ASHLAND — Doug Hamel stands atop the snowy peak of Mount Ashland over the Whoville-like city below, grateful he’s made it off Ashland’s blacktop and onto the white of snow.
Don’t mistake it, he’s no Grinch. Hamel is all grins, because he’s spending a sunny mid-May day the way he wants to spend every day: On skis.
“When you’re up here and it’s so hot down in town, and we can work our way up here to go skiing, it doesn’t get any greater,” Hamel says. “This is social distancing at its best.”
With that, Hamel disappears off the cornice of The Bowl, Mount Ashland’s steepest feature, with snow puppy Nova running right after him.
While the Mt. Ashland Ski Area lifts have been shuttered since mid-March, Southern Oregon’s signature ski slope is still an option for a handful of gonzo snow lovers who have made the best of the COVID-19 neutron bomb that flattened many of the region’s outdoor activities.
The ski area’s chair lifts may be idle, but hardcore skiers like Kevin Parks and Bob Warr of Medford hike and ski uphill from the Mt. Ashland Ski Area parking lot to the peak.
They hike on bare ground until they reach snow, then place nylon skins on the bottom of their skis. The skins slide uphill but grip against the snow to reduce backslides, allowing them to skin up the 1,100-foot climb.
“There are significant barriers to entry, and fitness is the biggest one,” Parks says.
The barriers become less significant when the gate to Forest Road 20 from the ski area’s upper parking lot is open and snow levels allow driving to the top on a skinny, rocky road.
Parks and Barr didn’t check the gate before trekking uphill.
“We actually didn’t know the gate was open, but normally the only option when you don’t ride the lift is to climb up and ski down,” Parks says.
Hamel noticed the open gate, so he and son Collin Hamel drove to the peak.
“Taking advantage of opportunity is not cheating,” laughs Hamel, a longtime skin veteran himself. “Cheating would be if the gate was locked and you went around it.”
Their ultimate goal is to reach The Bowl, an ice-sculpted, crater-like impression at the mountain’s crest that creates some of the steepest and most challenging skiing on the mountain — with or without chairlifts to get there.
“The top of this bowl is epic,” Hamel says. “That’s the part I love the most. It’s the steepest, then you have to go around those rocks, skirt the trees and ski out.”
The ride down can last less than a minute, but the hike up to do it again can be a half-hour, “or 20 minutes the second time because you have footprints to follow,” he says.
Most muster a few runs. Hamel’s record is 12 runs down, and up, The Bowl in one day.
“I was young,” says Hamel, 62, of Ashland. “But you run down, hike back to the top, take a break for five minutes and you’re ready to go again.”
Hamel also knows he must avoid what he calls “the death chunks,” broken boulders of snow.
You hit those with skis, it’ll twist you right out.”
Hamel is one of the off-season devotees at Mount Ashland, in part because of his need to ski and the chance for his snow-puppy Nova to jump off the mountain cornices and sprint down the mountain after Hamel.
During the ski area season, dogs aren’t allowed.
“She does well, but I get nervous on the cornices,” Hamel says. “She loves the snow.”
The duo’s off-season regimen of finding skiable snow at least once a month at Mount Ashland, Mount Shasta — or even Pelican Butte and Mount McLoughlin — has been astounding at times.
Hamel had a 34-month stint stopped only by an intense wildfire on Mount Shasta, where thick smoke made a hike to the snow unsafe, Hamel says.
The 2013 closure on Mount Ashland and a 2016 knee injury have created some hiccups in his need to ski, and the computer IT guy feels most in his element on the snow.
“I’d rather see trees than skyscrapers,” he says.
At the current snow levels, the best skiing is in the bowl, which as four distinct chutes, each with different pitches and pitfalls. Though not for your average skier or snowboarder, The Bowl should be available for advanced skiers for at least a few more weeks before Southern Oregon’s scorching summer sun exposes too many rocks and trees for Hamel to tackle.
“Most years there are even people up here skiing July 4th,” Hamel says. “But June looks doable. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
“It’s a wonderful mountain, and we’re lucky to have it. This place is special.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.