After 5 to 6 feet of snow fell last week in the Central Oregon Cascades, ski areas in the region are set up for a potentially stellar late-winter and spring season.
Hoodoo ski area near Sisters, Ore., boasts a snowpack of 104 inches after it received about 60 inches of snowfall last week. Some winters, Hoodoo does not even reach 60 inches for the entire season.
"Last year I don't think we ever went over 70 inches," says Hoodoo general manager Matthew McFarland. "This is definitely a turn for the better. The snow has just been coming, and coming and coming, And like everybody in Bend, we started getting buried at the same time. It was around-the-clock digging and shoveling. This is just beautiful. We love it, just love it."
They are loving it at Mt. Bachelor and Willamette Pass ski areas as well. Bachelor received 42 inches in 48 hours early last week and 64 inches over seven days for a current snowpack of 119 inches.
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At Willamette Pass, the snowpack is currently at a hefty 96 inches. The resort was forced to close last week after state Highway 58 remained closed during the snowstorm, but the ski area reopened Saturday and is back to its regular operating schedule of Wednesdays through Sundays.
Hoodoo is open Thursdays through Mondays and plans to remain open through April 21 after moving to limited operations in April, according to McFarland. Bachelor is scheduled to remain open daily through May 26, conditions permitting, according to mtbachelor.com.
"There's lots of snow, but about two weeks from now Little League Baseball starts," McFarland says. "Our numbers will be cut in half in two weeks just because of baseball. Two weeks after that everybody starts golfing again and getting their yards dialed in and getting ready for their summer vacations. They just quit skiing."
U.S. Highway 20 near Santiam Pass was closed last week after three avalanches hit the highway. Would-be skiers coming from the Eugene and Salem areas could not reach Hoodoo, and about half of the ski area's employees could not make it to work, according to McFarland.
The few skiers who did make it to the mountain were treated to memorable powder conditions.
"We still opened and we had a couple of skiers say it was the best skiing they've ever had in their lives," McFarland says. "It was like a private resort for them. People couldn't make it from Eugene/Salem, and that's half our market. It was a little slower than we would have liked, but people who were here were just loving it. We were walking through waist-deep powder in the parking lot that morning before we plowed it."
El Nino weather patterns – like this winter's – typically bring warmer and drier conditions to the Pacific Northwest. But that is not always the case for Central Oregon, according to McFarland, who keeps records of Hoodoo's snowpack each winter and whether it was an El Nino or La Nina year.
"There's no question it's an El Nino," McFarland says. "But when I go through my El Nino years, about a third of the time it means we get more snow than usual. All I can tell you is that it means the ocean is warmer. But I can't tell you that it means anything here. If we get that cold Arctic air that moves down and then meets with that warmer evaporation coming off the ocean from the El Nino, that means epic snow for us. And that's what we're skiing in right now."
In deep snow conditions, skiers and snowboarders need to be wary of tree wells, areas of unconsolidated snow around the bases of trees. Falling headfirst into a tree well can result in suffocation.
Last Friday, a 53-year-old male skier at Mt. Bachelor was found dead in a tree well. It was the third tree-well death at Bachelor in the last 12 months. In March 2018, two snowriders were killed at Bachelor on the same day in unrelated incidents involving tree wells.
Bachelor's website reminds snowriders to always ski or snowboard with a partner in deep powder and always turn away from trees on the slopes. While skiing or riding together, they should always stay within each other's sight. That way, if one of the snowriders encounters trouble, the other will see it and can be there quickly to help.
"If I see some powder and drop over a ridge to the next bowl over and we're not in view of each other anymore, we're not together," explains Tom Lomax, director of operations at Bachelor. "You have to have each other in a visual line of sight. Go one at a time. That's not how a lot of people are skiing now. A lot of people are skiing together down through these areas and getting separated."
With all the new snow and the prospects of a long season extending well into spring, skiers and snowboarders should always take heed to stay safe on the mountain.
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