White Pass expansion takes shape

WHITE PASS -- A trackhoe growls as it carves the dirt where a second ski lodge will be built at the White Pass ski area.

Not far away, a bulldozer groans as it pulls a stump from the hillside, clearing the way for a ski run.

A handful of men hammer shims into a form that will eventually become the base of a ski lift tower. They jockey it back and forth, making sure it's in line with the other towers forming a row along the hillside.

After two decades of litigation, work to nearly double the size of the ski area to almost 1,600 acres is finally under way.

The two-year, $8.5 million project includes two lifts, a 3,000-square-foot mid-mountain lodge and 13 ski runs in the Hogback Basin, southwest of the current ski area.

The new runs will take skiers about 500 feet higher than the current area, which tops out at about 6,000 feet.

More than half of the roughly 400 yards of concrete that will be poured into footers for tower bases and foundations for the lodge and lift stations has already been poured.

The rest of the concrete is expected to be poured by summer's end, and trees have already been removed to make way for new ski runs, said White Pass manager Kevin McCarthy.

"We could have forced the issue and probably have gotten (the entire project) done this year, but that would have caused more damage to the ground," he said.

As they work in the roadless Hogback Basin, crews must keep environmental impacts to a minimum, said Ranger Randy Shepard of the Naches Ranger District in the Wenatchee National Forest.

In 1984, Congress removed the expansion area from the Goat Rocks Wildness Area, allowing it to be managed for multiple uses. At the same time, Congress added 23,000 acres elsewhere to Goat Rocks.

But plans for the expansion were held up for more than two decades as a variety of opponents filed lawsuits. The last suit, brought by two conservation groups -- the Hogback Preservation Association and the Sierra Club -- argued the project's proximity to the Goat Rocks Wilderness Area violated federal environmental laws. A federal court disagreed in 2008.

Still, the project has to follow requirements outlined in an environmental impact statement, Shepard said.

"We're monitoring them, but I think they're doing real well," he said.

Concrete and equipment is flown in by helicopter, said White Pass mountain manager Russ Forman.

"There's a lot of challenges to access and stuff being in the roadless area," he said. "There's a lot of walking to get where we need to get."

Timber cleared from runs cannot be completely removed because the area is roadless, so it's cut into small sections and moved to the side, he said.

"That gives it a little more of a challenge to get things laid down," he said. "Most ski runs, you go in and remove all the timber -- get it out of the way."

Thirteen trails are being carved out of roughly 212 acres, but there are many natural trails in the 750-acre area, he said.

Towers ranging from 35 to 40 feet tall are being bolted to the foundations that reach about 5 feet into the ground.

Using snow machines atop the snow has helped crews get around easier, he said.

"I think we're probably moving along a lot faster because up in this high area the snow stays a lot longer," he said. "I don't know if we're ahead of schedule, but we're certainly on schedule."

Snow depth here this year was about 14 feet, compared with the roughly 8 feet the current ski area got, he said.

But giving skiers more room will also come with pristine views, he said.

"You look right into Mount Rainier on a clear day -- it's a spectacular view," he added. "It's a little more exposed out here, a little more open."

In the past five years, the ski area has averaged about 110,000 visitors a year, and it sometimes gets too crowded, McCarthy said.

With the expansion, the ski area will be able to accommodate up to 170,000 visitors a year, he added.

During peak season, skiers often fill the lodge, lifts and runs, said nearby Village Inn Condominiums manager Dale Critchlow.

"It will do a great job of spreading people out more on the hill," he said. "It just goes right along with the skier experience -- just spreading people out."

Having the mid-mountain lodge will give the expansion the feel of an entirely different ski area, McCarthy said.

"It's a very separate area and we feel that it's necessary to have a facility up in that area so if people need to go to the bathroom or get something to eat, they won't have to come all the way back down," he said.

Expanding the ski area not only will give skiers more room on the hillside, but also will improve business, said Delores English, a clerk at the Cracker Barrel store across the road from the ski area's main lodge.

"It should help everybody out," she said between helping customers. "It will be good to bring more business to people."

That also should happen to the Yakima Valley because the ski area is off Highway 12, a major arterial into Yakima, said Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce President Mike Morrisette.

"That ski area in my mind is a regional destination, so it's an attraction that can draw people to the Valley," he said. "I look at it as a gateway to Yakima."