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Fingers crossed, Mt. Ashland ramps up for winter

From more video cameras to snow fencing to equipment updates, Mt. Ashland had a busy off-season preparing for winter.

Some of the work was aimed at improving amenities in the event of low-snow years.

“Even in a good winter, we would like to open earlier and stay open later,” said Hiram Towle, general manager. “Sometimes that isn’t supported by the amount of snow on the ground.”

The ski area has shifted it approaches with variable snowpacks in mind. Since not opening in 2013-14, the ski area has experienced two good snow years and two that were less than optimal.

A snow fence is being erected beside the lower loading area of the Sonnet lift on the beginner’s hill. The fence will provide protection from winds blowing out of the south and also ensure that snow will stay on the south side of the pickup point. In low-snow years, the area would get scoured out, leaving beginners only one access route to the lift.

A loading ramp will be constructed for the Windsor lift, decreasing the amount of snow that would need to be hauled in during dry periods.

Vegetation trimming has been done on the Poma slope to make it more usable in low-snow years. The slope is accessed from the top of the beginners Sonnet lift. At one time a Poma surface lift took skiers from the bottom to the top but it was removed in the early 1980s.

An avalanche beacon park at the bottom of Poma will have easier access for backcountry skiers who want to practice with avalanche beacons used to find buried skiers. Mt. Ashland has equipment that allows burial of up to six beacons in the park. It’s been used for two years by ski patrollers and backcountry groups.

“All of our ski patrol team wear avalanche beacons when we are assessing avalanche danger,” said Towle.

Mt. Ashland management will increase outreach to backcountry users, a growing segment. The area has an open-boundary policy that allows skiers to leave the patrolled acreage. Besides the beacon park, the area will offer a backcountry film festival and plans to host several seminars on backcountry best practices.

Tree-skiing fans will benefit from additional terrain where thinning took place to improve forest health on the mountain. With Forest Service approval, smaller-diameter trees were removed to benefit larger trees prior to last season in four large “tree islands” on the mountain between lifts. This year, similar work will be carried out north of the Caliban run to bring the gladed area to 60 acres. A student watershed assessment team from Logos School under the direction of Oregon State University is monitoring the forest health work.

Other improvements include:

A motor room now covers equipment at the bottom of the Comer lift. Previously a clamshell cover enclosed the equipment, but when that was opened for maintenance and repairs, it provided no protection from the elements for equipment or workers.

Free shuttles will run continuously between the area and Ashland Hills Inn on weekends and holidays. There will be a half-dozen trips each way compared to two per day last season.

Four more webcams that focus on key mountain areas, including lift loading sites, will be added. The cameras work on a Wi-Fi system, which will increase signal reception on mobile devices to more areas.

Last year the lodge opened with $1.7 million in improvements and an additional 1,000 square feet. Upgrades for this year will include new line arrangements and a point-of-sale pay station in the rental shop, now located in the lodge basement. A new metal roof, part of the project, was put on this summer and will be better able to shed snow than the 54-year-old redwood shakes.

Additional features have been secured for terrain parks where skiers and boarders perform tricks and maneuvers.

“The more features we can cycle out there to use increases the fun for our terrain-park folks,” said Towle.

Mt. Ashland officials hope to open Saturday, Dec. 8, snow permitting.

Mt. Ashland launches campaign

A $300,000 Local Mountain Fund campaign was announced Wednesday by the nonprofit Mt. Ashland Association.

Money raised will be used for projects to better accommodate low-snow conditions and for continued improvements to the lodge.

“We are adding to what we consider a community asset,” said General Manager Hiram Towle. “The community has always been very good about helping with those type of improvements. They know we have the operations and maintenance very well handled.”

Costs for snow fencing and ski-slope trimming are estimated at $150,000. Trimming allows boarders and skiers to use the terrain with less concern about hitting vegetation in low-snow conditions. Snow fencing helps prevent snow from blowing away. The Lower Juliet run just off the parking lot would be a candidate for snow fencing, said Towle.

Lift loading ramps, budgeted at $30,000, will be installed. The ramps mean the workers don’t have to haul snow to build up loading areas for participants. A ramp was created for the beginner Sonnet lift in 2016. Another is being added for the Windsor lift for this season and the Aerial and Comer lifts will get them as money becomes available.

Continuing the $1.7 million lodge renovation for last season, new rubber flooring would be installed on the upper levels, which would also get new furniture. Those improvements are budgeted at $40,000.

Exterior lodge work would include repair and painting of older building sections. Deterioration was discovered during renovation, and officials delayed painting the older areas until repairs can be undertaken. The work will cost $80,000.

Karen and Sid DeBoer will donate $1 — up to $100,000 — for every $2 given by donors. More information can be found at www.mtashland.com.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Mail Tribune file photoSkiers ride the Sonnet chair lift at Mt Ashland in February.