49 Degrees North – Understanding Erben
by Andy Dappen
He was my friend, but all of us who liked Erben admitted he was odd, peculiar, a strange agent. When Erben talked to you, he either stared at your shoes or somewhere well left of your ear. And he was full of interesting ideas. “Wish I could be in prison until I was 40,” he might suddenly say. “I’d have free use of a weight room. And when I was released, I’d still have all my cartilage. I’d rule the Masters competitions in all my sports.”
Skiing and snowboarding were two of those sports and he was not only good, he had visited scores of resorts around the West. When he told me 49 Degrees North was his favorite Washington ski resort, it caught me by surprise — Crystal Mountain or Mt. Baker were the typical picks of hardcore skiers and snowboarders.
Almost 25 years after Erben confessed his love for 49 Degrees North, I actually visited for the first time. Out of nowhere I remembered Erben’s affinity for this hill and that heightened my curiosity. My two-day visit became a quest to determine what Erben saw in it. By the time I left, my answer was capsulized in six words.
Size. Size matters. In many things. Or at least men think so. Skiers think so, too. With 2,300 acres to its credit, 49 is macho and muscular and rates as the second largest ski resort in the state. It’s only marginally smaller than Crystal Mountain, Washington’s biggest rooster. This gives good skiers like Erben lots of ground to explore.
Terrain. Of course size by itself means little if a hill is as flat as the pre-Columbian world or as treeless as a Northwestern clearcut. A good ski hill needs steeps, high-speed cruisers, trees, jumps, hidden powder stashes, and sidecountry. On most of these fronts, 49 delivers. The resort is especially blessed with mega acres of glade skiing. No other Washington area offers such numerous and such exceptional glades. Erben loved tree skiing –maybe because he couldn’t see other skiers in the trees, maybe because a tree was a creature he could look in the eyes.
Powder. Much of Washington is stereotyped by West Side ski resorts with their abundance of liquid powder, Cascade cement, and splatter snow. Erben knew that resorts well east of the Cascade Crest (like Mission Ridge) or on the east side of the state (like 49 Degrees North) boasted dry snow that billowed rather than squirted from the tails of his boards.
Photo: Beautiful glades, beautiful snow.
Substance. Visitors to 49 are far more likely to come from ranching, farming or logging backgrounds. These salt-of-the-earth people are more likely to be skiing in faded Carhartt jackets than over-priced Spyder snowsuits. Erben didn’t care about looking good, he cared about skiing good.
Photo: The day lodge showcases Utilitarian Northwestern architecture.
Value. The infrastructure of this hill dates back many decades. Forget about hoity-toity lodges with nouveau cuisine, forget about high-speed quads. Expect a 1970s-vintage lodge; expect six fixed- grip chairlifts. The flip side of old infrastructure is price. At a time when skiing a slick resort of similar size (say, Sun Valley) runs $125 per day, an adult lift ticket here runs $58 (2017 pricing). Similar savings extend to lodging and dining – a visit to Sun Valley will cost twice that of a visit to Chewelah. Ski one day at a slick resort or two days at a scruffy but good hill? For Erben, that choice was a no-brainer.
Seclusion. On a week day the slopes bordering 49 can feel like ghost hills — now and then tumbleweeds might blow across the slopes. Even on Saturdays crowds here are rare because the majority of Spokane would prefer driving 20 minutes to Mount Spokane than an hour to 49 Degrees North. For skiers willing to drive farther, Silver Mountain, Schweitzer, and 49 Degrees North all divvy up the pie. The crowds on the sunny Saturday of my visit were such that once, when the lift had stopped for a minute, I arrived at the base and had six skiers ahead of me. Ahhh, the indignity of having to deal with so many people – Erben would have been in a rage.
Photo: A busy Saturday? No one on the lift, no one on the slope.
I finish my Friday-Saturday stint at 49 Degrees North with my eyes opened. Erben had good reason to name this his favorite Washington ski resort. I’m not as opinionated as my peculiar friend. Naming anything a favorite, even my favorite right hand, just comes hard for someone with my brand of wishy washyness. Even so, 49 was a hit — on the drive home my wife and I commit to re-visiting the resort next year at the same time.
Details, Details: Skiing 49 Degrees North
Size: 2,300 skiable acres.
Drop: 1,850 vertical feet.
Terrain: 30 percent beginner, 40 percent intermediate, 25 percent advanced, 5 percent expert.
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches (top of mountain).
Price: Adult lift tickets cost $58/day (2017 prices). Mission Ridge season-pass holders get 3 days of free skiing here.
Trail map: See this link.
Historical points: The area opened in 1972. Most of the mountain was thinned/gladed in the 1990s. Ski-in, ski-out condos started to be developed on the mountain in 2016.
Nordic skiing: Nordic skiers will find 16 kilometers of groomed trail at the base of the ski area. Lift tickets allow use of these trails.
Lodging: A variety of options exist 10 miles away in the town of Chewelah. The Nordlig Motel (509-935-6704) is inexpensive ($65 to $70 for a double), clean, well-maintained, and off the main highway (quiet). The Humble Beginnings Lodge (509-935-0707) also comes highly recommended.
Dining: Chewelah has a surprising number of affordable restaurants with excellent food. Try Mondo’s Italian Café (utilitarian decor but excellent food), ChewVinos Wine Bar (nouveau cuisine complementing Washington wines), Sportsman’s Bar and Grill (burgers, beef, and beers ). More restaurant choices.
Access: From Wenatchee, follow Highway 2 east to Reardon and the take Highway 231 north to Chewelah. The resort is 10 miles above the town of Chewelah. The drive takes 3.5 hours.
More Info: See the 49 Degrees North website.