Snows of Pilchuck’s past

  • Andrew Wineke / Herald Writer
  • Friday, January 2, 2004 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

For months, Steve Richter begged George Savage to make him a ski instructor.

"It was kind of a big deal back then," Richter said. "I kept bugging him every day, ‘Can I get a class?’"

Richter had moved from Spokane to Everett when he was 18 and went to work at the Mount Pilchuck ski area a year later. He started out shoveling snow, then moved up to running the area’s single chairlift and several rope tows. None of which had the cachet of being a ski instructor.

One day, the Ford flathead engine that powered the rope tow blew an oil line. As Richter worked to fix it, Savage, the area’s ski school director, finally gave him his shot. And so, covered head to toe in motor oil, Richter taught his first ski lesson.

That experience symbolized the nearly 20 years Richter spent at Mount Pilchuck. Now, 40 years after Richter’s first lesson in 1964, there’s not much left of the ski area in which he and many others invested so much sweat and toil.

The nearly forgotten ski area is still a good story, though, a tale of the dreams and perseverance of people who loved skiing and loved their local mountain.

From the Mount Pilchuck trailhead, you can just barely make out the rough shape of the lower run that stretched 2,000 feet, and dropped 500 vertical feet, beneath the parking lot. The steep upper run is a little harder to picture now, but it once climbed about 4,500 feet of rugged terrain and 1,250 vertical feet, culminating just below the peak of Little Pilchuck, just west of the central summit.

"Up above, it was an incredible challenge," said Timothy Berndt, who was a ski patroller at Pilchuck in the mid-1970s. "If someone could ski Mount Pilchuck, they could ski anywhere."

With the base area at 3,100 feet, the upper chairlift ending at 4,300 feet and the lower chairlift going down to 2,600 feet, Pilchuck was a little like Alpental at Snoqualmie Pass — a mixture of cliffs and ravines. The low elevation often caused problems — everyone on the mountain knew to bring their rain gear — but Pilchuck’s position west of the Cascades meant that on good days the views of the river valleys, cities and Puget Sound were spectacular.

"It always snowed plenty there," said Robert O’Callahan, who grew up in Marysville and skied at Pilchuck in the 1960s and ’70s. "The problem was that it rained a lot too, so you were never sure which was going to win on a given day."

A half-hour from Marysville and 45 minutes from Everett, Pilchuck had a reputation as a friendly area where everybody knew your name.

"It was like a small family up there," said Ron Downing, co-owner of Mount Pilchuck Ski and Sport in Everett.

The ski shop started as Mount Pilchuck’s rental shop on the mountain and eventually opened a retail branch in south Everett.

The ski area started in 1951 when the first rope tow was installed by the Mount Pilchuck Ski Club. Despite some starts and stops — the area didn’t get enough snow to open in 1953 and ran for just one day in 1957 — the area was popular, and two more rope tows were added.

The upper chairlift, a double, came in the fall of 1963, just in time for a massive snowfall that buried the entire mountain. Trenches had to be dug so the lifts could run, and people skied on the mountain into August 1964.

The lower chair was added in 1967, making Pilchuck one of the first places where you could ski right from the parking lot. The chairlift, which was lighted, crossed the parking lot, dropping off skiers below for the lower run or carrying them to the upper chair.

In the early 1970s, lights were added to the uppper run — powered by the same diesel generators that powered the lifts — giving Pilchuck an impressive 1,800 feet of vertical for night skiing.

Richter kept working at the mountain, except for a year in the Air Force, and in 1971, the area’s owners, Sal and Dick Werner, offered to sell the concession to him. At 27, he became the youngest ski area operator in the country.

"I was a little blind going in," he said. "I didn’t know how much work it would take."

Over the next six years, Richter often worked 20-hour days to keep the ski area open, sometimes going without sleep for days while clearing snow or fixing equipment.

"It damn near killed him," Downing said. "We weren’t making any money, it was starvation up there."

In 1974, the mountain had another epic snow year, burying the lifts and the lodge. They kept a tractor at the terminus of the upper lift and some brave soul had to hike through chest-deep snow up the mountain to plow out the landing before the lifts could run.

"We skied on the Fourth of July up there and it was good," Downing said. "It was great."

The great snow came at the worst possible time, though. The oil crisis in 1974 made it nearly impossible for skiers to drive to the mountain.

"People couldn’t get up there," Richter said, "and if they did, sometimes we had to sell them a gallon of gas to get back down. I look at that year as kind of a disaster."

Richter and his partners planned to expand the ski area, first adding a third chair to the west and, later, another eastward, on the mountain’s northern face where there was usually much more snow. They brought in a chair from the defunct Yodelin ski area near Stevens Pass and planned to install it once Washington State Parks and the Forest Service renewed the area’s permits.

It never happened, though. The Pilchuck ski area was built on a jigsaw of state and federal land, it operated as a state park under a special agreement with the Forest Service.

When the permit came up for renewal in 1978, the Forest Service would agree only to a five-year extension, believing the ski area wasn’t viable for the long term. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Pilchuck couldn’t expand without any promise of a future. The 1977-78 season became Pilchuck’s last.

The lifts sat idle until 1980, when Richter took them out and sold them to Crystal Mountain.

Richter thought about staying in the business, but eventually moved on. Now 61, he’s the president of CrystaLite, a skylight and sunroom manufacturer in Everett.

The last real remnant of the ski area is the ski shop Ron Downing and his partners Doug Fraser and Nancy Broberg-Fraser run, and few of their customers know where Mount Pilchuck Ski and Sport got its name.

"I haven’t been up there since it closed," Broberg-Fraser said. "It was so sad."

Today, the road up the mountain is littered with potholes and frost heaves. On summer days, the parking lot is filled with hikers, while in winter, snowshoers and cross-country skiers work their way up the mountain. On clear days, the views are still amazing, although you can’t see them from the comfort of a chairlift anymore.

Could Pilchuck have survived? Richter thinks there was a chance, if he had gotten a few breaks. The elevation and lack of power and services would always have been problems, but with the lifts and some of the infrastructure in place, Pilchuck could have continued.

"It wasn’t for lack of effort," he said. "Of all the things I’ve done in my life, that was the most fun. It gave me the most pleasure (and) it was the most work."

Reporter Andrew Wineke: 425-339-3465 or wineke@heraldnet.com.

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