Four o’clock on another gray day in Pioneer Square. After eight hours of spooling code for a Web e-tailer, the spent cyber lackey steers his Palm VII to the Internet. Downloading the hourly report confirms it: The clouds drooling outside have pasted the mountains with a foot of fresh since morning. He emails the beta to friends, grabs his tele boards from behind the office door and hits the interstate. One hour later, they’re cutting powder under the night lights at Snoqualmie Pass.
Welcome to Happy Hour, Seattle-style.
Over the past several years, this town once known for Boeing and boredom has become shorthand for high-tech powerhouses, high-grade espresso and hip careers. Amidst the change, however, a few treasured things remain constant: the nearby Cascades, their titanic snowfall-and Seattleites’ passion for romping in both. Few big cities in North America offer such a satisfying mix of work and play-a great place to chase a cutting-edge career while still raising a hard-skiing family.
Curiously, Seattle remains perhaps the biggest unheralded ski town around, even though the sport has been part of the cultural weft since the city’s Scandinavian forebears arrived on Puget Sound. The 10th Mountain Division and Mountain Rescue started in the nearby Cascade Mountains. The area is home to ski legends such as Otto Lang, manufacturers such as K2 and-surprise-a clutch of companies now fusing sport and cyberspace, such as Mountainzone.com and Altrec.com. A Seattle-area resident is nearly 75 percent more likely to be a skier than the average American nationwide-a statistic bested only by Denver and Boston, according to a 1999 study by American Sports Data, Inc.
In this city with mountains on three sides, where 14,411-foot Mount Rainier leans over the expanding skyline and couples register for their wedding at REI, skiing is a verb-something simply done, without fanfare. Thank the Cascades for Seattle’s low profile as a ski town: With their 7,000-foot crests and snow (sometimes) like spackle, these peaks snag scant national attention. But they are a true “underdog range,” says Martin Volken, a Swiss-born mountain guide and owner of Pro Ski Service, a hardcore Seattle shop. Within 150 miles of the city, Volken points out, lie six rowdy ski areas pummeled by Pacific storms. “Snowmaking” ain’t in the Northwest lexicon.
Alpental’s 2,200 vertical feet, its commit-or-die cliff bands and its location less than an hour’s drive from downtown’s skyscrapers via six-lane Interstate 90 may be the source of more Seattle sick days for “Alpentalics” than the Asian flu. Crystal Mountain, near Rainier, boasts big terrain, and the bowls of its North and South Back Country are lipped with boxcar cornices. Mission Ridge gets the precious sunshine. Stevens Pass, at the crest of twisty, avalanche-prone Highway 2, gets slapped with some 450 inches of snow annually. But it’s snow-choked Baker up near Canada, whose 1,140-inch snowfall in 1998-99 smashed world records and whose expert gullies should be rated using a rock-climbing scale, that retains a particular mystique for Seattleites.
Given such bounty, it’s little surprise that popular outdoor social groups such as the Mountaineers abound, parking lots are jammed each January weekend with buses from at least a dozen Seattle ski schools and more than 2,000 working stiffs bash gates after hours in the City Racing league. The ski areas function as Seattle’s babysitter, second-date rendezvous, gym and shrink after a week of hard work under the city’s trademark bruised skies. Yet, amazingly, mid-week powder days are still ski-to-the-chair empty. The sub-$35 lift ticket, extinct elsewhere, can still be found at places like White Pass.
If you’re thinking of a scenery change, know this: Washington’s software companies said they still have 7,300 good-salaried jobs to fill, according to a 1998 survey by the Washington Software Alliance. On the verge of completing an updated survey, the Alliance ssays that number is even higher now. But skyrocketing housing prices, along with Seattle’s ranking among the five worst cities for traffic, have nudged it from the apex of recent “best cities to live in” polls. Happily, the public schools have managed to avoid the more severe problems of other major urban school districts. But Seattleites wring their hands over one other concern: With every new Armani boutique and Range Rover, this place kept humble by its rain and Lutheran roots may be losing touch with its ragg-wool soul.
But so long as the Cascades and residents’ passion for them endure, the future seems pretty darn good here for a skier who wants to come home to a well-rounded, well-proportioned life. In the midst of a New Economy urging them to work hard, they wisely keep listening to the voice of the mountains, whispering, “Play harder.”