The Skiing Life: It’s a Family Affair

49 Degrees North Ski Resort Owner John Eminger and His Family Have Made Skiing Their Shared Passion 

“The thing about skiing as a family activity is you wake up early and you play hard together all day long. And you get home late, and the kids fall asleep in the car. I don’t care if they’re 15 years old – they fall asleep in the car. At the end of your day, you feel like you won,” says John Eminger, owner and CEO of 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort in Chewelah, Wash. For his family, which includes his wife Gina and their 18-year-old son Ben and 16-year-old daughter Sara, alpine skiing has always been a family affair. “We ski with our kids because the return is so huge each time – that unmitigated smile,” he says. “When you can wake up a teenage girl to go skiing, you’re on to something.”

When Eminger took ownership of 49 Degrees North in 1996, he was just 34 years old, Gina was 28 and they had been married only four years. Lots of hard work went into those early years as they expanded and improved the ski mountain. Two years after moving to the base of Chewelah Peak, the Emingers became parents. Their home, in a subdivision on state-leased land, was just a mile from the ski resort. Living in an alpine environment was enriching in itself. For example, because the snow typically didn’t melt at their house until May, Eminger recalls how 1-year-old Ben learned the word “dirt” and was amazed “at how the snow melted and patches of dirt appeared and grew bigger,” says Eminger. “As soon as my kids could walk or stand up, we put them on skis. I remember pulling them around on skis on the front porch and taking them to the lodge before they could ski,” he says.

As for how Eminger and his wife taught their children to ski, he says they first just played with them in the snow. And then they did what most families choose to do. “When it came to riding the chairlift, we put them in lessons, with one day on the rope tow [before riding the chair]. We plugged them right into the system just like everyone else. It’s surprising how fast they learn, and you can go skiing with your kids,” he says. “My kids have been carrying their own skis and boots to the lodge since they could walk. It’s going to be a long walk until they figure it out, but then they become self-reliant kids. By the time Ben and Sara were each 8 years old, they probably had 500 days under their belts – they literally skied every day. I sometimes pondered if I was being a bad parent, because they skied so much.”

While growing up in Spokane – and attending Sacajawea Middle School and Ferris High School (Class of 1979) – Eminger says skiing was a huge thing in his family. “My dad would always buy me a season pass, and I would have to mow lawns to get my skis.” Yet it was only once he became a father that he realized why his dad so readily encouraged skiing. “It’s priceless to have a teenager who dedicates himself to skiing – early to bed Friday and Saturday nights to get up early to ski each weekend morning,” he says.

Ben Eminger sporting new Super G skis. Photo courtesy of John Eminger.
Ben Eminger sporting new Super G skis. Photo courtesy of John Eminger.

When Ben and Sara were younger, Gina was “the ski master” of outfitting them, according to Eminger. “The fascinating thing about ski clothes is that kids don’t wear them out. So there’s this chain of ski clothes that gets passed around. We’d hand down racing skis, and we’d recognize our kids’ old ski gear on other kids,” he says. “Ski swap is to die for, I don’t care who you are.”

As they came of age, both Ben and Sara started working for the resort. Ben works on the chairlifts during the off-season and volunteers as a junior ski patroller, about to start his first season after completing his candidate training last winter. Sara works in the ticket office. “Skiing’s my job, so I almost feel like I take my kids to work with me every day,” says Eminger. “It’s like living on a farm or raising kids on a large ranch in the 1880s – everybody pitches in. It’s a lot of work outside, but it’s pretty rewarding.”

His favorite family ski memories blend together – too many to differentiate – but early ski mornings are definite highlights. “I have an advantage – I can get on the first chair. I remember making the kids go to school and they would have to catch the bus at 8:30… [but] the very first chairlift starts at 7:50 or 8-ish. So, first thing we did on a powder day is hop on the chair lift, even before patrollers, and ski down Midway in knee-deep snow,” he says. Another favorite memory is turning back and seeing his son skiing behind him in his figure-eights before Ben stopped and told him, “Dad, you ski so slow.” Eminger was amused and proud.

“It’s been that way with my daughter, too,” he says. “The first time we skied in the trees together, I turned around to look for her, and then realized she’s already in front of me and wondering why I stopped and am looking back.”

The whole Eminger family (2006). Photo courtesy of John Eminger.
The whole Eminger family (2006). Photo courtesy of John Eminger.

Up until last season, both Eminger children were also ski racers. “Ski racing is a great way to spend time in the mountains,” he says. It allows “time for parents to ski on their own and [opportunity to] travel to other ski areas.” As for family ski days, he says with a laugh, “Now it’s, ‘Dad, we’ll meet you at the bottom of chair ‘insert-the-number’.”

When it comes to the ski resort business, Eminger also speaks about the resort’s staff and volunteers, from the lift operators to the ski instructors and paid and volunteer patrollers, like they are one close-knit family – “ski zealots” who love the mountain, he says. “What goes on behind the scene is like Disneyland everyday – it’s absolutely amazing. It’s impossible for one person to keep up…The caliber of people who work at a ski area are a notch above…it’s a good place to hang out. I have yet to get bored of the conversation – they’re all so diverse and educated.

“The nice thing about ski areas and ski patrollers and instructors is they are there to help the community. The kids are the little prized jewels. At a family resort, that’s almost like the point,” he says. “As an adventurer, skiing for me was totally different than what you would do with kids – it was about how steep, how deep. It wasn’t until I bought a ski resort that I understood what the experience was about. We have two rules [at 49]: work hard and tell the truth…We understand that family comes first,” he says. “We’re the caretakers for a mountain for a generation.”

Eminger says he is proud to provide opportunities for families to find their niche in the snow on the mountain, whether it’s alpine or Nordic skiing or snowshoeing. “People talk about wilderness, and within a minute of a ski resort, you can get to the total quiet of a winter storm. How else can you bring that controlled chaos to a family?” he says. “People come to the ski area so wrapped up, and bring a lot of the civilized world with them, but once you get them on the chairlift it all melts away. Skiing is good for the soul…I can’t think of a better spot in the winter time to hang out with your family.”

Advice for New Ski Families

49 Degrees North owner John Eminger had this advice for a family just starting out teaching their children to ski or considering making it a family sport: “Go to the ski swap. Buy warm clothes. Hook up with a ‘learn to ski’ program – a very affordable way to get into skiing. If you’re the lone skier in the family and want to get everyone else going, look to the ski school to help manage your time together. Get involved in ski racing or get involved as a ski instructor or patroller, so you can spend more time at the mountain as a family.” //


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