Why go skiing in two of the least-known states in the USA? Well, one reason might be a variation on the famous Everest quote, 'Because they’re there', but two far better reasons are great snow and crowd-free slopes
When Alf Alderson embarked on an 1800-mile ski trip through Oregon and Idaho he found fresh powder and no crowds, in February when the holiday hordes are swarming over the Alps. He also discovered local brews and beards AND survived a snowy night at the spine-chilling hotel from The Shining. But unlike Jack Torrance and his manic writing, 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy', Alf got plenty of playtime to write about in his seemingly private Idaho and Oregon ski resorts...
Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest mountain at 11,249 ft, is a volcanic peak which is not yet officially extinct, so you never know…
It rises proudly above the forests of NW Oregon and is only a couple of hours drive from Portland, a city of over 600,000 people which has more coffee shops, craft beers and beards per head of population than anywhere else in America (I just made that up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true).
Having drunk beer the night before, and coffee for breakfast, and neglecting to shave, I felt like a local as I schussed down Vista Ridge at Mount Hood Meadows, enjoying spectacular views south over the Cascade Mountains across ridge after ridge of blue-green forests to Mount Jefferson, another volcanic peak in the far distance.
The potential for great skiing was clear for all to see, had there been any ‘all’ – for as I was to discover during the course of my trip, both pistes, sidecountry and backcountry in this part of the world seem to be pretty much deserted pretty much all of the time outside holiday weekends (and I was travelling during what is half-term week in Europe, when the slopes are the very definition of utter chaos).
The resort also has eight terrain parks along with the open, empty pistes, and had there not been something of a snow drought prior to my arrival I’d have been tempted to explore a large area of gated terrain where steep double-black diamonds snake between trees and down into snowy bowls.
But with sun glistening off hard, shiny snow I made do with a relaxing meander around Mount Hood Meadows for the day - which was actually the perfect way to warm up after the long trans-Atlantic flight from the UK to Portland.
The sun was still shining as I drove to Timberline, also on the slopes of Mount Hood, from my overnight stay at the historic Hood River Hotel in the funky outdoorsy town of Hood River. Movie fans will recognise the resort’s only accommodation straight off – Timberline Lodge stood in for the Overlook Hotel in the horror classic ‘The Shining’ and this was where I’d be staying for the night.
I met up with Timberline’s marketing and PR guru John Burton who showed me around the slopes at high speed; this meant we’d covered most of the mountain by mid-afternoon since, like most US resorts, Timberline is small compared to those of the Alps.
However, it has plenty of altitude, with lifts up to 8540 ft and the option to schlep to the summit of Mount Hood from here. The resort is so snow sure that it’s higher slopes are used for summer training by the US and other international teams.
And talking of snow…
DAY 3 TIMBERLINE, OREGON
I was supposed to leave Timberline after breakfast for a relaxing three-hour drive to Bend. However, on waking, the hotel looked like it was applying its make up prior to appearing in ‘The Shining’ again – snow drifted up against walls, doors and windows and fell thick and heavy onto the mountain.
Only a fool would drive away from that, and, while I am many things, I am no fool (well, not this morning anyway). So I lapped the blues and blacks and in between the trees off Timberline’s four main chairs (the higher slopes above treeline were totally socked in), getting first tracks on every run until 10am.
The skiing wasn’t especially challenging, but, hey, when you’ve got shin deep powder bereft of other skiers who’s complaining? To give you some idea of how quiet it was, I took a break at 11am for a coffee in the rustic Phlox Point Cabin, tucked away in the trees, and I was the only customer; although it did get busy 10 minutes later when two other people came in.
All a far cry from the manic lunacy of mid-February in the Alps…
This is Bend’s local hill, and Bend rivals Portland in the beer, beards and coffee stakes (I’ve never come across a town with so many barbers and breweries per head of population – God only knows what you do here if you’re a bald teetotaller).
At 9,065 feet, Mount Bachelor is actually the sixth biggest ski area in the USA and has one of the country’s longest seasons (mid-Nov to mid-May) and, best of all, you can ski every aspect of the mountain - 360-degrees of pure fun.
I joined locals Reese Thedford and Geoff Angell for a tour of the mountain, and despite a busy parking lot and plenty of people milling around the base area thanks to more overnight snow, once we hit the slopes beneath the Northwest Express and Outback Express quads – a nice mix of decently steep, wide open pistes and plenty of fun stuff in the trees alongside - we could have been skiing our own private hill.
Later in the day, ski patrol opened the Summit Express to the top of the mountain and the double-black diamond slopes above the treeline became busy as people went in search of fresh powder, but it didn’t take long for everyone to fan out, and for my last run of the day on The Cone, another fun double-black, I once again skied in the kind of glorious solitude that I was now coming to expect in Oregon.
'What happened to days five and six?' you cry. Well Mount Bachelor was socked in on day five and day six involved an all-day drive across the high desert plains of eastern Oregon to Boise, Idaho. I’m a firm believer that if you’re gonna do a US road trip there should be some long drives down long, straight roads where solitude and the whistling wind are your only companions, and this was one of those days.
Day 7 saw me meeting up with my mate James to travel through Idaho, starting off with an afternoon at Bogus Basin, which looks down on Idaho state capital Boise and the vast Snake River Plain. It’s unusual in the money-fixated world of skiing as a not-for-profit ski hill, which meant that, for once, I encountered relatively busy slopes above the base area, especially as it was a holiday weekend – hell, we even stood in a lift queue for five-minutes at one point.
Remarkably though, higher up the mountain people seemed to be swallowed up on the fine selection of blue, black and double-black diamonds that make this Idaho’s second biggest ski hill (bigger than the far better-known Sun Valley, in fact).
From the high point of Shafer Butte (7,590 ft) we enjoyed an afternoon on fun blacks and double-blacks like Wildcat and Lucky Friday while occasionally nipping into the trees for something less tracked and a little more challenging.
Flat light and somewhat icy conditions frustrated us since it’s clear just from riding the resort’s five chairs that Bogus has a stack of great terrain, but that just makes it somewhere to revisit after a big dump.
Yep, I know, there’s another day missing - that was the drive from Boise to McCall, via the classic old mining town of Idaho City (no ‘city’, I can assure you – the population is less than 500) where the local hostelry advised against entering with loaded firearms but the dudes propping up the bar were a friendly bunch.
Not sure I’d want to live there though, despite the lovely forest setting…
The sun is shining in a clear blue sky and it's minus 26C as James and I make the short drive from the lakeside town of McCall to Brundage Mountain.
Here I enjoy one of the best day’s skiing of the season on skier-free slopes (of course) where the snow on the immaculately groomed pistes squeaks and creaks as we hoon down at full-pelt behind the resort’s loquacious PR person, April Whitney.
If we see more than two people on the slopes of screaming fast groomers like Main Street, Engen and 45th Parallel (check your GPS) we’re beginning to consider it busy, and apart from frozen feet it’s all as good as it ever gets in the skiing world; great skiing, good company, magnificent views across wildest Idaho and eastern Oregon (who can fail to be enticed by a range of mountains called the Seven Devils, located above Hell’s Canyon - which I bet you didn’t know is the deepest gorge in the USA?) and come lunch some damned fine mountain tucker in the Upper Lot Pub.
Did I say as good as it gets? Do excuse me, the afternoon gets even better. We hook up with ski guide and all-round top bloke. Spencer LaMarche to explore some of Brundage Mountain’s wizzo backcountry. Short hikes to skier’s right from the top of the Bluebird Express chair at 7,640 ft take us into the Hidden Valley, where Spencer leads us through deep pow and trees spaced just so along with the occasional open glade where we can open things up a bit.
Lap after lap follows before we call it a day, grab a beer and buy the obligatory souvenir baseball cap from – in my opinion – one of the best small ski hills in the USA.
Tamarack is different. It opened in 2004, the first new ski area in the USA in almost 25 years; then it closed in March 2009 as a result of the financial crash; then it opened again in December 2010.
It’s left a bit of a mish-mash of a resort, with a mix of completed, mothballed and unfinished buildings around the base area, which is about 20 minutes drive south of McCall. But none of this affects the skiing, which we once again found to be excellent.
From the top of just two four-person quads taking you to the high point of 7,700 ft Tamarack Summit, we were able to access everything from open powder fields to perfectly-spaced trees and the inevitably deserted groomers, and what’s more the typically light and fluffy Idaho pow was continually topped up throughout the day by pretty heavy snowfall – which somehow didn’t seem to impact on visibility, even on the more open terrain.
Like all the other resorts we visited Tamarack is tiny by European standards with just 1020 acres of terrain accessed by only four lifts, but it has almost 3,000 ft of vertical and masses of hike-to terrain.
Using McCall as a base you could easily ski here and at Brundage for a week or more and never get bored – and never stand in a lift queue either.
The missing day this time is accounted for by another long drive – seven hours – up into the forested Idaho Panhandle where the scenery takes on a Canadian feel – lots of snow-plastered trees all the way to mountain summits; but then that’s no surprise, we’re nudging the BC border here.
Schweitzer Mountain is Idaho’s biggest ski area, and within its 2,000 acres it has top quality skiing for everyone. It also has some of the best views of any ski resort in North America, across the deep blue waters of Lake Pend Oreille and the funky outdoor town of Sandpoint to the south and over endless mountain ridges in all other directions.
An enticing mix of wide, swooping blues and steeper, more demanding black and double-black diamonds had us tearing around the resort’s timber-rich front and back bowls like kids on Sunny Delight, and despite the near whiteout conditions the trees enabled us to enjoy a full day of action broken by two stops to refuel at the excellent Sky House summit restaurant.
But it was the second day at Schweitzer that I was really looking forward to, when I got to sample the cat ski operation which runs from the resort’s 6,375 ft summit. Our guides James and Sean seemed to know just where to find trees with the perfect spacing, slopes with the perfect gradient and powder with the perfect fluffiness to make my last day in Idaho a classic; and just to round it all off, a bald eagle flew by just 20 feet overhead as I came to a halt on my penultimate run.
It doesn’t get much more American than that…
The Oregon leg of my trip can be done on a 10 day trip with Ski Safari which includes flights with Air Canada, room-only accommodation and SUV hire and costs from £1,850 per person based on two people travelling.