The Schweitzer Village in 2010 reflects 20 years’ worth of changes and growth at Schweitzer Mountain Resort
(Photo by Cory Murdock)
‘Mountain of change’ plus 20
Since a landmark renovation in 1990-91, Schweitzer’s growth has added up to something big
By Sandy Compton
Long, long ago, at a “ski basin” not so far away, a “mountain of change” took place, and Sandpoint Magazine was there to cover the story. In 1990 for the inaugural Winter 1991 issue, Publisher and Editor Chris Bessler wrote the cover story about big happenings at the newly renamed Schweitzer Mountain Resort. In the two decades since, Sandpoint Magazine contributors have written a lot about Schweitzer – there’s been a lot to write about – and I’ve even got to do some of the writing.
For that first issue, though, while Bessler pounded blithely away on his Mac keyboard, I sold the first ad to Bob Aavedal at the Alpine Shop and the second to Jim Lippi at Ivano’s. They weren’t big ads, and Sandpoint Magazine wasn’t exactly flush that year, so I decided it would be prudent to keep waiting tables – a conclusion I have come to several times in my life.
So, I transferred with the rest of the crew from the St. Bernard Restaurant at the basics-only Overnighter Lodge at Schhhhhhweitzer Basin to a brand-new, upscale restaurant in the luxury Green Gables Hotel – which had leapt out of the ground like a four-story mushroom during the preceding summer – at Schweitzer Mountain Resort.
In the seminal season of 1990-91, I worked at Jean’s Restaurant, named for Jean Brown, matron of the family that then owned the resort. Next door was Jimmy’s Bar, named for Jean’s husband, Jim Brown Jr., whose investments and vision kept Schweitzer afloat during the latter half of the 1970s and most of the 1980s. When Jim died in 1989, his daughter Bobbie Huguenin took the helm, and the mountain gained a new face as well as a new name – the “Mountain Resort” moniker.
On New Year’s Eve, we chased the carpenters out, vacuumed up the sawdust, set tables and waited on a couple hundred folks celebrating the arrival of a new year, 1991, and a new era at Schweitzer.
A phantasmagorical feeling radiated from the base of Chair One. The Day Lodge, with its 1960s vintage cafeteria and the Beirstube bar upstairs, had disappeared in a flash of flame and a cloud of smoke. Surrounding where it had been grew Green Gables Hotel, Headquarters Daylodge and The Great Escape Quad. The beginner’s T-Bar transmogrified into Chair Two, aka “Musical Chairs.” In the blink of one summer season, Schweitzer blasted into another strata.
Fourteen million dollars poured into the resort, and the effects were stunning. The Great Escape opened terrain that had been difficult – nigh impossible – to access. Runs taken for granted today, such as Whiplash, Chute the Moon and Sundance, were added to the trail map. And three switchbacks were subtracted from the infamous road.
What ... work while the lifts are running?
In the wake of this mountain-sized transformation, a more personal conversion took place that winter: I learned to ski. I found it somewhat addictive. OK, leave out “somewhat.” After my first lesson, I skied every day. That was also the first season of night skiing, Thursday through Saturday, and if I didn’t have to work, I skied until the lights went out.
The next year, during a staff meeting at Jean’s, the manager announced that night staff might have to work breakfast or lunch shifts. It got very quiet, and then fellow waiter Ed Berry, called out, “You don’t mean work while the lifts are running, do you?”
He spoke for all of us.
In 20 years, it hasn’t gotten easier to work while the lifts are running. For one thing, there are more lifts – better, faster ones – and more terrain – more runs, more glades, more acres. More. If 1990 was the blast-off, the following 20 years have been a climb to one new height after another, with a few free falls thrown in for entertainment.
Challenges, changes and brand-new chairs
As for the free falls, Schweitzer has had its challenges over the past two decades. The Brown family lost control of the resort in a bankruptcy that stretched too long through the end of the 1990s, when Harbor Properties of Seattle bought the resort. The Great Escape Quad – manufactured by Yan, the lift company that famously failed in 1997 – had to be completely refitted by Doppelmayr. Lack of snow forced an early closure for the 2004-05 season, and then late snowfall spurred a reopening. The downturn in real estate left planned developments hanging. But, the thing that ski resorts should be about – skiing – got better and better, in quality and quantity.
In the ’90s, Schweitzer’s marketing director, Diane Allen, came up with a slogan that not-so-subtly took issue with what seemed to her a priority problem: Real estate development appeared to take precedence over mountain improvements. Her slogan, “It’s the skiing, stupid!” never got printed, but she was right – and still is. It is the skiing that makes Schweitzer great. It’s a skier’s mountain. OK, a rider’s mountain, too. Alpine, telemark, AT, snowboard, skate skis, snow skates. Name your poison. Get on ’em and get at it.
Since the Great Escade Quad came online in 1990 and opened those now-famous runs off the Great Divide, great things have happened to make it even more about the skiing. Better lifts access more terrain. In 2000, a detachable, high-speed, six-passenger lift named Stella replaced Chair Five, a double Riblet with a 12-minute-long ride. Stella takes folks to the top in less than half the time of her predecessor. At the same time, the ski area boundary was pushed east to encompass three new runs, while two new gladed runs – Kathy’s Yard Sale and Gladiator – also opened.
Enter the McCaw era
In 2005, Harbor stepped aside and McCaw Investment Group took over, bringing some serious money and huge improvements in ways to get up and down the hill. Beginning in that year, selective logging done under the watchful eye of Brian Crettol, summer slopes supervisor, increased tree-skiing opportunities in the Schweitzer and Outback bowls on the magnitude of 1,000 percent.
In addition, the staff dramatically expanded the size of the area that summer with the addition of a relatively small lift. At the top of Siberia, which lay then at the north boundary, a T-bar dubbed Idyle Our was installed to take riders to the top of Little Blue. With a rise of only 160 feet, the new lift was a master stroke, as Little Blue is at the west end of a two-mile-long ridge leading toward the Outback Inn. This added 400 acres and six named runs, as well as some fine tree skiing.
It was also in 2005 that Hermits Hollow Tubing hill added an affordable family fun dimension near Schweitzer Village.
In 2006, McCaw brought on board General Manager Tom Chasse, which may have ushered in the beginning of a new “mountain of change.” Chasse is a ski industry veteran from the East Coast who was highly anticipating getting out West. Under his watch, when, how and where grooming is done has evolved. For one thing, the practice of grooming Schweitzer’s miles of cross-country trails daily for both skate and traditional Nordic skiers began. A small thing, maybe, but Chasse thinks it counts.
“This year, we’ve spent a fair amount of time manicuring so a minimal amount of snow can get the Nordic trails open,” he said. “We’re starting to get a pretty good reputation with Nordic skiers.”
As far as grooming goes, Chasse said, “One of the more controversial things we’ve done is start high-angle grooming.”
Witness B-Chute and D-Chute in Schweitzer Bowl.
“Some folks didn’t like this, but it keeps aging skiers in the game. We’ve also acquired some of the best grooming technology available,” he added.
This year, two new Prinoth grooming machines join an already burly fleet that cruises for corduroy nightly, and snowmaking was added on Midway and Musical Chairs.
“Snowmaking has been a big investment, an insurance policy, really,” Chasse said. “It helps beef up and fortify our base depth, especially early season, and it’s a big help with our events that involve jumps and features.”
The last mega-improvement was replacement of Chair One in summer 2007. It was the end of an era when Schweitzer “father” Jack Fowler and original manager Sam Wormington took a last ride in April of that year on the venerable old double Riblet that had served faithfully for 44 seasons. Fittingly, it took two lifts to replace One. The Basin Express detachable quad is a fast ride from the heart of the village to the terrain parks and the intermediate skiing of the lower Schweitzer Bowl. The Lakeview Triple loads where Midway used to be and follows a slightly modified line to the top.
A myriad of other, smaller things have pushed Schweitzer higher into the regional and national ski galaxy – better snow reporting, signage, focus on mountain safety, maintenance on many levels, service-oriented employee training, a great Kinderkamp and a continued tradition of great instruction in the ski school, to name a few. A somewhat behind-the-scenes factor that is critical: the commitment by management to have the mountain ready to open by 9 a.m. every day. Patrollers work extra hard to make the mountain safe and ready to ride by the opening bell.
The next 20 years
What about the next 20 years? Chasse doesn’t have a crystal ball, but he does have some long-term plans, some more ambitious than others. He tends toward the conservative in the current economy.
“It would be great to replace Chair 6, and when we do, it will probably be done with two lifts: a high-speed quad that begins down near the Outback and unloads at about where the midway station is now and a triple that starts down around Colburn Lake, accessible from Vagabond, and goes to the top of the North Bowl,” Chasse said.
But that’s a $6 million dollar project, while Chair Two could be replaced for less than $2 million.
Also on Chasse’s list of changes: more lodging on the mountain and a better transportation system. With that and conference space, the resort could expand its winter meeting business. What’s top priority?
“What I’d really, really like to do,” he said, “is methodically increase our skier visits by about 50,000 per year.”
Last year, Schweitzer had 218,000 skier visits.
Chasse’s is a pragmatic viewpoint, but if 1990-91 seemed phantasmagorical, imagine what a time traveler from 1990 would think should he drop into Schweitzer Village today. The White Pine Lodge and the Lazar Building stand across the plaza from what has become the Selkirk Lodge, and a clock tower stands in front of Lakeview Lodge. What would he think about the terrain parks – now two, with the “permanification” this year of the Starfish Park just off Midway?
The 1990 skier had 48 named runs to choose from. Today he has 92. If the time traveler is from 1963, when Chair One first turned a bullwheel, he would be agog. The rebuilt road and the parking lots alone would freak him out – not to mention that “new” phenomenon, the snowboard.
Schweitzer may never be Vail, Aspen or Sun Valley, but folks who ski here will be able to ski there, too – once they win the lottery. This may not be true in reverse, because Schweitzer is not a sunshine factory – it’s a weather maker. I theorize that the famous disclaimer gracing ski area day passes nationwide was written on Chair One in February 1964: “Conditions may vary.” But, it’s also true what longtime Schweitzer Ski Patrol Director John Pucci invariably answers anytime you ask him, “How’s the skiing?”
“The skiing is great!”
And it’s been great for all of these last 20 years.
Ivano’s and The Alpine Shop and Schweitzer are all still here because they have been able to adapt with the times. Me too, I guess.
In 1990, as I struggled to get from the top of the quad to anywhere else in my beginner’s boots, I took exception to a bumper sticker that read “Stop the senseless grooming!” I have since come to understand that sentiment, but I also know all snow-riders have to start somewhere. Good grooming is part of what makes Schweitzer a great place to start riding. The work patrol does to get open on a powder day makes it a great place to keep going.
In 20 years, I have yet to see all of the runs, named or otherwise, and if they keep adding them at the same rate as they have been, I may never catch them all.
And, that’s fine by me.
SCHWEITZER MOUNTAIN FACTS 2010-11
Acreage: 2,900, 92 designated runs plus open bowl skiing and riding, 1,200+ acres of tree skiing and three terrain parks
Terrain: 10% Beginner, 40% Intermediate, 35% Advanced, 15% Expert
Longest Run: Little Blue Ridge Run, 2.1 miles
Vertical Drop: 2,400 feet
Top Elevation: 6,400 feet
Average Annual Snowfall: 300 inches
Cross Country Trails: 32 kilometers
Lifts: 9 total – four high-speed chairs, the six-pack Stella, quads Great Escape and Basin Express, and the Lakeview Triple; three double chairlifts; Idyle Our T-bar; and a beginner’s Musical Carpet
Total Uphill Capacity: 12,502 per hour
Hours of Operation: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Night Skiing: Fridays, Saturdays and holidays from Dec. 26, 2010, through March 5, 2011, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Season: Late November or early December 2010 to April 2011, subject to conditions
Lift tickets: Adult $65; juniors 7-17, $49; children 6 and under, free; college or seniors 65 and over, $55. Night rates: $15 all ages; children 6 and under free. Nordic/snowshoe: adult $12, juniors and seniors $10.
Tubing: $15 without season pass or $10 with; children 6 and under, $10
Phone: 208-263-9555, 800-831-8810
Activity Center: 208-255-3081