Oregon: The edge of heaven

Tam Leach meets skiing Santas and ends up on top of the world in Oregon's festive season
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The Independent Travel

It's tempting to stay inside. I could happily spend the day moving from the bed to the overstuffed armchair in front of the large-screen TV, with perhaps a quick dash to the Jacuzzi out on the deck. There's corn for popping in the microwave, and the list of guest activities at the hotel radiates Christmas cheer: wreath-making, gingerbread cookie-decorating, a bring-your-own teddy bear tea (unfortunately, I left my bear at home).

However, though the mist seems set in outside, the snow report for Mount Bachelor is claiming a foot of fresh and clearing skies just 20 minutes up the road. It's hard to believe the voice of an American who can sound so enthusiastic so early in the morning, but the promise of a powder day is too tempting to resist.

Besides, we've travelled a long way to this winter wonderland. Mount Bachelor, Oregon, is a three-hour drive from Portland along winding, country roads. It is renowned in the north-western states for consistently good snowfall, rolling terrain, incredible tree skiing and a friendly, low-key family atmosphere; outside that region, it's hardly known at all.

While the crowded slopes of New England are well advertised as December destinations in the UK, the far more snowsure north-western resorts are less well-known. The journey may be longer but we'd rather have snow than ice. Sunriver, our base for the week, runs "Traditions" events from Thanksgiving in late November to the New Year; the schedule fills a whole brochure.

With kids' clubs and crafts, jingle bells sleigh rides, snowmobiling and moonlight snowshoeing, you could conceivably spend a hectic week here and never set foot on the slopes. Today, however, the mountain is calling.

There's not much to see when we arrive. Bachelor appears to be the typical smallish American ski hill: well-worn base lodges, ski and snowboard shop, cross-country centre and just a few lifts heading up into the mists that, I'm disappointed to notice, are still very much in evidence. There is no accommodation; most visitors stay either in our "resort community" of Sunriver Village, or Little Bend, once booming to the sound of sawmills and railroads, now swelling yearly with an influx of outdoor enthusiasts and small-town hippies.

Transported speedily above the frosty treeline to mid-mountain, we discover that the lift is closed, which is disappointing though understandable: we can barely see 20ft. Fortunately the snow is fresh and the lower slopes sheltered, though the terrain is more limited than we'd expected. Wide, rolling pistes, ample for beginners and intermediates, a decent terrain park, and mellow glades peppered with natural jumps and dips are plenty for a first day. But is there enough to keep us interested for a week? And are these really the fabled tree runs?

Dodging a Santa on skis to stop for a warming hot chocolate, we belatedly study the trail map. Even taking into account the closed summit, we've consistently been missing lifts and only been skiing about a third of the place. And by now, it has started to snow.

It shows no signs of stopping, the hot chocolate has only served to illustrate how cold it is, and first day jelly legs are in effect. With carols and treelighting on the evening agenda, an early dinner seems less a cop out, more a practical decision. Over the next few days we'll make the drive into Bend for bars and sushi, discount stores and a supermarket; dining options in Sunriver are limited and both a little insipid and overpriced. But tonight our wilderness Disneyland has all we need.

Next morning the mist lingers only in wisps around the main lodge, where kids are queuing up for breakfast with Mr Claus. We decline, in favour of a cappuccino and freshly-baked cinnamon roll at the mountain. Modest they may be, but we quickly discover that Bachelor's cafes are attuned to north-western tastes: local microbrews are the beer of choice, burritos and nachos are the après-ski snacks - and coffee is taken extremely seriously.

Clouds still shroud the summit, but the first lift is a revelation. There is the mid-mountain lodge, the route to the backside territory with its snow-laden trees, and there is the Summit Express, clearly open and running up through the cumulus.

The inversion effect is a funny old phenomena. Cold below, sunny up top, it's relatively common in the mountains. Bachelor, however, has the edge. Breaking through the clouds, we see the volcanic peak sparkling under blue skies. Great cauliflowers of rime frost border untouched powder fields; the horizon above the clouds stretches infinite.

Tonight we'll return to holiday-land, but right now it seems we're on the edge of heaven, knee-deep in powder and on top of the world. Still, the excess of candy canes and sugar plums is having an effect, even up here. Tin soldiers drum out a rhythm to my descent: let it snow (turn), let it snow (turn), let it snow.

GETTING THERE

The closest airport to Mount Bachelor is Redmond, served by Horizon, United Express and Skywest. Portland offers a wider choice of flights, though none non-stop from Britain.

GETTING AROUND

Rent a car: shuttle transport is expensive and hotel ski buses run on a limited schedule.

STAYING THERE

Sunriver Resort (00 1 541 593 4609; www.sunriver-resort.com. The resort, where writer Tam Leach stayed, offers condominium and hotel-style accommodation. Doubles start at $99 (£57) during the Traditions season, excluding breakfast.

Condominiums and vacation homes in Sunriver Village range from $85 (£48) for a studio to less than $300 (£170) for a well-appointed home sleeping 12; for further information contact the Sunriver Chamber of Commerce.

In Bend, try McMenamins' converted Old Street Francis School (00 1 541 382 5174; www.mcmenamins.com), with its onsite brewery, bakery and cinema; elegant doubles start at $94 (£53), with hostel beds at $30 (£17).

SKIING THERE

Day passes $52 (£30); prices for multi-day tickets, equipment rental and lessons try www.mtbachelor.com, the website of the Stowe Mountain Resort (00 1 800 829 2442).

MORE INFORMATION

Sunriver Chamber of Commerce (00 1 541 593 8149; www.sunrivercha-mber.com) Bend Visitor and Convention Bureau (00 1 541 382 8048; www.visitbend.com).

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