Big Powder, Small Crowds

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Special to The Seattle Times

KELLOGG, Idaho — Silver Mountain may have finally struck gold.

This Northern Idaho resort has always had great terrain and empty slopes, a friendly vibe and cheap tickets — all great reasons for a visit.

But this year it feels like Silver might be on the verge of taking things to a new level. Seattle-area businessman Tryg Fortun bought Silver last fall for $5 million and has infused a sense of hope at the resort, and in the economically depressed mining region where it is located.

Fortun speaks glowingly about Silver, a mountain he has skied for many years.

“I like Silver more than any place I’ve ever been,” he said.

Fortun, a real-estate investor from Kenmore, settled on Silver as his favorite mountain after years of skiing around the Northwest. He got hooked, bought a condominium at the base in 2012 and since then has purchased several other condos.

Why the love for Silver Mountain?

“I was always able to find more untracked powder there than anywhere else,” he said. “The quality of snow is so great and the number of skiers per acre is so low. It is always a treat to ski there.”

Fortun also said he appreciates the friendly vibe at Silver.

“People are so willing to show you their powder stashes,” he said. “I really like that there are so many people at Silver who would take a Seattle guy under their wing.”

For now, Fortun isn’t saying what lies ahead for Silver, but new lifts and additional terrain have been discussed. About the future, he says only, “On all levels, we can do things better. We’re going to be looking at that.”

Jackass, to start

Silver has always been about unrealized potential.

The resort started in 1968 as Jackass Ski Bowl on land leased from the Bunker Hill Mining Co. Chair 4, serving the Wardner Peak (6,200 feet) side of the resort, is the original lift from the Jackass days and remains some of the best terrain on the mountain.

But Jackass struggled, and the ski area was sold and renamed Silverhorn, which also struggled. Finally, with matching funds from the federal government, a gondola providing access to the mountain was built and opened in 1990, and the resort was re-christened Silver Mountain.

The gondola is where your journey starts at Silver. From elevation 2,300 feet in Kellogg, the gondola takes you 3.1 miles to a midmountain lodge at 5,700 feet. From there you can access Kellogg Peak (6,300 feet) and also ski to the older, Wardner Peak side of the resort to the west. In all, Silver has 1,600 acres of terrain, five chairlifts and 2,200 feet of vertical.

Besides the skiing, Silver has a developed base in Kellogg with lodging, restaurants and shops, a year-round indoor water park, a tubing hill and, in summer months, a popular nine-hole golf course and world-class mountain-biking operation.

The resort had been on the market for several years when Fortun purchased it last fall. He sees great things happening, not only at the ski resort, but in Kellogg.

“There are many hard-luck stories in the Silver Valley,” Fortun said, alluding to the longtime economic and environmental struggles left by the decline of mining in Kellogg. “But there’s just so much potential there.

“It reminds me of Salt Lake City 20 years ago, before the Olympics. It’s not on the map, just like Salt Lake wasn’t on the map.”

A mellow mountain

You can’t blame Silver’s struggles on its terrain. During a visit in early January, the mountain was skiing very well.

It had been several days since the last storm, the holidays were over and the slopes were nearly empty. The skiing was fantastic, with lots of untracked pockets of dry, fluffy powder.

On the Kellogg Peak side of the resort, some of the best skiing was among the glades of South of the Border, a run that dips outside the resort boundary. Other great powder shots were found on the double-diamond North Face Glades and Rendezvous, a lovely black diamond run that had collected blown-in snow on a windy day.

Wardner Peak is another destination for powder skiers. A short hike from Chair 4 leads skiers to the top, where they can drop off its north-facing side into trees and glades, or take steep shots back toward the resort. Either way, the hike to the top of Wardner weeds out many skiers, and its slopes are often untracked.

Count Silver’s new owner among those who love Wardner.

“Wardner Peak is an incredible jewel,” said Fortun, and he hinted that future development might be in that direction.

Within the resort, 60 percent of the terrain is classified as beginner or intermediate; 40 percent is classified as advanced or expert. For intermediate skiers, there are excellent groomers all around the mountain. And for experts, out-of-bounds terrain abounds, and the resort has an open-gate policy.

In big snow years, you can actually ski the 3,000 vertical feet back to Kellogg on out-of-bounds runs underneath the gondola, something locals are doing regularly this year.

Visiting from Seattle

Why should you ski Silver? For one thing, it’s a great value.

Ocean Shores resident Curt Minckler is a regular skier at the resort. He bought a condominium six years ago and rents it to other skiers when he’s not there.

“I’m basically skiing for free,” he said.

Silver is roughly the same driving distance (about six hours) from Seattle as Mount Bachelor in Oregon, but it’s significantly cheaper. An adult day pass at Bachelor is $92; Silver is just $55.

Ski-and-stay packages at the Morning Star Lodge condos at the base are as low as $55.75 per night based on four-person occupancy and include admission to the Silver Rapids Indoor Waterpark.

Inside the waterpark, the temperature is kept at a tropical 84 degrees, which feels pretty good after a day on the slopes.

Other options for lodging include Coeur d’Alene, just 30 minutes away, and Spokane, about an hour’s drive.

For those wanting to ski Silver and sample other resorts nearby, Mount Spokane, 49 Degrees North, Lookout Pass and Schweitzer Mountain are all within easy driving distance.

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