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Snowy Northwest a skier's delight


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Snowy Northwest a skier's delight


SANDPOINT, Idaho (AP) -- You just can't help it. Ride up the six-person ski lift at Schweitzer Mountain in northern Idaho, and you can't help but shriek the lift's name.




Marlon Brando, eat your heart out.


There's plenty to shriek about in Inland Northwest skiing this season. (And yes, the ski lift is actually named Stella.) The five resorts scattered around Spokane, Washington, 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. But this year, 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 severely curtailed this winter by lack of snow and warm temperatures.


Schweitzer, located above the lakeside resort community of Sandpoint, is the biggest and most posh 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 January 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 January 2 was more than at any ski area in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah, Schweitzer officials said.


The result is that Christmas week business broke the resort's existing record by 15 percent.


The five Inland Northwest hills are located 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, for example, 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:


# Silver Mountain, located a gondola ride above Kellogg, Idaho, has a summit depth of 95 inches this year. Once known as Jackass, this hill is in the midst of 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 and park in the lot and ride to the top, avoiding treacherous mountain driving.


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


# 49 Degrees North, located 40 miles north of Spokane, 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, located within the borders of Mount Spokane State Park and only 30 miles northeast of Spokane, is a community-owned hill, and thus offers fewer fancy amenities. But its peak can be seen from town, eliminating any guesswork on whether the runs are foggy or not.


Which 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. It is located next to a town that has year-round outdoor opportunities because it sits on the shores 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, and 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," Schweitzer spokeswoman Lisa Gerber said.


Designed by a former Disney Imagineer, you reach the lift 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 5 1/2 minutes.











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