There Are No Wet Blankets at Snoqualmie

Jan. 06, 1964
Jan. 06, 1964

Table of Contents
Jan. 6, 1964

NFL Championship
Time For Victory
  • The U.S. regained the Davis Cup last week in Adelaide when the volatile team of Dennis Ralston and Chuck McKinley, guided by the patient handling of Captain Bob Kelleher, beat Australia 3-2

Cup Defender
College Basketball
Basketball's Week
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

There Are No Wet Blankets at Snoqualmie

Everything—and everybody—may be soaked through but, come hail or high water, when winter descends on Seattle the world's most indomitable skiers charge off into the slush

So that a railroad might be built to link the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the nation, a U.S. Army captain named George B. McClellan was sent into the Territory of Washington during the summer of 1853 to find the lowest pass through the Cascade Range. As a Civil War general and a politician McClellan later made a name for himself, but on this mission he failed completely. The Cascades are a nice place to vacation in the summertime, and maybe that is what he did. He called off the quest, at any rate, after thrashing about in the woods for 100 days, and he and 60 companions went home. To his $150,000 expense-account report McClellan pinned a note that said, in effect, there simply was no pass suitable for a railroad in those mountains.

This is an article from the Jan. 6, 1964 issue Original Layout

Although McClellan and his nearsighted friends came within three miles of the spot and never saw it, there is, as a matter of fact, a splendid Cascade pass about 45 miles due east of Seattle which Milwaukee Road trains use every day. Snoqualmie is the name of the pass, and it is so low that Washington's principal transcontinental highway runs through it four lanes wide, and its grade is so gradual that Volkswagens drive over the summit in high gear with ease. But if those few facts would surprise Captain McClellan, his campaign hat would fly off if he could come back for a visit. By contrary logic, little Snoqualmie, the lowest point in the range, is the most popular, most densely populated ski-resort area in the whole Northwest.

Indeed, there is no place just like Snoqualmie Pass anywhere else in the country. The mountains do not exactly soar and the climate is more suited to Washington's Olympic rain forest. But because of the three ski areas located there—Snoqualmie Summit, Ski Acres and Hyak—Seattle, it is said, has the greatest number of skiers (10% of the population or better) of any U.S. metropolitan city and the greatest zest for skiing this side of Japan. Less than an hour's drive from downtown, Snoqualmie is connected to Seattle by U.S. Highway 10 the way the IND subway connects Coney Island to Manhattan, and with the same effect. The state spent $287,191.60 one recent year keeping this four-lane driveway to the summit clear of snow, but it is powerless against Seattle's commuter skiers. With no place to park except on the shoulders (which is against the law), drivers leave mile upon mile of parked cars along both sides on a busy winter day. They then think nothing of a 30-minute hike uphill to the first chair lift or rope tow. In addition to the private cars, chartered buses flock to the area on weekend mornings and discharge uncounted thousands of Seattle schoolchildren, nearly all of whom are enrolled in Snoqualmie ski schools. So that nobody is tempted to stay home for Sunday school, Snoqualmie Summit thoughtfully provides an A-frame chapel that runs Protestant and Catholic services all morning long and permits its preachers and priests to ski between sermons.

As the ski area nearest the city—it commands the top of the pass at a 3,004-foot elevation—Snoqualmie Summit absorbs the brunt of this athletic assault, while the balance spills over to Ski Acres and Hyak on the eastern rise of the pass. With equal fervor, other hordes ascend to other Seattle-area resorts, such as Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain, which take the better part of two hours to reach by car but which offer steeper and more exacting skiing. Through the day the slopes of the Cascades, dark with flicking and falling humanity, vibrate with the clamor of perhaps 30,000 people, the whir of lift machinery, the gurgle of coffee and hot chocolate and the mighty, resonant ring of cash registers. Suddenly, around 4:30 in the afternoon, a heavy hush settles over all. There is virtually no after-ski life of any kind in the Cascades, and, says a bemused observer of the Seattle ski picture, "It's as if they were all factory workers and the quitting-time whistle had blown. Everybody unbuckles his skis and heads for his car. They just go home, get a little sleep and rush back up the first thing in the morning."

As Seattle skiers go, Marty Fox, the wife of a thoracic surgeon, may be as typical as any, heaven help us. Burbled this mother of four the other day: "I've been skiing for three years now and I've only been hurt twice. Broke my leg both times. But how I love it! I put hot Metrecal in my thermos and come up to Snoqualmie or someplace three, sometimes four times a week the minute the kids are off to school. Nor rain, nor sleet nor gloom will keep me home. I ski until the last cat is hung in the spring, and I'm on my way now." And out into a freezing rain she limped.

To discover ski fanatics anywhere in the world these frenzied days is not unusual, but Seattle is a case all its own. Its distinguishing characteristic is rain. As is well known to everyone who lives in Seattle, the city has an average yearly rainfall of only 34.10 inches. This is less, in fact, than New York City, something of which the Seattle chauvinist is especially proud. But what few like to admit is that the constancy of Seattle rain is formidable.

Coming as close to the truth as he dares, one resident realist blushes: "We have a little bit of rain a whole lot of the time." Naturally, since winter is rain's busy season in Seattle, it frequently falls without fear or favor on the outlying ski areas. And when it is not actually dripping drops, attendant gray clouds, lowering fogs and mists are likely to be present over the slopes, a condition not helped, says a Snoqualmie instructor, by the accumulation of bus-engine exhausts and the vapors from the lodges' doughnut-frying machines. Still, unless the snow is simply washed away, there seldom is heard a discouraging word, no matter what happens all day. As one area operator admits, "If you worried about the weather here, you would never ski."

Not only does the rain get into one's eyes and ears and freeze fast to one's equipment, it turns fresh and fluffy powder snow into a substance one skier compares to liquid concrete. "Actually," says a local historian, "Snoqualmie is an old Indian word meaning land of lumpy mashed potatoes," and a Seattle ski authority ventures that local skiers are probably the world's most adaptable. "If they learn to ski here," he says, "they can ski anywhere." Says the famed high priest of French skiing, Coach Emile Allais: "I can spot a Seattle skier in Europe from 100 yards off by the way he bends his knees when he takes the moguls."

Allais is too polite to say so, but identification might also be established by a Seattle skier's costume. Stretch pants are popular, but foul-weather gear is more so, and a Seattle skier would no more leave his raincoat at home than his boots and poles. "Now notice," said an acclimatized woman at Snoqualmie Summit the other day while water streamed off her nose and the brim of her cod fisherman's sou'wester. "My jacket has electrostatically welded seams or something and is practically indestructible. Just the same, I spray it with waterproofing stuff every now and then just to be on the safe side. And notice my short haircut. Maybe it looks like a boy's, but it dries out in half the time."

As might be supposed, Seattle ski areas go to some lengths to play down their own precipitation, and it is possible to find neighboring competitors claiming to lie in the "rain shadow" of one another, a way of saying it nearly always rains up at the other place but rarely, if ever, at ours. Because all of the areas have one shortcoming or another, relative advantages do indeed figure prominently in the conversations of rival operators. "Our chair lift, you know, is two feet higher than the one up the road," brags a man operating in Snoqualmie Pass, while a man connected with Stevens Pass stresses that much of his snow rests on a base of room-size boulders. He claims his rocks constitute "a marvelous drainage system that makes our snow a lot drier than some other places I could name." But all the praise is not self-serving. A professional man in town adds another dimension. "With the constant gloom that hangs over Seattle in the winter," he says, "our people get short-tempered and begin to snap at each other in sheer frustration. I discovered skiing was a good way to get out from under it all. Maybe it's gloomy and maybe it's raining in the mountains, too, but with all that white snow surrounding you, it kind of peps up your spirits. I go to Snoqualmie Summit on Thursdays, which is mostly ladies' day really, and come back to work on Friday feeling like a new man."

Skiing in the Northwest began in primitive fashion back in the '20s, when he-men used to herringbone up the flanks of Mt. Rainier in their undershirts, and Norwegians in football helmets and shoulder pads went flying off precipices to the astonishment of all. In the early '30s, after the Seattle Park Department had cut a swath through the white fir and hemlock at the crest of Snoqualmie Pass, a few well-to-do Tacoma and Seattle businessmen got ski operators' permits from the U.S. Forest Service. At about the same time a New Yorker named Webb Moffett, who had graduated from Troy's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and was stationed in Seattle with the Army engineers, came across a copy of the Sunday New York Times. "There was a story in the paper about Woodstock, Vt.," Moffett remembers, "which had recently put in a rope tow for skiers, the first such contraption in the world. I had been doing a little skiing myself—you did just a little skiing in those days because you spent most of your time climbing the mountain—and I suddenly knew a rope tow was an answer to our prayers."

Moffett, accordingly, sat himself down before a sheet of drafting paper and in no time at all had engineered his own version of the Woodstock tow. He then got in touch with the men holding the forest permits, and they made a deal. Moffett would get 10% of all tow tickets sold at Snoqualmie Summit in exchange for erecting tows there and at two other, more distant mountains. Business was so bad in the beginning that Moffett and his wife, a Seattle girl named Virginia Robinson, were lucky to gross $10 a week at Snoqualmie for themselves. They spent their weekend nights sleeping in the rope-tow engine room (where the original equipment is still working). During the week Moffett kept on with the engineers, and Virginia had a job as a public-relations counselor, a role at which she later attained a pinnacle of sorts when she devised the name for the Seattle World's Fair Space Needle.

With the outbreak of the war in 1941, the Tacoma-Seattle businessmen, totting up unimpressive receipts for the few years they had backed skiing, decided to bow out. They believed gasoline rationing, for instance, would doom out-of-town recreation. Moffett, not so easily dissuaded, offered to buy the group's rights to Snoqualmie, and his offer of $2,000 was accepted with alacrity. "We have since parlayed that investment," says Webb Moffett quietly, "into a $1.5 million operation." Curiously, it was gas rationing that saved Snoqualmie Summit. People did not have enough gas to drive the 90-odd miles to Rainier, a more popular area then, but they could, with car pools, get the 56 miles to the pass. (A bridge across Seattle's Lake Washington has since shortened that distance to 46 miles.)

Other breaks befell the Moffetts. Because of defense priorities, they were unable to buy lumber, so they bought and dismantled an abandoned CCC barracks and rebuilt it at the base of the rope tow as a hamburger hut. "It was about 100 feet long and 20 feet wide," says Moffett, "and so many people crowded into it our heating bill only ran about $85 a season." Nowadays his heating bill may be $85 a day, and his hamburger hut has become a chicken coop in eastern Washington.

Snoqualmie Summit, which now draws 200,000 skiers each winter, did not develop without attracting considerable attention and envy and, once the war was over, the race was on to divide up Seattle's ski pie. Just over the hump of the pass, Ski Acres was built by an amiable ex-butcher named Reidar Ray Tanner. He bought the land for Ski Acres in 1942 from the Northern Pacific railroad for so little money that he would rather not talk about it, and opened it for skiing in 1949 after putting up the first chair lift in the state. "I knew when I opened we weren't in the best location," says Tanner, "because people would have to pass Moffett's place to get here." Indeed, Butcher Tanner's next 10 years were as lean as a slice of Canadian bacon. Hyak, the area farther on and lower than Ski Acres, had its hard times too. But now both are sitting pretty and looking forward to even brighter futures. "Who should worry?" asks a Seattle newspaper editor. "Around here you can scratch an X in the snow, call it a ski resort and you'll be fighting off customers in no time."

If skiing in the Snoqualmie area is about as convenient as picking up a loaf of bread at the suburban A & P, skiing at Stevens Pass, about 90 miles northeast of the city, is scarcely more trouble than going bowling. Stevens opened in 1937—the same winter Moffett had put up his homemade rope tow at Snoqualmie—largely because of the push given it by Don Adams, a credit company field man at the time. "I was a Rainier skier," says Adams, "and when I heard about what was going on up at Snoqualmie I knew the die was cast and I was wasting time." With the help of a man named Bruce Kehr, Adams designed a rope tow of his own and put it up in the first Cascade pass north of Snoqualmie. "We didn't get much in the way of snowplows because we weren't on the major highway," he says, "so that first winter we didn't have much business, as you may imagine. When the snow gets about five feet deep on the road, traffic doesn't amount to much. But four years later, when I went off to the Army Air Corps, we had a pretty good clientele, and they complained so much I had to get a couple of weekend passes to come home, open the place up again and turn it over to my wife to run." Stevens has since prospered the way Snoqualmie has, and when Adams sold out his interest in 1959 "they were spending more on postage than I had made our first winter." Such success breeds its own headaches, says John Caley, a Seattle lawyer who now owns an interest in Stevens Pass. "We had to turn away 250 cars on opening day this year, and the railroad that owns some neighboring land we'd like to buy is becoming a trifle difficult. Their land is the top of one of our mountains and we offered them $80,000. They laughed."

Just as the operators of Seattle's various ski areas have struck a vein of gold, so have related businesses. Among those reaping residual harvests, for instance, are ski equipment dealers, who break out in radiant smiles when asked how things are going. "The national average for ski shops," says one relatively small-sized merchandiser in Seattle, "was a gross of $72 a square foot last December. In the same period, my volume was $500 a square foot—and my business is up more than 100% this year."

Another prize source of income—and one that will continue to benefit everyone for years to come—is Seattle's ski school business. The city's ski school program is so vast that no one connected with it is able really to describe its scope and size, perhaps because it changes almost hourly. Virginia Moffett initiated a new school just last month, for example, while eating Dungeness crab at lunch at her tennis club. By piecing together bits and tatters of information, observers conclude that, on a given weekend, about 8,000 children are in training in more than two dozen ski schools scattered around the Cascades. Nearly every organization of any stature in Seattle stands behind a ski school—the P-TA school enrolls 1,500, the YMCA nearly as many—and where they leave off, country clubs and neighborhood associations, e.g., the Bellevue Ski Council with 1,700, step in. "As far as I can make out, everybody except the Communist underground has a ski school," says a man who has observed the phenomenon, and he doesn't sound too sure about them. "There is nothing comparable to it anywhere," says Bill Tanler, publisher of a Seattle ski magazine, "and there is probably not a ski resort in the West that does not owe a debt to the Seattle ski schools."

Saturday mornings in Seattle resemble an emergency evacuation program. Parents wearing topcoats over their pajamas drive bleary-eyed youngsters to designated pickup points that checker the city like police precinct stations and shove their children toward the waiting chartered buses. The bus companies are obliged to call in off-duty vehicles from as far away as Bellingham, 90 miles north, to handle the Saturday rush, and are quite happy to do so. Each of the three biggest bus companies makes about $40,000 apiece in the winter and, says a Trailways man, "We could fill 20 more buses ourselves if we had the equipment."

Around 8 o'clock the buses begin to move out, headed, for the most part, for Snoqualmie, and in lesser numbers for Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain. On board each is at least one school instructor who doubles as chaperone. Once arrived at Snoqualmie Summit, the 4,500 children and teen-agers enrolled there rally around flagpoles and signposts to find their instructors. Meanwhile, an area coordinator, like a general plotting a battlefield, keeps the chaos in reasonable check with a walkie-talkie and a megaphone. In most cases, the instructors, a seemingly nerveless lot, work for a ski school contractor who has made all arrangements, sold the course to the parents and classified the students according to ability. The largest private school in Seattle (it claims to be the largest in the U.S.) is run by Buzz Fiorini, a Wilkes-Barre, Pa. skier who came to Seattle in 1943 to rivet together B-17s and B-29s for the Boeing Company, and after 15 years as a ski instructor himself is now an executive. Fiorini, who runs his school with his wife Julie, a onetime Wilkes-Barre torch singer, employs 60 instructors and pays them from $18 to $24 a day. His 900 students range from 7-year-old first-graders to middle-aged housewives, and his lessons are the most socially O.K. and the most expensive ($75 for 10 weeks, including bus fare). He charges more, he says, because he offers more. "Last year we gave 12,423 lessons without one single fracture," he says, "an unbroken record, so to speak."

The ski school instructors, whether working for someone else or for themselves, are all certified as proficient (a requirement set by the Forest Service for anyone giving lessons on Government land), but virtually none of them make their living from full-time teaching. Janney Huttrer, who works for Fiorini, is the wife of a Dartmouth-graduated geologist and onetime New Hampshire ski instructor ("I married him for free ski lessons, not for money"). The mother of an 18-month-old girl, she pays her baby-sitter with free lift tickets. Larry Linnane, who has his own school, is a freight train conductor who teaches at Snoqualmie Summit and Stevens Pass four days a week and works in the Northern Pacific yards in Seattle at night. On Sunday, his day off, he sings tenor solo in his church's High Mass, then rushes to the parking lot to change into stretch pants and is off to Snoqualmie for a few hours of rest and recuperation. Stan DeBruler, who helps manage the P-TA school with three other men, is the largest potato chip distributor in the Northwest, and his cohorts are a newspaper reporter, the owner of Seattle's largest sports equipment store and a Boeing executive. Peter Erler, one of the few genuine Austrians in Washington, runs the Ski Professionals, Inc. school at Ski Acres and a ski shop in a downtown J. C. Penney store. In the intemperate skiing atmosphere of Seattle it is no surprise what instructors do with the money they earn. "With few exceptions," says Larry Linnane, "we wait all winter for our vacations and then get over to Sun Valley as fast as we can. There we blow every penny."

And that brings up a curious thing about Seattle skiing: just about nobody ever comes to Washington to ski, and the people already there rarely ski at home when they can help it. The reason is not any shortage of suitable terrain but the acute lack of overnight lodging. Added to that, says Don Adams, is the matter of getting to Washington in the first place. "We're off in the coffin corner of the country, you know, and to get here from out of state just to ski you've got to pass up places like Aspen and Squaw Valley and Sun Valley. And all those places have sunshine to boot, so why would you come out here?"

On the hopeful supposition that Seattle skiers will one day get over their compulsion to drive home every night and that out-of-staters may eventually find their way into coffin corner, a few Cascade areas plan to build extensive accommodations sometime in the future. Leading the way at the present is the new, still-building resort, Crystal Mountain, which is 76 miles southeast of Seattle and cheek by jowl with Mt. Rainier. (White Pass, an early Seattle favorite, is 30 more miles beyond and is losing some patrons to Crystal.) So fancy that its ski school is under the tutelage of ex-Olympian and top racing coach Jack Nagel, Crystal Mountain is the only area near the city, says Mel Borgersen, its general manager, "which was built because it is an excellent place to ski, not because a highway happens to be going that way." What Borgersen, a wavy-haired ex-furrier, is getting at is that Crystal's site was selected by some Seattle men who used to ski there as members of the 10th Mountain Division, a famous ski outfit that trained at Rainier and later fought in the Italian campaign of World War II. Selling $1,000 shares to 1,000 Seattle skiers, the promoters opened Crystal Mountain with high hopes last winter. Unfortunately, there have been problems ever since. Because Crystal was not picked for its convenience to a highway, there is a problem right there, says Borgersen, smiling thinly, and two miles of a six-mile access road have not been completed. Crystal Mountain also boasts it has 40% less snow than competing Cascade areas (a 20-foot accumulation is a not uncommon nuisance in Snoqualmie Pass). This is fine when there is snow but was disastrous last winter, when 40% less added up to about nothing. Finally, while Crystal Mountain can say truthfully that it has the highest chair lift in the area, it is not as high as the management would like. The U.S. Park Service, which operates Mt. Rainier National Park, has forbidden any of the ski structures to peep over the top of Crystal, because they would be visible to Mt. Rainier tourists. Still, Crystal is moving ahead, business is good and the prediction that it may someday attract the crowds of resort-minded skiers it needs seems sound. "You never can tell," says Borgersen. "Maybe some of those sheltered tourists on Rainier will hear our noise and come around for a look. God didn't know which part was going to be park land and which part Forest Service land, so He gave both of us some pretty nice scenery."

As for the Cascade areas that are not expanding for tourist skiers, what are their prospects? "Gold-plated," says pioneer developer Don Adams. "Skiing around Seattle will probably keep growing forever—just because of the way it is and even in spite of the way it is."

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATIONMARC SIMONTLike troop convoys, packed buses line up at Snoqualmie and disgorge their army of Seattle skiersTWO ILLUSTRATIONSWith rain clouds temporarily lifted, a skier dashes down a relatively dry slope (left). Meanwhile, back at the lodge, the informality that characterizes Snoqualmie is demonstrated by unabashed patrons