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Mission Ridge - Early Season Issues

Mission Ridge: Early Season Operations and Preparations

Mission Ridge had it earliest opening since 1985 on November 19 and 20 and saw 573 skiers on the hill on Saturday, 511 skiers on Sunday. Conditions were good -- as long as you stayed on the man-made snow leading from top to bottom along the runs of Sunspot, Tumwater, and Mimi. Because the temperatures for snowmaking have been cold and because natural snow got sprinkled into the snowpack shortly before opening day, visitors reported very good snow quality. The coverage was good as well.

Good if you stayed on the ribbon of man-made snow, that is. Had you followed the Devil’s temptation to duck a rope and ski elsewhere, you would have ground your ski bases into shreds of plastic confetti because the 10 inches of very light natural snow coating the slopes had no base to it.

Every year at this time as resort employees strive to get the hill open early by coating some of the main arteries with man-made snow, there’s an unfortunate early-season period when non-paying lowlifes (like ski tourers!), wanting to walk uphill and ski downhill, don’t have any sanctioned options within the ski area boundaries.

That period is upon us now and the ski area is within its lease rights to take a hard line and post ‘Keep Out’ signs when it isn’t open for downhill skiing. General  Manager, Mark Milliette, doesn’t find that to be a particularly neighborly solution and, for now, is simply asking the public to stay off all runs (in both directions) until the hill is past early season and into normal operations. During an average year, normal operations roll around at the end of the Christmas Holidays (around January 2).

“Early January!,” some are likely to protest. “How dare they close public land to me -- the public -- for so long.”

WenatcheeOutdoors investigated the issue and, even though we’re ski-touring wingnuts, we’ll comply with Mission’s wishes. Why? First when the ski hill is in operation, the resort has the legal right to bar the public from the permit area whenever slope-side maintenance (snowmaking, grooming, avalanche control, etc.) is taking place. Rather than forcing Mission Ridge to play the legal card, we feel it’s worth maintaining good relations by cooperating with the ski area's needs in early season so that we can all benefit from the uphill policy when the snowpack plumps up and the normal season settles upon us.

Beyond legalities and politics, early-season preparations present a unique set of safety issues affecting ski area employees as well as people skiing up or down the hill. At this time of year the resort is in all-out-snow-making mode -- an important component for financial viability when you only have four months to make hay. Consequently, when the lifts are closed, the ski area is aggressively making snow and a tangle of high-pressure hoses and electric cords are strung on and alongside the ski runs providing top-to-bottom skiing (Sunspot, Tumwater, and Mimi).

Fan guns are commonly situated in the middle of these runs and a ski tourer or snowboarder coming downhill may not know whether the hoses and cords are on his left or right. As that visitor slides past the roostertail of snow spewing out of the machinery, he just might get snaked down by one the cords, wrapped up in constricting coils, and squeezed to death. More likely than a snake attack, the uninvited visitor could run over a high-pressure water hose and weaken it or slice the plastic coating of a high-voltage power cord with ski edges. It's a legitimate concern that damaging these noodles poses a potential hazard to the employees who are dragging them around the hill.

Finally Mission Ridge does have an approved uphill skiing route and policy that ski area managers, land managers, and recreationalists crafted several years ago. The approved, in-bounds route (following the summer road behind the Hampton Lodge to Midway and then following the runs up Bomber Bowl, North Bomber, and the Boundary Road to the summit) has no snowmaking and, consequently, is not skiable in early season. As a practical rule of thumb, ski area managers suggest that uphill travelers shouldn’t be headed up the hill for skiing/snowboarding until you can actually ski down the approved uphill route.

 Photo by Peter Bauer: Skiing up the approved uphill route in late season.

Because the ski area spends lots of time and money 'manufacturing' artificial snow, it seems reasonable to us that they get to call the shots as to when we non-paying guests are given the green light to use merchandise we didn't pay for. It seems worth remembering that if the ski area wasn't actually making snow we wouldn't be ski touring up there at this time of year anyway.  

In summary; the early season touring situation at Mission is this: The approved uphill route has inadequate coverage for skiing, and the only viable descent is on runs covered by man-made snow—which are taboo because of all the hoses, cords, and machinery on and beside these runs. Those of us who like to walk up the downhill slopes will do the backcountry skiing community and the ski area a favor by staying off the ski hill until all the early season folderol has run its course and the mountain settles into normal operations.


More Info and Details

Play Options. Trekking up the ski hill is popular because it’s a quick, easy, relatively safe way to get exercise. What’s a body to do instead?

  •  Mark Milliette has agreed that even during this early season period walkers and snowshoers can use the road starting behind the lodge and follow it up to Midway. Please turn around here. Return the same way or branch off at the Pipeline Road (on your left as you descend), follow the Pipeline to the Clara Lake Trail, turn right, and descend to the parking area via the trail.
  •  Walk or snowshoe the Clara Lake Trail.
  •  Snowshoe to climber’s left of the Outback up to Stemilt Basin. This route is outside of the ski-area boundaries.
  •  Visit Stevens Pass and tour up runs that haven't opened to lift-accessed skiing yet, or ski up to Skyline Lake on the opposite side of the pass.

New Law.  In the autumn of 2011, the state legislature passed into law RCW 79A.45.070. This law gives more power to operating ski areas that have posted closure signs on any or all of their terrain and gives those signs some teeth. The summary of this RCW (Revised Code of Washington) from the Washington State Legislature website is: “A person is guilty of a misdemeanor if the person knowingly skis in an area or on a ski trail, owned or controlled by a ski area operator, that is closed to the public and that has signs posted indicating the closure.”

Economic Data. A 1998 study reported that, based on an average of 85,000 skier visits per year (an average prior to the installation of the high-speed quad), Mission Ridge created ski area revenues of $2.4 million and created an additional benefit to the community (hotels, restaurants, gas, etc.) of $3.6 million for a combined direct economic benefit of $6 million. A multiplier of 2.035 was used to describe how money left here by visitors was recirculated and re-spent by those who took that money in (this is a common economic concept) so the total economic contribution of Mission Ridge for 1998 was estimated at $12.2 million.

·         After the placement of the high-speed quad, average skier visits rose to 110,000/year, an increase of 29.4 percent. Increasing the revenues from the 1998 study by the same percentages gives a rough estimate of the economic benefit and puts average ski-area revenues at $3.1 million and additional community benefits at $ 4.7 million for a combined direct benefit of $7.8 million. Using the 2.035 multiplier (again, money left here by visitors gets reused in the local community), the wintertime economic benefit of Mission Ridge is roughly $15.9 million (in 1998 dollars).