STEVENS PASS — Smiles, high-fives, sunshine and blue skies were plentiful Friday at Stevens Pass Ski Area, which opened its popular backside terrain for the first time this season.
Inadequate staffing has kept several chairlifts immobile despite abundant snowfall at Stevens Pass over the last month, prompting a mountain of season-pass holder complaints to Colorado-based Vail Resorts, which owns the ski area. The openings suggest operations are trending in the right direction. Now Vail is promising a longer season.
On Friday, Stevens Pass spun seven of its 10 chairlifts, allowing access to approximately 85% of its terrain, the most since the ski area opened for the season Dec. 14. Only Kehr’s Chair, Southern Cross and Double Diamond remained dark. (Kehr’s opens on weekends.) Interim general manager Tom Fortune anticipates running backside lifts seven days a week as early as the first weekend of February.
Recent improvements have generated a renewed enthusiasm among skiers, riders and employees that was palpable Friday.
“Riding the backside felt like coming home,” said snowboarder Alex Cooley, 36, of Seattle, who has been a Stevens Pass regular for 25 seasons. On Friday, Cooley recognized Fortune at the top of Jupiter Express and greeted him with a warm “thank you” for turning the ship. Several customers on the slopes did the same.
Vail Resorts fired former general manager Tom Pettigrew Jan. 12 and replaced him with Fortune, who “grew up at Stevens Pass” and has overseen the ski area’s turnaround efforts in the last two weeks. Among the immediate improvements to flagging operations, Fortune told The Seattle Times on Friday that Stevens Pass will remain open at least through the end of April, snow permitting. The ski area was originally slated to close on April 17.
“Getting the backside open was a big part of my mission,” Fortune said. “Along with the other lifts, that’s the first benchmark.”
In a public letter sent to customers Jan. 25, Fortune emphasized the operational impact of the coronavirus omicron variant, which at times over the holiday week last month kept nearly 30% of lift operators off the mountain. Fortune also touted recent increases in hiring — a large tent announcing “We’re hiring” greeted guests at the Stevens base area — better coordination of existing staff housing inventory, additional seats on employee shuttles along the Highway 2 corridor, and a $2 per hour bonus for employees who remain through the end of the season.
To placate season-pass holders, Vail Resorts announced a $150 discount for those who renew their Stevens-only passes for next season, as well as a $150 retail credit for those who renew their Epic Pass, a season pass good at all 40 ski areas in Vail Resorts’ portfolio. Despite calls for refunds — including hundreds of complaints to Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and a Change.org petition signed by more than 44,000 — Fortune’s letter stated that passes are nonrefundable.
He said customers can expect more improvements in coming weeks.
“That’s just the start,” Fortune said of his first fixes. “I don’t feel like the pressure is off.”