Second Season: Skiing Mt. Ashland without lifts
ASHLAND — The Ariel ski lift stands frozen in the spring sky as Doug Hamel and his dog Nova begin a one-hour trek to the top of Mount Ashland, a quest for these ski bums’ nirvana that is met almost immediately with doubt.
Merely 100 yards into skiing up the mountain, Hamel is already second-guessing himself — like he has done on every one of his three dozen off-season ascents of the mountain. But he presses on as always, his uphill steps earning each turn he’ll ski downhill.
“It’s not easy,” says Hamel, 61, of Ashland. “It’s never worth it in the beginning. Halfway up you think, ‘Why am I doing this? But when you get to the top, that’s when you realize it’s all worth it.”
With that, Hamel pushes off and starts carving down the hillside, with Nova running after him in glee.
The silencing of the chairlifts signals the start of a unique downhill skiing opportunity for Hamel and a small cadre of snow-lovers who take advantage of a sturdy spring snowpack to enjoy a second season of sorts by hiking up and then gliding down Mt. Ashland Ski Area’s otherwise empty slopes.
It’s a study in self-reliance for skiers like Hamel who are unwilling to accept that the ski area’s closing in April means the end of their ski season.
So they plod uphill through the lingering snow, ascending 1,100 feet from the ski area parking lot to the summit with their we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-lifts bravado just to earn that blissful swoosh to the bottom.
“Every turn counts,” says Hiram Towle, the ski area’s general manager, who also does the climb-and-glides. “When you hike for your turns, every one of them is better than when you ride a lift. That’s a guarantee.”
Plus, no operating ski park means no park rules, such as no Novas allowed.
“The day the lifts close is the first day I can ski with my dog,” Hamel says.
Three dozen times each spring and summer, Hamel and Nova hike and ski Mt. Ashland — thanks in part to some additional gear that makes walking uphill in skis an alternative to snowshoeing uphill and then skiing down with the snowshoes in his pack.
Hamel uses skins, thin sheaths attached to the bottom of his skis that grip the snow so he won’t slide backward.
“You’re actually walking uphill in your skis,” Hamel says. “That opened up skiing to a point where, if you see snow, and you’re willing to hike, you can get there.”
Once he reaches the summit, Hamel makes it a point to use every turn he’s earned.
The most common way to squeeze the most out of the ascent is to take a few runs on a glacial cirque near the top known at “the bowl.” It features steep chutes that expert skiers really look forward to, pushing the limits for even the best of skiers until the snow disappears — often as late as early July.
“When you take runs in the bowl, you get the steepest stuff on the mountain,” Towle says. “You definitely get your hike’s worth.”
More than one run through the bowl requires hiking back to the summit in ski boots, a 20-minute uphill trek that will blow out the platelets in most cardiovascular systems.
This is not for your average downhiller, due largely to the fact that no one’s got your back.
“There’s no ski patrol, so if you get into trouble, you’re on your own.”
Towle suggests skiers follow the mantras of backcountry skiers — carry safety gear, take your time, and never go at it alone.
“Heavy wet snow can slough and slide. If some of these cornices break off, you’re talking VW-sized chunks of snow coming down the mountain.”
As Hamel and Nova make their way down the slope, cutting through tree stands between traditional runs, it’s apparent that 8 years of second seasons hasn’t appreciably slowed Nova down.
“I tracked her once, up and down,” Hamel says. “I was like a mile and a half. She did almost 4.”
Hamel milks his afternoon descent as much as possible, slipping through tree stands and slicing down runs not groomed since Easter. The farther downhill, the slushier the snow gets, to a point where Nova post-holes the final 50 yards before Hamel shushes to a stop just a few feet from dirt and rocks.
For Hamel, nothing beats this short doggie-skiing season, no matter how loudly his burning calves dissent.
“It’s never worth it in the beginning,” Hamel says. “But by the end, you know why you’re doing it. I love it. I’d ski every day like this if I could.”