After a winter of stinking up couches around the Western U.S., I was overdo for a night with the 'other side' of civilization. So there I sat, posted up at a table of fellow post grads, talking art and restaurants I'd never heard of, sipping microbrews at a swanky Seattle gastropub.
The girl on my left picked up my air of culture shock (or was it lingering boot funk?) and sparked up conversation. She was nice, an East Coast transplant like myself, and after a few beers told me she had someone she wanted to set me up with. My mind started to swirl as she said that we had a similar passion for life and the mountains, and, eager for any new connection, I gave her my number to pass along. Sensing my apprehension, she told me not to worry, that her boyfriend and I were going to get along just fine.
One week later, a car horn jolts me from gray Sunday slumber. After a few beeps, my phone starts ringing (why this was the order of operation that particular day is still a mystery). It was the boyfriend, parked outside my place in a patch-marked purple Dodge Caravan, and he wasn't leaving until he dragged me to Alpental.
Still fuzzy, I amble downstairs and throw my gear into the hole where the van's middle bench should have been. I saddle up next to two more groggy passengers in the last row (now technically the only row), and fumble for a seat buckle that doesn't exist.
The boyfriend introduces himself as Phil, asks me if I want a beer, and pushes the throttle toward Snoqualmie Pass. Cali-P and other obscure reggae tunes vibrate the modified ski rig as we weave in and out of I-90 traffic. There's rumors of up to 32 inches of snow in the mountains, and with visible accumulation in the lowlands around North Bend and a few thousand feet left to climb, this has potential to my best 'first date' in a while.
Alpental sits only 45 minutes from the city, but Phil does it in 35. Though traffic can back up on the weekends, four lanes of highway keeps today's pulse of powder hounds moving.
The mountain is part of Summit at Snoqualmie--a resort that combined the four separate Pass ski areas under a single ski umbrella two decades ago--and offers steep, powder skiing right in Seattle's backyard. The mountains feature a rotating schedule, meaning that one of the resorts may be closed on a particular day (for instance, Alpental is closed on Mondays), protecting fresh tracks in between storm cycles. Also, with night skiing at Alpental and Summit West, weekend warriors can still score after work turns all week.
It's not a big area--only about 300 acres of inbounds terrain--but as I look up to see Denny Mountain rising steeply to meet the storm's last lingering clouds, it's easy to tell that this place skis much bigger than a trail map could ever capture.
Phil leads the charge, saluting and high-fiving anyone he can get his hands on as we make our way to the Armstrong Express. Does this guy know everyone? I ask myself as he lets out a, "WOO-HOO," to the liftie.
We watch the first riders float down below our skis, bouncing from one cloud of white to the next. With an average of 434 inches of accumulation a year, Alpental is built for days like today. The snow is heavy--surfy rather than Trenchtown--but with nearly three feet to work with and no bottom in sight, no one is complaining.
While the impatient crowd laps up the lower mountain, Phil's eyes are focused on Chair 2, Alpental's stairway to powder deliverance, and one of the most iconic chairlifts in the Pacific Northwest. Accessing the expanse of Edelweiss Bowl, Breakover trees, and Alpental's backcountry gates, the fixed double unfolds a small mountain into a lifetime of steep, rocky lines, and sneaky tree shots.
As ski patrol wraps up its avy rounds, the lift line snakes back a few hundred feet. Pearl Jam blasts from the bullwheel speakers. Not to be denied on this most epic of days, Phil reaches into his backpack and skates through the crowd, working his way to the front with his remaining beers.
In a feat that I can only assume is par for the course, he finds a buddy high up the lift line and offers a sudsy cheers. Who is this guy?! To my surprise no one goes agro. Most of these people have shared powder days before. Even though Microsoft and Amazon loom less than an hour west, the local vibe reigns supreme at Alpy, and Phil is just here to soak it up. I won't be following his lead, but I can't knock the hustle.
The crowd lets out a collective cry as the first skiers head upward, and our crew spends the morning scoring deep turns through the old-growth trees just off the lift line. More ropes drop as the day goes on, and the crowd disperses toward selective stashes.
We find more stuff to jump off than our legs can handle, and find our best runs skirting the ropes along Snake Dance and International.
Phil let's everyone know we're coming, yipping his way over every little popper he can find. The stoke is contagious, and even though my goggles have fogged and my jacket could support its own marine ecosystem, there's no way I'm ending this day on a low.
When we all clamber back into the Caravan, soggy and satiated, I can't believe that Alpental has been hiding this close to home. There would be plenty of deep Alpy days over the next few years, but as I finally accepted a road soda from Stokemaster Phil, I knew I'd never forget my first time.
Know Before You Go:
For a hot fire, wings, and a wide-selection of microbrews, wander over to the Commonwealth on top of Snoqualmie Pass.
Lift tickets are $79 for all-day 9am-10pm, and $70 for 9am-4pm