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'A week ago we were nearly bare'

Close to 80 inches of snow near the summit sends skiers out on their skies on opening day

Nobody complains about the weather on the first day of ski season ' even when it's terrible.

Grins flashed all over Mount Ashland Thursday despite 60-mph winds and low-hanging clouds of an approaching storm. Skiers and snowboarders could hardly tell up from down on some runs, but nobody seemed to care. After eight long months, the Mount Ashland Ski and Snowboard Resort was running again, and hundreds came to the mountain determined to have fun.

This isn't bad, said Gene Chamberlain of Medford, a veteran of many Mount Ashland openings. It could be raining.

Skiers and snowboarders who know Mount Ashland's weather patterns quickly fled the wind-lashed parking lot for ski trails sheltered by the mountain's bulk.

It's a typical Mount Ashland opening day, said Gene Wolf of Medford. People out there in the parking lot, the wind blows them off their feet and they go home. But if you go over on Windsor (chair) to Tempest or Bottom, it's really nice.

Rookies and newcomers stayed on slopes near the lodge, struggling against flesh-stinging, eye-watering, wind-driven snow.

It makes for some interesting excitement, said Pokey McFarland as he watched fun-seekers trudge toward his work station on the Sonnet chairlift, one of the most weather-beaten sites on the mountain.

I'm surprised to see so many beginners, he said.

Many youngsters abandoned school for the sake of a day in the snow. Grownups took a vacation day, or rearranged their schedules to come out for opening day.

I couldn't resist, said Jayne Temple, a nurse who started skiing barely a year ago. It's like the opening day of fishing season ' they have to get their line wet. I had to get my skis wet.

Many skiers and snowboarders took a run or two, then retreated to the lodge hoping the weather would improve. Conditions only deteriorated as morning drifted toward noon. 11 a.m., clouds of the fast-moving storm merged seamlessly with the snow.

This not being able to see intimidates me, being a baby skier, Temple said.

Mount Ashland opened its 40th season with more snow than any other ski area in Oregon, said Jeff Hanson, the resort's general manager. There were about 52 inches of snow near the lodge, and more than 80 inches near the mountain's 7,500-foot summit.

A week ago we were nearly bare, Hanson said.

More snow is in the forecast for Southern Oregon's Cascade and Siskiyou mountains, as a series of storms roll in off the ocean. Forecasters were predicting as much as 11 inches of new snow on Friday, with more snow possible Saturday and Sunday, and unsettled weather through the end of December.

We still need those storms to build a good base for the Christmas holidays, Hanson said. Ski areas typically earn as much as one-quarter of their annual income during the two-week holiday season.

Workers had to dress carefully for the weather. Darren Applegate wore three layers on his lower half and four on top while directing traffic in the parking lot, generally acknowledged as the windiest place on the mountain. Applegate wore a bright fuchsia neoprene face mask and a fleece hat under the hood of his parka.

No exposed skin, he crowed behind the mask. I'm nice and cozy.

Well before noon, adverse conditions sent many skiers and snowboarders back down the mountain.

I got in five runs and I'm a happy camper, said Lance Wasserman of Ashland as he marched toward his car. Now I'm going down and tell lies.

It doesn't matter what the weather's like, he said. You're here to be with your friends and have a good time. It's all wonderful.

Mount Ashland Lift operator Pokey McFarland says he?s surprised to see so many beginners on the mountain in such inclement weather. Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli - Mail Tribune Roy Musitelli