Podcast #58: Crystal Mountain, Washington President and CEO Frank DeBerry

How the mountain at the end of the road plans to evolve for the megapass world

  
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Who

Frank DeBerry, President and CEO of Crystal Mountain, Washington

Recorded on

October 18, 2021

Why I interviewed him

Because Crystal is one of the under-appreciated giants of North American skiing. It has more inbounds skiable terrain than Jackson Hole and gets more snow than any ski area in Colorado. It’s not overlooked nationally because it’s hidden. It’s owned by Alterra, is the Pacific Northwest star on the Ikon Pass, and is seated in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, just two hours from downtown Seattle. But Crystal lacks the substantial bed base that would promote it from ski area to ski resort, that would make someone from New York or LA line it up beside the Wasatch or Tahoe or the I-70 corridor as a vacation option. So it’s mostly a local. A damn big one, with lights-out skiing and a voracious skier base. Maybe too voracious, judging from the recent pow-day traffic jams dozens of miles long. This is a big mountain with big plans, and I wanted to talk to the conductor of all this madness to find out exactly where it was headed.

What we talked about

Working at Mountain Creek when Intrawest bought the place and replaced the entire lift system in one summer; “it’s almost impossible to run Mountain Creek”; why Intrawest sold the mountain and others, including Whistler; West Virginia skiing and why you need to hit Snowshoe; Crystal’s “extraordinary” terrain and enormous snowfall; the culture shock of moving from the snow-starved East to the snow-choked West; why Mountain Creek and Crystal are “not that dissimilar”; avalanche mitigation; the “rabid” Pacific Northwest ski culture; why Crystal went from perennial hidden gem to one battling chronic overcrowding; whether the ski area could ever build up a larger bed base; the enormous challenge of Crystal’s endless two-lane, un-expandable access road; why Crystal was initially unlimited on the Ikon Base Pass and why that proved to be unsustainable; what happened to passholder numbers when Alterra moved unlimited Crystal access to the full Ikon Pass; why the mountain had to stop selling day tickets in early 2020; why you may want to ski holidays at Crystal; why Crystal is moving to paid parking and how that will fund a mass transit system from Enumclaw; the amazing number of parking spaces Crystal loses to snowbanks each season; operating buses amid Covid; what might replace the Rainier Express; the difference between out-of-base lift capacity and overall lift capacity; a bold proposal to move the current gondola and add another; potential expansion up Bullion Basin; why Crystal abandoned that terrain several decades ago; whether the second base area or the Kelly’s Gap high-speed quad proposed on the 2004 master plan could still happen; why we may see groomed terrain in Northway; whether Crystal would ever upgrade capacity on the Northway or Chair 6 doubles; why we’re unlikely to see a chair up Silver King; which terrain could be included in a night-skiing expansion and what it would take to make it happen; and the tradition of the long season at Crystal and why that’s in no danger of ending.

A massive reorientation of Crystal’s gondola could soon be underway to improve out-of-base lift capacity. Photo by Christy Pelland, courtesy of Crystal Mountain.

Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview

“Crystal Mountain Resort is the sleeping giant of the Northwest.” – Peak Ski Guide & Travel Planner, 1994

“Outside of Seattle, Crystal Mountain remains largely unknown. Too bad, because Crystal is 2,300 acres and 3,100 vertical feet of romping grounds.” – Skiing, October 1995

“The region gets little press, is ridden almost exclusively by locals, and received biblical precipitation. … One of my guides claims it takes a few days to tear up Crystal after a big dump.” – Skiing, October 1999

Welp, things have changed. The 1990s version of Crystal was, according to Lift Blog, a time machine owned by a ski cooperative. Boyne bought the joint, fixed it up, and, after a brief stint as an indie, Crystal ended up in Alterra’s quiver. So: a modern ski area, on the Ikon Pass, in the shadow of an increasingly affluent metro Seattle population that has exploded from around 2.5 million to nearly 4 million in the past 25 years, 100 percent of whom access the ski area via an endless two-laner.

It’s quite a mess. This offseason, Crystal made two huge moves to address the chronic overcrowding that’s now as predictable as the mountain’s monster snowstorms: significantly reduce Ikon Base Pass access and implement a paid parking program. These short-term moves are the first steps in an evolving master plan that should address parking shortages, increase out-of-base lift capacity, and improve the overall ski experience. Crystal has huge plans, especially around its lift fleet, and I wanted to give frustrated skiers a window into how their current ski-day woes may eventually subside.

Questions I wish I’d asked

In August, I rode the Crystal gondola to the summit with my family. Base area signs warned of limited visibility, but we had driven all the way out there already and I like riding lifts anyway and so up we went. Wildfire smoke, everywhere erasing the horizon. Rainier, normally looming epochally over the ski area’s summit, was invisible. With Sierra-at-Tahoe facing a limited season after extensive wildfire damage and Heavenly and Kirkwood facing down fire threats, the ski industry is reckoning with climate change as an all-seasons threat. I would have loved to have gotten DeBerry’s take on what this means, both for Crystal and for the industry at large.

Why you should ski Crystal

I mean, well, just look at the place:

When ski writers talk about a “skier’s mountain,” this is what they mean. Vast dominions of raging terrain dumping thousands of feet off the summit. Very little grooming. Buckets of snow. This is trailblazing skiing – pick your own route, any route, do your best not to die. And why not? They don’t have 5,000 tourists at the base area to keep happy. Let the other mountains string traverses across the fall line to zigzag green circle boulevards from the summit. Crystal is a mega-mountain that still feels primarily like a ski area for skiers. It’s a must-hit.

Just go, you know, on a weekday.

Additional reading/videos

  • Lift Blog’s inventory of Crystal Mountain lifts

  • Archival Crystal trailmaps

  • DeBerry refers to “John” frequently throughout our interview. He’s referencing John Kircher, former owner of Crystal Mountain and brother of Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher. Here’s a really good overview of why he sold the mountain to Alterra shortly after Vail bought Stevens.

  • More on the great powder-day fiasco of 2020 that forced huge changes in how Crystal manages skiers and traffic.

  • Gregory Scruggs wrote an outstanding compare-and-contrast of the trajectories of Crystal under Alterra and Stevens Pass under Vail:

The two biggest rival corporations in ski resort management staked their claims in Washington state in 2018 by purchasing two of the Central Cascades’ most beloved ski areas.

Vail Resorts, based in Broomfield, Colorado, bought Stevens Pass, the lovably crusty ski area on one of the continent’s snowiest mountain passes reachable by road; meanwhile, Denver-based Alterra Mountain Company snapped up Crystal Mountain, a resort founded by Seattle ski bums at the edge of Mount Rainier National Park.

Numerous interviews with season pass holders from both resorts show that Crystal Mountain provided customers with a premier experience amid tough pandemic conditions — though this comes at a premier price. Meanwhile, Stevens Pass slashed the price of its Epic Pass last month in an attempt to make skiing more affordable after a season in which its operational struggles frustrated many longtime pass holders.

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