White Pass prides itself on creating a family-friendly environment for skiers and snowboarders, a spirit that clearly exists in the administrative office as well.
It's a big reason why Kevin McCarthy's stuck around for 44 seasons, including the last 36 years as the area's general manager. After overseeing significant growth and crucial developments, he's handing over his leadership role to another member of the White Pass family, Rikki Cooper, as of July 1.
"The greatest achievement is we're able to keep our main management staff for year in and year out," McCarthy said. "The average number of years is probably well into the 20s for that core management group and people recognize that."
He oversaw two expansions of the lodge, replacements for all the chairs, and the addition of more than 700 acres of new terrain. Even before that, average visitor numbers at White Pass went from 93,000 a year in 1993 to 123,000 a year in 2003.
Cooper's worked in the office with McCarthy since she became the area's Controller in 2009, and he's confident the 36-year-old will thrive in her new role. Perhaps some of that confidence comes from the fact White Pass's leaders once showed McCarthy the same faith in him.
A collegial connection brought McCarthy, a ski racer for the New Hampshire ski team, to White Pass to work for general manager Nelson Bennett, a 1940 UNH graduate.
Bennett responded quickly when McCarthy and his friends sent applications to several Pacific Northwest ski areas for the winter of 1976-77. It turned out to be a terrible ski season with little snow, but McCarthy created what would become strong bonds.
He stayed in touch and connected again when Bennett — a high ranking International Ski Federation official — traveled to the East Coast to watch future Yakima Valley Olympic medalists Phil and Steve Mahre compete. By the time McCarthy graduated with a degree in business, he'd earned a chance to work his way up to GM, starting as the Food and Beverage Manager.
A three-year plan turned into five, and Phil Mahre remembers concerns about McCarthy taking a job elsewhere. He credits Phil's father, beloved mountain manager Dave Mahre, for encouraging the move to make McCarthy a GM at 26.
Since his arrival, he'd heard talk of expansion into the Hogback Basin. Appeals from environmental groups stopped two initial plans before a third proved successful, and the expansion became a reality in 2010.
"It got to the point where at times people thought that, "oh, it's done, it's not going to happen,'" McCarthy said. "I would not accept defeat on this one."
The new terrain allowed White Pass to keep growing, and it set a new record with 213,00 visitors this past winter. McCarthy will remain the president of the board and stay visible at White Pass while supporting Cooper as she takes over the "day-to-day ground-level" responsibilities.
"She understands the operation," McCarthy said. "She's young and she just has that temperament and ability to look at the big picture and understand what are the critical operational challenges."
Cooper will oversee the expansion of White Pass's nordic trails next winter and doesn't intend to implement any significant operational changes.
She's worked fewer hours and spent more time at home since the birth of her second son, in 2017. Cooper's oldest son is six and both of them ski, so one focus as they prepare for school and she goes back to full-time will be ensuring the best experience possible for parents with young children.
"I'm a mom and I've spent most of the last 6 years over in the learning center area with my kids," Cooper said, noting all her experience didn't always help. "I've been brought to tears. I want to make that easier."
Cooper first came to White Pass as a 12-year-old ski racer from the Olympic Peninsula, and she didn't expect a future in the ski industry after graduating from Pacific Lutheran University in 2007. But she moved to Yakima to accept a position as a pro patroller while deciding where to apply for a master's program, and when a permanent position came open it felt like the right choice.
Phil Mahre said it's good to see the job go to someone who understands the White Pass culture, and Cooper's eager to spend a lot more time at her local mountain.