Schweitzer’s first 50 years
From the Winter 2014 Issue
‘The biggest thing to ever happen’
Skiing is about personal relationships with topography. The longer the relationship lasts, the more a skier knows about topography. The topography can’t really know a skier, but it can be “adjusted,” if you will, to meet the skier’s desire.
Let’s say “enhanced,” even though the word has a connotation of improvement, and before the bull-wheel on Chair 1 cranked once five decades ago, Schweitzer Basin was a great place to ski. Fifty years of enhancements, though, have made the skiing better, more accessible. And a lot safer.
Here’s the legend: Dentist Jack Fowler, son Tom and architect Grant Groesbeck, all of Spokane, backpacked into the basin – in ski boots – and skied in the South Bowl on Memorial Day 1960. Their dream of a shack and a Chevy-powered rope tow, Fowler admits in “Looking Back on Schweitzer,” got out of hand. But, it began a relationship between mountain and people that’s lasted ever since between the Fowlers and a thousand other families and individuals and what is now Schweitzer Mountain Resort.
These relationships are multigenerational. Parents, children, grandchildren and, now, great grandchildren have ties to the big, glaciated granite bowl where Fowler and Groesbeck played 53 years ago, and to the next bowl to the north, dubbed variously as the North Bowl, Colburn Basin, the Outback Bowl or simply “the backside.”
Names: The quick and the dead are sifted together here. Sam Wormington. Bob Cox. Shirley Hammacker. Bud Moon. Brownie Ballison. Wayne Parenteau. The Pucci family. The Helen Thompson family. The Ross Hall family. Jim and Jean Brown. Dr. Merritt Stiles. Bobbie and Pierre Huguenin. Werner Beck. Al Voltz. Jim and Margaret Toomey. Terry Merwin. Jim Parsons Sr. and Jr. Bill Haskins. Scotty Castle. Bob and Linda Aavedal. Floyd Gray. Bill Ballard. Bud Palmer. Russ Oliver. The Baysinger Family, all 11 of them. A first wave, completely incomplete – thousands more are unlisted.
Dec. 4, 1963, was a formative day for a new generation living in Sandpoint. Dann Hall and dozens of other local kids were there the day Schweitzer Basin opened.
Manager Sam Wormington made lessons for kids free and boots, poles and skis $1 a day, but that didn’t make things easy.
“I’d only skied a few times,” Hall said. “I went to Midway anyway. It took me two hours to get down.”
Chris Thompson had a similar experience: “I skied to where NASTAR is now and then crashed and burned all the way down.”
Hall, Thompson, Gary Johnson and Doug Abromeit went to work in Jim Parsons Jr.’s ski rental shop in the day lodge. “Johnson dragged me all over Sandpoint looking for Jim,” Thompson said. “We found him at Rogers’ Thrift (where Winter Ridge Natural Foods is now), and Jim hired me.” For Thompson, a ski coach and adviser to Schweitzer Alpine Racing School, this was a life changer.
“The Canadian National Team accepted Sam’s invitation to train at Schweitzer that first season,” he said. “They took us under their wing, and we learned to ski.”
“That season was a line of demarcation for Sandpoint kids,” Hall said. “Those older than us didn’t learn to ski and didn’t come back as often as we who did. Schweitzer was the biggest thing to ever happen to quality of life in Sandpoint.”
Since those initial runs on mushy snow in May 1960, thousands of skiers have come over “the pass,” as Jack Fowler called the present-day roundabout, in anticipation of continuing – or beginning – a relationship with that ridge rising into view.
Melissa Compton’s first encounter was a trip from Montana in 1991 with Trout Creek Elementary School. “I struggled down the bunny hill once, zoomed down it a second time, and then a friend took me to No Joke. I have no idea how I survived that run,” she said. After that she could never sleep on a night before skiing. “It was like Christmas Eve.”
Compton’s first run terminated at the bottom of Chair 2. Many have traveled up slope by other means, to slide – in a controlled manner, it was hoped – back to the bottom. Fowler, Groesbeck, et al, in the initial days of promotion, rode in “Old Yellow,” a military “Weasel” converted to use in Bud Moon’s yard by committee. This tracked vehicle was capable of over-snow travel – and getting miserably stuck.
Later – over the course of a dozen years – came Chair 1 in 1963; Chairs 2, 3 and 4 in 1967; Chairs 5 and 6 in 1971; and Chair 7 in 1974, all double Riblets. A continually moving clutch of T-bars – four in all – populated at various times the Caboose region at the end of The Great Divide; a line from Stiles Saddle to the top of Schweitzer Peak, the Great Escape unload; a line between No Joke and Revenge; another obscured line just west of that; the bottom of the eastern South Bowl chutes; and what’s now Musical Chairs.
“It didn’t cost a lot,” Thompson said, “and Sam was always experimenting with new alignments. When Browns took over, that stopped.”
Thompson, Jim Olson, Alpine Shop founder Bob Aavedal, former patroller Bill Currie, and a host of other Schweitzer regulars surveyed many of the chair and T-bar alignments and also designed the runs. John Pucci, patrol head in winter for most of five decades, poured cement in summer. “Paul Norum (former ski school director) designed Kaniksu when 6 finally moved to the top of the mountain,” Thompson said.
Of seven chairs installed by Wormington, remaining are Chair 2, moved in 1990 from its original location near the South Bowl chutes to replace the beginner’s T-bar and still doing business as Musical Chairs; Chair 4, d/b/a Sunnyside; and Chair 6, also known, though not quite as well, as Snow Ghost. Chair 4 stands where it was built. Chair 6, which once boasted “a view of the best skiing you can’t get to,” unloaded at the bottom of Siberia, before being moved in 1987-88 to access that same skiing. Some hate it for its 13-minute ride. The rest will cry when they pull the towers down, just as when Chair 1 was dismantled in 2007 to make way for the Basin Express quad and Lakeview Triple.
For those beginning a relationship with the mountain, though, the demise of Chair 1 – and its daunting Midway unload – was a blessing. “We were missing a big segment of the market: the low-end skier,” said Schweitzer CEO and President Tom Chasse. “They’d have an initial good experience, but we’d lose them. Folks would learn to ski on Chair 2, think they were doing pretty well, and then have to hike up to the Chair 1 load and try to survive Midway.”
Nobody cried when Stella replaced Chair 5 and its 16-minute ride on the backside. Stella, a detachable, six-person chair, opened in January 2001 with a theme-park entrance designed by former Disney “Imagineer” Geoff Puckett. The lifting power of Stella greatly enhanced – there’s that word again – the family-friendly terrain it serves and takes skiers to the top in 5.5 minutes.
The dedication of Stella was visited by “Phineas Schweitzer,” fictional nephew of the man the basin is named for. Schweitzer wasn’t his name but a moniker stuck on him by neighbors. He was a Swiss recluse living near the basin who paid too much attention to Ella Mae Farmin, one of Sandpoint’s founding mothers. For this and his propensity for roasting cats, he spent his last days in an asylum.
Between the installation of Chair 1 and the present, Schweitzer has reinvented itself several times. It began as a community-owned resort, after kids saved quarters, dimes and nickels to buy a single $10 share. Then, in 1983, Jim Brown and Pack River Management Company bought all outstanding stock at $15 a share. Pack River had been loaning money to Schweitzer for all of its existence and used that debt, plus ownership of more than 50 percent of the ski area’s land base, as leverage to acquire the resort.
Brandon Moon has skied Schweitzer since 1972 and worked as a patroller for 10 years. He thinks one important event at Schweitzer was the purchase of real groomers by Pack River. “Wayne Parenteau built two homemade ‘groomers’ that towed behind Thiokols,” he said. “One was a piece of corrugated culvert – for creating ‘corduroy’ – and the other was a ‘deep powder groomer,’ a tube made of expanded metal that produced spectacular ‘chicken heads.’ ”
Under the Browns, the heady 1990-91 season began a 10-year expansion plan with a detachable Yan quad, the 80-room Green Gables Hotel and massive Headquarters day-lodge. (The original Groesbeck-designed lodge was so well put together, they had to burn it rather than tear it down.) The focus was on building a destination resort, with an eye toward real estate development.
The best-laid plans …
Jim Brown died in 1989, just as the 10-year plan was going into action. Development depended on real estate sales that didn’t come about. In 1995, a disaster at Whistler bankrupted the company that built Yan lifts and demanded the rebuild of Schweitzer’s Great Escape Quad. Exit several million dollars. This seemed like the final straw.
By 1997, Schweitzer was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. New Year’s Eve 1998, Harbor Properties, a Seattle firm with ski areas in Washington state, purchased the assets.
Harbor installed Stella in the 2000-01 season and the Idyle Our T-bar in 2005 – opening hundreds of new acres to lift-assisted skiing – and created extensive new glade skiing, earning the resort high marks in several national publications. In 2006, though, it relinquished its interest in Schweitzer to the McCaw family trust, which hired Chasse and launched the current era at Schweitzer.
Tom Chasse loves his job, and Schweitzer benefits from that relationship. On any given Sunday, you might find him helping in the “corral” that defines the ticket line. What does he think is the biggest change implemented at Schweitzer since he arrived? He laughed and said, “We try to underpromise and overdeliver.”
Schweitzer in the McCaw era has also introduced high-angle grooming, more extensive pre-opening Ski Patrol work and functional snow-making – something that fell off the table during the 10-year plan. And there are the “little things.”
“One of the most important things recently,” Moon said, “is all that’s been done that nobody sees, the infrastructure that sometimes got ignored in the past.”
Hall and Thompson, who both opened December 1963 by falling down Midway, are still in a relationship with that same topography. “I bought new skis this year,” Hall said, “and I took a lesson.” After skiing all over the world, he thought it was time to get out of that feet-together style he learned in 1963 from the Canadian Ski Team.
Thompson returned to Schweitzer in 1989 after working 25 years at other resorts. “I’ll never quit,” he said. He loves the sport and he loves the place where he learned.
“The biggest historical event I’ve seen at Schweitzer – and the hardest – was the bankruptcy, what it did to the Brown family and what it did to the community,” Thompson said.
But his relationship has survived and so has the community’s and that of thousands of others who love Schweitzer and learn more about its terrain with each visit, each ride to the top of a mountain, and each glide – or stutter step – back to the bottom. It’s still about the same thing, that personal relationship with topography, and also still about what Dann Hall said of that day in December of 1963: “the biggest thing to ever happen to quality of life in Sandpoint.”
What could the next 20 years hold for Schweitzer?
Fast forward 10 years. Arrive at the paved Red Barn parking lot, order a coffee inside the base lodge and browse the gift shop while you wait for a shuttle to Schweitzer Village. Disembark at the top and gaze up at the new 100-room hotel and conference center as you walk toward the Great Escape Quad for the first run of the day. Getting off the chairlift, check lunch specials at the restaurant at the top of the quad on your way to Lakeview Chutes. Head down to the chairlift that replaced the upper section of Snow Ghost and ride it to the top of Kaniksu. It’s such a good powder day, you head to the new lift that goes to the top of Little Blue. When it’s time for a mid-morning break, you ski to the bottom and enter the newly remodeled, expanded Outback Inn for hot chocolate with two scoops of miniature marshmallows.
Heard enough already?
Fast forward 20 years. You’re at Priest Lake for a long weekend and it dumps overnight. You head to the chairlift that whisks you up the west side of Schweitzer and into the mountain’s newest terrain, thousands of acres facing Priest Lake. That afternoon you head to the Outback Bowl and take the new lift to the top of Big Blue and more new terrain. Later, you stop for lunch at the restaurant just west of the top of Stella.
President and CEO Tom Chasse, 57, who took Schweitzer’s helm in 2006, hopes to oversee the first phase of Outback Bowl improvements in his tenure.
“Our vision is to take Chair 6 and replace it with two lifts,” said Chasse. “We might go from the Outback to where the mid-station is on Chair 6 now. We don’t want to lose access to the mid-station because that provides access to some blue terrain.”
Further improvements could be a lift from somewhere in the North Bowl to the top of Little Blue.
“It might be a fixed-rib double, but it would service Siberia, Wayne’s Woods – all that terrain that’s in there,” Chasse said. “Obviously as we do lift upgrades in the North Bowl, we need to enhance the Outback Inn, so there would be an addition or remodel of the Outback.”
The next five years could see improvements on the top of the Great Escape Quad in the form of a restaurant that would even stay open for dinner, while also providing amenities for skiing guests and weddings.
As for the village, besides an addition to the White Pine Lodge, Schweitzer may build a hotel and conference center, ideally offering 10,000 square feet of conference space.
“That would be a huge win for the whole community,” Chasse said.
If the hotel and conference center comes to fruition, the displaced parking would be made up by the addition of a multi-level parking garage tied into the Lakeview Lodge.
Beyond infrastructure and amenities, what Chasse would really like to see become reality is a school program. At a time when the ski industry is stagnant and its base population is aging, Chasse wants to combat that trend. He would like to see Schweitzer offer free skiing for elementary school children after school on Wednesdays – otherwise known as early release day – and keep lifts running until 6 p.m. especially for them. Now that’s visionary.
–Billie Jean Gerke
How Schweitzer changed my life…
Arlene Cook, 52
Schweitzer Ski Patrol Director
I ’ve worked at Schweitzer most of my life, since 1980. Schweitzer’s gone through a lot of changes and so have I in that time. I didn’t realize I would make a career out of it, but it’s a pretty fun place to work and have that be my office. It’s a lifestyle. The mountain attracts people who are fun, outgoing and work really well together. You develop a really tight bond with everybody you work with. I started as a lift operator the first year, but all I wanted to do was ski. I started part-time on Ski Patrol in 1981. The next year, I was on Ski Patrol full-time and served as the assistant director under John Pucci for 17 years. Two seasons ago, when John retired, I applied for patrol director and got it.
I met my husband, Ted, through one of the guys I was a lift operator with. We got married young, at age 23, and we have worked together at Schweitzer since then. We took an EMT class together and eventually both got on Ski Patrol. We work really well together. We’re lucky that way. We have long days. We’re the first ones on the mountain and the last ones off.
Before the mountain added mountain biking, I used to work for the Forest Service in summer working in timber stand improvement. Then I blew my knee out skiing on Valentine’s Day 2006 and couldn’t work for the Forest Service that summer. That’s when Schweitzer invited me to work on mountain bike patrol. Summer operations have been growing and growing since then.
Working at Schweitzer has allowed me to stay in my hometown. I feel very fortunate that I was born and raised here. I pretty much work year-round at Schweitzer now, and it allows me to stay fit. I feel very lucky to be able to do it.
Dan Nylund, 35
Schweitzer freestyle terrain manager and Summer Slopes crew member
Over the past 30 years, Schweitzer hasn’t changed my life so much as it has shaped virtually every aspect of it in one way or another. It’s amazing what you can learn in a lifetime spent with ski bums.
Growing up on the mountain was kind of like having a 600-person family, and the feeling remains to this day. Faces change, people come and go, but the beginning of each season feels like a family reunion with a few hundred long-lost cousins showing up.
Schweitzer has been my home for 29 of my 35 years. It’s provided me with a livelihood, an identity and a passion. I’ve made lifelong friends and met my wife at the mountain. And although working in the ski industry has required some sacrifices over the years, the lifestyle is something I wouldn’t trade for anything. I get to snowboard 100 plus days a season, work with my best friends and live in paradise.
Growing up, I spent weekends living out of a camper and snowboarding 13 hours a day. It shaped who I am. Today I manage Schweitzer’s terrain parks in the winter and work on the Summer Slopes crew in the summer. I’m going into my 20th season working at the mountain, and I’m proud to be a part of Schweitzer’s success. I feel very lucky to have grown up with a 3,000-acre backyard, and I’m happy to continue to call this place home.
Matt Gillis, 29
Owner of Make a Difference (MAD) Screen Printing
My first trip to Sandpoint and Schweitzer Mountain was when I was just a little kid coming here for ski racing. I remember crossing the Long Bridge, seeing this beautiful lake and ski resort and thinking to myself, This place is amazing! Six years later when I moved here, it was déjà vu when we drove across the Long Bridge. I instantly felt at home.
Schweitzer brought me to this area as my dad, Peter Gillis, was hired by Harbor Properties as the general manager. We lived right on the mountain. Having a family involved with ski area management had always allowed me to live dangerously close to great skiing, but growing up in Sandpoint and so close to Schweitzer was unlike anywhere else. My life was centered around the mountain – coaching the Freeride Team, involving myself in the growth of the terrain park, racing with SARS. Now my newest passion is skiing in the backcountry.
Schweitzer has facilitated everything in my ski life, ranging from Bob Legasa and the Yoke’s Outrageous Air Shows since I was 14, and now paying it forward with 24 Hours for Hank fundraising events. It has been a great outlet for me to give back using my skiing abilities to raise just under $100,000 for cystinosis research in its first five years with support from the Sandpoint community and Schweitzer Mountain.
I met my wife in college. Her family had made a yearly trip to Schweitzer. She was thrilled to come back and call Schweitzer her hometown mountain. Shan and I make it a routine to have our ski days together. Our baby girl, Avalon, turns 1 in December, and I would love to have her on skis for her birthday.
What Sandpoint has to offer is simply and truly unmatchable!
Schweitzer Mountain Facts 2013-14
- Acreage: 2,900, 92 designated runs, two open bowls, 1,400+ acres of tree skiing, three terrain parks, and 32 kilometers of Nordic trails
- Terrain: 10% Beginner, 40% Intermediate, 35% Advanced, 15% Expert
- Longest Run: Little Blue Ridge Run, 2.1 miles
- Vertical Drop: 2,400 feet
- Top Elevation: 6,400 feet. Lowest Elevation: 4,000 feet
- Average Annual Snowfall: 300 inches
- Lifts: 9 total – Three high-speed chairs, the six-pack Stella, quads Great Escape and Basin Express; one triple, Lakeview; three double chairlifts; Idyle Our T-bar; and a beginner’s Musical Carpet
- Total Uphill Capacity: 12,500 per hour
- Hours of Operation: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Twilight Skiing: Fridays, Saturdays and holidays from Dec. 26, 2013, through March 1, 2014, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
- Season: Late November or early December 2013 to April 2014, subject to conditions
- Lift Tickets: Adult $71; junior 7-17, $50; children 6 and under, free with adult; college, military or seniors 65 and over, $61. Beginner’s chair only, $25. Musical Carpet only, free. Night rates, $15 all ages. Cross-country, $12 adult, $10 junior or senior. Snowshoe, $6.
- Tubing: $15 or $10 for children 6 and under. Zip Line: $12
- Website: www.schweitzer.com
- Phone: 263-9555, 877-487-4643. Activity Center: 255-3081