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Crystal Clear

Crystal Clear

Features
By Darren Braun
posted: 06/28/2004

It seems like only yesterday that I was driving up this lonely canyon road for the first time. I can still recall the waves of excitement washing over me. A 24-year-old ski coach with a new job in 1978, I was in awe of these great Western mountains as I coaxed my VW van through the steep curves that led to the base of my new home. Everywhere I looked-the slopes above me, the surrounding peaks higher up, the vast snowfields in the distance-was paradise on Earth for a kid who grew up in Quebec dreaming of big-mountain skiing. So what if Crystal Mountain was remote; I didn't care that I would have to live all winter in a snowed-in mobile home. Didn't even care that I would have to drive 45 miles downvalley to the nearest grocery store, or the post office, or the bank. Convenience is a concern for the old, not the young.

This remote Washington ski area had everything I needed: big snow, big slopes and virtually no midweek skiers. I hadn't even unloaded my van and gear yet, and I already knew I'd be happy spending the ski season here.

Twenty-five years later, I'm nearly as excited as I was the first time I drove up this canyon. More than a foot of snow has fallen in the past 24 hours-probably much more in the alpine. The skiing will be fantastic. And there's still (virtually) no midweek action here.

Sure, the powder might be a little denser than in Colorado-you don't often mistake the snow for baby's breath anywhere in the Pacific Northwest-but Crystal's terrain is particularly well-suited to a deep, thick cover. And with the long hours of these late-March days, Crystal's legendary North and South Backcountry will deliver mountain itineraries both breathtakingly beautiful and physically satisfying. It feels good to be back.

It's hard to describe Crystal Mountain and not sound cliché. In this era of shopping-mall-like resort villages, high-priced condo developments and gated mountain communities, the queen of the Cascades is minimalist. But she's blue-blooded where it counts: on the mountain. With 1,300 acres, an additional 1,000 acres of magnificent backcountry terrain, 340 annual inches of snow, a solid 3,100-foot vertical drop and crowds so sparse that you can actually keep track of your skiing partner by the color of his parka, Crystal is a skier's paradise. Yet the mountain remains virtually unknown to boarders and skiers outside of the Pacific Northwest.

That may be an indictment of today's skier as much as of the resort. At Crystal, most of the lodging, nightlife and dining is an hour's drive away, while today's pampered travelers demand greater (not less) convenience. Still, in this era of the full-service megaresort, Crystal defies the odds by succeeding.

While British Columbia's Whistler/-Blackcomb-only a few hours' drive north-has mushroomed into the biggest mountain resort in North America, Crystal has remained almost exactly as it was when I spent that magical winter here back in the late '70s. Shockingly so, in fact. It's as if time has stood still. There's the same base lodge, the same clock tower, the same handful of small hotels-and the same amphitheater of peaks from which to pick your descent. In terms of amenities, it's so old-school that it's becoming retro-cool. Progress, it seems, is not always a virtue.

Think Alta without Snowbird next door and no downtown Salt Lake City in sight. This is roots skiing at its best. And Crystal has nurtured a mountain-skiing culture that is as understated as it is authentic. Remember the Seattle grunge movement of the late-1980s? For Crystal skiers, that's still pretty much the attitude. Black ski pants and shapeless Gore-Tex jackets are the rule here. Function is what it's all about. And that goes for all ages-whether you're 15 or 51.

Oddly enough, there's really no such thing as a cool "locals" scene. Most Crystal skiers live in the sprawling suburbs of Seattle, which is little more than an hour's drive away. There are ju a handful of beds at the base, and no residential community to speak of near the mountain.

"We're definitely not a 'resort,' at least not in the way most people think of resort," explains John Kircher, scion of the Boyne USA family ski dynasty, based in Michigan. Kircher has been Crystal's owner-operator since 1998. "We have no bed base to speak of and not much in the way of destination services," Kircher says. "We're a weekend ski area. Pure and simple." He smiles. "We just happen to access some of the best big-mountain skiing in all of America."

It's a unique setup. Despite being essentially a day area, Crystal pushes back as hard as you push it. The mountain is steep. And difficult. There's no way around that. And while it boasts its fair share of well-groomed inbounds runs, serviced by nine chairlifts (including two six-packs, two high-speed quads and two triples), that's not what its reputation was built on. Nearly half of the area's terrain is devoted to steep, off-piste, high-energy skiing. Whether you're dropping into Morning Glory Bowl in the North Backcountry or you've traversed over for a late-afternoon blast down Dog-Leg Chute in the South Backcountry, Crystal is an expert skier's dream come true. (So extensive is the out-of-bounds skiing at Crystal, so complex are its routes, that a group of locals published an Aerial Guide to the Crystal Mountain Backcountry-a valuable tool when venturing off-piste.)

The trend in ski area management these days seems to favor MBA types who talk about share price and EBITDA as fervently as ski bums talk about deep powder and vertical drop. Kircher is the exception. A second-generation owner-operator, the 46-year-old has all the tools to be a good businessman. But he also displays a passion for the act of skiing that's refreshing. "After all, it's not like the ski business operates with a huge profit margin," he says.

Maybe it's not so surprising then that Kircher has focused on celebrating Crystal's skiing rather than on improving its amenities. "Our main asset is our terrain and that the surrounding region has remained so pristine," he explains. "So when we took over Crystal, we decided to concentrate on getting people up the hill smoothly and with as little fuss as possible. We wanted the mountain and the scenery to be the stars here."

That's not to say they don't have big dreams for the future. According to Kircher, Boyne USA wants to invest $40 million in improvements at Crystal over the next decade or two. The master plan calls for the addition of six new chairlifts (servicing much of the mountain's current backcountry), a 100-passenger tram, a small hotel and conference center, and finally, a much-needed on-mountain restaurant. "We'd really like to see Crystal fulfill its destiny, and that is becoming the premier ski resort destination of the Pacific Northwest," he says.

Kircher's goal is to develop Crystal without outgrowing its homegrown culture, which he realizes seems like a contradiction. But he views expansion as a matter of need, not want. Without some kind of major overhaul, the expanding local ski and board market will soon swamp Crystal. "The three ski areas that service Seattle-Stevens Pass, Alpental, Crystal-all face the same problem," he explains. "While we could all still benefit from more midweek traffic, the weekends are now totally out of control. There are simply not enough local slopes to service the weekend ski market."

I haven't been at Crystal for an hour yet, and already I've hooked up with a couple of local rippers. Did I say there were no locals at Crystal? I was wrong-sort of. As one young local skier put it during a lift ride, "You can't be a poseur here. You have to deliver." Which confirms my own 25-year-old memories of the place. What impressed me during the two years that I spent in this region was just how good the local skiers were.

The two skiers I'm spending the day with are members of the Crystal Mountain Freeride Team. Keith Rollins is an easygoing 37-year-old ski technician. His buddy, Wayne Greevy, is a more tightly wound 32-year-old filmmaker.

It's a beautiful morning. The low clouds that dumped all that snow overnight are dissipating, and though a light misty veil still hangs over the mountain, it promises to burn off in the warm spring sun. But what strikes me most this morning is how empty the place looks. It's late March-only 10 days before Crystal is supposed to close for the season-yet the conditions are outstanding. If this were Whistler-or Squaw or Alta or Jackson-there would be hounds hanging from every chair. As it is, we're just about the only skiers in sight. "The numbers really drop off this late in the season," Greevy explains. "I don't know why, exactly. Maybe it's because they're already golfing down in Seattle."

From the top of the Chinook chair, we catch the Rainier Express to Summit House. It's only when we crest the last ridge near the top, however, that Crystal's giant neighbor finally deigns to show itself. And what a sight it is. At 14,410 feet, Mt. Rainier-the third highest peak in the continental U.S.-dwarfs everything around it. The smooth symmetry of this classic Pacific Northwest volcano-a profile that has become a marketing cliché in western Washington-is almost too perfect to believe.

But the game is on. Boots are tightened, sunglasses stashed, and goggles carefully adjusted. Then we push off toward Sunnyside for my Crystal Mountain homecoming.

I'm curious to see if I've overbuilt Crystal's steepness in my mind during the decades I've been away. But it only takes a couple of turns to remind me just how demanding even the mainstream runs are. Sunnyside drops straight down the mountain-right under the Rainier chair-and doesn't let up for most of its 1,500 feet of vertical. By turn four, the three of us are flying through the newly fallen snow like jet fighters on a mission.

It's nearly 10 a.m., and there are still fresh tracks to be had on one of the most visible powder runs on the mountain. Only in Washington, I think to myself. Up we go again. This time, instead of dropping down the mountain from Summit House, we skate to our right. After 15 minutes at most, our hike is over. "This is called Northway Peak," Greevy reminds me. "From here, it's 3,000 vertical feet of untracked snow right to the valley floor."

The run is as spectacular as Rollins and Greevy have suggested. The snow is knee-deep to mid-thigh-soft and feathery and surprisingly light for this time of year in the Northwest. And it's steep all the way to the bottom. I can't get over how effortless the skiing is.

When I lived here, we were skiing these runs on 210 GS skis. Now, the new breed of shorter, fatter powder boards and all-mountain skis has revolutionized the sport at Crystal. Terrain that used to be reserved for only a small coterie of experts is now accessible to the general public. "There's been a huge shift," Greevy says. "People seem to be having way more fun in the backcountry these days. And I'm convinced it's all due to the new gear."

Three-Way Peak is at the southern limit of Crystal's "designated permit boundary." And the run we're headed for, Dog-Leg chute, is on the very edge of that. "It's got the most protected snow in the area," Rollins tells me.

Later, I can't remember how many turns I made down Dog-Leg. Or whether they were particularly good ones or not. I don't recall whether I tried to stay in control all the way down or just let it rip till I hit the valley floor. All I remember is dropping into the deepest, softest, cushiest snow of the season. Time stopped, and I rode the mountain the way a surfer rides a wave. And for a brief moment, I could have been 24 years old again. Team. Keith Rollins is an easygoing 37-year-old ski technician. His buddy, Wayne Greevy, is a more tightly wound 32-year-old filmmaker.

It's a beautiful morning. The low clouds that dumped all that snow overnight are dissipating, and though a light misty veil still hangs over the mountain, it promises to burn off in the warm spring sun. But what strikes me most this morning is how empty the place looks. It's late March-only 10 days before Crystal is supposed to close for the season-yet the conditions are outstanding. If this were Whistler-or Squaw or Alta or Jackson-there would be hounds hanging from every chair. As it is, we're just about the only skiers in sight. "The numbers really drop off this late in the season," Greevy explains. "I don't know why, exactly. Maybe it's because they're already golfing down in Seattle."

From the top of the Chinook chair, we catch the Rainier Express to Summit House. It's only when we crest the last ridge near the top, however, that Crystal's giant neighbor finally deigns to show itself. And what a sight it is. At 14,410 feet, Mt. Rainier-the third highest peak in the continental U.S.-dwarfs everything around it. The smooth symmetry of this classic Pacific Northwest volcano-a profile that has become a marketing cliché in western Washington-is almost too perfect to believe.

But the game is on. Boots are tightened, sunglasses stashed, and goggles carefully adjusted. Then we push off toward Sunnyside for my Crystal Mountain homecoming.

I'm curious to see if I've overbuilt Crystal's steepness in my mind during the decades I've been away. But it only takes a couple of turns to remind me just how demanding even the mainstream runs are. Sunnyside drops straight down the mountain-right under the Rainier chair-and doesn't let up for most of its 1,500 feet of vertical. By turn four, the three of us are flying through the newly fallen snow like jet fighters on a mission.

It's nearly 10 a.m., and there are still fresh tracks to be had on one of the most visible powder runs on the mountain. Only in Washington, I think to myself. Up we go again. This time, instead of dropping down the mountain from Summit House, we skate to our right. After 15 minutes at most, our hike is over. "This is called Northway Peak," Greevy reminds me. "From here, it's 3,000 vertical feet of untracked snow right to the valley floor."

The run is as spectacular as Rollins and Greevy have suggested. The snow is knee-deep to mid-thigh-soft and feathery and surprisingly light for this time of year in the Northwest. And it's steep all the way to the bottom. I can't get over how effortless the skiing is.

When I lived here, we were skiing these runs on 210 GS skis. Now, the new breed of shorter, fatter powder boards and all-mountain skis has revolutionized the sport at Crystal. Terrain that used to be reserved for only a small coterie of experts is now accessible to the general public. "There's been a huge shift," Greevy says. "People seem to be having way more fun in the backcountry these days. And I'm convinced it's all due to the new gear."

Three-Way Peak is at the southern limit of Crystal's "designated permit boundary." And the run we're headed for, Dog-Leg chute, is on the very edge of that. "It's got the most protected snow in the area," Rollins tells me.

Later, I can't remember how many turns I made down Dog-Leg. Or whether they were particularly good ones or not. I don't recall whether I tried to stay in control all the way down or just let it rip till I hit the valley floor. All I remember is dropping into the deepest, softest, cushiest snow of the season. Time stopped, and I rode the mountain the way a surfer rides a wave. And for a brief moment, I could have been 24 years old again.

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