I’d been motoring west across Oregon’s high desert in a jalopy full of holes when at last the snowy volcanoes I was aiming for bubbled up on the horizon. In the back of my truck bounced three pairs of my favorite skis.
This relatively sunny and dry portion of a very moist state has but one major ski hill, Mount Bachelor, and it’s a four-hour drive from Portland. Soon after you arrive you must leave, because the single largest ski area in the Pacific Northwest — the sixth biggest in the country — has no hotel, no spa, no place to eat after 4 p.m. For those things you must drive 20 miles down a forested two-lane road to Bend. That’s where I was headed.
Mount Bachelor’s lifts spin till the end of May. Flakes often fall with apocalyptic wrath — upward of 38 feet a year. Bachelor’s 10 lifts service 88 named runs. From the 9,065-foot-high summit lift station, you can ski for 360-degrees down 3,683 acres of glades, bowls and oddly shaped lava cones and welts.
I’ve racked up a thousand rides on Bachelor’s lifts and skied the peaks big and small. Over the winters I’ve worked to meet my tribe, compare notes and unearth more secrets. For a few weeks last winter I really dug in and buddied up on lifts and in the backcountry with locals who knew far more than I did. That wasn’t so hard to do.
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A mountain man
Paul Mandel, a contractor with the telltale squint of a mountain man, met me on a sunny Saturday at the bottom of Bachelor’s Northwest Express lift. Everyone knows Northwest is where you go for the longest, steepest and best powder runs, especially through the expert-only trees that drop off the West Traverse. The groomers elsewhere are always long and fast.
“Being up here is the closest thing to being 6 as a 54-year-old like me can get,” Paul said as we drifted over the trees and a run called Osprey Way. “It really keeps you in shape. From the waist down I’m a rock. Above that, well, I like to drink beer.”
Bachelor was one of the first places to put radio chips in ski passes, which can keep a digital record of where, when and how often you ski at the mountain. Paul had already logged more than 2 million vertical feet that season, the same as one big run from the top of a mountain 379 miles high. By Memorial Day, he’d more than double that to 4,415,776 vertical feet, the second most of anyone at Bachelor all season, and he’d do it all with a well-maintained beer gut. I’d barely crack 200,000 vertical feet.
We scooted toward Sparks Lake Run, a black diamond that falls for 2,353 vertical feet to the lift. From the top of the run you can see northwest over the frozen flats of its namesake, one of my favorite places for canoeing in summer.
“OK, so you’re not too far behind me,” Paul said approvingly when we rendezvoused at the bottom and hopped immediately back on the lift — no line! — for another run with no time to rest. Skiers call this a “hot lap.” The acid cooking my thighs did feel as if it might melt my pants.
We raced down Devil’s Backbone and arced hard down Atkeson’s Zoom, a run named after the photographer Roy Atkeson, who captured the early days of Oregon skiing with a large-format camera. Two of his steely, gorgeous prints hang in my living room. We hit Ed’s Garden, an ambling intermediate run, and skirted around “the cone,” a cratered, volcanic wart on Bachelor’s northern flank that I used to get up at 5 a.m. to hike and ski. Paul could do hot laps all day.
To the backcountry
Bachelor is the kind of mountain you can grow old with, but it’s the central Oregon backcountry that keeps you young. There are hundreds of places to ski — Paulina Peak, Broken Top, a spot we call Little AK — that all lie within an hour’s drive of Bend or less. To ski them, you must be willing to walk.
With a modicum of fitness, though, the journey up can be as pleasing as the journey down. Imagine going for a jolly winter StairMaster workout, and then cranking up the fun with fresh tracks all the way down.
A few days after I met Paul I drove west out of Bend to a trailhead below a sweeping escarpment called Tam McArthur Rim, which rises like a bulldozer blade near the town of Sisters. Some friends of some friends had invited me to spend three days skiing “Tam” from two cozy yurts perched on the shores of a heart-shape lake. There we’d find bunk beds for 12, crackling wood stoves, a sauna and board games.
My bros in, say, Jackson, Wyo., may scoff at the rim’s modest measurements — maybe a mile and a half wide, 1,200 vertical feet high, most of it not steeper than about 30 degrees — but the place still makes me giddy with an endless number of runs that drop off the crest into enormous bowls. Nearly all of it is north-facing. The runs get steeper and longer west of an aquiline promontory called the Proboscis. A relatively short hike up a natural earth ramp called the Escalator takes you to the top, out of the way of avalanches.
Shane Fox, the shaggy 45-year-old co-owner of Three Sisters Backcountry, rents the yurts and runs guided trips onto the rim. He and his business partner, Jonas Tarlen, spend a week every fall assembling the 20-foot-diameter yurts and then another week every summer tearing them down to minimize impact on both the environment and the yurts.
“I spent 15 years working to get the permits for this so I could make no money,” Shane joked. “But, man, I do love to ski.”