WENATCHEE — The wind was whipping, but riding up the Wenatchee Express at Mission Ridge Ski & Board Resort was calm like the eye of a hurricane. The reason for the comfortable cruise up to the ski resort’s 6,820-foot summit? A weatherproof protective bubble on the ski area’s new chairlift.
The feature is a welcome addition to Mission Ridge, a ski area located 13 miles from downtown Wenatchee, which had been without access to its summit terrain for much of the season until the delayed chairlift replacement project opened Feb. 17.
With winds forecast to reach 55 mph on a recent Friday — thankfully they peaked at 51 mph overnight and simmered down to around 20 mph during the day — shelter from the storm was much appreciated.
“All mountains do experience wind and we definitely get our fair share here,” said Mission Ridge marketing director Tony Hickok. “Having a bubble, and the ability to pull that down when you want to, dramatically changes the experience of that chair ride.”
Bubble chairs are popular in Europe, but less in vogue in the U.S., where the website Lift Blog estimates that North American ski areas have installed fewer than two dozen bubble chairs in the last 30 years. Bubbles on chairlifts leaving from the base of Whistler Blackcomb had their fans on soggy mornings, but those days are no more — resort owner Vail replaced the Wizard Express and Solar Coaster Express with a gondola and removed bubbles from the Fitzsimmons Express. In the west, they can still be found at Big Sky (Montana), Sun Peaks (British Columbia) and Copper Mountain (Colorado); Canyons Resort (Utah) has gone deluxe with a heated version.
Alas, the new high-speed quad chair at Mission Ridge made by Austrian company Doppelmayr does not come with heated seats, but it does replace the 15-year-old Liberator Express from French outfit Poma. Mission Ridge owner Larry Scrivanich plowed ahead with the project last year despite pandemic uncertainty and was able to keep 30 staff in the offseason, where employment numbers normally dwindle to 15.
“It was getting long in the tooth and a model of the chair that wasn’t available anymore, so parts were really hard to come by,” Hickok said.
The Wenatchee Express also shaves one minute off the ride time to ascend 1,563 vertical feet. That perch provides access to most of Mission Ridge’s challenging alpine skiing, like the Bomber Bowl and Bomber Cliffs, hike-to terrain along Windy Ridge, powder stashes in the Central Park glades, top-to-bottom intermediate runs, and the Mission Ridge good luck charm: a wing remnant from the B-24 bomber that crashed in 1944 on a training mission. Skiers and snowboarders rub the wing to answer snow prayers.
Wenatchee residents like Chreston Knutson, 57, who has been skiing at Mission Ridge since 1975, have watched the resort’s Chair 2 evolve from a humble double to today’s bubble-enclosed high-speed quad.
“The bubble is going to be such a nice feature to keep you toasty — or less cold — on the way up, and the new electronics in this chair are going to make it really reliable,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge boon here.”
Or, as he put it in skier speak: “I am so stoked.”