As the SkiZer grows older, he’s finding plenty to complain about.
Aches and pains. Lazy dudes on Solowheels. Millennials texting as they walk down the street. Yes, the SkiZer can be a cranky old coot from time to time.
But I have to like one thing: Ski lift ticket prices are getting cheaper for my age group.
As my recent story in The Seattle Times reported, resorts offer lots financial of incentives for older skiers. That’s because so few people stay on the slopes as they age: Only 7 percent of the skiing population is older than 65 in Washington and Oregon, according to the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association.
At White Pass, you can ski for free if you’re 73 years old. Bluewood near Dayton, Wash., and Whitefish Mountain Resort in Western Montana offer free rides for those 70 and older.
Other resorts, like Summit at Snoqualmie, Stevens Pass and Mission Ridge charge just $15 for septuagenarians. And for those in their 60s, day tickets are reduced as much as 20 percent.
The free and reduced tickets have created active communities of older skiers.
At Whitefish Mountain, some of the older regulars ski nearly every day, logging more that 4 million vertical feet in a season. Why do it?
“If you don’t stay active, you die,” says Fred Frost, 74, one of the Whitefish Mountain faithful.
At White Pass, a group of older skiers hits the slopes in the mornings, then sometimes heads to Yakima to go golfing in the afternoons.
“What’s not to like about that?” says Dave Joynt, 78, a regular at White Pass. Joynt and his friends say the atmosphere among the older skiers is like being in an episode of “Cheers.”
“If you ski there a lot, you know everyone when you walk into the lodge,” he says.
All too soon, I’ll be joining the club. This old-age thing has a real up side.
Anytime you can ski on Thanksgiving, it’s a bonus.
The SkiZer scored Day 1 of the season at Stevens Pass in a whiteout. It had snowed about 10 inches, and it dumped all day.
With the ski area still closed, the SkiZer hit the slopes about 9:30 a.m. and climbed to the top of Big Chief Mountain. Coverage was extremely thin on the lower slopes and there were many bogs and stream crossings to negotiate. On top of Big Chief, three feet of heavy, wet snow covered the terrain.
It looked good, but with no base to speak of, skis constantly hit rocks, sticks and trees under the new snow.
Others were out for the Turkey Day ski. One poor soul took a run off of Aquarius face and hit rocks all the way down. He advised against skiing it and the SkiZer graciously stayed away.
The run down afforded a few turns and one huge header when my skis dipped into a mud hole. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a day on skis, and that’s something to be thankful for.
Some ski areas in the Washington Cascades get huge crowds on big days.
Not so at Mission Ridge and White Pass, two off-the-radar resorts that offer exceptional skiing without the lift lines.
“Mission has some great, silky snow,” says avid Seattle skier Larry Schick, a meteorologist who tracks Pacific storms for onthesnow.com and his own website, powderpoobah.com. “And there’s no people over there.”
“(White Pass) is beautiful and uncrowded,” says Bill Weigand, who started skiing at White in 1955. “During midweek, it’s like having your own private ski area.”
These quiet resorts also offer great terrain, challenging enough to have nurtured some of America’s most famous Olympic racers. White Pass gave rise to Phil and Steve Mahre, who went on to win gold and silver; Mission Ridge was the stomping ground of the late Bill Johnson, won downhill gold.
Mission: ‘No better snow’
Mission Ridge is located just 12 miles southwest of Wenatchee. It offers 2,000 acres of terrain and 2,250 feet of vertical from the ridgetop at 6,820 feet. Four chairlifts serve the bowl-shaped Squilchuck Basin, with the best skiing off a high-speed quad called the Liberator Express, named after a B-24 Liberator bomber that crashed during a training mission in 1944.
The wing from the airplane is on display at the entrance of the popular Bomber Bowl run. Rub the wing, the legend goes, and you’ll bring fresh powder, and locals religiously stop by to work the mojo during storms.
“On powder days, there’s no better snow in the state,” says Tony Hickok, Mission’s marketing director.
Skiers and boarders like the snow, but they also love the mountain.
“The upper mountain has fabulous steep terrain, glades and bowls,” says Mike Rolfs, a regular who lift-skied 69 days last winter at Mission.
The Liberator Express delivers skiers to the top of the ridge and provides access to traverses and short climbs to powder drops that stay fresh for days after storms.
“With 2,000 skiable acres, we have the best acre-per-skier ratio in the state,” Hickok says. “The snow just doesn’t get tracked out.”
Mission also has a robust snow-making operation, which helps Mother Nature cover groomed runs and lower slopes.
“The groomers (at Mission) are the best anywhere,” says Jeff Ostenson, another regular.
Ostenson, executive producer of North 40 Productions in Wenatchee, has created two new films that feature Mission: “Lifted,” about small-town mountains, and “MR50,” celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the ski area this year.
Many Wenatchee residents take advantage of the short drive to Mission for a few runs on particularly good days, then head into work afterwards, Ostenson says.
“The proximity to town is fantastic,” he says.
White Pass: “Never crowded”
White Pass feels like two mountains on its 1,500 acres of terrain. Located about 50 miles west of Yakima on U.S. Highway 12, the original mountain, built in the 1950s, features the area’s steeps. White Pass added nearly 800 acres in 2010 when it expanded behind its front-side mountain into Paradise Basin, which offers primarily intermediate skiing on its higher-elevation slopes.
White Pass has six chairlifts, with two being high speed quads that do most of the people moving. In all, White has 2,000 feet of vertical, rising to 6,550 feet at its highest point.
The steeps on the front side are challenging on north-facing drops off the Great White Express. The Paradise Basin runs are open and gladed, served by the Couloir Express. Among the best runs in Paradise Basin are off of West Ridge, a traverse that brings skiers into lovely glades and trees that routinely deliver fresh tracks on powder days.
“You can spend all day out there and have a great time,” says Kevin McCarthy, general manager of White Pass, about Paradise Basin.
In fact, many people choose to do just that, using the popular mid-mountain High Camp Lodge as a stopping place, only to return to the front side base area at the end of the day.
Best of all, White Pass has no lift lines.
“You’re not ever going to feel crowded here,” McCarthy says. “The beauty of White Pass is that we’re not near a major metropolitan area. …You can do a third more skiing here because it’s never crowded.”
Like Mission, White Pass gets an Eastern Washington influence in its snowpack, with cool air mixing with the warmer, moister air to the west. The result is “very nice snow,” McCarthy says.
And like Mission Ridge, robust snow-making operations help cover the lower mountain and groomed runs.
“White Pass is as good a place to ski as there is,” says Dave Joynt, a regular at the ski area. Joynt, 78, has been skiing at White Pass for 38 years. He likes “the homey atmosphere. It’s friendly and never crowded. And the snow is good.”
Joynt and several friends take advantage of White Pass’ “super senior” policy of offering free skiing to those 73 and older. After years of paying to ski, they now shred the slopes of Paradise Basin in the morning for free, then go play golf in afternoon in Yakima.
“What’s not to like about that?” says Joynt playfully.
Editor’s note: This story was first published by The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, WA.
Yet at age 85, John Andrew is still busily crossing them off his list. Over the past 20 years, Andrew has been on a mission to ski all 700 alpine resorts in North America. He’s currently at 528, and he has several new targets in sight for this winter.
“I’m going to die trying to finish my quest,” says Andrew, a retired Boeing executive from Renton, Wash. “I won’t get it done, but I’m going to keep trying.”
It’s a big project, one that has consumed Andrew’s life since he retired at age 65.
It began innocently enough with a book. Andrew and his wife Jewel were shopping for a vacation home in the mountains using a guidebook of every ski resort in North America. Instead of narrowing the choices, the book opened up possibilities in Andrew’s mind.
“If we were going to buy a ski condo, I didn’t know where I wanted to buy it,” he remembers. Then, leafing through the resort guide, he wondered, “Why don’t we ski them all and find out?”
“We are still skiing North America as a team,” he says.Over the following years, the Andrews embarked on their quest with gusto, sometimes with friends, sometimes with family, always keeping detailed records, grabbing trail maps, souvenirs and taking pictures. Jewel skied with John until 2007, when she quit the slopes after a knee replacement surgery. She still comes along on most trips.
“I think it’s fun,” Jewel says. “It gets you to all these places that you’d never go to—in the dead of winter.”
Their longest road trip covered 13,000 miles across the northern U.S. and Canada, when they hit 45 resorts in 16 states and provinces, including White Hills, the easternmost ski area in North America near St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Other trips took them to California, to New Mexico, to the mid-Atlantic, to the Deep South. They skied Cloudmont in Alabama, Ober Gatlinburg in Tennessee, Hidden Valley in Missouri. It’s all there, detailed on the spreadsheet and on the wall-sized map where Andrew places blue dots for the completed ski areas, red dots for those he has left to do.
Andrew gets the biggest thrill out of skiing places like Sawkill Family Ski Center, N.Y., with its 70 vertical feet, the smallest hill in North America.
When he stopped in at Sawkill, the lifts were closed. Andrew asked at the resort office if he could hike up and ski down, but the friendly general manager offered to drive him to the top in a pickup truck instead.
They roared up, Andrew hopped out, clicked into his skis and another resort bit the dust.
As he ages, Andrew has slowed down a little. Expert runs are a thing of the past—now it’s mostly greens and blues.
“It’s easy to get hurt and I don’t take foolish chances,” he says. “I look at the slope and if I don’t think I can do it, I won’t do it.”
“There’s a lot more to do,” he says as he gazes at his ski map on his living room wall . “But I like a job that’s tough. Even if I don’t get there, it’s something to do.”
I remember well those early days of skiing at Snoqualmie Pass with my father, Don Nelson. Don was a Boeing engineer and an avid weekend warrior on the slopes of the Washington Cascades. I was his young sidekick, the eager pupil trying to master his teachings.
“Let the rope slide through your hands… Now grab on!”
Back in those days, rope tows were common. At first, he would put me between his legs and help me up the lift. As I got a little older, I got the hang of the shoulder-straining rope and how to ride it all day long.
“Hey! Be careful — don’t ski straight down the mountain!”
As I got older, Don took me to see a movie about Stein Eriksen, the Olympic champion who skied so beautifully. Stein was my new hero, and I wanted to ski just like him. I stopped snowplowing and kept my feet together just like Stein did, but unfortunately, I didn’t know how to turn like Stein.
I would go straight down the mountain with my feet together — looking beautiful, like Stein — and then crash in a heap at the bottom. My dad was mortified.
“Take a sip, son. Not too much!”
I was a 10 years old now, and Don would take me night-skiing. He carried a bota bag filled with blackberry brandy for those cold nights. Occasionally, he would give me a sip of the body-warming, sweet elixir. It was our little secret.
“Wait for me at the bottom, son!”
By the time I was 13, I had surpassed my father as a skier. I was reckless and fearless, and he couldn’t keep up. Over time, I found my own ski buddies, and my days on the slopes with Don became fewer and fewer.
But as I look back on the influence of Don Nelson, who died at age 93 earlier this month, I give him credit for introducing me the beauty and thrill of the mountains in winter. He’s the reason I love to ski.
I still practice many of Don’s principles: Get there early, get the most out of your day, pack your own lunch. Most of all: Have fun.