Fifty Years Ago at Mt. Pilchuck

In his “Seems Like Yesterday” column for January 17, 2014, Everett’s Herald writer Jack O’Donnell said that fifty years earlier, Mount Pilchuck Ski area reported eight inches of new snow and the area had a total of 76 inches. The temperature at 8 a.m. was 29 degrees with snow falling both on top and at the lodge.

Today, hundreds of hikers each summer weekend make the 5.4 mile round trip to the restored fire lookout on top of mile-high Mt. Pilchuck. Despite dangers, some of them also make the climb in the winter. Most have no idea they’ve left their vehicles in the parking lot of what was one of the most beautiful low-level ski-areas ever built. The trail up the mountain takes them through mature forests and meadows. Above the tree line, it sends them scrambling over gigantic granite boulders. It’s some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere in the northwest.

I grew up with Mount Pilchuck in my front yard. From the window we could watch the clouds wrap the mountain on a stormy day. On a clear summer evening the lookout’s light seemed like a star caught on the peak.

Mt. Pilchuck from our front yard

 Sometimes, a group of friends got together for an all-day hike up the mountain. The trailhead began at the Stillaguamish River then, but in 1951 the state parks commission gave permission to the Mt. Pilchuck Ski Club to develop a ski area. Nothing much happened until 1956, when The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission got a special permit from the U.S. Forest Service to develop and maintain a ski area at Cedar Flats. The access road from the river to the flats cut off several miles of hiking for summer visitors.
   
At first the ski club had just one rope tow. The ski area struggled with lack of snow some years; too much snow in other years. Several owners tried their hand at operating the park. In 1958, a new owner took over and built a day lodge at the parking lot. Lift passes were a dollar or two dollars a day. Mt. Pilchuck State Park became a legal entity that year, with a land exchange agreement between the Forest Service and the State Parks and Recreation Commission. But the exchange never happened, leading to later difficulties for the operators.

By the winter of 1962-63, skiing cost $3.50 per day. The park had three rope tows. During the next season, ‘63-64, the main chairlift arrived just in time for a snowfall 52 feet deep at the top and 14.5 feet at the lodge. For three weeks the area was buried and closed, until the snow could be shoveled out of the way. The new chair from Riblet Tramway Company had loading stations both at the bottom and the middle of the chair.

Loading Platform and Riblet Chair Lift

Another “Seems Like Yesterday” item from Jack O’Donnell’s column for April 12, 2014 stated: “50 years ago (1964) Mt. Pilchuck Ski Resort was staging a costume and obstacle race April 12. The competition was open to anyone between the ages of seven and 17. The first-place winner would receive a season’s pass for the Pilchuck chair lift.”

After this came two years of hill grooming work on the gentler slopes below the lodge and parking lot. Although the trees have grown back, outlines of this area are still visible. Another chair was installed there, with lighting for night skiing.

By 1970-71, new owners had added a new lodge, bierstube (German-style pub) and equipment rental facilities. Even though my family never tried downhill skiing, it was still an adventure to drive up the snowy mountain to see what was going on at the park. We took our four-year old with us one time. Fascinated, he watched the double chair swinging up the steep slope above us with passengers dangling ski-clad feet. He later begged to go back to see “that big swing set on Mt. Pilchuck.”

The Riblet chair lift from the ski rental building

The excitement of those bygone days of skiing Mt. Pilchuck’s main chair can be better comprehended by viewing this modern You Tube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThzIES6yCAw  ( whitehorsephotograph.)

In 1980,  low-snow seasons plus difficulties in getting operating permit renewals permanently closed the Mt. Pilchuck ski area. The lift equipment went to the ski area at Crystal Mountain. The main lodge was vandalized and eventually torn down. The smaller ski rental building was trucked down the mountain by a private buyer and twenty years later became a vacation lodge beside the Stillaguamish River. The personnel scattered to different operations. But Mt. Pilchuck State Park itself remains a peaceful and beautiful get-away.

For more information, visit http://www.mountpilchuck.com/lodgehistory2.htm or search for the Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project.

The upper ski area under construction

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