They like their skiing Eighties-style on the slopes of Oregon's mountains
The wintersports offering in this north-west state seems behind the times when compared with some of the bigger-name American resorts, but it's gaining ground fast. Minty Clinch puts its pistes to the test
Sunday 04 December 2011
Swinging through Oregon's ski resorts is an out-of-time adventure, a throwback to the 1980s, when Jackson Hole was a cow town and Telluride was little more than a Main Street where Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank.
At Redmond airport, Jordan at Enterprise Rentals supplies me with a shiny black Dodge SUV. He describes it as if it is a Harry Potter car, with a starter button activated by a remote control key, and we marvel at its sophistication. Rental staff in Denver or San Francisco would surely have drained the magic by taking it all for granted.
As I power off towards Mount Bachelor, cranking up The Eagles and Radiohead on Station 33, I feel the euphoria that comes to a queen of a very empty highway. I spot the mountain from miles off, not hard because it is a giant volcanic cone stuck out in the middle of nowhere.
"We have the sixth-largest ski area in the United States," says Kristine (a Californian of Japanese origin who has converted to Oregon and all it stands for), who meets me on my arrival in the resort.
"And the other five?" I ask. She looks surprised. "Who cares?" she replies. "We're just proud of what we got."
Kristine tells me that Mount Bachelor last erupted 12,000 years ago, a ball-park figure but comforting in a period of so many disastrous seismic shifts around the world. As befits a circular mountain with lifts on most of its faces, there are several points of entry. After a cheerful steak sandwich in the Sunrise Lodge, Kristine and I ride the Sunshine Express to mid mountain to meet our snow host for a bit of hard-core exploring.
The snow is cold and powdery and the trees are sufficiently widely spaced to encourage rhythmic progress between them. The clouds taunt us by parting, then regrouping, promising and denying sunshine. The skiing is a joy, but we're not conquering the cone. With heavy snow forecast, we need to get up there today, so Kristine pauses frequently to question passing friends about our prospects.
Towards 3pm, prayers are answered, skies clear, and the Summit lift opens. Our snow host, young and eager, looks crestfallen as he explains he's not allowed to escort us up there. Worse still, he can't go up himself while wearing his resort uniform. Reprehensibly, Kristine and I show no mercy as we dash off to join the queue.
In the savage wind at the top, we pause to admire horizons stretching towards infinity before plunging into the unknown. A long traverse circles the hill to West Ridge, slightly gentler than the Cirque with its quartet of double black diamond chutes. On gnarly terrain, the snow is crusty and cussed and my progress unpredictable, but the spectacular views combine with the challenge to make my day.
Mount Bachelor has no accommodation so I drive the snowy highway down to the Sunriver Resort, a complex with 500 rooms, 600 houses and four golf courses, much of it deserted and semi-invisible in midwinter. A vast chamber, known as the Great Hall, forms the heart of the main public building. Big wood walls contain picture windows designed to frame expansive snowfields, but the interior is snug.
In the evening, I join Kristine and her husband at the Winter Fest in Bend, population 81,000. When the timber mills closed here in the Eighties, the town was dead in the water, but its 21st-century revival is impressive, with a bright shopping mall full of global brands and an old town with lively restaurants.
We follow the crowds across the Deschutes River to a maze of tents selling local crafts, delicacies and liquors. As Kristine stops to chat to half the population, progress is slow but convivial. We pause to watch local youths competing for a $15,000 (£9,320) purse on a modest artificial hill. As one after another flops off the rail or lands in a heap, the commentator voices his contempt. "You don't deserve that prize," he roars. "You're all useless." Heartwarmingly un-American – and he's absolutely right.
The next morning, a blizzard rips through the car park at Sunriver, deterring the President's Weekend crowds from heading up to the hill. That was their miscalculation: the woods that circle the base of the mountain have excellent visibility and two feet of fresh powder do the rest.
It seems a shame to break off for a dog-sled ride with Trail of Dreams, but this is an exceptional Oregon family enterprise. After 35 years in the business, Jerry is a founder member of the mutts-as-sled-pullers school of mushing. "Siberian huskies – those fluffy ones you see walking in the park – that's all they're good for," he shouts, in an effort to make himself heard over 50 dogs screaming to be hitched up to the next sled. Zac, the current patriarch, is as noisy as any of them. He is three-eighths English pointer and five-eighths almost everything else, as you can see in the assorted faces of his descendants, which include children and grandchildren, even great-grandchildren.
Jerry's daughter, Rachel, competes in international iditarods (extreme sled races), even though she has a visual impairment that means she can barely see a dog team three yards ahead, a disability that may have prompted the title of her book, No End in Sight. As soon as our team is sorted, the barking stops and we race along a forest trail in silence, which is broken only by the squeak of runners on snow. Litters have themed names, Native American tribes or presidents, for example. Obama, Clinton and Kennedy lean keenly into their harnesses, but there are no Bushes. "I won't have those in my dog house," says Jerry with his customary derisive snort.
Oregon's alternative ski zone is Mount Hood, three hours to the north towards Portland, the state's major city. Where Bachelor overlooks cold semi-arid desert, efficiently rain-shadowed by the coastal range, Hood is temperate forest, thickly wooded and well watered by the prevailing winds off the Pacific. Government Camp, named by 19th-century settlers travelling towards the ocean, is the focus of half-a-dozen ski areas, of which the most serious are Mount Hood Meadows and Timberline.
Meadows is the more rewarding, with varied terrain for all standards. Lifts fan out from the main lodge halfway up the mountain, accessing the relatively open slopes near the summit. Take skiers' right for the Vista Express, with its web of blues and greens, or skiers' left for Cascades and Heather Canyon, a choice of off-piste steeps into the valleys off Shooting Star Ridge. In the near total absence of competition, adventurous skiers and boarders can pick their lines, racking up the angle of descent as confidence grows. The lower part of the mountain is glade skiing, with rolling blue cruisers funnelling into the long Hood River Express chair.
Timberline's skiing is pleasant rather than impressive but it does have the advantage of a ski-in, ski-out hotel. Timberline Lodge is the location for the exteriors in The Shining, Stanley Kubrick's psychological horror movie featuring Jack Nicholson as a writer driven to violence by hostile forces in isolated surroundings. The spookily familiar façade emerges through the gentle falling snow.
By contrast, the interior is warmly welcoming, with blazing logs in a four-sided fireplace in the middle of the lobby. Boots off and you're in, provided you've reserved one of the 66 rooms. Otherwise you can dine gourmet-style in the Cascade restaurant or eat dodgy pub grub in the atmospheric Blue Ox snug.
The arrival of Sam Barlow and Joel Palmer, pioneers with purpose, coincided with the first ascent of Mount Hood in 1845. At that time, wagon trains rolling slowly west had to board a river ferry that was both expensive and risky. The pioneers cleared an alternative route over a pass, with Barlow staying on to operate it while the educated Palmer headed for Oregon City to make his fortune.
Until mattresses were introduced in 1924, visitors to the Timberline Cabin brought their own blankets and slept on the floor. Things moved on in the 1930s when the existing Lodge was built as part of a nationwide initiative by President Roosevelt to put victims of the Great Depression back to work. He dedicated the building to the labour force in 1937 and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
And rightly so, because the out-of-work craftsmen took immense pride in their work. A series of finely carved wood panels on the stairs tells the story of the Barlow Trail, complete with heroes scaling heights and wagons sinking dramatically in turbulent waters. In the lobby, a mosaic catches the moment that a bear snatches a fish with colourful perfection. If Jack Nicholson were around to brandish his axe, there'd be plenty of woodwork for him to bury it in. A free guided tour of the Lodge is time well spent.
Not surprisingly, it can be fully booked at peak periods so plan ahead, but if you fail, check into Sandy Salmon Lodge on the Portland road. In an area of soulless resort properties, B&Bs are rare and this one is outstandingly quirky. It was built by Jerry and Maggie on a five-acre plot at the edge of a cliff where the Salmon and Sandy Rivers converge. Jerry, a mechanical and structural engineer, did most of the work with his son, West, something of a miracle given the size of the red pine trunks that form the walls.
The interior of the atrium-style Great Room, with its marble bar, deep sofas, log fire and picture windows, is a tribute to his skill with a gun. How the local taxidermist must have loved stuffing Jerry's trophies, a complete cougar and a white mountain goat flanked by the heads of bison, elk and caribou staring out over a pool full of koi carp and a majestic carved eagle on the newel post.
The four bedrooms have themes – mine is twee Ancestral Heritage, with its heaps of lacy cushions, marriage certificates and photos of yesteryear relatives, not to mention a "multi-generational" quilt hanging on the wall. An enormous bearskin in the corridor shows the way to the Fishing Hall, named in honour of George Bush Sr's visit in the 1980s. Although he didn't catch a fish, he marked the occasion with a photo that he later hung in the White House during his tenure. He'd have approved Jerry saying grace before the delicious communal breakfast. So Oregon can accommodate Bushes after all.
How to get there
Ski Safari (01273 224060, skisafari.com) offers a 10-night Oregon Trail Ski Safari to Mount Hood and Mount Bachelor from £1,279 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights to Seattle on British Airways, 4WD rental and 10 nights accommodation.
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