Soul of Skiing: Community Ski Hills

Summer Hess

At Echo Valley Ski Hill, the lessons start in the parking lot—at least they did last January when I drove 10 miles north from Chelan to visit the hill, which tops out at 3,000 feet and peers over the shimmering lake and snow-dappled forests. 

As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw a young father clutching his squirming toddler. Mom slid a few feet down a gentle slope to demonstrate the art of skiing while the child surveyed the situation with a stern and confused look. A hot chocolate was almost certainly in the child’s future. Good thing a kid’s size one only costs $1 at Terri’s Treats, Echo Valley’s lodge and eatery with a roaring fireplace and ski-hill classics like homemade chili smothered with a generous helping of melted cheese.  

As I clicked into my skis, I chatted with another parent who sipped a steaming cup of coffee outside the lodge. From his stance he could see most of the hill and watched one of his elementary-aged kids pizza furiously down the slope. This father and Echo Valley regular says, “It works out good. We stay here in the morning then head to basketball practice later. This is only 10 minutes from the house.” 

Its motto, “Where Chelan learns to ski,” is modest compared to modern resort marketing standards, and Echo Valley clearly accomplishes its goal. I was surrounded by squeaky little voices chirping, giggling, and occasionally crying after plunging face first into the snow during a failed rope tow dismount.  

One of three rope tows dragged me a few hundred feet upward too. I could have descended here or traversed over to the poma, which ascends to the ski hill’s highpoint. After choosing to traverse and ascend, I watched a group of college-age students cruise down the hill, playfully hooting and hollering like it was a powder day in the North Cascades rather than a slushy day on the modest slopes of Echo. The snowboarder’s parents live in Chelan, and he brought his friends along to escape the West-side rain. They take photos, catch tiny airs, and lounge at the top to gaze over the quiet, snow-capped wilderness.  

Echo Valley feels like one of the best parts of America’s past magically transported into the present, like vintage merry-go-rounds in public parks or restored Wonder Bread ads painted on 19th century brick buildings. It evokes an era when people said hello to strangers as they passed on the sidewalk, and when volunteerism was deeply integrated into civic life. 

Keith Carpenter, a former and long-time ski club president at Echo Valley and a still-active board member would a agree that it’s a special place, but he knows the secret behind the magic: an all-hands-on-deck level of community collaboration and stubborn faith in what’s good for the town. He’s seen dozens of ski hills shut down over the years and was around to make sure Echo Valley wasn’t one of them. 

Snowboarder coming down a run at Echo Valley Ski Hill in Chelan, WA.
Echo Valley Ski Hill // Photo: Brady Mickelson

“A lot of them [community ski hills] were lost to a big insurance run up in the 70s. It came about because of free style or hotdog skiing and people were doing things like inverted aerials, back flips, and those kinds of things. A lot of spinal injuries resulted in really high settlements against insurance companies.” 

Carpenter estimates that half the ski areas in America went under in the 70s and 80s. Today, there’s fewer than 20 ski hills and resorts in the state of Washington.  A glance at a Wiki called “Lost Ski Areas of WASHINGTON” shows that, at one time, there were at least 48. In fact, Echo Valley’s equipment was sourced from other defunct ski hills. The poma came from Squilchuck, which used to operate just down the road from Mission Ridge near Wenatchee.  

The same spirit of volunteerism that gives us Girl Scouts and Rotary Clubs is what launched and helps preserve Echo Valley. The hill was born in the early 1950s when the Peterson family created a rope tow out of their tractor and pulled kids and friends up a hill in their orchard.  

A few years later, the founders migrated to a better hill and formed the Lake Chelan Ski Club in 1955. In 2004 the ski hill became an official Lion’s Club activity, providing access to a deep well of volunteers and an affordable insurance policy. The Lion’s Club also benefited as new community members joined the club out of a desire to be involved in the ski hill. 

I only needed a few runs that morning to get my fix of cold and speed for the day, and I left about the same time dad drove his kids to basketball practice. I dropped elevation and carefully cruised down Cooper Gulch Road toward Manson for Winterfest. The dose of comradery and sunshine put me in the spirit to eat, drink, and be merry.

Learn about “Lost Ski Hills of North Central Idaho.

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