Podcast #113: Mt. Spokane General Manager Jim van Löben Sels
Exploring a Pacific Northwest community classic
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Jim van Löben Sels, General Manager of Mt. Spokane, Washington
January 9, 2023
About Mt. Spokane
Click here for a mountain stats overview
Owned by: Mt. Spokane 2000, a nonprofit group
Pass affiliations: Freedom Pass – 3 days each at these 20 ski areas
Reciprocal partners: 3 days each at Mt. Ashland, Mount Bohemia, Great Divide, Loup Loup, Lee Canyon, Snow King, White Pass, Ski Cooper
Located in: Mt. Spokane State Park, Washington
Year opened: 1938
Closest neighboring ski areas: 49 Degrees North (1 hour, 45 minutes), Silver Mountain (1 hour, 45 minutes), Schweitzer (2 hours, 10 minutes) – travel times may vary considerably in winter
Base elevation: 3,818 feet
Summit elevation: 5,889 feet
Vertical drop: 2,071 feet
Skiable Acres: 1,704
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches
Trail count: 52 (15% advanced/expert, 62% intermediate, 23% beginner)
Lift count: 7 (1 triple, 5 doubles, 1 carpet)
Why I interviewed him
Perception is a funny thing. In my Michigan-anchored teenage ski days any bump rolling more than one chairlift uphill seemed impossibly complex and interesting. Caberfae (200 acres), Crystal (103), Shanty Creek (80), and Nub’s Nob (248 acres today, much smaller at the time) hit as vast and interesting worlds. That set my bar low. It’s stayed there. Living now within two and a half hours of a dozen thousand-plus-footers feels extraordinary. In less than an instant I can be there, lost in it. Teleportation by minivan.
Go west and they think different. By the millions skiers pound up I-70 through an Eisenhower Tunnel framed by Loveland, to ski over the pass. Breck, Keystone, Copper, A-Basin, Vail, Beaver Creek – all amazing. But Loveland covers 1,800 acres standing on 2,210 vertical feet – how many Colorado tourists have never touched the place? How many locals?
It seems skiers often confuse size with infrastructure. Loveland has one high-speed chairlift. Beaver Creek has 13. But the ski area’s footprint is only 282 acres larger than Loveland’s. Are fast lift rides worth an extra 50 miles of interstate evacuation drills? It seems that, for many people, they are.
We could repeat that template all over the West. But Washington is the focus today. And Mt. Spokane. At 1,704 acres, it’s larger than White Pass (1,402 acres), Stevens Pass (1,125), or Mt. Baker (1,000), and just a touch smaller than Summit at Snoqualmie (1,996). But outside of Spokane (metro population, approximately 600,000), who skis it? Pretty much no one.
Why is that? Maybe it’s the lift fleet, anchored by five centerpole Riblet doubles built between 1956(!) and 1977. Maybe it’s the ski area’s absence from the larger megapasses. Maybe it’s proximity to 2,900-acre Schweitzer and its four high-speed lifts. Probably it’s a little bit of each those things.
Which is fine. People can ski wherever they want. But what is this place, lodged in the wilderness just an hour north of Washington’s second-largest city? And why hadn’t I heard of it until I made it my job to hear about everyplace? And how is Lift 1 spinning into its 67th winter? There just wasn’t a lot of information out there about Mt. Spokane. And part of The Storm’s mission is to seek these places out and figure out what the hell is going on. And so here you go.
What we talked about
Fully staffed and ready to roll in 2023; night skiing; what happened when Mt. Spokane shifted from a five-day operating week to a seven-day one; a winding career path that involved sheep shearing, Ski Patrol at Bear Valley, running a winery, and ultimately taking over Mt. Spokane; the family ski routine; entering the ski industry in the maw of Covid; life is like Lombard Street; Spokane’s long-term year-round business potential; who owns and runs Mt. Spokane; why and how the ski area switched from a private ownership model to a not-for-profit model; looking to other nonprofit ski areas for inspiration; a plan to replace Spokane’s ancient lift fleet and why they will likely stick with fixed-grip chairlifts; the Skytrac-Riblet hybrid solution; sourcing parts for a 67-year-old chairlift; how much of Lift 1 is still original parts; which lift the mountain will replace first, what it will replace it with, and when; the virtues of Skytrac lifts; parking; the Day-1-on-the-job problem that changed how Jim runs the mountain; why Northwood lift was down for part of January; what it took to bring the Northwood expansion online and how it changed the mountain; whether future expansions are possible; Nordic opportunities; working with Washington State Parks, upon whose land the ski area sits, and how that compares to the U.S. Forest Service; whether Mt. Spokane could ever introduce snowmaking; how eastern Washington snow differs from what falls on the west side of the state; glading is harder than you think; where we could see more glades on the mountain; the evolution of Spokane’s beginner terrain; why Mt. Spokane tore out its tubing lanes; expanding parking; which buildings could be updated or replaced and when; whether we could ever see lodging at the mountain; why the mountain sets its top lift ticket price at $75; why Mt. Spokane joined Freedom Pass; exploring the mountain’s reciprocal pass partnerships and whether that network will continue to grow; and the possibility of joining the Indy Pass.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
In August, Troy Hawks, the marketing mastermind at Sunlight and the administrator of the Freedom Pass, emailed to tell me that Mt. Spokane was joining the Freedom Pass. I asked him to connect me with the ski area’s marketing team for some context on why they joined (which I included in this story). Then I asked if Jim would like to join me on the podcast. And he did.
That’s the straight answer. But Mt. Spokane fits this very interesting profile that matches that of many ski areas across the country: a nonprofit community hill with dated infrastructure and proximity to larger resorts that’s been pushed to the brink not of insolvency but doors-bursting capacity despite successive waves of macro-challenges, including Covid and EpKon Mania. Weren’t these places supposed to be toast? As a proxy for the health of independents nationwide, Mt. Spokane seemed like as good a place as any to check in.
There’s another interesting problem here: what are you going to do with a Riblet double built in 1956? The thing is gorgeous, tapering low and elegant up the hillside, a machine with stories to tell. But machines don’t last forever, and new ones cost more than some whole ski areas. Mt. Spokane also has no snowmaking and dated lodges and too little parking. Will it modernize? If so, how? Does it need to? What is that blend of funk and shine that will ensure a mountain’s future without costing its soul?
In this way, too, Mt. Spokane echoes the story of contemporary independent American skiing: how, and how much, to update the bump? Jim, many will be happy to learn, has no ambitions of transforming Mt. Spokane into Schweitzer Jr. But he does have a vision and a plan, a way to make the mountain a little less 1950s and a little more 2020s. And he lays it all out in a matter-of-fact way that anyone who loves skiing will appreciate.
Questions I wish I’d asked
I’m so confused by Mt. Spokane’s trailmap. Older versions show the Hidden Treasure area flanking the main face:
While new versions portray Hidden Treasure as a distinct peak. Again:
Meanwhile, Google Maps doesn’t really line up with what I’m seeing above:
While I love the aesthetic of Mt. Spokane’s trailmap, it seems wildly out of scale and oddly cut off at the bottom of Hidden Treasure. The meanings of the various arrows and the flow of the mountain aren’t entirely clear to me either.
Really, this is more a problem of experience and immersion than anything I can learn through a knowledge transfer. A smart professor made this point in journalism school: go there. I really should be skiing these places before I do these interviews, and for a long time, I wouldn’t record a podcast about a ski area I hadn’t visited. But I realized, a year and a half in, that that would be impractical if I wanted to keep banging these things out, particularly as I reached farther into the western hinterlands. Sometimes I have to do the best I can with whatever’s out there, and what’s out there can be confusing as hell. So I guess I just need to go ski it to figure it out.
What I got wrong
I intimated that Gunstock was a nonprofit ski area, but that is not the case. The mountain contributes revenue to its owner, Belknap County, each season.
I stated that Mt. Spokane didn’t have any beginner surface lifts. In fact, it has a carpet lift.
Jim and I discussed whether Vista Cruiser was the longest contiguously operating chairlift in the United States. It’s not – Hemlock has been serving Boyne Mountain, Michigan, since 1948. It’s a double that was converted from a single that originally served Sun Valley as America’s first chairlift in the 1930s. Still, Vista Cruiser may be the most intact 1950s vintage lift in America. I really don’t know, and these things can be very hard to verify what with all the forgotten upgrades over the years, but it really doesn’t matter: a 67-year-old chairlift is a hell of an impressive thing in any context.
While discussing reciprocal agreements, I said, rather hilariously, that Mt. Ashland was “right there in Oregon.” The ski area is, in fact, an 11-hour drive from Mt. Spokane. I was vaguely aware of how dumb this was as I said it, but you must remember that I grew up in the Midwest, meaning an 11-hour drive is like going out to the mailbox.
Why you should ski Mt. Spokane
Let’s start here:
How many 2,000-vertical-foot mountains post those kind of rack rates? A few, but fewer each year. And if you happen to have a season pass to any other Freedom Pass ski area, you can cash in one of your Mt. Spokane lift tickets as you’re floating through.
As for the skiing itself, I can only speculate. It looks like typical PNW wide-open: wide runs, big treed meadows, bowls, glades all over. Three hundred inches per winter to open it all up. I mean there’s really not much else that’s necessary on my have-a-good-time checklist.
Jim mentioned that Schweitzer was working on adding parking. More details on their plan to plug 1,400 more spaces into the mountain here.
I was shocked when Jim said that Mt. Spokane’s $75 lift tickets ($59 midweek) were the second-most expensive in the region after Schweitzer’s, which run $110 for a full-day adult pass. But he’s correct: 49 Degrees North runs $72 on weekends and holidays and $49 midweek. Silver Mountain is $71 on weekends (but $65 midweek). And Lookout Pass is $66 on weekends and $55 midweek. I guess the memo about $250 lift tickets hasn’t made its way up I-90 just yet.
The best way to support Mt. Spokane, which is a nonprofit ski area, is to go buy a lift ticket. But you can also donate here.
Here’s a bit more Mt. Spokane history.
And some stoke Brah:
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