Mt. Bachelor at 50

Sunday Reader: From butte to ski resort

Jeff McDonald / The Bulletin /

Before all the resorts, golf courses and restaurants stamped Central Oregon as a recreation mecca, there was Mt. Bachelor ski area — or, as it was known in 1958, Bachelor Butte.

There also was lumber and a Nordic passion for skiing that people like Nels Skjersaa and Emil Nordeen, who worked side by side in the old Shevlin-Hixon mill, brought with them from the old country.

Bend was still a town of fewer than 12,000 people in the High Desert when Bill Healy and others banded together to develop Mt. Bachelor, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Dec. 19.

The closest downhill skiing for serious skiers was 45 miles away at what was then known as Hoodoo Bowl.

Bend was primarily a one-horse town, and the timber companies were its single economic engine. But in 1958, the town was less than a decade removed from the shutdown of two major mills. Roughly 900 to 1,000 jobs were lost in December 1950, said Jim Crowell, a local historian.

“Before Bachelor, the tourist season was restricted to summer and early fall hunting,” Crowell said. “Bachelor turned Bend into at least a two-season visitor area, and by aggressive marketing and by building golf courses and resorts, (Bend) became a year-round destination.”

Meanwhile, the timber-based economy upon which Mt. Bachelor grew is all but gone, Crowell said.

According to Crowell, where Mt. Bachelor is today and where Bend and Central Oregon have followed resulted most notably from the actions of one man: Healy.

Healy was notable for his Irish wit and gregarious nature, Crowell said.

“He was a hell of a great talker — he was Bend’s original leprechaun,” said Crowell, who worked as an aide to Healy and was a board member on the Central Oregon Recreation Association, which later became the Central Oregon Visitors Association. COVA promotes tourism, now an estimated $571 million year-round industry, for the region.

Healy, a prominent furniture store owner in downtown Bend, had fought in bloody battles as a ski trooper in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in World War II, according to “Mt. Bachelor: Bill Healy’s Dream,” a 208-page history of the mountain written in 1999 by Peggy Chessman Lucas.

The book, now out of print but available online and in the Deschutes County Public Library system, tells the story of Mt. Bachelor from its inception through its first 40 years.

Much of the history recounted here comes from the book and The Bulletin’s archives.

Infectious enthusiasm

Healy was able “to infect others with his unbridled enthusiasm” to raise financing for the ski area, Chessman Lucas wrote.

Mt. Bachelor’s golden anniversary brings back memories for Alana Audette, COVA’s president and CEO, and a lifelong Central Oregon resident.

“For me personally, I got to grow up in an amazing environment and skied Mt. Bachelor every (winter) weekend of my existence,” Audette said. “It is why I still believe (strongly about Central Oregon’s tourism product) the way I do. I love this place.”

COVA was founded in 1971 through the efforts of Healy, helping to create a cooperative marketing voice in the region that combined the financial weight of its top players, including Sunriver Resort, Seventh Mountain Resort and Brooks Resources Corp.

“The legacy Bill Healy gave to this community is priceless,” Audette said. “He planted the economic seed for this region’s history and is one of the single strongest influences for the transition from a lumber- to a tourism-based community.”

Many others also played a role in the development of Mt. Bachelor, including Vince Genna and Olaf Skjersaa, Nels Skjersaa’s brother, who joined a group comprising Healy and others in search of a closer place to ski after fire destroyed much of Hoodoo’s equipment.

Other pioneers included Gene Gillis and Don Peters, who brought with them a knowledge of European ski areas and connections with the U.S. Forest Service, respectively, to get the ski area running.

Bachelor was the unanimous choice for a closer ski location, according to Chessman Lucas.

Aside from Healy, the four other major stockholders were Dr. Bradford Pease, Phil Gould, Felix Marcoulier and Oscar Murray. The stockholders raised about $100,000 from local investors and made a flurry of management decisions that would shape the direction of Mt. Bachelor and Central Oregon for decades to come.

Each of the five founders was an avid skier, except Murray, who donated his construction company resources to the project in exchange for shares because he thought a winter resort would be a “shot in the arm” for Bend’s economy, the book says.

Building a new resort was not easy. Shareholders had to raise money, build a new lodge, hire staff and ski patrol, and market the area outside the region.

The first mechanized lift, which could transport as many as 520 skiers an hour to an area just above timberline, was imported from France and used about $60,000 of the group’s capital, according to the book. There also were two rope tows.

Heavy snow allowed the ski area to open Oct. 18, 1958. An all-day ticket cost $3.

There was almost immediate success. The ski area stayed open 86 days in its inaugural season, drawing 35,000 skiers.

The resort made a profit that season, which pleased stockholders, who invested their dividends back into the mountain.

With the exception of 1977, when drought limited operations to January through March, the ski area was profitable.

Following that season, Healy demonstrated his sense of humor, Chessman Lucas wrote.

“After the potato famine and the depression, last winter wasn’t really that bad!” Healy was reported to have said.

Investment continued in the 1960s and ’70s when several new lifts were added, a lodge was built and attendance increased almost every year.

New lifts included the Black chair in 1961, Red chair in ’64, Yellow and Blue chairs in ’67 and ’70, respectively, and Green and Orange chairs in ’73. Outback, Flycreek (later Rainbow) and Sunrise lifts were added in 1975, ’81 and ’82, respectively. Only the Red and latter three chairs remain.

The 25-year anniversary

Reminders of Bill Healy’s legacy are everywhere at his son’s home in southeast Bend.

Tom Healy, 48, now owner of the Expressway gas station and convenience store in east Bend, collects the artifacts — including his father’s oak skis that he used for ski-jumping at Timberline Resort on Mt. Hood, a Red lift chair, and a placard from the 10th Mountain Division — in tribute to his father’s legacy.

Bill Healy died in 1993 after a long struggle with primary lateral sclerosis, which is a rare neuro- muscular disease often mistaken for Lou Gehrig’s disease. The illness, which Healy lived with for about 15 years, robbed him of his ability to ski and sometimes made it impossible for him to talk, which was what the gregarious Irishman loved to do, his son recalled.

“He liked to greet customers,” he said. “He liked to talk to skiers — to find out where they were from, and what they liked and disliked.”

When he couldn’t ski and struggled to speak, Healy instead toured the mountain on a snowcat, said his son.

Tom Healy has many memories growing up in the household of perhaps Bend’s most notable resident.

He remembers “movie nights” when Warren Miller, then an aspiring filmmaker, Sun Valley, Idaho, resident and “ski bum,” would visit the house and show horse- and sailboat-racing videos. Miller went on to a 50-year career as a maker of ski movies, producing roughly 750 films throughout his career.

Oregon politicians, including U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood and Gov. Tom McCall, visited the Healy home, too, Tom Healy said.

A lift to the top ‘put Bachelor on the map’

By the 1980s, it was Healy’s “obsession” to open the Summit lift nearly to the top of the 9,068-foot mountain because it would provide a “completely new image of Bachelor — new topography, a lengthening of the ski season, a far greater elevation and an opportunity to ski snowfields into the summer months,” Chessman Lucas wrote.

Healy, though, knew the summit’s weather conditions would present construction and operating challenges.

Strong winds and thick ice made construction of the $3.2 million Summit chairlift impossible until new technology allowed it to happen.

The new Austrian-made Doppelmayr lift was twice as fast as any other lift at Mt. Bachelor, and its chairs could be detached and stored at night to prevent icing.

Previously, the Black chair was the mountain’s highest lift, reaching 7,600 feet.

When Healy’s dream of opening a lift to the summit was fulfilled in 1983, Mt. Bachelor went from a regional to a national destination, Tom Healy said.

“People came from everywhere,” he said. “It wasn’t just from Portland. They came from Colorado and Utah. It almost doubled the vertical feet and opened up hundreds of acres of new terrain. It just put Bachelor on the map.”

Then in his early 20s, Tom Healy worked on the crews that built the Summit lift. Much of the equipment was flown to the summit by helicopter, but the 21 crew members had to hike.

“You had to hike the mountain at least once a day, usually carrying supplies up, and you would leave the mountain usually after dark,” Tom Healy said. “The whole building of the Summit chair was extremely hard because you had to dig into the snow, which was 20 feet deep in some of the worst places.”

He remembers climbing the mountain each day and his father’s pride of accomplishment when the chair was finished in 1983, he said. The Summit lift was the first high-speed detachable chair on top of a mountain in North America when it was built, Tom Healy said.

For the rest of the 1980s and ’90s, Mt. Bachelor continued to add more high-speed, three- and four-person lifts after Summit, all of which remain part of the ski area’s lift system today.

The ski area added the Pine Marten super-quad in 1986, Outback super-express quad in 1987 and Skyliner super-express quad in 1989. The Sunshine Accelerator express quad and Carrousel, a fixed-grip triple chair, were added in 1993. Sunrise was converted to a high-speed quad the same year. Northwest Express and 10 new runs were added in 1996.

Powdr Corp. buys Mt. Bachelor

The ski area hit some roadblocks in the 1990s after Healy’s death in 1993, as increased competition and the changing economics of skiing made it harder to compete with some of the new resorts.

In 2001, Tom Healy helped broker the deal between Powdr Corp. and Mt. Bachelor’s 1,382 shareholders when the Park City, Utah-based ski company earned approval to buy Mt. Bachelor.

He had done what he thought was best for the mountain, attracting a well-heeled, experienced buyer who would reinvest money into the ski area, he said.

Powdr Corp. bought Mt. Bachelor for approximately $28 million, according to reports in The Bulletin.

A Eugene-based buyer and major Mt. Bachelor shareholder, Randy Papé, also made an offer to buy the ski area in 2001. Had he bought it, Papé, who was president and CEO of the Papé Group Inc. in Eugene before his death at age 58 earlier this month, wanted to move Mt. Bachelor forward and create more of a destination presence at the ski area, he said in a phone conversation in June.

He described the challenges that surfaced when more competition in the ski industry started to emerge in the 1990s.

“Mt. Bachelor is built to be a destination resort in lift capacity, but it has none of the amenities of a destination resort on the mountain,” he said in June. “Bend is 20 miles away. The on-mountain lodging and retail are not there. It is more of an overgrown day operation.”

Tom Healy speaks cautiously about Powdr’s ownership since the purchase in 2001, saying: “On the good end of the scale, Mt. Bachelor will always be Mt. Bachelor. It has fun, diverse terrain, no matter who is running it. That will always be there.”

He would like to see more investment at the mountain, though, he said.

“They have done OK,” he said, referring to Powdr’s ownership. “But the times have changed. It is a new game, and they are behind the eight ball in stepping up to play in that game. They could have been expanding at a better and faster rate.”

Mt. Bachelor’s new direction

Since buying the ski area in 2001, Powdr’s largest investment into Mt. Bachelor was $3.5 million in 2005, when it improved the Pine Marten Express and remodeled the West Village Lodge, according to reports in The Bulletin.

Local skiers and snowboarders have complained the past few seasons about lift operations and a lack of reinvestment back into the ski area since Powdr bought the ski area.

The ski area invested $3.4 million over the summer to improve its lift operations and make other capital improvements after a 2007-08 season marred by customer complaints and a 7 percent drop in skier visits.

While Mt. Bachelor’s attendance dropped, the rest of the state set a combined attendance record with roughly 1.95 million skier visitors last season, according to data from the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association.

For the first time in the association’s history, Mt. Hood Meadows ski resort drew more visitors than Mt. Bachelor.

Four top officials, including Mt. Bachelor’s former president and general manager, were fired in May at the end of the season.

Mt. Bachelor’s new president and general manager, Dave Rathbun, acknowledged the ski area has fallen behind other resorts in technology and capital investment, but he said Mt. Bachelor is well-positioned to operate profitably and reinvest money back into the mountain as things turn around.

A new lift would cost between $5 million and $7 million, he said.

“We have not put in a new high-speed quad (chairlift) since the mid-1990s,” he said. “If you have not been keeping up with competitive forces, you are falling behind.”

Mt. Bachelor has not kept pace with other resorts in the Pacific Northwest, including Whistler Blackcomb, north of Vancouver, British Columbia, and other resorts in Washington state, he said.

“Those resorts are catering to consumer preferences with new lifts, overnight lodging and restaurants,” he said. “Whistler Blackcomb and other Washington ski areas have upped their game. We have seen our business from Seattle decline. I would like to think we can get those customers back. We have to look at the product we offer and the service we provide.”

Rathbun said the ski area has shifted its marketing and customer-relations focus, and is trying to reconnect with the community.

To mark its 50th anniversary, Mt. Bachelor is planning a celebration on Dec. 19, the official opening day in 1958, he said.

“The town and the mountain — we cannot separate the two,” Rathbun said. “The sooner we accept that we are linked at the hip, the better off we will be.”

The ski area is engaged in a long-term planning process that would reshape its working agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, which leases the land to Powdr Corp., he said. A new master plan is expected to be released in the spring. Significant community and Forest Service input will follow, Rathbun said.

Future improvements being considered include a replacement of West Village Lodge, overnight lodging, new lifts and a better transportation system around the ski area, he said.

“Obviously we know we need to make some improvements and change for a multitude of reasons,” Rathbun said. “We are working on our master plan, which is more coincidence than anything, but the timing is right to look at where we are today and where we go for the future.”

Bachelor then and now

1958: Bachelor Butte ski area opens Oct. 18 with one lift and two rope tows for weekends and holidays only. The opening is marked with an official ceremony on Dec. 19.

1961: Black chair is installed.

1964: Red chair is installed.

1966: New overnight lodge, called the Main Lodge, opens. It would later become West Village Lodge.

1971: Overnight lodge closes; shuttle buses added.

1975: Outback chairlift installed.

1981: Flycreek lift (later Rainbow) is added.

1983: Summit chairlift is completed; ski area’s name officially becomes Mt. Bachelor.

1984: Nordic day lodge is built.

1986: Pine Marten super-express quad and guest services building at West Village Lodge open.

1988: Bill Healy steps down as president of Mt. Bachelor ski area and is replaced by David Marsh.

1989: Skyliner super-express quad chairlift is added.

1991: Century Drive highway is expanded from two to four lanes from the Sunriver junction to the ski area.

1993: Bill Healy dies on Oct. 26. Accelerator express quad and Carrousel, a fixed-grip triple chair, are added; Sunrise chair is converted to a high-speed quad.

1996: Northwest Express quad lift and 10 new runs open; Mt. Bachelor opens new transit center in Bend to transport skiers to the mountain.

1998: David Marsh resigns and is replaced by Randy Papé.

2001: Park City, Utah-based Powdr Corp. purchases Mt. Bachelor ski area for approximately $28 million. Marsh dies and is later replaced by Dan Rutherford, former vice president.

2006: Pine Marten Express is rebuilt.

2007: Dan Rutherford resigns as president. Matt Janney is hired as new president and general manager.

2008: Janney and three other managers are fired. Janney is replaced by Dave Rathbun, formerly of Killington Resort in Vermont.

2008: 50th anniversary of Mt. Bachelor ski area.

Sources: “Mt. Bachelor: Bill Healy’s Dream,” by Peggy Chessman Lucas; The Bulletin archives; Mt. Bachelor ski area