The chair whooshed its familiar sound as we were whisked away from the Great Escape Quad chair lift base at Schweitzer Mountain in Sandpoint, Idaho. I sighed with relief as I took in summer at Schweitzer from a unique vantage point. Although there was no snow on the ground, feeling the air under my feet and looking back at the emerging view of the lake reminded me of the many hours spent on a chairlift earlier this year during the ski season. Filled with sweet nostalgia, I turned around and put my feet over the back of the chair lift, sitting backward for a moment against the safety bar. I guess there are a few advantages to riding a chairlift without the hindrance of skis.
This past weekend, my sister, brother-in-law, and I flew from Seattle, Washington, to Spokane, Washington. We rented a car for a sub-two-hour drive to our AirBnb nestled in the lower village of Schweitzer Mountain. On previous ski visits, I drove from Seattle to Schweitzer, a 6-hour journey by car. However, the 45-minute flight, offering a scenic view of three of the Pacific Northwest’s volcanoes, was a welcome respite from the monotony of a long car trip. Flights from Seattle to Spokane are often cheap if you plan ahead, so if you want to ski in Idaho or even ski in Eastern BC, consider flying to Spokane first.
We arrived at our AirBnb in the dark, so the next morning I was surprised to step out onto the balcony of our cozy studio apartment and look out onto the lush green slopes of Schweitzer’s frontside. The high of the day was 80 degrees Fahrenheit, an almost 100 degree difference from the last time I visited Schweitzer in February 2021.
When I first agreed to go on this trip, I had hesitations about how much fun I could have in a ski resort during the summer without any snow on the ground. But as soon as we stepped into the ski bum themed AirBnB, I felt the familiar sense of adventure, community, and passion within me that I often get from skiing. Our condo even had a few retro skiing books lying around. One was “In Search of Skiing” by Warren Miller. I felt comforted by having the words of an absolute legend help me drift off to sleep on the futon mattress with a view of the stars out the sliding glass door.
Warren Miller wrote, “Once you take your first ride up a lift, your life will be changed forever.”
While cheesy sounding, I believe it holds some truth. As we rode the chair to the downhill trails, the mountain air was quiet and still, smoke from nearby wildfires gathering around the lake. Without the distraction of skiers streaming down the slopes, I tuned into the signals around me. I noticed that many tourists headed up the chair to sightsee. I heard them chatting excitedly in the lift line as they waited to walk onto the chair lift. Most of them adults, I watched them become transfixed in an almost childlike way. One man laughed as he cautiously worried that his flip-flops may fall on the lift. Others took in the magnificent views at the top of the Idaho high desert and Lake Pend Oreille below. Tourists and mountain bikers alike reveled in the mountain magic – a magic I have come to know even persists long after the snow has gone.
Before this trip, I had never mountain-biked on a ‘real’ mountain biking trail before. While I had casually ridden gravel and dirt trails on my hybrid bike at home, I had never done any lift-assisted downhill biking. We rented full suspension mountain bikes at Schweitzer. Their rental area transforms from a ski shop to a full-blown bike tuning shop in the summer. Originally we planned to rent mountain e-bikes to explore the Nordic trails and city trail system below the resort. However, due to an industry-wide shortage of e-bikes, Schweitzer only had two e-bikes available in their fleet. After our first ride down, I was thankful we didn’t get e-bikes… I was going quite fast enough with my own two legs.
After reaching the top, we headed to Bear Grass, a route recommended to us as the most direct and “easiest” way back to the village. Topping in at 4 miles and 1,674 feet of vertical, I figured we’d be down in a breeze and ready for another ride up. However, on the only green-rated trail which led us to the start of Bear Grass, I quickly realized I was in for a challenge. When I ski, I am usually searching for drops or features to jump off. Mountain biking, I searched for the path of least resistance. The loud scrape of my pedals against rock reverberated in my ears as I charged down the dusty path, attempting to keep my feet level when I went over large rocks. If you’ve never mountain-biked before, Schweitzer is a challenging place to start. Their terrain is a high desert arid environment filled with medium-sized rocks, and dusty, slippery, dry berm turns. Once we started down Bear Grass, we were greeted with endless switchbacks of tight turns. We watched the “pros” glide past us with ease and speed around the berms. I timidly approached a section of trail composed of flat rocks, like a small rock bridge. At first, I didn’t believe my bike could run over these rocks, but standing on my pedals, I coaxed my way across the rocks. When I reached the dirt path on the other side, I ‘yewwwed’ in delight. Said “pro” behind me congratulated me and then promptly but politely asked if he could pass.
Throughout this experience, I was deeply humbled and gained a newfound respect for beginner skiers. It was maddeningly frustrating and terrifying to learn the technique to go around tight turns and float over bumps without jarring my entire body. Roots, rocks, and other obstacles shot out of the trail like sharks on a backcountry ski tour. Halfway through the trail, I finally felt I had gotten the hang of this turning thing. Approaching the apex of the turn I coached myself, “outside foot down, keep your speed, you can do this!”. I executed a very slow but in my head “a sick” berm and then skidded out at the bottom of the turn. I fell forward directly into a pile of rocks. I assessed the damage – just a few scrapes and maybe a sprained finger. It was then that I started to realize the insane dangers that mountain bikers put themselves through, but also the intoxicating rush of the thrill.
After our first run, we took a small break and headed to Solar Ecstasy and High Point Trail near the Lakeside Triple Chairlift. These trails were a welcome relief from the switchbacks on Bear Grass. Having pizza from Powder Hound Pizza in our bellies, we were fueled and ready to take on another route. The trails here offered stunning views of the terrain behind Schweitzer’s resort that I had cat-skied in February. I was filled with a profound sense of belonging. Although I wasn’t on skis, I was in the mountains––my happy place.
I don’t think that I will become a full-time mountain biker anytime soon, but I was pleased to discover a sport that offers arguably as much or more thrills as skiing. My heart was happy and full as I finished the day, my clothes covered in dust, bruises, and scrapes covering my body. The act of the physical challenge of keeping your balance on the trail and the feeling of the mountain air as I flew down the slopes echoed feelings of my adventures on skis.
The weekend that we visited Schweitzer, the Northwest Wine Festival was taking place in the village. After cleaning up, we returned to the main village and enjoyed tasting local wines as the sunset on a beautiful day. Afterward, we went for après at The St. Bernard, a local bar in town. The atmosphere was light and buzzing as families gathered, friends caught up with the bartenders, and stories were shared. I was excited to meet Luke, the real St. Bernard dog I imagine is this vibrant bar’s namesake. The highlight of the night for me was doing my first shot ski. It might seem ironic to you that I am a skier and have never done a shot ski, but the right opportunity had not come up yet. As a craft gin and juice shot mixture dripped down my neck, I laughed because doing a shot ski is way harder than it looks with the coordination of four people. But I think what I love about the shot ski is also what I love about ski towns, whether in winter or summer. A Shot Ski takes four people to work. It fosters a sense of community and togetherness.
And so do ski towns. Even when the winter sleeps and the sun shines, the stoke still lives on.