- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2007

SANDPOINT, Idaho — You just can’t help it. Ride up the six-passenger ski lift at Schweitzer Mountain in northern Idaho, and you can’t help but shriek the lift’s name: “Stella!”

Marlon Brando, eat your heart out.

There are plenty of reasons to shriek in Inland Northwest skiing this season. (And, yes, the ski lift is actually named Stella.) The five resorts scattered around Spokane, Wash., are covered in thick blankets of snow and enjoying record business.

There have been some lean years up here in recent times, when the ski season was measured in weeks instead of months. This year, though, many of the ski areas opened before Thanksgiving and have been pounded with new snow since. In stark contrast, skiing and other snow-dependent activities in the Northeast and parts of the Midwest have been curtailed severely this winter by warm temperatures and the lack of snow.

Rising above the lakeside resort community of Sandpoint, Schweitzer Mountain is the largest and poshest of the five hills in the Inland Northwest Ski Association. It has a mountain village with hotels, shops and hundreds of rental condominiums and other amenities.

As of Jan. 10, Schweitzer had reported an astonishing 211 inches of snow this season, more than double last year’s total. The 114 inches of snow at the summit Jan. 2 was more than at any ski area in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah, Schweitzer officials said.

Christmas-week business broke the resort’s record by 15 percent.

The five Inland Northwest hills are midway between Sun Valley, Idaho, and Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia as the crow flies, but they are a world apart in costs and amenities. Sun Valley, one of the country’s most exclusive resorts, charges $74 during peak season for a lift ticket.

In contrast, Schweitzer’s daily lift-ticket price is $52 for adults, and that is the most expensive of the five. Mostly they are day hills, and mostly they are doing well. Here’s a roundup:

m Silver Mountain, a gondola ride above Kellogg, Idaho, has a summit depth of 95 inches this year. Once known as Jackass, this hill is undergoing an aggressive upgrade that is adding lodging and restaurants at its base and new runs up top. Silver Mountain is reached by what is billed as the world’s longest gondola. Skiers turn off Interstate 90, park in the lot and ride to the top, avoiding treacherous mountain driving.

• Lookout Pass, off Interstate 90 on the Montana-Idaho border, is the smallest and cheapest. It just added a new chair and five new runs, and it typically has the longest season. It recently reported 133 inches of snow at the summit, and lift tickets are just $28 on weekends.

• Forty miles north of Spokane is 49 Degrees North. It has dramatically expanded its size this year with a new quad lift and 14 new runs. This hill, which offers easy terrain and is family-friendly, has a 132-inch summit depth.

• Mount Spokane, within the borders of Mount Spokane State Park and just 30 miles northeast of Spokane, is a community-owned hill and thus offers fewer fancy amenities. Its peak can be seen from town, eliminating any guesswork on whether the runs are foggy.

This brings us back to Schweitzer, the most ambitious of the bunch. With plenty of lodging, upscale shops and its own expensive expansion plans, this is the go-to hill for the area’s well-to-do. It draws skiers from throughout the Northwest.

The hill is about 90 miles northeast of Spokane, next to a town that has year-round outdoor opportunities because it is on the shore of 37-mile-long Lake Pend Oreille, one of the largest and most beautiful lakes in the West.

Sandpoint routinely shows up on those magazine lists of best small towns, best recreation towns or coolest places in the West. It is filled with art galleries, restaurants, shops and lodging options. Coldwater Creek, the mail-order house, is based here and operates a large retail complex downtown.

From the top of Schweitzer, the lake stretches to the distance like a huge piece of a jigsaw puzzle, flowing into bays and around islands. The mile-long bridge into Sandpoint carves a straight line above the water.

Schweitzer has seven lifts and 82 named runs plus numerous lodges and snack huts. It also offers inner-tubing, dog sledding, snowcat skiing, a movie theater and other amenities.

Stella was constructed in 2000 and is the only high-speed six-pack in Idaho.

“As far as we are aware, it is the only themed chairlift in the world,” says Lisa Gerber, speaking for Schweitzer.

Designed by a former Disney Imagineer, the lift is reached by skiing into a big barn fitted with some Rube Goldberg machinery that purports to be the guts of the machine.

According to the fictional story, Stella was the wife of inventor Phineas J. Schweitzer, and she wanted to ride to the top of the mountain with him and their four children to see the beautiful views. The lift covers 1,550 vertical feet in 51/2 minutes.

• • •

Inland Northwest Ski Association: www.ski-inlandnorthwest.com.

Schweitzer: Sandpoint, Idaho; www.schweitzer.com or 800/831-8810.

Silver Mountain: Kellogg, Idaho; silvermt.com or 877/230-2193.

Lookout Pass: Wallace, Idaho; www.skilookout.com or 208/744-1301.

49 Degrees North: Chewelah Peak, Wash.; www.ski49n.com or 866/376-4949.

Mount Spokane: Chattaroy, Wash.; www.mtspokane.com or 509/238-2220.

Sun Valley: Sun Valley, Idaho; www.sunvalley.com/ or 208/622-4111.

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