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Skiing the Deep Steepness of Oregon's Mt. Bailey

March 08, 1987|JON D. MARKMAN | Times Staff Writer

MT. BAILEY, Ore. — The guide pushed back his goggles and stared at the group.

"This is a volcano," he said, "and there are hot holes that will swallow you up. I will point some out as we ski down. If I disappear, please stop."

With no further instructions, Rick Oswald kick-turned and headed into one of the 13 glades that roll down from the top of Mt. Bailey, the only mountain on the West Coast that had deep-powder skiing in late December.

Eight skiers followed, fanning out behind him to carve their tracks in the fresh, light snow.

The wind-chill factor made the air temperature about minus 50, but for several in the group it wasn't even cold enough for a wool hat. The only real shivers came from the stunning realization that a marvelous event was taking place: they were skiing.

Alta in Utah didn't have snow. Neither did Sun Valley, Jackson Hole--or any other resort in the Rocky Mountains or High Sierra.

High-Pressure Ridge

During the holidays an unusually strong high-pressure ridge had kept Arctic storms, sweeping down from western Canada, from traveling farther south than the Cascades.

That left only this 8,300-foot massif a cannon blast away from Crater Lake in south-central Oregon with the kind of steep, deep snow conditions that skiers like to boast about on chairlift rides with strangers.

But even without snow there is a big difference between Bailey and the big ski resorts: It has no chairlifts. Its managers don't even operate helicopters, vehicles that have become synonymous with powder skiing around the West over the past decade.

Instead, skiers here are ferried up the mountain in a snowcat--the squat, unglamorous but powerful snowplow-tractor that, at most areas, is a powder skier's enemy because it turns fresh snow into hard pack.

But here at Mt. Bailey the ugly duckling turns into a graceful snowbird, noisily carrying 10 skiers at a time in a custom-built cab up to 6,000 acres of snow and scenery that rival the best in the world.

A Panoramic View

From its peak at 8,363 feet the panorama includes Mt. Hood at the Washington border to the north and Mt. Shasta in California to the south. In the middle, skiers are surrounded by towering lodgepole pine, hemlock, Douglas fir--and the kind of light snow that Utah, not Oregon, is famous for.

On a sunny day the snow breaks into tiny crystals at the surface and glistens like a downy blanket of broken glass. Powder skiers, however, disdain sunny days. The sun helps make great photographs but often creates lousy--even dangerous--conditions. The best time to ski powder, according to authorities, is during a storm.

Upper-mountain lifts at resorts, however, don't operate in howling blizzards. And helicopters, as a rule, don't fly in blizzards.

All of which makes Mt. Bailey special among Western ski areas. Its snowcats are unstoppable forces that let skiers see something new: the eye of the storm.

It is not a well-known ski area, even in Oregon. In south-central Oregon the 64-year-old manager of a cafe about 60 miles down the road from Mt. Bailey was unaware of its existence. It is not on every map.

My father and I only discovered it about five minutes before we had reservations. We were sitting at my kitchen table on the Sunday night before New Year's, lamenting the lack of snow that was keeping us from our usual New Year's trip to Mammoth, when my father asked to see back issues of Powder magazine.

"There's got to be snow somewhere," he grumbled, asking for the telephone.

He called all over. Taos in New Mexico was a possibility, but you couldn't beg a reservation. Mt. Baker in northern Washington had a little snow, but not enough to warrant a 650-mile trip. Then he found a small ad for Mt. Bailey:

Forget Usual Runaround

"The Way Skiing Was: Uncrowded, Unspoiled, Untracked," read the copy above a black-and-white photo of a skier drifting through chest-high snow.

A quick phone call to Mt. Bailey Snowcat Skiing, which operates out of the Diamond Lake Resort, set us up. Forget the usual runaround with toll-free numbers and switchboard operators. Robert (Gus) Gustafson, the area manager, answered the phone at Diamond Lake Lodge. Reservations were no problem, he said, because most skiers assumed that there was no snow.

"Well, is there?"

Gustafson laughed. "There's plenty," he said, "and more on the way."

We flew into Medford, Ore., the next afternoon, and Gustafson picked us up in his van. On the 85-mile trip to Diamond Lake he told us about his dreams for the mountain.

A native of Minnesota who runs a commercial fishing boat in Alaska during the summer, he first saw the potential for skiing at Mt. Bailey when he worked here as a U.S. Forest Service snow ranger in the early 1970s.

By 1980 he had obtained a special-use permit from the Umpqua National Forest to guide skiers over the mountain. He decided to buy a $84,000 Pisten Bully snowcat to reach the snow instead of a $2.2-million helicopter, as much because of the often-inclement weather as the cost.

Blocked by Interior

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