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News / Northwest

With a racer’s discipline, new GM turns a corner at Stevens Pass

By Gregory Scruggs, The Seattle Times
Published: February 12, 2023, 7:32am
3 Photos
General Manager Ellen Galbraith looks up at the Tye Mill chair lift on a chilly morning at Stevens Pass on Dec. 22, 2022, in Skykomish, Washington.
General Manager Ellen Galbraith looks up at the Tye Mill chair lift on a chilly morning at Stevens Pass on Dec. 22, 2022, in Skykomish, Washington. (Jennifer Buchanan/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

STEVENS PASS — Sun peeked over the mountains at Stevens Pass Ski Area three days before Christmas. But the bluebird day was a false omen. Despite a string of cold weather and abundant snowfall, general manager Ellen Galbraith had a decision to make: Should she cancel Christmas Eve night skiing?

As Galbraith made morning rounds, she consulted with her weather forecasters, who predicted incoming rain, and the ticket office, which confirmed slow sales for the holiday eve. Marching with a general’s pace around the base area, she scouted traffic along Highway 2, inspected bathroom cleanliness and brushed snow off a sandwich board sign. Galbraith, a certified professional organizer, has a fastidious attention to detail. She decided to nix Christmas Eve night skiing.

The former downhill ski racer was born and raised in Alaska, but has deep Evergreen State roots as a University of Washington alumna and former Alpental ski coach. She climbed the ranks at Vail Resorts, which bought Stevens Pass in 2018, and took this job as a homecoming opportunity.

Galbraith, 42, was brought in to help right the ship last season under interim general manager Tom Fortune as Stevens Pass struggled to operate at full capacity, with staff shortages leading to long lines, closed terrain and irate season pass holders. In May, Galbraith became general manager, and by all accounts the guest experience has improved dramatically since its nadir one year ago. For longtime Stevens Pass regulars, their home mountain feels back to normal, with all 10 chairlifts spinning and ski runs open every day, conditions permitting, and lodges fully open for business. And more promised capital upgrades from deep-pocketed Vail are on the way.

“Those memories from last year are still very front of mind,” said Galbraith, from her office overlooking the mountain, where a David Horsey cartoon featuring the abominable snowman lampooning the Stevens Pass debacle is tacked above her desk next to a quote from Gen. George S. Patton.

Midway through Stevens Pass’ 85th season, Galbraith is looking to bury the storied ski area’s low point deep under the snowpack while starting to turn her attention to long-simmering issues like transportation, parking, employee housing and wages.

To keep Stevens Pass running as tight as a slalom racer, she brings the military precision and discipline of her past sport.

“When you’re training, it’s about continuous improvement,” she said. “How did I do today? How do I do better tomorrow?”

At a ski area more known for deep powder days than racing prowess, however, she softens her coach’s demeanor. “I’ve always valued hard work,” Galbraith said. “But fun is supposed to be part of it, too.”

Racer’s edge

Galbraith owes her ski industry career to a Costco parking lot.

She started on the Alyeska Ski Team in Girdwood, Alaska, and by age 15 Galbraith moved across the country to attend Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, alma mater of Olympic medalist skiers like Mikaela Shiffrin. Galbraith eventually reached the U.S. Ski Team development pool but never made the cut.

Enrolling at UW in 1999 to study philosophy marked a shift in her life.

“Ski racing had dictated every decision in my life up to that point,” Galbraith said.

She walked onto the Husky crew team as a freshman, following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather. But, while shopping for her grandmother in Shoreline, a chance encounter with a former Alyeska coach brought Galbraith from sea level to ski level when he asked her to help coach Team Alpental-Snoqualmie.

“I had a lot more fun with my kids on a Sunday coaching skiing than I did the rest of the week,” Galbraith said. “I missed snow. You come alive in the mountains.”

As the former racer turned coach, the 2002 Winter Olympics came to Salt Lake City. Galbraith took a leave of absence from UW to work on the downhill race crew that transformed a resort ski run into a meticulously groomed racecourse replete with starting and finish lines as well as safety nets and pads. The experience left a lasting impression. Upon graduation in 2003, Galbraith took a job in Beaver Creek, Colo., home to the marquee downhill run Birds of Prey.

“I built the rest of my life around working that racecourse for 16 years,” she said.

When Vail and Beaver Creek were awarded the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, a rare U.S. hosting for this Olympic-caliber event, Galbraith landed her dream job as race manager. That role burnished her managerial chops and provided the stability of full-time work.

Galbraith returned to Beaver Creek the next season for a promotion overseeing snow-making, grooming, race crew, terrain parks and summer construction. “Building a racecourse is incredible, but building an entire mountain was awesome,” she said.

The job entailed ride-alongs in heavy grooming equipment like snowcats and winch cats that gave her inside understanding of what makes a ski area tick.

“When you understand how a machine works, you’re in a better position to ask what your guys need,” Galbraith said.

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Homecoming in a crisis

Galbraith left Beaver Creek in 2019 for the top mountain operations job at Northstar, a Vail-owned resort in North Lake Tahoe, California. But after two winters, she returned to Colorado to serve as chief of staff to the president of the mountain division at Vail. That bird’s-eye view of the company’s portfolio of ski areas alerted her to the growing disaster at Stevens Pass last winter. After one particularly alarming meeting, she called her boss.

“My best friend lives in Leavenworth, I have a place to stay,” she told him. “Can I just go?”

Permission granted during an all-hands-on-deck moment, Galbraith leaned on her experience both on the snow and within Vail’s corporate culture.

After arriving in January, Galbraith greased the wheels to expedite internal requests for heavy equipment and called up vendors for much-needed parts. Within days, she joined a shoveling team at the top of Kehr’s Chair — at times on her knees to preserve a bad back — to dislodge the neglected chairlift. Named for the founder of Stevens Pass, the vintage double chair is slated for upgrade to a quad lift by next season.

Other days Galbraith directed traffic in lift lines to speed up loading. “If you can make a line disappear, everyone is going to be happier,” she said. She still spends most Saturday mornings at Stevens doing so-called “maze mastering,” an in-the-trenches commitment that quickly endeared her to the public.

As the ski crisis abated, Galbraith went back to Colorado and maze mastered at Beaver Creek over Presidents Day weekend, when a trio of visiting Washington skiers recognized her. “Are you Ellen from Stevens Pass?” they said.

An idea clicked, one that had been percolating since Vail Resorts bought Whistler Blackcomb in 2016: She could have a professional future back home in the Pacific Northwest. Galbraith applied for GM in March and made a permanent move with her husband, selling their Colorado house and buying in Leavenworth.

“I need stability and this resort needs stability,” she said.

The way forward

While customers signed a Change.org petition to hold Vail Resorts accountable last winter and filed consumer complaints with the state attorney general, Stevens Pass is generally earning higher marks under Galbraith’s tenure.

“After last year’s D-plus effort, I give this year a solid B-plus,” said Will Roberts, of Edmonds, via email. “My family is having fun and we are happy to come to Stevens Pass.”

Opening day on Dec. 2 had the festive atmosphere — a DJ playing tunes, staff doling out hot chocolate, stickers of the ski area’s bluebird logo plastered everywhere — reminiscent of the Stevens Pass of yore. The backside of the mountain opened Dec. 20, correcting a sore spot from last season, when that coveted terrain languished for weeks. With healthy snowfall to start the season, Galbraith put Vail Resorts Senior Vice President Doug Pierini through the paces on the double black diamond runs Bobby and Nancy Chutes when he visited to observe the Stevens Pass turnaround firsthand.

“The dynamic between resort leadership and our senior leaders has only grown, evolved and gotten better after what we all learned last year,” Galbraith said. Deciding to close on Christmas Eve, for example, was her executive decision.

Galbraith has inked new deals to double available employee housing this season along the Highway 2 corridor and Vail Resorts’ March announcement of a $20 per hour minimum wage, followed by an aggressive hiring campaign, has bolstered staffing. But longtime employees warn of an unaddressed squeeze, with new hires making just a few dollars less per hour than their more experienced supervisors with a fraction of the responsibilities.

“Wage compression is helping front-line employees at the cost of our middle management,” said a veteran employee, who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak with media. The employee makes $25 per hour, but has seen their overall compensation decrease since last season because full staffing leaves less available overtime.

“Any time you raise wages there’s going to be compression,” Galbraith said. “We look at every person and ask what’s appropriate. It’s not perfect but it’s a huge win.”

The employee cited 10 colleagues who have switched departments or quit in the last year, taking valuable institutional knowledge with them that can slow basic front-line tasks, like refunding a transaction, directing guests around the mountain and opening the lost-and-found. The employee believes that in some departments as many as three-quarters of staff have never worked at a ski area before.

“More people are new in certain guest-facing roles,” said Galbraith, who pegged the overall new staffing figure at one-third while citing key retentions in areas like lift and vehicle maintenance, ski patrol, and product sales and services. “Managing in crisis mode last year is different than managing with full staff. I’m giving the team the reps to keep doing it day in and day out.”

But in the long term, Galbraith must reconcile with structural challenges.

A parkout on Dec. 10 that led some visitors to park illegally on the Highway 2 shoulder caught Galbraith unaware. “That wasn’t in the front of my mind that weekend,” she said. Crowded peak days at Stevens Pass predate Vail’s ownership, but the popularity of the multiresort Epic Pass has supercharged visitation to Vail-owned ski areas. Westbound traffic on Highway 2 remains a grueling pain point for Seattle-area skiers and snowboarders heading home, especially backups at the notorious traffic light in Sultan.

Across Western Washington, ski areas have adopted strategies to manage overcrowding.

Crystal Mountain recently expanded its parking capacity, now charges for parking on weekends and holidays, and runs a free shuttle bus. The Summit at Snoqualmie requires Ikon Pass holders to make reservations and a private operator resumed bus service to the pass this month. Mt. Baker Ski Area limited the number of season passes for sale this season.

Stevens Pass limits the number of day tickets it sells and hired a traffic consultant to maximize the efficiency of its parking lots, but Galbraith was circumspect about other future plans. “Bigger changes aren’t likely to be rolled out midseason,” she said.

For this former racer and coach, midseason is when you execute on your preseason training.

“You enjoy the winter and then it all melts away in the spring,” Galbraith said. “Then you have all summer to set yourself up better for the next year and do it all again.”

While Stevens Pass is clearly beating the torpid pace it set last winter, the competition means Galbraith will have to fine-tune her operation for many offseasons to come.