Despite Mt. Baker Ski Area’s reputation for deep snow and glorious powder days, Gwyn Howat, operations manager for the ski area, says that some of the best days that stick with her and the people she has met over the years are the days when the conditions are bad, or those rainy days when you feel like you are the only one on the mountain.
It’s when you have that feeling of just being happy to be in a certain place with friends, she explains, that you know you are somewhere special. Being born into a family that has helped build the ski area from the ground up and been employed at the mountain for over 19 years, Howat literally has this feeling in her blood.
That authentic and special feeling the outdoors produces is what many people in the Mt. Baker foothills find unique and so rewarding. Mt. Baker Ski Area is one of the few ski hills not offering high-speed quad chairs, big screen tvs, plush lodging and other amenities common at most ski areas.
Here at Baker, “the mountain makes you be real,” says Howat, meaning that people who come here are at the mercy of nature. By and large, that’s what most people come here for, and those people appreciate that the ski area is managed in a way that encourages the natural atmosphere. As Howat puts it, “We do these things because when someone comes to Mt. Baker they want to feel like they’re at a special place and not at a city plopped down on top of a mountain.”
This philosophy is a tradition that reaches far back in time. Aesthetically, the region is an exemplar of the great Northwest forests and has the majestic geographic feature of the Mt. Baker volcano. Edmund Coleman, who in 1868, along with three local settlers were the first men known to summit Mt. Baker, created a scrapbook of the area and used it to encourage Congress to create a National Park designation for the area. It took 40 years but in 1908, the Washington National Forest was created.
In 1928 a lodge was built in the Heather Meadows area, created as a destination for nature lovers. This massive cedar lodge burned down four years later, just as the area was beginning to be recognized as a premier spot for the new recreational sport of skiing.
As skiing gained popularity in the ’30s and ’40s, people began to drive the road to Heather Meadows to reach the slopes in what would become the Mt. Baker Ski Area. “Hikers these days just think they are hardcore, but those guys were the true hardcore skiers of Baker,” says Howat, adding that they would actually side-step all the way up the Austin slope in order to make it ‘groomed’ and ridable.
One adventurous engineer created the first lift at Mt. Baker, “The Donkey,” which consisted of a sledge and winch system. This dangerous piece of machinery operated until it, and its creator, were taken out in an avalanche.
Faced with a threat by the highway department to close the road, a group of early die-hards recognized that in the absence of the lodge, there would need to be a reason for the mountain road to be maintained and pooled their resources to form the Mt. Baker Recreation Company, which eventually became the Mt. Baker Ski Area.
They did it because they loved the mountain and wanted to preserve it for all people to enjoy. “Do it ’cause you love it,” says Howat, “it’s the same principle that guides the management of the ski area today.”
The last of the original board of the company just recently passed away, but the stake in the company has been passed down with the stakeholdership remaining in many of the original families today. Everyone involved still understands the original purpose for the company, which is the reason you won’t be seeing advertisements plastered all over the ski area, or development crowding every possible square foot.
This founding story is similar to many Western ski operations, their origins found in the frontier-minded skiers of those early days. Mt. Baker Ski Area, however, has managed to hold onto that ethos when the vast majority of ski areas have transformed into consolidated winter theme parks.
During the ’90s when snow sports and the economy in general boomed, many ski areas invested in upgraded equipment and expansion that began a cycle of debt and sponsorship. As ski areas began to go further into debt, more and more began to rely on sponsorships and increased ticket prices to pump out more and more revenue. As the economy tightened, many ski areas were forced to sell to larger corporations in order to survive.
Mt. Baker’s original philosophy provided insulation from this cycle of debt and loss of independence. While ski areas blew out their budgets to market themselves as the ultimate winter theme park, Mt. Baker Ski Area used its profits to maintain what they had and slowly upgrade its facilities. When times were tough, they hunkered down and waited for better days.
“When people call to find out what’s new,” Howat says, “we tell them we are what we are, which is a ski area at the end of the road. People come here for the skiing, not for a plush destination.” Through all this, Mt. Baker has gained the reputation as a premier ski and snowboard destination, while maintaining one of the lowest prices for lift tickets and season passes.
They have also become an important and stable mainstay for the surrounding community. This is important to the company, to be an interactive part of the community. Howat points out that everything about Mt. Baker is grassroots: The music, the artwork, marketing publications, and even some of the food items are all locally made.
The ski area provides free lift tickets to more than a thousand students who participate in their 5th graders ride free program. These kids, who according to Howat are the only people she has met who could possibly be as hardcore as those original Mt. Baker skiers, are also provided a free breakfast by the mountain and local baker Erin Baker. “Mt. Baker Ski Area is community-based with a worldwide approach,” says Howat, adding “we understand that it’s not the people coming in from out of town who sustain us.”
Responsibility to the community and to nature are driving forces that derive from the company’s founding philosophy of doing what you love. It’s the understanding that Mt. Baker Ski Area is reliant on its environment and its community that guides its actions.
In an economic environment where this line of thinking goes against the grain, it can often be very challenging and requires a lot of energy, Howat says. For her though, “seeing the familiar faces who are up there early in the morning is a very tangible benefit.” It’s one that will keep Mt. Baker operating as it is for a long, long time.