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.
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."