FROM THE TOP OF MISSIONRIDGE, LOCAL MATT Dahlgreen looks westward at a reservoir of brooding clouds stacked against the peaks of Washington's Cascade Crest. Right now, he surmises, the westside hills are enjoying "liquid skies and dripping snows. But here on the eastern slopes of the Cascades, only 50 air miles away, it's—yawn—another sunny day. Dahlgreen asks,"Is this paradise or what?
Two college-age skiers exit Chair 2, the lift that serves the resort's 6,700-foot summit, and they echo Dahlgreen's sentiment in their own style: they lift their pallid faces to the yellow orb above and howl. Dahlgreen grins. "Two-o-sixers, he pronounces, pegging them to Seattle's area code. "Probably haven't seen sunshine in months.
Sunshine is, in fact, such a powerful magnet that 45 percent of this hill's 97,000 annual visitors come from the Seattle environs. Trigger-happy, SAD-afflicted skiers pack up their Rocket Boxes, speed pastseveral "wet-side ski hills and make the two-and-a-half hour trip by cruising west on Interstate 90, then following the snaking course of Highway 97 across Blewett Pass to the town of Wenatchee.
But it's not just the region's yearly total of 300 blue-sky days that draws skiers from the gray zone. It's also the snow. As the maritime air off the Pacific unloads moisture along the Cascade Crest, the air blowing down the eastern slopes becomes remarkably colder. That means Mission's snow usually has more in common with Idaho powder than with Cascadian cement.
That's one reason Mission Ridge is sometimes called a Cascadian Sun Valley. Aside from the weather,though, the comparison is a bit of a stretch. Mission boasts only two-thirds of the fabled Idaho resort's terrain and vertical drop. More significantly, Mission lacks a web of high-speed quads (it's only got four double chairlifts),is surrounded by no trendy log architecture (just a modest base lodge and a hut-styled midmountain lodge), and there's nary a Schwarzenegger in sight (hordes of anonymous Microsoft, Starbucks and Boeing employees instead).
The ski hill sits in a north-facing, horseshoe-shaped basin with Chairs 1 and 2 carrying visitors up the gut of the basin to an exposed ridge. From there, they can look northeast over the blue ribbon of the Columbia River and southwest over the white hulk of Mt. Rainier. Chairs 3 and 4 service the quieter trails and scenic glades of the basin's flanks. All four chairs access a bountiful slice of intermediate terrain: long, snaking trails of undulating pitch. This is what families—the mainstay here—love about the hill. But local yokel Dahlgreen, a former Alta ski patroller, has little patience for such tranquility. He prefers the glades between the groomers. Or he hikes along Windy Ridge, the eastern boundary of the resort, and skis the ungroomed slopes that funnel back to the lifts. Or he poles north above the basalt cliffs of Bomber Bowl (candy for New Schoolers) to ski the powder stashes hidden among the glades of Central Park. "I'm amazed this place has entertained me for seven years, he marvels.
Regardless of ability level, skiers rarely gripe about the terrain at Mission Ridge—it's the slow double chairs that create controversy. Many two-o-sixers write on their visitor-evaluation forms, "I'll be back when you install some quads. Nonetheless, hundreds ofSeattleites buy season passes to Mission, and thousands more visit several weekends a year because of those chairs. They allow the hill to operate profitably with few skier visits and low ticket prices, keeping the mountain an uncrowded, affordable getaway for families who crave an escape rather than a scene.
"Quads may suit the megaresorts, but Mission is a microbrew experience, Dahlgreen says. "High-speed lifts would erode the quality and quaintness of our skiing. He believes the expense of the lifts themselves—plus the snowmaking that they would require—would inevitably spike prices and force the resort to attempt to double skieer visits. "With that kind of traffic, I wouldn't be finding fresh powder in Central Park a week after the last storm, he says. "I'd be tailing my daughter to shield her from reckless shredders.
On this particular afternoon, though, Dahlgreen has no such problems. He savors the slow lift ride skyward, steeping in the scenery and enjoying the divine light bathing the mountain. It's Sunday, yet only a few dozen skiers are visible on the sunny slopes below, each trailed by a flaming golden contrail. There's a spiritual character to the scene and, smiling mischievously, Dahlgreen takes a moment to worship Mission Ridge as the Seattleites do—he lifts his face to the yellow orb and howls.