Hood Meadows by Sunlight and Storm

By Andy Dappen

“Are you going to make this hill busier than it already is?” Greg Delwiche is not happy to make my acquaintance when he learns I’m a journalist reporting about Mt. Hood Meadows, the largest of several ski areas situated on the flanks of Oregon’s highest peak. As far as Greg is concerned, the area is busy enough – particularly on weekends when it can feel like all of Portland arrives to ski.

“It’s a possibility,” I confess.

“Don’t do that!” Greg commands. “This hill is already too crowded.”

Greg is partly right. On any given winter Saturday or Sunday, as many as 5,000 to 6,000 skiers can swarm the hill. There are five other days each week, however, when ‘Meadows’ is anything but crowded.

“So…” I ask of Greg, “you want me say that the weather is usually terrible, that the rare day of sunshine brings icy conditions, and that it’s always wall-to-wall people on the slopes?”

Greg, a retired top administrator with the Bonneville Power Administration who maintains a skiing cabin in the nearby town of Parkdale, smiles, “Exactly.”

We slide from the lift line onto one of the six high-speed chairs servicing the mountain and start a seven-minute ride upward. Conditions are challenging today and we both pay attention to several skiers sampling the ungroomed slopes to the side of the chair. Their edges chatter loudly on the ice and they wave their arms wildly trying to maintain balance. “Thank goodness you have good grooming,” I tell Greg. “Yesterday’s frozen rain would make the hill unskiable were it not for the machines.”

Greg doesn’t appreciate having his hill dissed and forgets his earlier agenda. “This kind of ice is unusual. Even so, the groomers know their stuff. The way they’ve tilled the surface – it’s still excellent skiing, don’t you think?”

I nod.

The chair passes glades of old-growth hemlocks to our side. “The skiing in the trees there and there,” Greg, who skis the mountain about 50 days each year and has been a seasons pass holder for 37 years, points to several pockets of trees with his pole, “is fabulous. It’s steep but the trees are spaced nicely for skiing. And those bowls,” his pole moves to slopes on the other side of our lift, “are short but sweet.”

“They’ll be inclined ice rinks today,” I comment.

“Yeah, but I’ll take the rare day of ice for these views.”

The views are, indeed, stunning. Mt. Hood rises above us,  majestic and graceful yet imposing. And the peaks to our south – Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters — rise dramatically above a blanket of valley clouds obscuring the lower peaks of the Cascades. “This view rivals Crystal Mountain’s view of Mt. Rainier,” I concede before becoming a critic again. “It’s just too bad you so rarely see it. The last few times I’ve skied Meadows I’ve seen nothing but white.”

“I love the storms up here,” Greg counters. “That’s when the glades fill up with snow and the trees give you the visibility to ski them. Or that’s when you ski Heather Canyon. There are steep tree runs and the place is like a powder machine. Storm winds just keep depositing new snow in there. You ski it and, by the time you return for another lap, your old tracks have filled-in with drifting snow.”

Greg pauses a minute, “Heather Canyon is what makes Meadows a much better ski area than Mt. Bachelor. Most everything at Bachelor is the same pitch, which gets boring. Heather never bores you – it gives you steep open bowls when the visibility is good, steep tree runs when the light is flat. Thank goodness most out-of-staters don’t know this and think Bachelor is Oregon’s must-ski destination.”

Today all runs into Heather Canyon are closed. Given the day’s ice, a lost edge on its steeps would result in a downhill luge ride followed by a body-breaking encounter with an old-growth hemlock. I know from past visits this 620-acre portion of the mountain is what defines the resort to advanced skiers. Truth be told, however, I’ve seen the mountain often enough by storm; today I’m relishing the sun.

Our chair approaches the top station and we prepare to exit. Greg forgets his fond feelings for his home mountain and returns to what he expects of me. “Remember — don’t say anything good. Say this is a terrible place to ski.”

Details, Details: Mt. Hood Meadows

Mountain Stats: 2,150 lift-accessed acres of skiable terrain; 2,770 vertical feet of drop; 11 chairlifts (six are high-speed quads).

Ticket Prices. Mt. Hood Meadows uses dynamic pricing and skier demand each day impacts the price. Same-day adult lift tickets are likely to run $89 to $99 on a busy weekend, $59 to $69 on a typical week day. Skiers get the best price purchasing in advance and on-line at www.skihood.com.

Distances. Mt. Hood Meadows is a 4.5-hour drive from Wenatchee.

Lodging and Dining. The town of Hood River (4 hours from Wenatchee) provides the most options for lodging and dining. The Hood River Chamber of Commerce maintains an extensive list of hotel and restaurant options. To inquire about properties offering stay-and-ski packages, call the Hood River Chamber (541-386-2000 or 800-366-3530). The Hood River Inn is a popular option for skiers and a free shuttle bus stops here to take visitors to the ski hill. Parking at Hood Meadows is problematic on Saturdays and Sundays, making the shuttle a convenient weekend option.

Memorable Quote (from Oregon Cross-Country Ski Trails). “Touring in close proximity to Mt. Hood is a many-sided experience… It is a temperamental mountain, given to unpredictable behavior and continually subjecting those who dally near its base to amazingly good and bad weather.”

Nordic Skiing. Hood Meadows also maintains 10 miles of Nordic trails serving classic and skate skiers alike. The Nordic Center is headquartered near the bottom of the Hood River Express Chair. Trails are groomed Thursday through Monday and daily during holiday periods. Adult Nordic passes cost $21 for a full day, $15 for a half day. 

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