The biggest storm in years has dropped 64 inches of snow in the last week and 40 inches in the last three days on Mount Bachelor.
Skiers and snowboarders have reveled in the incredibly deep powder conditions — and some of them are doing so without the use of chairlifts.
Skinning uphill and then skiing or riding back down the slopes has become increasingly popular at Mt. Bachelor ski area and in the backcountry of Central Oregon.
The resort recently installed informational kiosks about its three uphill routes that designate whether they are open or closed and include other rules and regulations.
The kiosks are located at the bottom of Red chairlift and at the compression of the Cinder Cone (the uphill side of the Cone where West Boundary run merges onto Leeway run).
“Uphill skinning is exploding in popularity,” said Tom Lomax, operations director at Bachelor. “And we put up some new kiosks and we’ve done a lot better job on our website on being clear about what our policies are.”
There are three uphill routes at Bachelor: the Cinder Cone Route, the Pine Marten Route and the Summit Route. The Cinder Cone is the most popular and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except when there is active grooming operations or heightened avalanche danger. The route starts at the bottom of the Red chairlift.
The Pine Marten route extends to Pine Marten Lodge and is open generally only when the Pine Marten lift is running from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Summit Route, above Pine Marten Lodge via West Ridge to the summit, is open only when the Summit lift is operating. More information can be found at www.mtbachelor.com/info/staying-safe.
Many local skiers and snowboarders like to head up to the mountain before work on a powder day to make some early-morning turns on the Cone.
“It’s pretty interesting,” Lomax said. “You can tell when it’s going to be a big morning. There’ll be 50 cars down by the Athletic Club at 7 a.m.”
Kevin Grove is a board member of the Central Oregon Avalanche Association (www.coavalanche.org) and director of the forecaster and observer team for the COAA. The organization runs on donations and relies on a few backcountry experts who observe and report snow conditions on a regular basis. They offer a wide variety of locations for their reports.
“The growth of that sport (backcountry skiing) over the years, you are seeing more numbers every year, folks skinning the cone, for sure, and then folks skinning the uphill route at Bachelor,” Grove said. “That’s a challenge nationwide, as more folks access backcountry from a ski resort. It might give them a false sense of security that they’re in a controlled environment. But any time you leave the actual ski resort boundary, you are in the backcountry.”
The Cinder Cone is technically considered backcountry, because it is not controlled or patrolled. Grove said it is a good spot for beginners to practice backcountry skiing in a relatively safe environment.
Backcountry skiing and snowboarding in general are increasing in popularity in Central Oregon. Snowriders enjoy places like Tumalo Mountain, Todd Lake Rim, Broken Top and South Sister.
With all the new recent snow — including a period of nearly 4 feet in two days over Sunday and Monday — backcountry enthusiasts should be wary of avalanche danger.
“Anytime there’s a whole lot of snow in a short period of time, your avalanche hazard is increasing,” Grove said. “There have been winds accompanied with that as well, and so there’s storm slabs, wind slabs, and some potential for some even deeper persistent slab avalanches. People are seeing avalanches and slope sliding that they rarely see in the backcountry right now. So it is a dangerous time out of bounds right now.”
Grove said backcountry skiers and riders should make sure they are choosing appropriate terrain and check the COAA bulletin on the website to be aware of current conditions. Avalanche conditions can change on a daily basis, Grove noted.
Weak layers in the snowpack are one cause of avalanches, according to Grove.
“There was a February 1 layer that we have been monitoring as a persistent weak layer,” Grove explained. “And that lasts for a longer period of time. So we’re still monitoring that and assessing the strength and structure in that area.”
Grove added that backcountry travelers should always be equipped with shovels, probes and transceivers (see information box). The COAA offers free “Know Before you Go” one-hour clinics on the basics of avalanche safety. The next clinic is Wednesday at Broken Top Bottle Shop in Bend.
Grove said that backcountry folks have been reporting avalanches over the last few days in areas where avalanches are rare, such as lower-angled terrain and slopes below the tree line.
“There’s this familiarity trap that we run into, where you’ve maybe been out to some area like Tumalo (Mountain) a hundred times and you’ve never seen it slide, so you have this sense of comfort and safety,” Grove said. “But if you do happen to go out on a day that is particularly hazardous, like now, things are different, but you might not sense that. It’s just a good time for folks to have a heads up that things are really quite touchy right now.”