Where Washington’s Highway 12 crests at 4,500 feet, a small ski area rises 2,000 feet from the side of the two-lane road. Its name—White Pass—derives from the pass on which it sits, where the Pacific Crest Trail rambles through tall fir trees and sweeping views of Mt. Rainier’s rugged southeastern flanks abound.
The terrain is typical of the Cascades at that elevation—short pitches, tight glades, plenty of creative below-tree line skiing. The most technical skiing on offer is either through steep trees or on bump runs with names like Execution, Paradise Cliff, Hourglass. The majority of the original mountain is north-facing. The base lodge is wonderfully old-school—it hasn’t been updated as long as I’ve been alive. In the small loft bar upstairs, there always seems to be a Washington football game on: the Huskies (if we’re lucky), the Cougars (if we’re not), or the Seahawks, breaking hearts and making dreams come true, in turn, as sports teams do. The crowd is raucous, friendly, punctuated with old-timers in jeans and hiking boots who come up here with no intention of skiing. They used to serve pitchers—that they don’t now is one of the few things that’s changed.
I’ve been skiing White Pass since I was big enough for ski boots, the age when you can hardly bend your knees, the stiff plastic comes up so high. My entire childhood on skis—save for the odd day at Crystal Mountain, or soggy weekday lessons with Snoqualmie’s Powder Pigs—happened here, in the roller coaster, jump-filled tree runs perfect for short skis and rubbery bodies, in the soggy lodge with gooey rice krispie treats and never enough tables for all the guests, on the precarious two-seater built in 1962 that only runs on sunny, still days.
My parents thankfully still live nearby, and the small cedar cabin on the banks of the Cowlitz River that my family built in the early 1990s hasn’t been washed away by ever-increasing flooding just yet. (I’m kidding, sort of. The river grows more unruly every year.) It’s just outside of Packwood, Washington—a logging town of 1,300 that hangs in limbo between resource extraction and the possibility of an outdoor tourism-based economy. It’s the last stop, if you’re coming from the west, on your way to White Pass.
Things have changed since I was young, of course. A new burger place opened in town. 760 new acres of terrain opened—doubling White Pass’s size—in Paradise Basin, which used to be a haven for low-angle backcountry turns but now offers beginners a much wider range of approachable terrain. The White Pass of my childhood didn’t offer much by way of green runs. To be honest, compared to someplace like Alta, or Jackson Hole, or Big Sky, White Pass doesn’t offer much by way of terrain, period. It’s small, low-elevation, not infrequently plagued by warm temperatures (though with no shortage of precipitation). The skiers trend toward the beginner side of the spectrum, the not-sure-how-a-lift-line-works side. There’s nothing shiny or new about it, and—I’m sure you understand by now—that’s exactly why it’s the best place to ski.
I had a beer with my dad this year after a sleeper powder day, a few days before Christmas. Old ski films looped on the bar TV: ski ballet, aerial sequences from the days before skiers started going for grabs, kids in jeans and sweater vests falling over themselves as they got off the chairlift, a fluffy-haired liftie frantically lifting them up and sliding them out of the way.
Of course, an afternoon beer on an empty stomach after five hours of deep turns and breathless chair rides can do funny things to the brain. So can trippy old ski films. But I felt totally overwhelmed by the goodness and the fullness of it all: that skiing is enough. This strange little sport supports thousands of lives, from the gear designer to the liftie in Pit Vipers who has worked the quad since I can remember. It still inspires kids from out east to drop everything and head west. It’s a culture, one with (admittedly questionable) style, ludicrous drinking habits, and a well-documented history.
I don’t think waist-deep snow, steep couloirs, and perfectly cut terrain parks are what make skiing enough, either. It’s the whole damn thing: it’s coming back to the same lunch table I use to sit at to pout about my ski boots and cold hands, to the same steep bumps I fell down, ass first, then skidded down, tearful, then eventually learned to ski. It’s skiing on New Year’s Day with the same people—my brothers, my cousin, my aunt—whom I’ve skied with since I was tiny. It’s the opportunity to build your own culture, your own traditions and history, around something that, in the grand scheme of things, feels maybe insignificant, maybe a little hedonistic. It’s knowing that this unfussy ski hill in a quiet corner of Washington can remain, in spirit, unchanged, and huge crowds of Washington skiers come out for all of it—not just the snow.
If you find yourself out on Highway 12 on a cold winter day, drop in. Lift tickets are cheap, by industry standards. Take the quad to the top of Pigtail Peak and—if you’re lucky enough to catch a clear day—take a minute to check out the view. Rainier’s just 20 miles away, as the crow flies. Ski the trees. Talk to the old patrollers. Get a rice krispie treat with lunch.