From fanciful to the famous: Where to ski in Oregon
In a state with a dozen ski areas, it can be hard to know where to start. Happily, last week Stephen Wood did the hard work for us
Saturday 12 December 2009
Skiers and boarders in the US have reason to feel aggrieved. The winter-sports community has been hit hard by the Great Crash of 2008; but while bankers have been put on life support and the motor industry kick-started by vehicle scrappage, no helping hand has been offered to skiers. If President Obama is indeed a communist, as the ranters on America's Fox TV insist, he isn't a very good one.
Presidents weren't always like this. At the dedication in 1937 of Timberline Lodge, in Oregon's Mount Hood National Forest, Franklin D Roosevelt revealed his dream that "Here, to Mount Hood, will come thousands and thousands of visitors in the coming years ... for skiing and tobogganing and various other forms of winter sports." For the FDR administration, putting the country back to work after the 1929 Great Crash involved publicly funded infrastructure projects, and getting it on to skis involved not only cutting the first pistes through the trees at Stowe in Vermont but also creating at Mount Hood what Roosevelt described as "recreational facilities installed by the Government itself and operated under its complete control".
You may believe that you are unfamiliar with the magnificent stone-and-timber lodge that FDR built, with a labour force from the Works Progress Administration of his "New Deal". But if you have seen Stanley Kubrick film The Shining, that is not the case: in it, Timberline played the part of the exterior of the fictional Outlook Hotel. Happily for those contemplating a night on Mount Hood, the interior scenes featuring Jack Nicholson and a heavy axe were shot entirely on location at Elstree Studios.
According to the state's official winter-sports guide, there are a dozen ski areas in Oregon. They range from the fanciful to the famous. The town of Ashland, down in the south, has a renowned Shakespeare theatre company, so the short-but-steep runs on nearby Mt Ashland are named Ariel, Bottom, Caliban and so on; halfway up the state, in the Cascade Mountain range, is Mt Bachelor, among the half-dozen biggest ski areas in the US with 3,683 acres of "old-school skiing" (according to the American magazine, Ski). Over in the east is Anthony Lakes, whose location far from the Oregon seaboard ensures that its snow is softer and drier than the more moisture-laden stuff that often falls in the west; up in the north, near the border with Washington State, lies Mount Hood, whose skiing used to be served by a weird gondola made out of an old single-decker bus.
For skiers from the UK, it is Mount Hood and Mt Bachelor which are the obvious targets, for the scale of their skiing and their proximity to the international airport at Portland, the state's major city, and the one at Redmond in central Oregon. Last week I flew to Redmond via San Francisco and, after skiing Mt Bachelor, drove to Mount Hood, and subsequently to Portland for the flight home. Oregon had a big snowfall towards the end of November: about 100 inches fell on Mount Hood. But no more followed, and Mt Bachelor's skiing was confined to about a quarter of the area.
Its piste map shows a volcanic mountain cone with a vertical drop of 3,365ft from the peak (at 9,065ft) and skiing on every point of the compass. Descending to the west is a group of black runs; there is a mix of terrain on the north-facing slope above the main lift base; the easy, cruising runs have an eastern aspect; and on the south face of the treeless peak is skiing for those who like to venture into the back country. At the end of last week, however, only a north-east quadrant of intermediate terrain had been opened. That strategy was a good one. Old snow demands intensive grooming, and by concentrating on one area Mt Bachelor's piste-bashers had created an excellent skiing surface. The sky was an unblemished blue; the temperature was reasonably high, and the wind low; and the US's biggest ski personality, Glen Plake (the man with the two-foot-high Mohican hairstyle), was whispered to be on the slopes. Everyone was happy, especially me.
The following day I set off for Mount Hood, driving north along central Oregon's high-desert plateau, dotted with buttes and riven by canyons. It's a sort of John Wayne landscape (minus the cacti) on a miniature scale, except that on the western horizon it is bounded not by the gnarly outcrops of Monument Valley but by a sequence of snow-capped peaks, the most prominent being the 11,240ft Mount Hood. Beyond the plateau, just before the bizarre road sign which informs drivers on their way from the equator to the North Pole that their journey is half-done, the scenery disappears behind two thick curtains of evergreen. From this point onwards glimpses of the mountain – which has been in direct line of sight since the town of Madras (!), on the plateau – are occasional. Only at what would elsewhere be the "tree line" does the mountain come fully into view, along with panorama of much of northern Oregon.
The drive from Mt Bachelor is delightful enough; but the prize at the end is exceptional. Timberline Lodge, an official US National Historic Landmark, is sited at 5,960ft, just where the trees give up the struggle to survive. Seen from the outside it is a surprisingly self-effacing building: its materials (local timber, local stone) are elements of the landscape from which it emerges, and once the annual average of 400 inches has fallen it is shrouded with snow, often up to its third-floor windows. Inside, the lodge's guest rooms are cabin-like, comfortable and characterful but – by virtue of remaining true to their original design, as required by the building's landmark status – bereft of many of the luxuries of contemporary ski lodges.
The public areas, though, have a grandeur of conception and style to make the spirit soar, despite a use of materials which is restrained and rugged, in a sort of manly Arts and Crafts style. Essentially a three-storey building, the lodge has two wings articulated around a core whose centrepiece is a huge, hexagonal, stone chimney, into which six separate fireplaces are cut. It rises from the ground to the roof, emerging on the second floor into a double-level atrium. In this open space, 27 paces across at the bottom and also hexagonal in plan, there are six, 30ft-high supporting timber columns so substantial that even in a firm embrace I could barely get my arms halfway around. If, as it seems, the construction was the work of Brobdingnagian carpenters, they had a delicate touch: animal and bird figures are expertly carved into the top of the staircases' very broad newel posts.
In its early days, the lodge struggled; four different operators failed to make a financial success of it. By 1955 it was in disuse and disrepair. That it survives is thanks in large part to the Kohnstamm family – and also to the upswing in skiing's popularity from the 1960s onwards. Since the family took the lodge over in 1955, the turnover in personnel has slowed: the Kohnstamm company remains in charge, and executive chef Leif Eric Benson, a man whose taste in cars is classic (he owns two Bentleys) but whose "Pacific fresh" menu is highly inventive, has been in the kitchen for 30 years. With more than 250 Oregon Pinot Noirs on the restaurant's wine list, I could happily stay there for at least a couple of years myself.
Ownership of the lodge remains in public hands; and the cost of its maintenance averages between $1.2m and $1.5m per year (to which the Kohnstamm company's lease contributes about $1m annually). During the political controversy over President Obama's economic stimulus plan, the right-wing Wall Street Journal published a sour article on Timberline under the heading "A New Deal gift that keeps on taking". Citing the lodge as a historic example of unwise public intervention in the private sphere, the article concluded that it survives "in spite of, not because of, the ideas it was built on". Probably, skiers should feel gratitude towards Obama after all: he did stop the right-wingers from winning last year's election.
How is the skiing on Mount Hood? Above Timberline the slopes reach a height (8,540ft) sufficient for snow and skiing to endure throughout the year, a unique attraction in the US. With skiing also running down from the lodge into forested, intermediate terrain, the area has a total vertical drop of 3,590ft, the biggest in the state. Unfortunately a combination of strong winds and relatively sparse snow meant that last week I could only ski the lower reaches, and cold weather made the skiing surface quite hard.
Nearby Mount Hood Meadows was better. This larger area – with 2,150 acres to Timberline's 1,430 – is not in fact on Mount Hood but just behind it in a sheltered position. Except up near the top of the area (the highest lift reaches 7,305ft), the snow and the temperature were more agreeable. The Meadows also has plenty of expert terrain, but again there was insufficient snow to warrant opening it; again, I contented myself skiing the numerous intermediate runs through the trees.
Finally, just down in the valley is the Mount Hood Skibowl, in the curiously named village of Government Camp. The bowl is primarily a night-skiing area, but an unusually large one: it has 960 acres of skiing and boarding terrain, which is illuminated seven nights per week.
Having heard only good things about it, I was looking forward to visiting Portland on my way home. But on its approach I saw a dismaying road sign: "Boring Oregon City", it read. Luckily, this was an illusion created by the state's penchant for curious place-names. The signpost merely indicated a turn-off towards two places, one called "Boring" and the other "Oregon City". Portland was far from boring.
* The writer travelled as a guest of Oregon Tourism (001 800 547 7842; traveloregon.com ).
Ski Dream from W&O Travel (0845 277 3333; wandotravel.com/ski ) offers tailor-made packages to Oregon. *A week at the Timberline Lodge (four nights) and Sunriver resort near Mt Bachelor (three nights) starts at £899 per person (based on two sharing) including flights, car hire and room only accommodation.
* Flights to Portland are available from Heathrow with Delta Airlines (0845 600 0950; delta.com ) via New York or United Airlines (0845 8444 777; unitedairlines.co.uk ) via Los Angeles. *Timberline is about an hour's drive from Portland.
* Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood, Timberline, Oregon (001 503 272 3311; timberlinelodge.com ). Doubles start at $120 (£80), room only.
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