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EpicPass in hand, snow in forecast, time to plan ski trips to Great Northwest, beyond

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September 10, 2019, 3:07 pm
Opensnow.com forecast map (circle not courtesy of Sharpiegate).

I took a quick trip to the Pacific Northwest this summer, and I’ve got to say, it’s freaking awesome up there this time of year. White, snowcapped volcanoes, deep blue Puget Sound waters, verdant green islands and mountains – all under a warm sun that lingers late into the evening.

Swimming in Birch Bay.

But that’s really only for a couple of months out of the year. The rest of the time the sky is a looming grey ceiling obscuring the mountains and emitting a persistent drizzle. Still, during July, August and a little bit of September I get what all the hype is about, and it’s so great to be on the ocean in any form when you’re a landlocked resident of Colorado.

But now we’re planning a return trip in February, when we’re virtually guaranteed pewter-grey, rain-pissing skies (Whistler’s affectionate nickname amongst local is, after all, Pissler). Already some storms are starting to form up in the GNW (Great Northwest) that, given the jet stream’s current NW flow, could bring some snow to the high peaks around Vail later this week.

That’s a good flow for Colorado ski areas. When my mom emails that she’s getting pounded with rain and sometimes even snow at her beach home in Birch Bay, Washington — just one town down the coast from the Canadian border crossing at Blane — we usually get snow here in Colorado a couple of days later.

Birch Bay is just 38 miles away from the awesome city of Vancouver, British Columbia, and just 112 miles to Whistler, so it’s feasible to day ski the 2010 Winter Olympic ski resort, which also happens to be owned by Vail Resorts and on my recently renewed 2019-20 EpicPass.

It’s also “only” 108 miles from Birch Bay to the almost-as-awesome city of Seattle, but that can be a solid three-hour drive on I-5 just about any day of the week but especially on Friday afternoon, as we discovered in July. Sounds a lot like Denver-to-Vail I-70 skier traffic, doesn’t it?

It’s a slightly heftier 145 miles from Birch Bay to yet another EpicPass resort, Stevens Pass, which really is a true Seattle day-ski area (and I hear now much more crowded on weekends). But weekdays there are still worth a trip, and Stevens is just 65 miles from Everett, where a new United flight from Denver offers direct service into a brand-new airport that’s 20 miles north of the traffic nightmare that is SeaTac airport and the greater Seattle metropolitan area.

[Quick political aside: Glad to see Washington Gov. Jay Inslee get out of the prez race and go after another gubernational term. Guy is good on climate change (pdf) but needs to do something to fix his state’s snarled traffic infrastructure. Ditto, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who jumped out of prez race to run for U.S. Senate. Generally OK with his pragmatic if perhaps slightly slower approach on energy transformation but would like to have seen a lot more innovation on transportation. Now I’d like to see another guv from a favorite ski state – Montana Gov. Steve Bullock – bail on the prez campaign in favor of a winnable Senate race.]

We’ll likely spin through Bozeman on our way to Birch Bay, perhaps for some skinny skiing in Yellowstone and an alpine day at Bridger Bowl or Big Sky. That part of Montana is just about halfway between Vail and Birch Bay. Unfortunately, no EpicPass mountains in Montana yet, although locals will tell you Alterra’s Ikon Pass is already ruining Big Sky, among others. Once in Washington, winters can get interesting.

While the skies may be a bit grey and gloomy (you know Mount Ranier is there but you just can’t see it), temps are relatively mild during a GNW winter and the skiing can be coastal but quite good – especially the higher you get on the flanks of Whistler or Blackcomb Glacier. Also worth a side trip, is the non EpicPass ski area of Mount Baker east of Bellingham – a retro resort astride an imposing volcano that occasionally gets North American record amounts of snow.

Now, my family buys the EpicPass because we live between two Vail mountains (Vail itself and Beaver Creek) but the idea of the multi-resort season pass is to get skiers from massive population centers like those in the GNW to try the Vail ski areas in California, Colorado, Utah, Australia now all over the United States with the pending Peak Resorts deal. That’s why the company is buying up some many small day-ski areas around big cities.

Like salmon swimming with the stream, though, or mountain-dwellers heading into the city for urban escapes as the city-dwellers flow up to the hills on weekends, we kind of do things in reverse. Our day-ski areas are the destination for a lot of weekend warriors, and then we like to combine ski vacations with major metro attractions.

Besides checking out all that Vancouver has to offer this February (and it offers a lot as one of North America’s most internationally diverse cities), we’re also thinking about a Japan trip to ski the legendary powder of two EpicPass ski complexes – Rusutsu (new on the pass this season) on the north island of Hokkaido and Hakuba Valley on the main southern island of Honshu.

Whistler, of course, is very popular with Japanese skiers, and thus some of the best flights to Japan this winter originate in Vancouver, so maybe the best bet is to hit Whistler, ship the skis and just keep flying west into the Land of the Rising Sun and the falling powder.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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