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White's Back in Evergreen State

November 24, 2005|Lynn Marshall | Times Staff Writer

SNOQUALMIE PASS, Wash. — Amid the torrent of snow, Owen Jones could hardly contain his glee. It was only November, and the 16-year-old and his friends were snowboarding down the slopes of this Cascade Mountains ski resort area.

"I hope we have this weather all winter," the Seattle teen said.

The state's ski industry likely is saying the same thing.

Unusually warm weather in the Pacific Northwest made the last snow season the worst on record. But this year, all four major ski areas on the west side of the Washington Cascades were open in time for the long Veterans Day weekend -- and resort officials say that anytime they are up and running before Thanksgiving, it bodes well for the rest of the season.

In ski lodges and snowboarding shops all over the region, there is hopeful, if slightly nervous, optimism.

"Two weeks ago, when the snow started falling, people started coming in; really, we were slammed," said Nicole Fisher, co-owner of Alpine Hut, a winter-sports retail store in Seattle. "It's the best start I ever remember.

"There is so much pent-up energy after last year," she said.

In the 2004-05 season -- when Los Angeles got more precipitation than Seattle -- visits to Washington ski areas were down 73%.

Ron Fisher, the Alpine Hut's former owner, who has spent 35 years in the ski business, summed it up this way: "Bad conditions, low customer enthusiasm. It pretty much goes without saying [that] nobody in this business paid all their bills last year."

The industry's weather woes were confined to the heavily populated regions in western Washington and Oregon. A band of heated air moving northward from Hawaii, known as Pineapple Express, kept conditions warm and dry in the Pacific Northwest. Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire declared a drought in early March. During the last week of April, Anchorage saw six days of record-breaking temperatures in the mid- to high 60s, at a time of year when it's usually still in the mid-30s.

Washington state climatologist Philip Mote said that while the Cascades region had shown a pattern of warming that was likely to continue, last year's temperatures were even warmer than projected.

"The snowpack [in Washington] was at 20% of average. On Martin Luther King Day [Jan. 17], we had a freezing level above 7,000 feet. That's unheard of," Mote said. Instead of snow, "there was rain falling on every ski area."

In a show of frustration, said John Pretty, public relations manager for the Summit at Snoqualmie Pass, two snowboarders last year blew up a pineapple with firecrackers in the resort's parking lot.

"I think they drove up here, even though we were closed, because they couldn't believe it was that bad," Pretty said.

"Once they were here, they found out."

The Summit, about 50 miles east of Seattle, was open for 32 days last season; the typical season lasts 137 days. At Stevens Pass Resort east of Everett, manager John Gifford said his resort was open 48 days out of the usual 130.

The publicity surrounding Washington's dismal 2004-05 season hurt business elsewhere.

At Timberline Lodge east of Portland, Ore., spokesman John Tullis said visitors were down due to public perception, not a lack of snow.

"Our local media here was really focused on 'no rain, no snow' as the story," Tullis said. "We had snow, we had good conditions, but we couldn't beat the perception that we didn't."

Timberline's Palmer snowfield on Mt. Hood, at 8,500 feet, typically has one of the longest ski seasons in the country -- often running from November or December through Labor Day. Last season, it closed Aug. 18.

Climatologist Mote said temperatures might be a bit above normal in the Cascades this year, but precipitation levels should be within the normal range.

Scott Kaden, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Assn., found the news heartening. "All we need to get back on track is a normal year."

As far as Jones, the teen snowboarder, is concerned, the ski season in Washington is already back on track.

He and 17-year-old Brian Sumner were whooping it up recently on the slopes near the Summit at Snoqualmie Pass -- and lamenting how long it had been since they were on their boards.

If the weather cooperates, Jones said, he wouldn't have to beg his parents to let him go boarding in Colorado.

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