There were big smiles all over Mount Ashland Monday as skiers and snowboarders frolicked in 10 inches of fresh snow.
"It's perfect," one girl shrieked as she wobbled downhill on her snowboard, defying the laws of physics. Gravity finally took control, and she collapsed in a spectacular cloud of fluff. Her friends laughed as she went down, and she did, too, as she put herself back together and pointed her board back down the slope. Even falling down is more fun when there's plenty of snow.
Mount Ashland has a fleet of three snow grooming machines that work overnight to make a smooth surface for the following day's skiers and snowboarders.
The groomers plow the surface and compress it to form a uniform, slightly rippled surface that looks like corduroy. The hard surface is more predictable and easier for beginners to navigate. Weather determines how much grooming can be done on any given night.
"When there's no fresh snow, the groomers can cover one-and-half to two times the acreage they can do when it snows," says Kim Clark, the ski area's general manager. "Fresh snow just slows everything down. It all just takes more time."
The groomers prepare the steeper trails first and the beginner runs last, to give the most uniform surface to the skiers and snowboarders who need it most, Clark says.
Over the course of a snowy night, fresh snow can build up on top of groomed trails that were surfaced at the beginning of a shift.
Grooming is a major operating expense. The machines themselves cost anywhere from $250,000 to $350,000. When all three grooming machines run a shift, they consume 240 to 280 gallons of diesel fuel.
— Bill Kettler
A year ago this week, there was little to laugh about at Southern Oregon's winter playground. Snow was scarce during the busy Christmas season, and the ski area had to shut down briefly in early January. This season, there's a rock-solid base of heavy, dense snow, and at midweek forecasters saw a strong likelihood of fresh snow every day through Christmas.
"Our ski patrol director says this is the best opening snow he's seen in his 24 years," says Kim Clark, Mt. Ashland's general manager.
Perched on the summit of Mount Ashland, the ski area is an anomaly — a tiny, publicly owned outfit in an industry increasingly dominated by large corporations and winter resorts that sprawl over thousands of acres. Without corporate deep pockets, Mount A lacks amenities that have become standard at larger ski areas, such as high-speed chairlifts. But it offers one of the best ski bargains in Oregon, and it's acquired a community spirit and small-town feeling that regular visitors treasure.
"I've made lots of longterm friendships here," says Laura DeYarman of Central Point, who first came to the mountain in the early 1980s. "You run into people from other parts of your life, and you reconnect with old friends."
The ski area was laid out in the early 1960s when skis were long, bindings were sketchy and boots were leather. The trails were designed to take advantage of steep slopes on the mountain's north face. They're relatively short, compared to the trails found at newer resorts, but newcomers are often pleasantly surprised to learn Mount A's little runs can give their thighs a good burn.
"Mount Ashland has some nice terrain, comparable to many places I've skied," says Steven Kraft, who lived for years in the heart of Colorado ski country. Kraft brought his son, Oliver, 4, to the mountain this week to help him get an early start on what could be a lifelong sport.
"If you're a good skier, you can find some good terrain," he says. "The Bowl is wonderful on a good day."
"The Bowl" is hallowed terrain for hardcore skiers and boarders, a glacial cirque at the mountain's 7,500-foot summit. But you don't have to be an expert to ski down from the top. The same chairlift, Ariel, that delivers you to The Bowl also serves two of the mountain's most popular intermediate runs — Caliban and Dream.
"Even if you're a low-intermediate, if you go to the top, you can do Caliban and Dream," says John Gorman, who lives in the rural area outside Talent. "Those are pretty mellow runs."
The mile-long Dream may be the best-loved trail on the mountain. The view is superior, and the long, wide-open run provides ample room for skiers and boarders to work on their technique. A right turn halfway down Dream goes to Pistol, one of the gentler expert runs, marked like all others with a black diamond.
Skiers and boarders work their way up to the summit, gradually improving their skills and building confidence on easier runs at lower elevations. First-timers start on the Sonnet chairlift, adjacent to the lodge, and then move downhill to the Comer chairlift, where they get their first real downhill experience on either Lower Romeo or Lower Juliet, marked with blue rectangles that signify intermediate difficulty.
Learners who've fallen out of love with Romeo and Juliet can move onward and upward on the nearby Windsor chairlift, where they ride to a broader selection of intermediate and expert terrain. At the top of Windsor, most learners turn right and glide sidehill to the gentle grade on Lower Tempest, a popular low-intermediate run. If they're feeling a bit more confident, they can turn downhill just before Lower Tempest and try Winter, another intermediate run with steeper pitches than Lower Tempest.
Turning left at the top of Windsor, a sidehill trail goes to Upper Romeo, still an intermediate run, but far steeper than its lower half. Continue past Upper Romeo for a couple of short black-diamond, expert runs: Ado and Upper Juliet. Two additional black-diamond runs go straight downhill from the Windsor chairlift. One follows the chairline towers down a steep narrow trail. The other, called Bottom, is just as steep, but somewhat wider, except where it's not. These are places for people who know what they're doing, or those who have no fear of falling.
Weather can make or break a day on Mount Ashland. It's the highest point in any direction for miles, so it takes the full brunt of winter winds, especially in the main parking lot and on the summit, at the top of the Ariel chairlift. Old hands know that the wind often calms down farther around the mountain, on runs such as Winter and Lower Tempest.
If you're prepared for the wind, storm days can offer some of the best skiing. Foul weather tends to keep many folks at home, especially families with young kids. Hardy skiers and boarders who come out on weather days have the mountain to themselves, along with plenty of fresh snow that hasn't been cut up by other skiers.
"The biggest, windiest storms are my favorite," says DeYarman, the Central Point skier. "It's such an adventure, and your reward is fresh turns."
Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.