STEVENS PASS — Smiles, high-fives, sunshine and blue skies were all on Friday at Stevens Pass Ski Area, which opened its popular terrain for the first time this season.
Inadequate staffing has kept several chairlifts immobile despite heavy snowfall at Stevens Pass over the past month, prompting a mountain of complaints from season pass holders to Colorado-based Vail Resorts, which owns the ski area. The openings suggest that trades are moving in the right direction. Now Vail is promising a longer season.
On Friday, Stevens Pass spun seven of its 10 chairlifts, allowing access to around 85% of its terrain, the most since the ski area opened for the Dec. 14 season. Only Kehr’s Chair, Southern Cross and Double Diamond remained dark. (Kehr’s opens on weekends.) Acting general manager Tom Fortune plans to operate lifts seven days a week starting the first weekend in February.
Recent improvements have generated renewed enthusiasm among skiers, snowboarders and employees that was palpable on Friday.
“Going backside was 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 atop the Jupiter Express and greeted him with a warm “thank you” for turning the ship around. Several customers on the slopes have done the same.
Vail Resorts fired former general manager Tom Pettigrew on Jan. 12 and replaced him with Fortune, who “grew up in Stevens Pass” and has overseen the ski area’s recovery efforts for the past two weeks. Among immediate improvements to signage 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 scheduled to close on April 17.
“Getting the rear end open was a big part of my mission,” Fortune said. “With the other ski lifts, it is the first reference.”
In a public letter sent to customers on January 25, Fortune highlighted the operational impact of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, which at times during the holiday week last month prevented nearly 30% of lift operators from the Mountain. Fortune also touted recent hiring increases — a large tent advertising “We’re Hiring” greeted guests in the base area of Stevens — better coordination of existing staff quarters inventory, additional seating on employee shuttles along the Highway 2 corridor and a $2 per hour bonus for employees who stay through the end of the season.
To appease season pass holders, Vail Resorts announced a $150 discount for those who renew their Stevens passes only for next season, as well as a $150 retail credit for those who renew. their Epic Pass, a season pass valid in the 40 ski areas. in the Vail Resorts portfolio. Despite calls for reimbursement — including hundreds of complaints to Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and a Change.org petition signed by more than 44,000 people — Fortune’s letter said the passes are non-refundable.
He said customers can expect more improvements in the coming weeks.
“This is just the beginning,” Fortune said of her first fixes. “I don’t feel the pressure has eased.”