BEND, Ore. — I was never so happy to hear the scream of a snowmobile engine and see one come ripping toward me.
Exhausted after slogging through more than a foot of fresh snow for most of the day, I found the sight of a groomed snowmobile track welcoming.
The goal had been to snowboard through fresh powder while descending Vista Butte, but that plan sort of got scratched when we hit the flats early during our ride down.
Bulletin photographer Joe Kline and I started out in snowshoes from the Vista Butte Sno-Park along Century Drive on a recent Thursday, during the beginning of the intense winter storm that would slam the Northwest over the next several days.
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About 20 miles southwest of Bend, the 6,619-foot Vista Butte is a viable winter and spring option for snowshoeing and backcountry skiing and snowboarding.
Tumalo Mountain, located just across Century Drive from Mount Bachelor, is the best-known Central Oregon destination for backcountry snowriders. But Vista Butte, located about 2 miles southeast of Tumalo Mountain, is a good option when Mount Bachelor and Tumalo Mountain are getting pounded with wind and snow.
However, the key is to find the right pitch when descending the butte. Checking the topographic map, it appeared Joe and I had ridden too far to the southwest, into an area too flat to keep our speed in a foot of powder.
We ended up post-holing much of our way back down Vista Butte, but then we finally came to the wide snowmobile trail. The groomed road offered an easy way back down to the Sno-Park. We raced down the track on our boards, careful to watch for oncoming sleds, and finally made it back to the car.
The snowshoe up Vista Butte was not particularly taxing, at least not until the final half mile or so where the trail steepens significantly. We started out along the Butte Trail, then hooked onto the Vista Butte Trail for the final half mile. The total distance of the ascent was 2¼ miles, with about 700 feet of elevation gain, though it seemed like much more elevation gain with all the new snow.
We began to slow on that final push to the summit, held back by the steepness and the deepening fresh snow.
When we finally made it to the top, we admired the unique wind-carved cornices on which we stood. Visibility was hindered by the clouds and falling snow, but we could make out Century Drive below us to the south.
I dropped in and made a few turns down the east-facing slope, but I stopped to hike back up when I reached the tree line. If I had continued to descend in that direction, I would have ended up miles from the car. Also, as we looked out to the east, we observed that the slope appeared to be steep enough for riding but also that it seemed to flatten out abruptly.
I had heard from a few Central Oregon backcountry experts that the southern portion of the butte offers the best lines for skiing and snowboarding — and riding that direction can place you back near Vista Butte Sno-Park.
A clearing above the tree line offered smooth, soft turns at just the right pitch. But the trees became numerous rather quickly, making it difficult to navigate through the powder — like “Return of the Jedi” on a snowboard.
Vista Butte is not quite as steep as the main bowl on Tumalo Mountain, but it is precipitous enough for skiers or boarders to get plenty of turns while keeping a sufficient speed, as long as they stay on a steep enough section of the butte, as Joe and I learned the hard way.
Next time I will plan to take a route more directly south down Vista Butte, as the terrain levels out somewhat suddenly to the southwest.
Most of the snowriding on Vista Butte is among the trees, so skiers and snowboarders should watch out for tree wells, areas around the bases of trees where unconsolidated snow collects and which can be hazardous for an unsuspecting snowrider.
Backcountry skiers and snowboarders should also be prepared for avalanche risk, especially after all the recent snowfall.
At Vista Butte, the numerous trees anchor the snow to make for reduced avalanche danger, but snowriders should come equipped with all the necessary avalanche tools, including a shovel, a probe and a transceiver.
And they should make sure to avoid the flats.