The seeds necessary for cross country ski races have been firmly planted at White Pass.
Coach Bridget Blethen and longtime Nordic director Rich Brooks share the goal of one day hosting their own event, something they recognize will take some time. Brooks wants to add better infrastructure and another 10 kilometers of trails to the existing 20 kilometers of two-way traffic, and Blethen’s team remains in its early stages.
“Definitely just the basics,” said Blethen, who started the White Pass Nordic team four years ago. “We’ve got a few kids that race and really want to improve.”
Most of the more than 20 members are younger kids learning how to cross country ski for the first time, so they typically follow the tracks for short laps and stick to the classic version of the sport. A few racers joined Bridget’s father, Kirk, last Saturday for their official skate practice, learning the faster, more challenging method with movements similar to ice skating.
The best skiers compete in the Washington Nordic Cup, a series of five free races in the east Cascades focused on friendly competition and growing the sport for kids ages 6-19. Blethen said a 1K or 5K race at White Pass could be tougher than most courses, thanks to its considerable hills and few long flat stretches.
Most people who Brooks talks to want more friendly terrain, so he tried to keep that in mind when he authored a proposal for new trails nearly a decade ago. After the Forest Service completed its environmental analysis and approved the extension in 2020, Brooks went to work clearing trees with former mountain manager Russ Forman manning the excavator.
They created a 1.2-kilometer (roughly .75 miles) trail named Heatherstone to provide easier access from the Dog Lake loop to the Zig Zag loop in the northwest corner of the trail system. Before they had to pause their efforts due to wildfire danger last summer, they also built a 0.7-kilometer trail called Dark Meadows Addition that will eventually lead to 10 kilometers of new trails.
“It’s going to be better views, better snow conditions and really with the three different loops there’s going to be 27 different ways to ski that,” Brooks said. “Hopefully by next fall we’ve got a warming hut up there and I imagine most people that are going to spend the time working to get up there are going to want to stay up there the whole day.”
He said a gradual, winding ascent of about 900 feet will lead to the highest point, overlooking Deer Lake and offering views of Mt. Rainier and the Goat Rocks Wilderness. More backcountry terrain should be accessible as well when the trails are completed, likely not for another two years.
Many skiers have already voiced their approval to Brooks, who also credited ski patrol leader Chris Talbot and head groomer Justin Tornow for their help with the improvements. Although Brooks said numbers have returned to something like normal levels, the Nordic center attracted far more guests a year ago with the pandemic limiting activities and White Pass putting a cap on downhill guests on the other side of U.S. Highway 12.
“A lot of people came over here by default and said, ‘Oh, I like this, let me buy some gear,’” Brooks said. “Then they’re buying season passes or buying a downhill pass, which works over here by the way as well.”
Blethen came over from the alpine side, where she coached the more popular racing team until a couple of its members expressed an interest in Nordic skiing. Blethen, who grew up in Wenatchee and lives in Yakima, decided to share her passion for the sport that she developed as a high school racer for the Leavenworth Nordic team and led to her competing in two junior national championships.
Her team’s easy to spot when it practices every Saturday morning thanks to its matching black jackets featuring logos of several community sponsors that allowed skiers to purchase the jackets at a reduced cost. Kids can attend 12 practices of nearly three hours each for $225 per season, and races are optional but encouraged for those capable of competing.
“The main thing that we’re excited about is kids feel like there’s a social aspect to Nordic because the downhill’s so established,” Blethen said. “So that’s my whole goal with this is that they have a place to learn, hang out with their buddies, and have it be social and positive because it was so social and positive when I was younger.”