Pilchuck story

Jack
Jack

February 25th, 2010, 7:01 pm #1

A recent article about Mt Pilchuck;

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/o ... uck25.html


Snowboarding Mount Pilchuck, the ghost of a ski-area past

To the average skier, high-speed quads are simply part of the mountain landscape, placed there by some benevolent ancient engineering race to eternally shuttle them above thick forests, gaping ravines and unscalable cliffs. Simply pay your fee, wait your turn and get whisked to the top of a 2,000-foot run with all the effort of purchasing your morning latte.

But what happens when the lift gears stop turning? And not just because the wind is blowing too hard or a liftie asked it to pause for a moment so a 5-year-old can offload, but when it really stops? Forever.

Dotting the Cascades, strange forest patterns and rusted remnants whisper to a bygone era of snowriding when skis were edgeless, boots were leather and mustaches weren't ironic. Paradise, Yodelin, Wheeler Hill all busts. Finances, fickle weather, avalanches and politics all contributed to their eventual demise. And it's not just in the Cascades; there are hundreds strewed throughout mountainous regions of the United States, many of them relics from the post-World War II skiing boom.

Recently, Seattle-based snowboarder Tipton Power and I decided to revisit the slopes of Mount Pilchuck and pay our homage to the ghosts of a ski-area past.

Landmark peak

Jutting up on the western edge of the Cascades, the 5,324-foot peak serves as a distinctive alpine landmark only 18 miles from Everett. Although once the site of a two-lift ski resort with terrain favorably compared to Mount Baker, several years of poor snowfall and issues renewing the operating permit in the late 1970s led to its permanent closure in 1980. With the lifts topping out around 4,300 feet, the ski area's relatively low elevation was a determining factor in its downfall.

"Every day was an adventure up there. The top was just so fun. You could just kind of go anywhere," said Curt Hammond. "It was like a smaller Baker (ski area)." Growing up in nearby Marysville, Hammond's family frequented the ungroomed slopes of Pilchuck. Hammond went on to ski race in college, eventually working as a coach with the U.S. Ski Team in Park City, Utah. He is currently an official with the International Skiing Federation and the U.S. Ski Association, and skis the backcountry around Crystal Mountain nearly ever weekend with his wife, Maureen. He still looks back fondly at his time at Pilchuck.

"I remember one section they used to call 'The Funnel,' which was a steep, narrow section through cliffs that everybody had to go down on the main chair," he said. "People would stop at the top and watch each other, and if you fell you would slide all the way until it flattened out."

Although it's a popular summertime hiking destination with quick summit options for the after-work outdoors crowd, accessibility proves difficult in the winter, with unplowed roads typically adding two to four miles each way to the trip for backcountry skiers and snowshoers. Proper avalanche assessment and gear including an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel are necessary on the avalanche-prone slopes of the former ski area. If you're not sure, take an avalanche safety course to familiarize yourself with snowpack assessment and route-finding skills.

Easier going

With the El Niño snow conditions this winter, we were able to avoid a snowy slog up the forest road and drive right to the old ski-area parking lot at 3,100 feet, a welcome change. From the lot, there was previously a double chair leading to the upper challenging terrain, along with an easier run below the main lodge to 2,500 feet with another double chair leading back up to the parking area.

Since the lower levels of the former ski area were living up to its spotty past, with sparse snow, we hiked upward for nearly 40 minutes through quiet forest before hitting the snowline. Opting for snowshoes over touring gear due to the poor snow conditions, we strapped snowboards to our packs and powered up the icy trail. We pushed quickly for the summit with hopes of riding a chute off the top and then sampling the upper northern slopes that were once inbounds for a generation of skiers.

On top of the windswept, corniced summit ridge, we checked out the old fire lookout and tried to scope a feasible line. In the end, we opted for a safer traverse back around the summit crags to the more friendly northern slopes. With rolling terrain full of hits, drops and cliffs, the former ski area is like one large natural terrain park with jaw-dropping views of Puget Sound.

No stranger to the terrain park, Tipton made himself right at home on a natural hip with a wild run-in. Despite the questionable snow conditions, he proceeded to blast smooth frontside airs and handplants over the Stillaguamish River vista. Although modern snowboarding wasn't even a blip on the winter sports radar when Pilchuck closed for good, it isn't hard to imagine some kid in the '60s pointing his long wooden skis with similar intentions.

Few artifacts remain

We eventually rode back down to the snowline and began the quiet hike through the trees that now cover the old ski area's main run. Little remains to mark the passing of Pilchuck as a ski area save for the odd artifact. In fact, Mt. Pilchuck Ski and Sport in Everett a spinoff of the area's ski shop and one of the last surviving business descendants of the ski area finally closed this past year after lasting nearly 30 years from when the lifts were shut down. The former ski lodge was eventually removed from the site after extensive damage from vandals. The ski rental building is now a rental cabin on the banks of the Stillaguamish. The lifts were dismantled and moved.

And despite the hundreds of hikers that scurry toward the summit each summer and the thousands of drivers that fly by the peak on their way to Stevens Pass, the lost ski area of Pilchuck will most likely remain just as it is lost.
Last edited by hyak on July 8th, 2012, 5:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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