will tell if that means real change," he says. "And they don't have much time, frankly."