By Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy
“Go ahead and fire it up, Andy!” said Duncan Howat, president and general manager of Mt. Baker Ski Area Inc. (MBSA), turning toward the camera with a big smile. “We’re ready to ski!”
Howat, alongside lift supervisor Andy Lachi, stood in the engine room of the Mt. Baker resort’s new replacement chairlift No. 7, shooting a video for their website. The engine room, as clean as a hospital operating room, powers the four-person lift that offers more room and comfort, a shorter ride time and an easier dismount. The electric lift, which has a backup diesel engine, was manufactured in the United States.
“It’s been a heck of a construction project,” Howat says. His grin widens as he steps outdoors into a mountain landscape worthy of a laptop screensaver, complete with an early snow coming down hard..
Snow makes or breaks the ski-resort business, and this year’s La Niña forecast (cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures in the Central Pacific Ocean) has Howat feeling optimistic. Variable weather makes it difficult to pin down trends. Three years ago, snowfall was dismal and so were MBSA receipts. The last two years saw powder nearly daily, and receipts were up.
“Overall, we’ve seen a 10% increase in snow the last six or seven years,” Howat said.
On a busy weekend day, the Mt. Baker Ski Area’s population will rival the city of Blaine (approx. 5,200). MBSA employs 325 people during the ski and snowboarding season and 50 year-round.
Costs–roughly largest to smallest–consist of labor, taxes, energy, maintenance, permit fees (the resort pays the U.S. Forest Service to use the land), operations that include snow grooming and parking-lot clearing, food for the crews and van transportation that carries workers from various pickup spots leading up to the resort.
“We’re probably the largest single contributor to the Mount Baker School District in the East County,” Howat said.
Strong local economies boost ski revenue. Mt. Baker Ski Area draws heavily from lower B.C. and from Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish and Island Counties. Early in the season, when other ski areas aren’t open due to lack of snow, MBSA gets King County traffic, too. “All those economies are pretty strong,” Howat said. “That lends itself to a good year.”
Another positive sign: MBSA’s annual one-night film festival at Mount Baker Theatre—a jump-start to the season—sold out in its 18th year during November 2017.
MBSA comprises 1,000 acres, eight chair lifts, three lodges with four food services, three bars and two parking lots. Its biggest customer demographic is ages 17 to 40; second biggest is late 20s to mid 50s. Howat estimates that just over half of the customers ski, with the remainder snowboarding.
But that depends on events. The Mt. Baker Legendary Banked-Slalom Contest, Feb. 9-11 this year, will draw snowboarders internationally and feature the sport’s elite because of the unique natural layout of Mt. Baker’s slopes. That contest began in 1985 at MBSA because the resort welcomed snowboarders and was most likely to have snow.
As the website Zrankings.com (slogan: “Pure Awesomeness Factor”) states, “There is no ski mountain in North America, perhaps the world, that receives more snow than Mt. Baker. An average season at Mt. Baker would best the biggest year on record at most resorts across the West.”
As peak season arrives with the new year, his 50th at the helm, Howat steps out of the engine room and looks skyward at the snow still falling hard. And he’s still smiling.