An Ode to the Home Ski Hill

A love letter to the places where skiing is enough.


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.

 

Showing 8 comments
  • Amy
    Reply

    This is my go-to hill that I visit with my family each year. I love that you wrote about it…but also hope it stays low-key. It’s such a hidden gem–great snow, unfussy people, down home goodness right down to the rice crispy treats. One thing that readers might find interesting is the child care room. It’s cheap, lovely care, and can cover all day. Yep. ALL DAY. For kids up to I think age 6. And there’s decent lodging across the street, which you’ll appreciate because it’s a bit long for a day trip.

  • Vic
    Reply

    Heck, I remember skiing in old hand me down skis, too big boots stuffed with newspaper, and spending all day on the rope tows. Washington state has some great ski areas.

  • Robert
    Reply

    Well Said. I am a transplant from the East coast who now calls Yakima and White Pass home. It’s everything you could ever want for a local mountain and now that we have a little eight month old daughter running around the lodge. That Friday and Saturday before Christmas this year was awesome, and we too noticed the lack of pitchers this year! Cheers 🙂

  • Jesse
    Reply

    Thank you, Abbie.

    I’m sitting here trying to get psyched up enough to get my gear together for the first day of lessons…at Powderpigs! The forecast calls for, well if you’re still local you know what it calls for at the Summit on most days. I taught for pigs all through high school and into college, then left them and the sport of skiing itself for nearly a decade. When I decided to return, I did so with my whole self – right back to the Summit and the pig family.

    It just felt right.

    Anyway, thank you for the morning inspiration I was searching for. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a group of probably already soggy pigs waiting for me.

  • MK
    Reply

    Elk Mountain PA…

  • Luke
    Reply

    Tyrol Basin, Wisconsin and currently Buck Hill, Minnesota.
    I’ve been to Colorado more times than I can count, Jackson Hole, Telluride, Baldface, Mount Hood, I’ve done heli in BC, but I can still have fun on a 200′ bump in the midwest.
    Yay!

  • Greg H
    Reply

    Most of us did not grow up skiing Corporate. We grew up skiing the small family owned mountains (or hills) that were not intimidating but rather intimate. They groomed only the terrain for the lower ability skiers and left the rest for us to play on. Corduroy was a pant and not a groomed surface. I lament how many small ski areas are now long gone. Over the past 36 years I have worked at family owned and large Corporate ski areas. I have enjoyed my time at both, but a this point of my life I am most happy at a small family ski area (Black Mountain- Jackson, NH) where it all about the skiing. I love knowing all my co-workers and recognizing most of the season pass holders. These small family ski areas are not just ski hills, but they are small communities where parents know there are others who have a watchful eye on their children as they explore and have fun unsupervised. There are the Farm to Table and Localvore Movements that are meant to have people connect with their local resources and support local agriculture. I propose a “Home to Hill Movement”, where you ski close to home or in your backyard. When was the last time you used a surface lift (rope tow or Poma lift) or climbed a neighborhood hill to make turns? These small ski areas can provide these basic experiences. Go explore and have fun!

  • Heather Powell
    Reply

    That was just perfect. Thanks for sharing in such a vivid way. Loved the memories.

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