Bought and Sold

Somewhere in the recesses of a terse office meeting-room another ski area is being bought. Skiing in America is re-inventing itself as an industry and this is, I’ve been told, an economic certainty. A multi-area company offers a broader purchasing base and lowers overhead, allowing the creation of more amenities and raising the number of skier days.

I’m sure this is all true, but it also somehow rings too near the rhetoric employed for decades by developers who are transforming places like Ontario, Oregon and Issaquah, Washington from towns into strip malls. Holding these economic values above the character of places and our need for these places is a dangerous proposition.

Volumes have been written in the ski media (by myself included) regarding this transformation of small, traditional areas into places with service-industry wages and escalating rents. And certainly much more will be penned over the next few years as our secret double-chair havens become outposts for companies traded on the NY Stock Exchanges. This is, I’m afraid, sad and perhaps irreversible.

I had the great fortune to grow up in paradise. In the late 1950s my grandfather, a tough, old-school, Tacoma businessman returned home from a family trip to Sun Valley, and stepped off the Union Pacific with possibly the first errant idea of his life. He wanted to build a ski area. Several years later Alpental Ski Area was built up on Snoqualmie Summit on the site of an old Mountaineers Club playground and was, in my grandmother’s words, the only money-losing endeavor of my grandfather’s life. “But, you know,” she says with her octogenarian smile, “he did it for our kids and you grandkids.”

Throughout the Seventies, Alpental remained the area you love to hate among hardcore Seattle hotdog heads. Absurdly steep pitches, a sprawling backcountry, and a vibe on the hill that this place, our place, was a story we could inhabit. Which I did for my entire childhood; the remainder of my life marked by the frustration that I will never have it that good again. The mountain was literally my family’s backyard.

A few particularly poor winters finally forced a sale, but Alpental has remained, like a warm, backwoods home, a place for many stories to inhabit.

Now Alpental, along with the other little Seattle day areas along Snoqualmie Pass has been snapped up by one of the ski industry’s major players. Expansion and development are inevitable, and soon the hide-and-seek acres of the Alpental backcountry will be domesticated. Some of the trees of my childhood will be felled and quads will replace the hypnotic hum of the old Riblets. Nostalgia is also a dangerous proposition, and I will have to find new stories.

But remember this if nothing else: we never get these places back; places like Mt. Baldy, CA, Brundage Mt., Idaho, Smuggler’s Notch, VT, and Berthoud, CO. The intimacy of a black Folgers coffee and scrambled-egg breakfast in a smoky daylodge cannot be replicated with sun-dried tomato and pesto soufflé, and a marble interior.

We need to support the places that celebrate ski culture (including snowboarding and telemarking) as an actual and daily event, and not some quaint notion featured in dining room paintings. In saving these places, these stories, we save ourselves.