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.
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.