By Isaac Bonnell
Never mind what the calendar says. Winter this year started on Thursday, Nov. 12 — the day the Mount Baker Ski Area opened.
It was the earliest season opener in years and one of the most well-attended, said general manger Duncan Howat. And despite the long, sunny autumn, the resort opened with a triumphant 67 inches of snow, more than any other ski area in the state.
“It was one of the greatest opening days we’ve ever had,” Howat said. “Huge snow base for this time of year, clear blue skies and possibly the most people we’ve ever had on opening day — and on a Thursday. It was phenomenal.”
Nearly 4,000 skiers and snowboarders showed up for opening day. Though the first day was bright and sunny, by the second day— Friday the 13th, certainly an auspicious date — the weather was back to normal: snowin’ and blowin’. Snow was already piled up higher than the windows of the lodge and it hasn’t stopped snowing since.
After 42 years in the business, Howat has learned to trust in the uncertainties of the weather. Sometimes the snow comes early, sometimes it comes late — but it always comes.
“I used to [get nervous], but I don’t anymore,” Howat said. “Even though we haven’t had any income since the 1st of May, which is a long time, we’ve set ourselves up so that we are financially sound. That takes the pressure off of being so concerned about whether we get open tomorrow or the next day or by Thanksgiving. The snow will come in some degree or another.”
The early opening was certainly a surprise, though. The ski area had just barely finished hiring and training 300 seasonal staff when a storm came in and blasted the Cascades, Howat said. No one predicted that it would dump more than five feet of snow.
“Even forecasting services missed it, and no one else seems to have been hit this hard,” Howat said.
Banking on the weather
The weather around here can be fickle and fierce, and the entire operation of the ski area is at its mercy.
“I guess it’s no worse than farming,” Howat said about being dependent on the weather. “It’s one of those things that you have to factor in and then put a business
plan together based on all those variables.”
Last year the ski area didn’t open until Dec. 14, one of the latest openings in recent memory, due to low snow conditions. Events like that tend to stick in the public’s mind when they consider purchasing another season’s pass, said marketing manager Amy Trowbridge.
“It’s amazing how correlated pass sales are to the weather,” she said. “If October is rainy and cold, we get people coming in all month. But this year since it was nice and warm, people didn’t come in until the last minute.”
As soon as the weather gets cold, though, people start thinking about winter and pass sales jump, Trowbridge said. And with the early opening this year, everyone is hoping the weather will stay favorable. In recent years, Baker has become known for its weather — the ski area consistently gets more fresh snow than other ski areas in the state.
“Fresh snow is a big deal,” Howat said. “It used to be that we’d have more people when it was sunny and warm. Now we have more people on snowy days when there’s 10 inches of fresh snow.”
Then of course there’s the famous 1998-1999 season, when Baker received a world-record 1,140 inches (95 feet) of snowfall.
“It never quit snowing,” Howat said. “The jet stream was parked right on top of us and didn’t let up. It snowed 10 to 12 inches everyday for almost two months. Everyday! It was something else.”
After that, Baker became known as a powder paradise. National ski and snowboard magazines now regularly write about this small ski area in the far corner of the country and film crews are a common sight. Baker may not be a large ski resort, but it is still considered a must-ski destination, Howat said.
“A number of people from Los Angeles have figured out that they can fly up here, stay in Bellingham and ski Baker for the weekend for less money and way less driving than going to Mammoth Mountain,” he said. “People in L.A. drive for five to six hours just to get to Mammoth.”
The edge of wilderness
Though Mount Baker Ski Area has gained a national reputation, the resort has kept its backwoods charm. There are no hotels, no billboards, no advertisements — just the way Howat likes it. As the ski area has grown, Howat has strived to maintain the feeling that Baker is on the edge of wilderness.
“We’ve tried to keep the area as natural as possible,” Howat said. “I love to have people in the summertime when they come up to the area say, ‘Where’s the ski area?’ That’s good because most ski areas you see have cookie-cutter runs that wiggle down the hill. But ours is a little different.”
Due to the remote location of the ski area — 37 miles out on a dead-end road — Howat said it will probably never become a full-scale ski resort with hotels and condos. For starters, there aren’t any public utilities up there to support more development. In 1989, when the ski area began developing a second base area known as the White Salmon Lodge, it first had to build all the necessary infrastructure: a parking lot, a water catchment and filtration system, a sewage treatment system, and a power generator.
“It was about a five-year deal from the time we started building the parking lot to the time we finished building the lodge,” Howat said. “Now it’s its own little city, as is the upper lodge (Heather Meadows), because there are no public utilities.”
The ski area is also hemmed in by the terrain, making expansion of the ski area difficult. It has already come a long way since its beginnings in the 1920s, when a local ski club built a small lodge in the area.
“We’ll improve the current infrastructure, but as far as going off into some new territory and build new chairlifts, that won’t happen,” Howat said. “We’ve got some new plans, but I’m not gonna let it out yet.”
As for this season, Howat said he’s “very optimistic” that the cold weather will continue. Winter is here and it’s time to play.