Skiing in Central Oregon

Skiers and snowboarders should use caution on lower snowpack

By Mark Morical / The Bulletin / @MarkMorical

Published Dec 12, 2012 at 04:00AM

Tom Lomax talks excitedly about how the early-season storms have set up the snow base at Mt. Bachelor ski area.

The last three weeks have featured warm fronts, followed by cold fronts, allowing the wet, dense snow to cover the mountain without being swept away by wind, and the lighter, drier snow to fall on top.

“It's not a typical early-season coverage where the rock ridges are still bare,” said Lomax, the mountain manager at Bachelor. “The way this snowpack has come in, it's really covered things uniformly, which is fantastic for us moving forward.”

But Lomax still cautions that early-season conditions exist, and skiers and snowboarders need to be aware of hidden dangers that can harm their equipment — or worse. Rocks and tree stumps under the snow can ruin a day on the slopes by thrashing a board or skis or injuring a snowrider.

Lomax notes that warm air pockets surrounding the lava rock at Bachelor can melt the snow and make for hard-to-see hazards as well. Ridges and areas in the trees are also locations where skiers and snowboarders should ride with care.

“If you've ever been up on the mountain in the summer, you know that there's a lot of lava on the ridges, and you need to be careful on the ridges,” Lomax said. “You need to be careful in the woods; there could be a bent-over small tree that's completely covered up with snow that could be a hazard just under the surface ... or your typical tree that's been blown down and maybe isn't covered up yet.”

Many natural hazards are marked with bamboo sticks by ski patrol at Bachelor, but, as Lomax notes, “we can't mark everything.” So avoiding obstacles and staying safe is ultimately the responsibility of the snowrider.

The snow base at Bachelor's West Village Lodge was 44 inches as of Tuesday, according to mtbachelor.com. As the base continues to build, rocks and other hazards will be covered. But new ones can always present themselves.

“It can just move you into a new set of hazards, because now we're into the tree branches,” Lomax explained. “Even if it's 100 inches of snow, there's new things that will be (barely) covered up. By 80 inches, things are really covering up, but you still need to be aware of the hazards that are out there.”

Skiers and snowboarders should also be aware of their own fitness in the early season. Muscles will be used that possibly have not been used since last spring, and overdoing it on the slopes is a common problem in December.

Especially if they did not engage in any preseason conditioning, snowriders would be wise to limit their runs during their first couple of days on the mountain.

“They should just take it easy and don't ski until they're completely tired,” Lomax advised. “Leave a little bit on the table for the next day. And just watch their speed.”

And watch for other skiers as well. On crowded weekends, fellow skiers and snowboarders can become yet another hazard on the slopes. All snowriders should know the National Ski Areas Association's Skier's Responsibility Code. Perhaps the most important part of the code is that skiers or snowboarders ahead have the right of way.

Getting lost can also be a concern in the early season, and all season long. Snowriders should always be aware of which chairlifts are open and never leave the ski area boundary.

Because of the sheer size of Mt. Bachelor — 3,700 acres of lift-accessible terrain, 10 chairlifts and 71 runs — skiers and snowboarders need to orient themselves to their surroundings and know where they are at all times. For skiers who keep skiing downhill without really knowing where they are, the results can be disastrous.

“Bachelor's a big mountain,” Lomax said. “Being a cone, everything is close together at the top, but if you make a mistake, when you get to the base of that cone you're much farther apart from everything else. People don't understand the shape of the mountain, if you think about the angles.”

Lomax adds that if snowriders believe they could be lost, they should stop. Continuing downhill is often the wrong decision, but it is an easy one to make.

“Mentally, your brain wants you to go downhill,” Lomax said. “In my experience, lost skiers, 99 percent of them, the mistake they make is continuing downhill. Pretty soon, you're outside the ski area boundary, and you're continuing downhill, downhill and downhill, and what's at the bottom is Sparks Lake.”

Lost skiers and snowboarders can be found and returned to safety by ski patrol with the use of snowmobiles or Sno-Cats.

In the last five years or so, Lomax notes, cellphones have made search-and-rescue operations much more efficient. If a snowrider has a charged cellphone and has service, he or she can call 911.

“We ask 911 to ping the phone, and get the latitude and longitude,” Lomax explained. “We plug it into Google Earth and we can know where you're at. Sometimes that process takes less than five minutes.”

The downsides to cellphones are that sometimes the phone has died because it was not charged, or the snowrider does not get service at his or her location. Also, cellphones can give a false sense of security.

“They should not think that that's going to be a fix all, because there's a lot of areas on the mountain that don't have a lot of (cellphone) coverage,” Lomax warned. “It's a great thing, but you still need to rely on good judgment.”

Snowriders should use that same good judgment at Central Oregon's smaller resorts as well. Hoodoo Mountain Resort, just northwest of Sisters, opened this past Friday with a 26-inch snow base — plenty of snow to make the groomed runs safe but little enough to make the tree skiing potentially hazardous. Hoodoo will be open Thursday through Sunday this week. (Willamette Pass, whose website reported a 10-inch snow base on at the lodge Tuesday, has yet to open for the season.)

Hoodoo's base was up to 26 inches on Tuesday, according to hoodoo.com.

“Anywhere on groomed runs, there's really no issue,” said Matthew McFarland, manager at Hoodoo. “Out in the trees, off the groomed runs, there's branches and things that can be sticking up. Be careful and watch out when you're off groomed (runs). I personally stay on the groomed runs until there's 48 to 50 inches of snow out there.”

The snow will continue to pile up in Central Oregon. But skiers and snowboarders should always be wary of the unseen.

Ski responsibly

• Always stay in control, and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.

• People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.

• You must not stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above.

• Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.

• Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.

• Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.

• Prior to using any lift, you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safely.

Source: National Ski Areas Association