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There Are No Wet Blankets at Snoqualmie
Huston Horn
January 06, 1964
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
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January 06, 1964

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

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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."

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