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News / Sports / Outdoors

Washington’s biggest ski resort plans big-dollar upgrades but the path ahead is unclear

By Gregory Scruggs, The Seattle Times
Published: April 9, 2023, 1:45pm
2 Photos
Crystal Mountain Resort's base area has looked different this winter as construction workers build out a new base lodge, the Mountain Commons, slated to open for the 2023-2024 season.
Crystal Mountain Resort's base area has looked different this winter as construction workers build out a new base lodge, the Mountain Commons, slated to open for the 2023-2024 season. (Gregory Scruggs/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN RESORT — With Mount Rainier staring back at eye level, hardy Seattle and Tacoma business and civic leaders stood at the summit of Crystal Mountain on winter days in the mid-1950s, entranced by alpine vistas that rival mountain scenery from the Alps to the Andes.

The mountain playground that unfurled below eventually became Washington’s biggest ski area. But during the heady days of postwar growth in winter sports, these early pioneers of Northwest skiing envisioned a true ski resort that could match destinations like Idaho’s Sun Valley.

Six decades later, that vision may finally be crystallizing.

As revelers streamed into Crystal Mountain’s 60th anniversary party recently, they passed the under-construction skeleton of the resort’s new 25,000-square-foot day lodge. This building is the first component of a five-year, $100 million capital plan — the largest ever seen by a Washington ski area and almost double what Crystal’s previous stewards pumped into the resort over 20 years of ownership.

“We’ve outgrown our facilities and we’re outgrowing our current infrastructure,” said Tiana Anderson, vice president of resort services. “We need to continue to keep up with the amount of demand that we’ve had.”

Crystal Mountain has projected bold ideas since the Eisenhower administration, but topographic confines between national park and federal wilderness have tamped down several grandiose visions. A lack of capital, meanwhile, has stymied a development plan approved by the Forest Service in 2004.

With a nine-figure pledge from out-of-state owner Alterra Mountain Company, Crystal is on the cusp of realizing major upgrades that may nudge it into true “destination resort” territory. But leadership changes, public pushback and supply chain snags in the year since the Reimagine Crystal campaign was announced have left the crystal ball murky on details.

Destination Crystal?

Infrastructure dollars at Crystal are falling like snowflakes thanks to Denver-based Alterra. The company bought Crystal in 2018 and oversaw its transformation into a premium-priced product amid growing demand for winter recreation.

With a premium price — as in, $1,699 for a full-season pass — Crystal hopes to deliver a premium product. When Anderson introduced Reimagine Crystal via video last year, she outlined the currently-under-construction base area lodge, a 100-room slopeside hotel and a 14,000-square-foot replacement summit lodge. She also hinted at additional chairlifts and terrain expansion.

A few months prior, on the Storm Skiing Podcast, then-president and CEO Frank DeBerry detailed planned moves, like running a new gondola from the base area to Campbell Basin, a popular midmountain lodge, and expanding terrain with a chairlift up East Peak in an area known as Bullion Basin popular with backcountry skiers.

While the new base lodge, Mountain Commons, is on track to open next season, and an aerial adventure course will debut this summer, Reimagine Crystal’s path forward may be as unpredictable as a Cascades winter storm.

Previous owner John Kircher included overnight lodging in the 2004 master plan he negotiated with the Forest Service. Still, in a 2007 interview, Kircher lamented his inability to deliver an 80-room hotel that required a “$20 million sort of investment.”

Alterra has that and then some, having dropped $1 billion across its 16-resort portfolio over the past five years. On March 21, the company announced an additional $500 million in capital improvements slated for the next year.

Some Crystal devotees welcome the capital improvements with open arms.

“Reimagine Crystal is long overdue,” said Brian Dennehy, of Northeast Seattle, whose family owns a cabin at Crystal. “Anything up there that makes it more comfortable for the skiing public is welcome.”

Others worry that new slopeside lodging will draw more skiers from outside the region and strain what they perceive as an already overcrowded mountain.

“We want to maintain that small ski area feel,” said Renton resident Jeff Shibuya, a member of the Crystal Mountain Founders Club, in a family-owned cabin at the base of Crystal Mountain Boulevard with a bark exterior and a rack of ski magazines by the fireplace.

“Crystal is our neighborhood ski resort and the extended backyard of our children,” added Wendy Shibuya, a fellow member of the Crystal Mountain Founders Club and Jeff’s wife. “I like Crystal being a shining gem in the Northwest, but I don’t want a huge destination resort area. I don’t want the flavor to change.”

Projects ‘in the cards’

But the notion that Crystal could become the next Sun Valley seems unlikely given its relative isolation and limited on-site growth prospects. Over 60 years, Crystal has been vastly outpaced by its destination peers.

The resort operates under a special use permit from the Forest Service. The one sizable parcel of private land in the valley is already home to the 30-odd cabins in Gold Hill Estates. One new Crystal-owned hotel, and outside hospitality firm LOGE’s recent acquisition of Alta Crystal Resort along Highway 410, are no match for Schweitzer’s multiple ski-in, ski-out lodging properties. Nor does a hip mountain town beckon nearby. Enumclaw is not the next Bend — and it’s twice the distance from Crystal as Bend is from Mount Bachelor.

“It’s a misnomer to say Crystal is trying to become a destination,” Anderson said. She insisted that Western Washington will be the primary beneficiaries of new daytime and overnight facilities. While out-of-state skier visits are growing, Anderson said they remain a small share — but declined to share a percentage figure.

Crystal management says it heard loud and clear from its customers.

“We’ve taken a step back after listening to the guest feedback once we announced Reimagine Crystal,” Anderson said. “Our guests really want more uphill capacity and terrain.”

Building a bigger mountain isn’t easy.

DeBerry left quietly at the beginning of this season, and Alterra has yet to name a replacement leader. In March, Anderson referred to the timeline for the summit house and hotel on a 10-year horizon, rather than five years, as the 2022 announcement projected.

Which lifts will go in next and when? Where will new terrain open? Will Crystal eventually build out additional lodging for 690 overnight guests as permitted under its master development plan with the Forest Service?

When asked about those projects, “in the cards” was the repeated response from Matthew Darbous, vice president of business development.

However, he insisted that capital — the missing ingredient for much of Crystal’s history — isn’t lacking, nor does an economic downturn signal the resort hitting the brakes. Notably, Crystal has been waiting in the ski industry’s worst liftline: supply chains. Doppelmayr USA and Leitner-Poma of America, the U.S. affiliates of the world’s biggest chairlift manufacturers, are both backed up with orders.

Management isn’t sweating.

“Alterra gives us the financial horsepower in up and down years,” Darbous said.

Decades of resort dreams

Since its inception, Crystal has pursued resort ambitions that have fallen short.

When the 800-plus stockholders who funded the Crystal Mountain Corporation lobbied state and federal officials in the 1950s to permit a new ski area on National Forest land, the location’s “destination resort” prospects were key to making the case. In the battle to secure funding for Crystal Mountain Boulevard, the 6-mile road that ferries skier traffic from Highway 410, Gov. Albert Rosellini threw his weight behind the project.

Crystal was founded in 1962 — the same year as Vail in Colorado — but never developed facilities approximating the industry’s flagship destinations.

Forest Service restrictions kept a lid on large-scale development. Business ventures built four modest lodging properties, while 10 area ski clubs secured Forest Service permission to erect cabins. In the early 1980s, local media was abuzz over the proposed $40 million Eagleslair tram-accessible hotel atop the Pacific Crest — an already pie-in-the-sky idea rendered impossible once Congress established the William O. Douglas Wilderness in 1984.

While Crystal’s passionate founders curry admiration — “built for skiers” was an oft-trumpeted motto — the business of running a ski area had become increasingly tenuous by the 1990s. Michigan-based Boyne USA offered to buy Crystal in 1997 with a promise of $15 million in capital improvements. The board jumped at the opportunity, contingent on negotiating a deal to preserve stockholder rights in the form of lift ticket privileges. That arrangement persists to this day for the members of the Crystal Mountain Founders Club.

John Kircher, a scion of family-owned Boyne, moved west. He told The Seattle Times upon arrival that his blueprint for Crystal was straightforward: “The reason people want to come up to your area is simple. It’s the lifts, the snow and the mountain.”

Crystal’s 2,600 acres and 3,100-foot vertical drop encompass 80 named runs, plus countless off-piste chutes, gullies and steep treed zones that make Crystal beloved by advanced and expert skiers and riders, many of whom have been skiing there through the decades and different ownership eras.

Kircher made good on his $15 million promise and negotiated a master plan with the Forest Service. He oversaw numerous chairlift upgrades and terrain expansions, most notably the Mount Rainier Gondola, which debuted in January 2011 and remains the state’s only tram.

He also ran Crystal like a personal fiefdom. On one occasion, in a fit of après-ski enthusiasm, he ordered employees to turn the lifts back on afterhours once the snow began stacking up for an all-hands powder session.

Kircher bought out his family members’ Crystal stake in 2017, promising yet more improvements as sole owner. But he flipped the resort just a year later. Alterra came knocking in order to compete with Vail Resorts’ potential dominance of the Seattle market after the publicly traded Colorado company bought Whistler Blackcomb in 2016 and Stevens Pass in 2018.

Kircher died in January after a long battle with cancer.

Alterra’s arrival meant an end to the freewheeling Kircher era — one that was “romantic,” if lacking in spreadsheets and budgets.

“Alterra professionalized Crystal,” said Roger Strong, regional sales director for Seattle-based Waypoint Outdoor, which brokers deals with resorts for equipment like ski patrol uniforms. “For right or for wrong, [Alterra] brought an element of organization that Crystal had never seen,” he said. “Instead of John’s world, it’s now everybody’s world.”

While different factors have disrupted the timeline and clouded the specifics of Reimagine Crystal, current leadership’s endgame echoes the same vision that Crystal’s founders articulated over a half-century ago.

How will Crystal introduce itself when the plan is complete? For Darbous, that one wasn’t just “in the cards.”

“We are the premier resort in the Pacific Northwest,” he said.

12 significant dates in Crystal history

Here are a dozen noteworthy dates and anecdotes from across the mountain’s 60-year history (and a bit beyond).

  • 1955(ish)

When Mount Rainier National Park shies away from ski resort development during the sport’s postwar boom, early Northwest skiers begin exploring neighboring peaks. Mary Lea Griggs sets her sights on Corral Pass and prepares the area’s first proposal to the U.S. Forest Service, envisioning a 3-mile chairlift that would ferry skiers from Highway 410 to the base area. But Corral Pass didn’t hold sufficient snow. According to “Crystal Mountain: Built by Skiers,” when a scouting party from the Corral Pass Development Committee lays eyes on Crystal Mountain in 1955 or 1956, they target a new prize.

  • Dec. 8, 1962

Crystal Mountain opens to the public with two double chairs. Third-generation Washington logger and 1952 Olympian Jack Nagel runs the ski school and ski shop; his daughter, Judy Nagel, later wins the U.S. Alpine Championship on home snow at Crystal and competes at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France. To this day, she remains the youngest American to win a World Cup race at 17 years, 5 months.

  • 1964

Crystal’s founders resume the infamous Silver Skis race, which ran on Mount Rainier in the 1930s and ‘40s. The next year, the young ski area hosts the collegiate and national alpine championships as well as an international invitational that’s broadcast on NBC and CBC.

  • February 1972

European greats return to Crystal for the first and last Rainier World Cup sanctioned by international ski federation FIS. Classic Cascade weather scuttles any future FIS World Cup races at Crystal: The final day was canceled by rain and 95 mph winds. A racing legacy lives on at the Crystal Mountain Alpine Club, one of the region’s most robust ski racing programs.

  • Feb. 4-15, 1976

Winter Olympics are held in Innsbruck, Austria. The Crystal connection? The mountain was part of Seattle’s short-lived exploratory bid for those games. More recently, Crystal was the home mountain for two Seattle-area Olympians: Redmond’s Scott Macartney and Bellevue’s Libby Ludlow.

  • 1970s

Queen Anne High School graduate Stanley Larsen tours the world as a member of Team Marlboro (cigarettes being to extreme sports in the 1970s as energy drinks are today), doing flips and spins on skis. Larsen picks up this bag of tricks at Crystal, one of the early hotbeds of “hot-dogging,” or freestyle skiing. He coaches aspiring “hot dogs” at Airborne Eddie Ferguson’s Ski Camp, which runs in June underneath the Green Valley chairlift. Considered rebellious at the time, freestyle skiing is now an Olympic discipline. Larsen went on to a career as a ski filmmaker and K2 consultant. Both he and Ferguson, a Chelan resident, were inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

  • 1984

Buzz grows around a proposed $40 million tram-accessible hotel atop the Pacific Crest — a lofty idea rendered DOA when Congress establishes the William O. Douglas Wilderness.

  • 1997

Boyne USA buys Crystal Mountain, valued at $40 million, with a promise of $15 million in capital improvements. The Crystal board negotiates a deal to preserve stockholder rights in the form of lift ticket privileges, a still-valid arrangement for members of the Crystal Mountain Founders Club.

  • Jan. 1, 2011

Mount Rainier Gondola, Washington’s first enclosed ski lift, opens on New Year’s Day.

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  • March 10, 2014

Crystal ski patrollers including Kim Kircher, spouse of then-owner John Kircher, detonate a 25-pound explosive on a ridgeline at the top of a peak known as the Throne. After 10 feet of snow in February, followed by 6 inches of rain, the patrollers knew they had to trigger an avalanche before allowing guests to ski the steep alpine bowl. The slide is bigger than anticipated and wipes out the bullwheel and lift shack on the High Campbell Chairlift. The incident costs an estimated $1.75 million in damage.

  • Sept. 6, 2018

Alterra Mountain Company buys Crystal Mountain for an undisclosed sum.

  • Today

Combine the competitive edge of Crystal’s alpine racing culture with its hot-dogging heritage and what do you get? One of North America’s premier freeride destinations. The plethora of extreme ski lines in the hike-to Southback zone makes Crystal a natural stop for competitions where skiers and riders push their limits by tackling the most difficult lines with style, grace and a few tricks. This season sees snowboard legend Jeremy Jones roll through, chaperoning his son at the mountain’s junior freeride competition.