Martin Volken never planned on a life in the Cascades: In 1991, he followed a woman (now his wife) from his idyllic Alpine home in Zermatt, Switzerland, all the way to Seattle. But he isn't bitter. In fact, he's embraced the Northwest's beloved mountain range, building two ski shops (which, together, sell more randonnée gear than Seattle's enormous REI flagship store), starting up a guiding service for the Cascades' hidden routes, and even conceiving a touring ski—the popular K2 Shuksan—based on his experience amid the PNW's craggy peaks. "When I moved here, I figured out how incredible North Cascades National Park is, says Volken. "It's a mini version of the Alps in a primeval state, combining European mountains with American wilderness.Volken was skiing Zermatt's steepest pitches before he'd dropped his last baby tooth, but the thought of guiding professionally didn't occur to him till the early 1990s, when he was already in Seattle. "A couple of buddies were in the process of becoming guides, and suddenly I felt like the obvious had been there all along, he says. After spending the better part of three years yo-yoing to the motherland to get certification as a Swiss Guide, one of guiding's most elite distinctions (he's one of only three working in the States), Volken launched Pro Guiding Service in 1998, specializing in aggressive alpine touring in the Cascades. His business has almost single-handedly registered the mountains on the backcountry radar. Over the last decade, the 39-year-old pioneered some of the range's classic routes—the popular Forbidden Tour and the Snoqualmie Haute Route are his babies—and he penned the guidebook Backcountry Skiing Snoqualmie Pass.
Laid-back Volken is shy, almost embarrassed, about his impact on the OB scene in the Northwest, but everyone who has skied with him can only rave. "Martin's ski-mountaineering program is unequaled in the U.S., says Mike Hattrup, one of Volken's five guides and head of the telemark division at K2. "You get this sense of comfort being in the mountains with him—I mean, this is a guy who grew up at the foot of the Matterhorn.
Volken Mind Probe
Born: November 13, 1965; Geneva, Switzerland
Raised: Stalden, Switzerland (10 miles from Zermatt)
Marty's Place: Volken's ski shop in Seattle, Pro Ski Service, is the hangout of choice for the Northwest's backcountry crowd. "Of course, he says, "both of my stores combined are only the size of the men's room at REI.
Finishing School: Swiss Guides face intense testing in mountaineering, rock climbing, and skiing to earn a patch. No wonder there's a 50 percent dropout rate. "I took a really bad fall in my climbing test, and I failed, Volken explains. "I had to take it over again the next year, but it was good for me.
The Hell with Neutrality: Without a little badgering, the K2 Shuksan ski might never have existed. "Martin sent me his design, and it sat in my drawer for at least two years. There wasn't a market for it, says a diplomatic Mike Hattrup. "But when I got to know him, we decided to make it. Volken's take? "To tell you the truth, the Shuksan finally got built only because Mike wanted to shut me up.