How small the gap between the sublime and the ridiculous.
Ellen and I went to the Oregon coast for a quick overnight on her birthday. (more…)
On my last day teaching with the Gravity School at Mt. Bachelor, I got a tip from New Hampshire Daniel.
I should know what Daniel’s last name is. I’m embarrassed I don’t. He’s one of the most stalwart ski coaches on the staff, has been for years. He works every day. He teaches a lot of kids, and he’s very good with them. I see him in the cafeteria surrounded by whatever tribe of little Indians he has that day, and the vibe is super mellow. The kids are free to be themselves, be silly if they want, but Daniel is in charge. And on the hill he has pockets full of tricks to get his troop skiing, playing at skiing – making skiing play.
With his thrift-store skis, white hair and slow smile, he’s brilliant at it. But he might not have been the first pro from whom I would expect to get the skiing tip of the season. Out of the blue, standing together on the ski school deck, after it was clear there would be no lessons that final afternoon, he told me he’d improved his own skiing with a trick that helps him keep his inside hip higher through a turn. Focusing on this one thing had put him in a better stance on his skis and allowed him to carve a clean arc with almost all of his weight on the outside ski, the working ski.
I tried it, and it clicked. I couldn’t do the arm thing that Daniel said triggered the positive response in his skiing. (It was something about raising your hand as if to ask a question.) But it was enough, the zeroing in on that anatomical link. It led, later that day and in days since, to my assuming a taller, more forward position, which led to more control, more playfulness, as if a delighted puppet-master were floating above my descent. It is a feeling I have treasured without always understanding it when it came my way in the past, by accident or other design. Now here was a direct-action tool to get me there more often.
Daniel’s hip tip joined a handful of technique gems from the season, my first at Bachelor. Instructor trainer Mike Philips led a clinic early in the year that focused on two-legged carving – railroad track skiing. His insight had to do with patience, the patience to stand in balance while a turn develops, gradually.
Then there was Greg Dixon, another clinician, who played with the idea that all turns fall somewhere along an intensity spectrum, a spectrum he defined with a nautical analogy. At one end would be your “submarine” turns, diving, pressing deep into an etched groove. At the other end, imagine a hovercraft skittering lightly atop the snow. There was lighthearted argument within the group about whether our between-the-extremes boat impersonations should be jet skis, or cigarette boats, or . . .
These late-spring weeks the submarining has been splendid. April storms turned Mt. Bachelor’s volcanic ribs into huge ocean waves the better to lean into a bottom turn followed by a soaring, weightless cutback off the lip. It’s a good thing I’m a goofyfoot. Most of this wind-deposited snow has filled in the left sides of the gullies. As a goofyfoot kid on the California coast (whose natural stance is right foot forward on a surfboard) I was always looking for left-breaking waves, frontside waves as it were, where my toes, my chest and my hands were facing the green wall of water. As skiers, we have no frontside or backside, in theory. We face forward, down the hill. We go left and right, foot to foot, not toeside to heelside. But still . . . the old love affair with big, left-hand walls remains, and this season Bachelor’s wave-like furrows delivered.
Now the teaching season is done. The beginner-area “magic carpet” is shut down. All but three of the chairlifts are closed. Still, there is top-to-bottom skiing. Some days very good skiing, other days not so much, as a high sun works its fingers deeper in the snowpack. The most exquisite snow might be on the ridges where, earlier in the year, a rain/freeze cycle set up regions of glassy ice polished smooth by each successive wind event. Skittering slick and loud, these places were to be avoided, until now. Watch, ski school supervisor Chris Smith told me one day last week, those pods of ice (I see them sometimes as breaching whalebacks) will turn to “silk.” And they have.
Getting to these delicacies can take some doing. You might need to traverse rock-hard chunks of cornice fall. And you’ll likely have to punch through half-baked remnants of the last powder storm – like a switching yard of frozen tracks. It’s worth it when you get to the silk, the quiet, smooth Yes! of easy. Technique, after all, is about more than aesthetics. It is, or should be, in service to where you want to go, to what state of play.
New Hampshire Daniel told me he’ll be attending the annual PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America) giant slalom camp the last weekend in April. (“I just try to stand up,” he said with a self-deprecating grin.) Then he will head back across the country to his home state and a summer job tending bar. Come fall, he’ll get in the car and migrate west again for another winter on skis.
Meanwhile, the season in central Oregon isn’t quite over. I’ll be out there as long as the snow lasts, submarining where called for, skipping like a stone where possible. And watching my hips.
Thanks, Daniel. When the snow is gone I’ll rewind, and press play.
At a morning ski-school meeting this week adult program director Chris Smith told us, “Be sure to tell your students, ‘Don’t eat the snow!’” Not the brown snow around the base area anyway.
“The snow farmers are doing a tremendous job,” Smith went on, “bringing in snow from the parking lot snow banks, stockpiling snow for the top ramps, piles for the tricky, high-traffic areas. We owe them.” Just keep an eye on your thirsty kids.
In a normal winter, the metal stairs leading up to the Gravity School’s twin yurts would be buried by now. The Clearing Rock patio bar, hovering these days like Rapunzel’s tower in the air, would typically be at waist level for skiers christie-ing to a stop at lunchtime. The imported snow Smith referred to is peppered with marble sized pieces of black volcanic rock. “Free stone grind!” one lift operator sang out in response to my sotto voce comment. Employee morale is still high despite my need to take my skis home for base repairs now and then.
It’s been a tough winter, snow-wise, in the Pacific Northwest. Many ski areas with lower elevations than Mt. Bachelor have closed (Alpental, the Summit at Snoqualmie) or never opened (Hoodoo, Willamette Pass). Portlanders tell us the skiing on usually reliable Mt. Hood is sketchy at best. Areas closer to the coast have had more rain than white stuff. And Bachelor is down, too, well below average for snowfall and base depth. As of late February, snowfall stands at 202 inches for the season, with a base depth of 88 inches. That compares unfavorably with season-long numbers from 2006 to 2014, which show an average 450 inches of snowfall and base depths exceeding 14 feet. Snow water equivalent, the measure used by water managers, stands now at less than 20 percent of average for the Oregon Cascades.
It is reminding some people of the winter of 1976-77, the winter Ellen and I arrived in Telluride. That season was the driest on record; it still is, for Colorado. If I remember right, the ski hill opened briefly over Christmas, closed, reopened for a week in February, then closed again before cranking up a third desperate time in March. The ski school situation was grim. Ellen and I didn’t much care, though. Ellen gave birth to our first, baby Cloe, on February 1. We were so blissed out we didn’t see the irony of sun bathing together on the dry grass in front of our rental house at 8,745 feet.
Smith watches the weather closely. He hasn’t seen much in the long-range forecasts to cheer him. Long-time locals bitch out loud, or under their breath. Is it global warming? Is it an aberration? Where have our powder days gone? WTF is going on?
Mt. Bachelor’s marketing department has not been shy about broadcasting our relative good fortune, however. “Third deepest mid-mountain base in the U.S!” “The most snow in all of Oregon, Washington, California and Nevada!” All true. And a quick scan of license plates in the parking lot would indicate the word has gotten out. Skiers are coming from all over, buying lift tickets. Some of them are taking lessons.
And, truth be told, the skiing is actually pretty darn good. The groomed runs are skiing superbly, smooth and obstacle free, with nightly help from the cat drivers and their corduroy-making machines. The mountain’s summit, its treeless cone a Fuji-like presence above the surrounding hemlock forests, is skiing pretty darned great, too, without any help whatsoever. Fog and wind and, yes, even the rain, have shaped a pleasure zone up there that rivals off-piste skiing I’ve done in the Alps. On one of my days off last week, I scored a half dozen summit laps, practically alone, on intriguing, often very nice, dry winter snow. It took a little exploring to find it, but who doesn’t like exploring?
Bachelor’s summit lift tops out at 9,000 feet, the highest lift-served terrain, by far, in the Northwest. There are taller peaks to the north, notably the Three Sisters, with their own glaciers and craters. South Sister, at 10,358 feet the third highest summit in Oregon after Hood and Mt. Jefferson, is the closest neighbor. But the Bachelor stands apart, and that isolation seems to generate the mountain’s typically fierce weather, including that 450 inches of snowfall and peak winds in excess of 120 mph. Wind and poor visibility keep the summit chairlift shuttered during storm cycles, so the prolonged clear, warm weather we’ve been having threw open a door that is often closed this time of year. The wind was blowing this day but not so hard as to bluster the lift and just hard enough to move surface snow around in my favor. Sometimes the wind is your enemy; sometimes it is your friend.
Bachelor is what is known as a shield volcano, with radial erosion furrows descending from the summit like spokes on a wheel. That means the wind will transport available snow grains into these hollows, to one side of the gully or the other, depending on slope aspect and wind direction. This day the wind buff took two forms, a chalky, very smooth, hard deposit on skier’s left, and a softer, deeper confection, dappled like a wind-kissed lake, that had sifted across the furrow bottoms.
I started with a short hike to the Pinnacles, a half dozen eroded lava stacks (the highest is about 100 feet tall) left over from the most recent glacial period. Like so many Easter Island heads, they stand near the summit hardly recognizable as rock, so coated are they in thick cauliflower rime. You see rime ice occasionally in Colorado, where Ellen and I spent the last 38 years. But nothing like this. Rime is wind-driven, super-cooled water droplets. Inside the cloud they are actually, in defiance of physics, colder than freezing but somehow still liquid. That is until they run into something solid and vertical, whereupon they freeze instantly – to the side of a rock, a hemlock trunk, a lift tower – much like touching your wet tongue to a bitterly cold steel pipe. The rime builds up until, sometimes, trees look like giraffes, and the Summit Pinnacles look like monstrous tapioca mounds.
Between two of the bigger pinnacles, I found wind buff of the first kind, smooth as a sand bar but firm and with a slightly hollow sound beneath my ski edges. This is the steepest skiing on Mt. Bachelor, pay-attention steep, plant-your-pole-like-you-mean-it steep. I worked my way carefully down into the bowl – Gordon Lightfoot, as it were – before shooting off to my left across the West Wall toward the lip of the West Ridge. This is huge terrain, Alps-like in its naked, scooped-out mass, overhung by cornices, timberline another 1,500 vertical feet below. I had a hunch. Looking up earlier from mid-mountain, I thought I saw snow dancing like so many spindrift scarves, waving up the furrows on what is known as the Serengeti Plain.
The ridge itself would have been a disaster to try to ski. Stripped by the wind of its snow, all that remained was the frozen glaze left by our early-season rain events. (We complained about the rain when it came, in December and January. And it rained buckets. I feared for my Saturday ski class of 10-12 year-olds who held contests at lunch to see who could squeeze the most water, faucet-like, from their gloves. But that rain, as miserable as it was, soon froze solid and bequeathed the mountain a bulletproof base, a base we are skiing on to this day. “The Glass Mountain,” I called it, after the fairy tale, when for weeks the summit gleamed above us – minus the golden apples but just as unattainable – deemed too dangerous by the patrol for skiing.)
Just beyond the glassed-over West Ridge I came to a vast field of “chicken heads.” These are rimed features as well, ground hugging, clear-ice nubbins that resemble petrified, disembodied coke bottles. Also referred to as “coral heads.” The only thing to do is traverse across their tops, gingerly. The reward is on the far side, where the aspect is slightly different: closer to northwest than north, angled a little differently to the wind, shaped so as to catch blowing snow rather than lose it to scouring.
The rest of the way down was all giddy discovery. Weaving a route from one furrow to the next. Reading the snow, or trying to, by its surface texture. (The softest snow had dimples, like a golf ball.) Stitching together a line of 60, 80, 100 turns? – I don’t know how many turns – until I was back finally to the lower mountain: trees, chairlifts, civilization. I hadn’t encountered another soul since leaving the Pinnacles.
So, if this is as bad as it gets, and the numbers are trending toward historically bad, I’ll take it. I’m new here, so I want to see the good. But I’m no Pollyanna. I’ve skied a lot of days over a lot of winters, in a lot of mountain ranges, going back to 1956. For sure, this winter has not been up to snuff, so far. But I have to say the sliding is pretty terrific, parking lot pebbles notwithstanding. In a bad year we’ve been lucky. And I can only imagine, with glee, how brilliant a “normal” winter must be.