Summit at Snoqualmie gets OK for face-lift

Seattle's venerable backyard ski area, where thousands have carved their first snowplow, has the go-ahead for a face-lift.

The Summit at Snoqualmie last week reported U.S. Forest Service approval to gussy up the area's aging lifts and lodges, speed more people up and down the slopes, and lure skiers accustomed to the plusher surroundings of fancy ski resorts.

"It's just going to be a much nicer experience, what skiers and snowboarders have come to expect," said Guy Lawrence, marketing director for the resort, which was bought last year by Michigan-based Boyne Resorts. "It's a big change for us."

If ski resorts were clothing, then Snoqualmie has been the sensible, well-worn bluejeans with a few holes starting in the knees.

An hour's drive from Seattle, with plenty of bunny slopes for beginners and several lodges that can charitably be described as utilitarian, Snoqualmie is a regular draw for people looking to teach their kids to ski or put in some turns for the day.

But visitors also can face small, old chairlifts, logistical headaches moving from one ski lift to another, packed parking and crowded eating quarters.

And while the resort offers plenty of options for beginners and steep and deep for advanced skiers, it's short on choices for intermediate skiers.

"The Summit is outdated by comparison to what you would expect from a modern ski area," said Martin Volken, owner of a ski shop and guide service in North Bend and a regular at the Summit. "This will improve it, both for intermediate and for advanced skiers. There were bottlenecks that were turning anticipation into frustration."

The resort owners hope to remedy much of that with plans to eventually install six new lifts, upgrade many existing lifts, expand parking, overhaul and expand several lodges, build a new mountaintop restaurant, and add lighting for night skiing on 25 new runs.

If the resort completes all the projects approved by the Forest Service, capacity would be expanded from 10,000 skiers a day to a little less than 13,000, said Trevor Kostanich, the resort's director of planning and development.

It's not certain when or if each of the renovations will happen. The nation's faltering economy also could present a challenge, depending on what happens in coming years.

"We're definitely not immune to the credit crisis," Kostanich said.

But a top priority is adding ski lifts and upgrading a lodge targeting intermediate and advanced skiers.

"We think we have a real good opportunity to retain skiers who maybe learn to ski here but maybe go somewhere else like Stevens because they aren't aware of the terrain that we have," said Kostanich, referring to the Stevens Pass resort to the north.

That means a focus on the Summit East area, with the addition of a new lift -- Rampart -- along that area's northern edge, as well as a new lift -- Mill Creek -- that would reintroduce skiers to terrain left inaccessible since an aging chairlift closed more than 15 years ago.