When people talk about 49, they often use words like “family friendly” or “laid back.” I know what they mean, but those descriptions don’t quite get at the character – the feel and vibe – that permeates the place. It may be difficult to define, but you can experience the essence of that character on a sun blasted day speeding down Silver Ridge with friends, strangers, kids, and couples all smiling and the high energy punctuated by the ring of a ski pole smacking the bell – those moments, when the mountain has the feel of a neighborhood block party where everyone’s come out to play in the snow together, are frequent.
Some of that character that defines 49 is visible in the fresh tracks laid down in the acres of glades that seem to grow their own powder, and you can hear it in the hoots of joy echoing through the trees. At the end of the day, you can taste a bit of the distilled spirit of 49 and hear it in the bright-eyed laughter in the Boomtown Bar, where it often seems as if everybody really does know everyone else’s name.
This authentic, community ski hill feel has persisted even as 49 has grown up to be the second largest ski resort in Washington. And that’s no accident. Long before it became the resort we know and ski today, early skiers on the mountain carved the first runs out of the woods by hand with volunteer labor in the mid-thirties. They organized the Chewelah Peak Ski Club, constructed a warming hut, and built the first “lift” out of a Dodge car engine that kept volunteers busy hauling cans of gas up the mountain. It was an all-out community effort that sparked a unique synergy between the ski hill and the local community in Chewelah, and it propelled the once small ski hill down the track that has helped it succeed and grow even as the local community and ski industry have changed around it.
Improvements over the years, including the expansion into Sunrise Basin in 2006 and Angel Peak in 2012, which added two new lifts and hundreds of acres, have boosted 49’s stats: 6 chairlifts, 2,325 acres, 1,851 vertical, and a 301” average annual snowfall. Along the way, with new owners and new generations of skiers and riders making the mountain their own, 49 has managed to expand and evolve while still holding onto the grassroots community spirit it was founded on. This is rare and notable and is something people pick up on and revel in once they’ve put in enough turns and time on the mountain.
Gary Deaver, 49’s Ski Patrol and Mountain Operations Manager, is a long-time local with 31 years of working the slopes under his belt. He knows the mountain and the ski area operations inside and out and has watched 49 develop a bit of a reputation for its expansive gladed terrain. “Over the last several seasons, I have found that people are so enamored with our tree skiing that on a powder day everybody makes a run then heads for the trees before the open stuff is really skied up.” Gary notes that well-spaced resort tree skiing like this doesn’t happen on its own. “From one side of the mountain to the other, whenever we develop a new basin or area, serious thought has gone into the glading of the trees alongside the groomed runs,” he says.
From the glades to the groomers, 49 is a skier’s mountain. The regulars who drive up from Spokane and the locals who head up to the hill from their homes in the valleys have a palpable passion for skiing. It’s obvious in the energy on a powder day, but it’s also evident in the locals who show up to ski whatever ma nature throws down, from dust to crust, boilerplate to blower, from opening day to the end of the season.
Deaver embodies that be here now, ski here now attitude that seems to be the reigning philosophy of many dedicated 49 locals: “If you can’t find pleasure in the skiing that you have in front of you on that day, and sometimes it can be hard to do, then you probably best be finding something else to do. I know that sounds trite, but a bad day of skiing still trumps a good day doing almost anything else. I have skied since I was 6 years old and still don’t find it boring. Every day is different.”
Yes 49 is a family friendly resort, and yes it has a unique, small ski hill charm that is real, tangible, and rooted in history. It has long, smooth groomers for cruising; is susceptible to regular Selkirk Mountain powder dumps; and offers up some of the best tree skiing around. But the full spirit of 49, something greater than the sum of these characteristics that keeps skiers coming back year after year, remains difficult to explain or define. Longtime locals like Deaver know that they have something special beneath their boots, and they have watched some of the mountain’s magic rub off on generations of the growing 49 Degrees North family. “The one thing that they would all have in common is that intangible thing that made them a ‘49er’. We still struggle to this day to define what makes a ‘49er’; however, everybody who has been here for a while knows it exists. They just can’t define it, and I don’t think that it is up to me to try.”