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Skiing the Cascades

A skier hiked into some of the best backcountry in the Northwest at Oregon’s Mount Bachelor, which also has many lovely areas for the less ambitious.

Pamela Wright

A skier hiked into some of the best backcountry in the Northwest at Oregon’s Mount Bachelor, which also has many lovely areas for the less ambitious.

MOUNT BACHELOR, Ore. — The wind whipped. The snow swirled. We caught our breath. We were standing on top of Mount Bachelor’s exposed, jagged summit, an ancient and long-dormant volcanic cauldron, surrounded by the vast Deschutes National Forest. The views were crazy pretty, stretching east across central Oregon’s high desert country, west to a series of alpine lakes, south to Crater Lake and Mount Shasta, and northward across the rolling mountain peaks of the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Hood. But the expansive, go-for-it terrain beneath our ski tips was equally impressive. We could launch the boards in any direction off the highest lift-accessed summit in the Cascades.

The mountain, we saw, suffered from multiple personalities. The un-groomed and gnarly back side spread out in a series of massive, treeless bowls, vertical black diamond drops, and lower hemlock and lodgepole pine forests, offering some of the best and most challenging backcountry and glade skiing in the Northwest. The upper front face was dominated by the Cirque, a giant bowl created thousands of years ago when the volcano folded in on itself. But the lower and side front face of the mammoth mountain was crisscrossed by perfectly pitched, impeccably groomed intermediate and beginner runs. We wimped out and dropped our tips toward the blue-squared Beverly Hills side trail, a Cat-scratched, ego-boosting cruiser. It was, after all, our first morning on the mountain, on our first-ever visit to Mount Bachelor.

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Mount Bachelor has been around since 1958, but still remains a bit under the radar, often in the shadows of other mega-resorts. It’s located in one of the snowiest places in the country, tucked into the more sheltered southeastern flanks of the wet Cascades, where the snow is lighter, drier, and abundant, averaging more than 380 inches of powder a year. It makes for an extra-long ski season, typically running from November until the end of May, when the resort hosts its popular Springtacular festival, with late-season special events, concert series, entertainment, and deals.

It’s a serious mountain, the largest in Washington and Oregon, and the sixth largest in North America, with 71 designated trails webbed across 3,683 acres of lift-accessible slopes. Sixty percent of the trails are marked for advance or expert skiers, with a vertical drop of 3,365 feet from the top of the 9,065-foot summit to the base. But intermediate and beginner skiers have plenty of terrain, too, funneling to two base areas. Bachelor had been on our must-ski list for years.

We parked at the West Village Lodge, hopped on the Pine Marten Express chair, and warmed up on the mid-mountain, corduroy groomed cruisers, like Downunder, Canyon, and Coyote. We didn’t mind at all that the skies were blue and the sun was shining. The soft, silky snow and warm temperatures were bliss to us New England skiers. With clear skies, we thought it was a good time to check out the summit views, and ski the runs from the top.

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We spent the rest of the day tackling the fast-moving intermediate trails that spilled down the east side of the mountain, and skiing the rolling, open Cow’s Face and Open Bowls. Later, legs spent and energy waning, we stopped for a late lunch at the beautiful Pine Marten Lodge, set on a plateau just above treeline, with fabulous mountain views and better-than-average lodge food. First day’s impressions: Mount Bachelor is big, void of unnecessary (and often irritating and expensive) froufrou trappings, and blessedly uncrowded.

“So, where is everyone?” we finally asked a young man sharing the chairlift with us. It was our third day skiing Mount Bachelor and we had yet to wait in line for anything. There were many times when we had a trail to ourselves, when we were alone in the glades. He shrugged. “People who know, know,” he said. “I’m glad the rest stay away.” He gave us a quick flip of his hand goodbye as he plunged down the backside’s giant Wall of Voodoo.

The mountain has 10 lifts, seven of which are express quads. We were lucky: The summit chair was working all day, every day when we visited. That’s not always the case: One of the biggest complaints is that winds often close the only access to the summit and the giant backside terrain. However, this season, the resort begins its massive master development plan, the first in 32 years, which includes new year-round activities, services, and infrastructure, and opening new weather-protected terrain. This winter, the resort will open 646 acres of new glades, bowls, and natural features on the sheltered southeastern flank of the lower mountain.

What the 10-year plan does not call for is a highly-developed base village (think: Aspen, Whistler Blackcomb). There are no ski-in and ski-out accommodations, nor the on-mountain clusters of high-end restaurants and après ski bars that you find at other top resorts. We think Mount Bachelor has something better: Bend, one of the coolest and eclectic mountain towns in America, is just 22 miles up the highway. The vibrant, outdoorsy town is filled with a choice of accommodations, from a cheap, decent chain motel to the sophisticated Oxford Hotel. It has local shops, fabulous restaurants, and a lively, creative vibe. Dubbed Beer City USA, it also has more craft breweries per capita than any other city in North America — 13 pubs and counting. What this means is the best of two worlds: a wilderness ski experience and quick access to a cool town filled with après-ski opportunity.

We spent our final day on the mountain skiing the fast-moving cruisers tumbling down the front face, ending with a long west side glade run through a forest of widely-spaced hemlocks and towering pines, with no one else in sight. That evening, we dined on fresh sushi, and listened to live jazz at the Oxford Hotel. It’s hard to beat that scenario.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.
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