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I was there on 12/31/2007. Best day of skiing i have had in 45 years!!!!!

January 18, 2008
Ski Report

Bring on the Lift but Hold the Groomers in Washington

THE smothering storm, some 50 inches of snow in four days, wasn’t so unusual — not for Washington State. What was rare was the cloudless, not-a-breath-of-wind dawn that arrived on the fifth day, the last of 2007. It was a perfect morning to check out what is possibly this winter’s most intriguing addition to the ski slopes of the Pacific Northwest.
The new Northway chairlift, which opened last month at Crystal Mountain, provides easier access to the North Country, the most demanding part of the mountain’s wintry triptych of steep, tree-flecked runs; gentle, powdery aprons; and scare-you-stiff cliff bands like the Horseshoe Cliffs.
For years skiers had to choose wisely atop that crenellated chunk of Crystal Mountain. The North Country comprises 1,000 acres that sit in the shadow of Mount Rainier, and for years it has been an unusual mélange of in-bounds and out-of-bounds skiing: an avalanche-controlled but not regularly ski-patrolled area where hiking was nearly mandatory, self-rescue gear (beacons, shovels) was encouraged, and a lonesome, untamed, almost backcountry feel prevailed.
But there was a tradeoff for that uncollared feel. There was no lift to return skiers quickly to the thrills; skiers and boarders had to ride to the valley bottom and a rendezvous with a school bus shuttle, or slog their way back to the base area on a winding road. So skiers might burn up the whole day only notching two or three North Country runs like Brand-X and Penny Dawg’s. Thus they chose their bliss carefully.
But old hand-wringing habits die hard at Crystal, the state’s largest ski area. “Do you think it would be worth it to hike to Bruce’s?” Colin Meagher, a Seattle photographer, asked his friend Laura Le Blanc as they rode the Northway lift up Crystal Mountain the morning after the storm; he was referring to an area called Bruce’s Bowl. His voice was edged with powder-day excitement. Ms. Le Blanc wondered whether the Teddy Bear Chutes might be a better call. They got off the lift, scooched along a snowcat-track, then peered down the nose of a ridge at the bounty spread below their ski tips. Then they did some more old-fashioned dithering.
Referring to the decision to install the new lift, John Kircher, Crystal Mountain’s general manager, said: “A lot of the decisions are based on, ‘What would I like to see as a skier?’ To me, it seems like it changes the whole feel of the area. It just expands the skiable area, from a lift-served sense, by a huge amount. And it spreads people out.”
Some skiers say they had ignored the North Country before the lift was built. “It just wasn’t worth it for me, because I could ski four runs on the front side by the time somebody went out there and skied down and returned” by slogging up the road, said Dave Gossard, 77, a lifelong skier and retired Seattle lawyer who was a director of Crystal when it was owned by stockholders in the Seattle area. (Crystal was founded by Puget Sound skiers in 1962 and bought in 1997 by Boyne Resorts, which is based in Michigan, and whose holdings include Big Sky Resort in Montana.) Mr. Gossard said he was thrilled by the new lift.
But others have mixed feelings. In Washington — a state without a destination ski resort — people love the woods and wildness, and they feel a special attachment to places like Crystal. Most of the North Country remains ungroomed, but tinkering can still be unpopular.
Ms. Le Blanc, a former ski instructor turned ski patroller at Crystal and now a graduate student in glaciology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, was one of many who seemed ambivalent. As she rode the Northway chair, she was taken a bit aback by how plundered her old stomping grounds were. “It’s amazing to see this much of the North tracked out by — what? — 10:30 in the morning?”
But, she added, if nothing else, Crystal had taught her one thing: “This hill has so many nooks and crannies that even after skiing here for eight seasons there’s still lines to discover.”
Ms. Le Blanc and others also appreciated that the resort hadn’t turned the trail map into a treasure map that revealed all the choicest ski lines in the North Country, or installed a high-speed lift. (Mr. Kircher said his company purposefully installed a slower, $3 million double chair instead of a high-speed quad to limit the number of people who skied the area each hour.)
CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN is home to similar-looking hogback ridges and accordion-fold topography, so Ms. Le Blanc’s talk led to some of the North Country’s less-known stashes. A few of us scooted along one of three main ridgelines, then pushed out farther still, and came to Gun Tower, former site of an avalanche gun. We dropped into nearly waist-deep snow, whipping around old-growth mountain hemlocks tinseled with moss. At nearly noon, no one else had been here yet.
“It looks pretty tight in there; you’re not sure what’s at the bottom,” said Troy Hoff, a longtime local. “But if you poke around, you’re going to find the goods.”
Mr. Hoff said runs like that, and especially the terrain in Crystal’s South Back, are what have kept him coming back. “I think it’s some of the best true Alpine terrain skiing in the U.S.,” said Mr. Hoff, who competes in professional free-skiing events. “You can drop a full thousand vertical feet in a few seconds. Or close to it. Big air. Big lines. Insane powder skiing. Consequences. And even though it’s grown, it still has a small-resort feel.”
Despite the praise the mountain often receives, and the attention the new lift will bring, Mr. Kircher, the general manager, is realistic about the resort’s role. “I think the national spotlight is going to pan over Crystal briefly, as it always does,” he said. But, he added, then it will move elsewhere.
The lack of room to expand facilities much at the mountain’s base will always keep its star contained, Mr. Kircher said, not unhappily. And then there are the Northwest’s stormy winters. “People are just never going to fly into Seattle and go to a ski vacation at Crystal,” he said.
Mr. Kircher said that running a strong local and regional ski area was fine with him. “I’m very happy the way things are going at Crystal,” he said. And you can bet the locals are just fine not sharing the North Country — or the rest of their mountain — any more than necessary.

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