We emerged out of the predawn darkness, an assortment of not-yet-caffeinated people toting ski clothes and Starbucks cups. Precisely at the scheduled time of 6:15 a.m., a coach bus pulled up, its cushy seats promising a fine nap. At 6:30 we were off, heading to Cascade Mountain on the Windy City Ski bus.
Windy City Ski is a new chartered coach service that picks up skiers and snowboarders in the early morning on the North Side, drives them up to Cascade Mountain or Devil's Head Resort, both in Wisconsin, and drives them back the same day.
This is skiing and boarding handed to you on a platter. For $49 to $119, depending on whether you also buy lift tickets, rental and a lesson, you can show up at one of two North Side pickup spots. About three hours later, you and your new buddies are at the slopes. At 5:30 p.m. you board the bus home.
It is like a ski club that materializes, Brigadoon-like, for a single day, then melts away that night.
Before tucking themselves in for the drive — one smart fellow had brought a pillow — the bus passengers sang its praises.
"There's no other service like this in Chicago," said Becky Conklin, 26, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "And living in Chicago, if you don't have a car, this is the only way to go skiing."
"You don't have to get a group of 50 people organized by yourself; you just jump on the bus," said Chris Shanks, 32, an insurance agent from Ravenswood.
Day-trip ski buses are a staple in cities such as New York and San Francisco but not, for some reason, Chicago.
Other options are few. Ski clubs run Midwest ski trips for their members but not day trips. The Blizzard Ski & Snowboard School runs day trips from various Chicago-area pickup spots almost every Saturday, but its program is for 8- to-18-year-olds, and the trips are to the much smaller Wilmot Mountain, just over the Wisconsin border.
Snowcrest Ski and Snowboard Center in Crestwood runs a night-skiing trip from its store most Saturdays (at the reasonable price of $54 for bus, lesson and lift ticket), but it is convenient only to south suburbanites and also goes to Wilmot.
Tyler Knight, 28, a securities trader for an insurance company by weekday and devoted skier by weekend, was perplexed to discover Chicago's lack of a ski bus when he moved here in June. Before working in Iowa for a year, he had spent several years living in, and taking day ski trips from, New York
He was dismayed that Chicago had no equivalent. "My first question was, why? There's a lot of good skiing here," he said.
That the larger mountains can be a three-hour drive from Chicago seemed a poor excuse. In New York he routinely got up at 3:50 a.m. to take a bus 41/2hours to Vermont, then back the same night.
"I did it every weekend," he said. "Sometimes twice a weekend."
He and his brother, David, a 31-year-old commercial real estate broker, thought Chicagoans deserved a ski bus. Plus the brothers, who were born in Iowa but grew up skiing in Colorado, wanted to ski every weekend themselves.
They met with people at area ski resorts and skied every mountain within driving distance — hard duty, but someone had to do it. They chose Cascade and Devil's Head and this winter launched Windy City Ski, which runs trips every weekend, one or both days, depending on demand.
There were 31 of us on my trip, a number of whom stayed awake and talked on the ride up, even one guy who hadn't slept the night before.
Lesley Smith, 26, a marketing coordinator who lives in Lakeview, passed around her copy of In Touch magazine for discussion of Heidi Montag's plastic surgery and then read aloud everyone's horoscope.
"I've got a week of love ahead of me," said Ashley Welch, 24, a personal trainer from Old Town.
The ski bus provided bagels, cream cheese, granola bars and cold drinks. Someone passed around Baileys Irish cream to add to coffee, as fortification for the slopes. A few hardy partiers opened morning beers.
It was a convivial group, even for those who had come alone. Skiers tend to be friendly and have an immediate bond. And Windy City Ski has reached out to solo skiers through Meetup.com. On one recent trip, some 16 previous strangers who had learned about the bus from Meetup.com spent the day skiing together.
As the bus pulled into the Cascade Mountain parking lot, Tyler Knight made sure no one felt alone. "If you're by yourself and you want to ski or ride (snowboard) with us, we'll be glad to," he said as we crowded into the aisle to pull on our ski clothes. "And for lunch, there's a lodge at the top of the mountain. We'll meet at 12:30."
He handed out our lift and lesson tickets and rental receipts, and then we were off, like children unleashed at an amusement park.
And what happy kids we were. I've skied out West, but for this intermediate skier — heck, even for the double-black-diamond skiing Knight brothers — Cascade was just fine. The lift lines were long — beware of three-day weekends — but the snow was excellent, there were plenty of trails, and two of the intermediate runs included the wide bowls I love for practicing turns.
At lunch, my ski bus gang, none of whom I had known a few hours earlier, gathered at the lodge and compared notes: the great runs, the embarrassing falls, the appeal for some people of spending the afternoon tubing.
Then the sun came out, turning the snow sparkly and the mountain postcard beautiful.
To top it off, my afternoon group lesson turned into a private lesson when I was the only person who showed up for intermediate-level instruction. My teacher was the best I've ever encountered. In 90 minutes he broke me of my habit of turning by stemming one ski out in a half-snowplow and sent me on my parallel-turning way.
A happy crew straggled back to the bus in time for the 5:30 departure. We piled into our seats, and the bus left for Chicago exactly on time. We watched ski porn — aka a video of extreme and heli-skiing — on the bus' video monitors.
"Last week we took a vote on what movie to watch," said David Knight. "Everyone was really excited. We put it on, and five minutes later, everyone was asleep."
Within a half-hour of our departure, so was I. And that's another great thing about the bus: When that physical "crash" comes from all the fresh air and exercise, someone else does the driving.
We were sleepy but satisfied customers. "It was great," said Neha Bhooshan, 27, a University of Chicago doctoral student who lives in Streeterville. "I'm going to call my sister and say, 'Guess what? I snowboarded this weekend, and you didn't.'"
Me, I dropped my plans to go skiing out West during an upcoming family trip and penciled in a few more trips on the bus.
If you go
Windy City Ski runs day bus trips every weekend to either Cascade Mountain in Portage, Wis., or Devil's Head Resort in Merrimac, Wis. The bus leaves from Clark and Division streets between 5:45 and 6 a.m. and from Fullerton and Sheffield avenues between 6:15 and 6:30 a.m.
Getting started: To sign up or get more information, visit windycityski.com. The signup deadline is 4 p.m. Thursday, but later signups are welcome if space is available. For transportation alone, the cost is $49; for bus and lift ticket, $89; for bus, lift ticket and lesson, $99; for bus, lift ticket and rental, $109; and for bus, lift ticket, rental and lesson, $119.
Getting skis: If you want to avoid the hassle of renting at the slope and are willing to pay $10 extra, you can rent your equipment in Chicago at Viking Ski Shop (vikingskishop.com, 773-276-0732) and take it on the bus. For $30, you can be fitted with boots and skis in advance, pick them up Friday and return them Sunday.
Getting trained: Consider a lesson, especially if you are an intermediate or advanced skier. Most lessons at these slopes are for beginners. A more advanced lesson is likely to be a very small group or even a private lesson. Windy City's $10 price for a 90-minute lesson can't be beat.
Getting acquainted: Don't hesitate to go alone. This is a welcoming crowd, even to a 50-something suburban mom. On the bus, you're all boarders and skiers.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun