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Sometimes peaks get too much of a good thing

It's been a week to remember at the Mount Ashland ski area.

Seventy-five inches of snow in seven days buried the chairlifts so deeply that 40 people with shovels had to work all day to clear out the chairlifts and the buildings. Blizzard conditions, road closures, power failures, a broken water line and a night search for lost snowboarders had mountain staff wondering "what next?"

How about a multicar pileup on the road to the ski area Thursday morning?

"It can stop anytime now," said Rick Saul, marketing director for the Mount Ashland ski area.

That's a sentiment that anyone living or working in the high country between Diamond Lake and Mount Ashland might echo. At the Diamond Lake Resort, crews have been working day and night to keep the roads open around the resort and groom some of the 300 miles of nearby snowmobile trails.

"We're out there every day all the time," said Rick Rockholt, events promoter at the resort.

As of Wednesday, 53 inches of snow had fallen at Diamond Lake since Jan. 3, and snow continued to fall most of the day Thursday. Rockholt said the plowing crew takes the work in stride, because all the snow means more customers.

"We would like a little break so we can get caught up," he said.

That break isn't likely to come before Sunday. As of late Thursday forecasters were expecting snow in the mountains and rain in the valleys to continue through Saturday night. Clear skies were in the forecast for Sunday, with a chance of rain and snow again as soon as Monday.

Saul said the past week brought more snow to Mount Ashland in less time than anybody can recall for at least the past eight winters. A year ago, 70 inches of snow fell over 10 days, but most of this year's big dump — 63 inches — came during 72 hours. Some chairlifts were buried chest high, while 60 to 70 mph winds piled 13-foot drifts in some places and scoured other areas nearly bare.

"When the storms come in real hot, with those winds, the snow doesn't get deposited very evenly," Saul said.

Mount Ashland sees more than its share of extreme weather because of its location. The ski trails, chairlifts and buildings are all perched within the top 1,100 feet of the 7,500 foot mountain — the highest promontory for miles in any direction — so storms strike the ski area with full fury.

Most ski areas are built farther down mountain slopes, on terrain that offers some protection from gale-force winds, Saul said. On Mount Bachelor, for example, 70 percent of the trails are on the lower two-thirds of the 9,000-foot mountain.

The combination of heavy snow and gale-force winds last Thursday and Friday made for such poor visibility that groomer drivers couldn't operate their machines for two nights.

"They couldn't see anything at all," said Mike Dadaos, the ski area's special events manager.

While the snow piled up, state highway crews that plow the ski road had their hands full trying to keep Interstate 5 open. They had no time to plow the road to the ski area, forcing the grooming crew to stay on the mountain for two days.

By Saturday morning the road had been plowed enough to bring the shovel crew to the mountain to clear snow away from the chairlifts and the perimeter of buildings where the grooming equipment couldn't reach.

"We spent all day Saturday digging out lifts and clearing areas so we could open (on Sunday)," said Nathan Breece, who normally gives ski lessons but was pressed into the shovel crew.

"It was an endless task," Breece said. "You knew that all the work you did for six or seven hours was just going to get covered up again."

Breece said so much snow has simply overwhelmed the grooming crew.

"I feel bad for the groomers," Breece said. "They're getting a bad rap, because we have so few runs groomed, but they've been putting in seriously long hours just to get the runs open that we have."

Saul said the deep and drifted snow has transformed the grooming of a small slope like Lower Tempest from a 45-minute task into a seven-hour chore.

"We're just keeping our fingers crossed for a reprieve so we can get everything groomed," Saul said.

A bit down the road at the Mount Ashland Inn, Laurel and Chuck Biegert would like a respite, too.

The Biegerts have seen plenty of big storms in their 13 years on the mountain, but the past week was something different, Laurel Biegert said. "This has been unusual in that it just kept coming, and kept coming and kept coming."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com

Mount Ashland crews spent a full day shoveling snow away from chairlifts and buildings after 63 inches of snow fell in 72 hours last week.