The endless winter
Late-season snow keeps ski resorts hopping
April skiers typically enjoy cheaper lift tickets, more sunshine and shorter lines than people who hit the mountain at the peak of winter.
But usually, late-season patrons get those perks at the expense of fresh, thick snow. Not so this year.
These days - almost mid-April - the three ski resorts on Mount Hood enjoy an unprecedented 200-inch base of snow, and new snow keeps falling.
'The ski industry would like to invite La Niña to all our parties,' joked Scott Kaden, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, referring to the weather phenomenon that brings colder, wetter winters to the Northwest. 'She has been an outstanding guest.'
The snowfall that the Sandy area and the Willamette Valley experienced in late March was just a hint of the activity taking place on the mountain. The temperatures and precipitation of winter have hung on long past the so-called start of spring, March 20, giving local resorts hope for an extended ski season.
'We've had a phenomenal year with regard to snow and cold temperatures,' Kaden said. 'We've enjoyed a fantastic year regionally, and we will end with a very, very strong year.'
Late seasons, although remarkable, are not unheard of. Mt. Hood Meadows, which doesn't offer year-round skiing, stayed open until the first week of June just two seasons ago.
'What is unheard of is the cold temperatures and the snow in the valleys,' Kaden said. 'That's what keeps people skiing. If it's beautiful in the valleys, people tend to get distracted with warm-weather pursuits. If it's cold there and there's fresh snow on the mountains, it's easy to make that decision to go skiing.'
To put it simply, the skiing is phenomenal these days, Kaden said.
'I absolutely love skiing in April; it's when our mountains shine. When I want to show off to visiting dignitaries, I love to show them around in late March and April.'
Kaden said that a late start will keep the 2007-08 season out of the record books, but noted that this year currently is on par with last year's 1.91 million skier visits statewide, which was just short of the all-time single-season record set in 2005-06 (1.95 million visits).
That's nothing to throw your ski poles at.
'Four of Oregon's most successful years on record have occurred since 2001-02,' Kaden said.
He said last year and this year are noteworthy because these seasons were successful without the Winter Olympics hype that typically accompanies banner years. The most successful year, 2005-06, got help from the Torino games, and the second-most successful year, 2001-02, was assisted by the Salt Lake City games.
'Having snow and the Olympic Games going on - and the significant media exposure that comes with them - I believe benefits us,' Kaden said. 'But to have non-Olympic years within striking distance of the all-time single-season record years demonstrates the growing demand for snow sports.
'We didn't have much activity during November. Typically, if you're going to set a record, you need to have a lot of the ski areas open in November. Skier visits can't catch up in the year, even if the season is longer. A snowstorm in November is much more fruitful than a snowstorm in May.'
Skibowl marketing director Karen Norton said her resort was supposed to transition to weekends only last week, 'But with the epic conditions and continued nice weather, we decided to open for (weekday) night skiing this week.'
The mountain's lowest-elevation resort was open every night last week and has committed to staying open weekends (9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday) until at least April 27. Weekday night skiing will continue through Wednesday, April 16.
It's typical for Skibowl to operate into April, says Operations Manager Hans Whipper, with the winter season typically ending the middle of the month.
Skibowl has experienced record snow this year, topping out at a 208-inch base.
'We've never been over 200 inches here,' Whipper said. 'Usually we're pushing the snow around to keep the base going - really stretching it - but that's not even a thought this year.'
While such a feat would seem to be a boon to Skibowl, it's a mixed blessing for the ski area, which has a wide array of summer offerings.
'The snow has been a catch 22,' Whipper said. 'Now it's pushing the summer opening further and further away. We almost want it to go away. But right now it's wonderful.'
A 3,690-foot drop?
Timberline spokesman Jon Tullis says the deep snowpack is 'money in the bank' for the year-round skiing destination, which is expected to attract an ever-growing number of foreign visitors this summer.
'It's truly an international destination in the summertime,' Tullis said, noting that the year-round skiing and favorable dollar/Euro exchange rate makes it possible. 'We're extremely optimistic about the whole spring and summer. It's going to be fantastic.'
Currently, Timberline is operating its best three lifts, Tullis said, but skiers soon may get access to an unprecedented mountaintop experience.
'We're trying to get Palmer open,' he said, referring to the famous high-elevation lift, typically open to skiers in the warmer months. 'People are dreaming of the idea of skiing from the top of Palmer down to Jeff Flood.'
If that happens, skiers and snowboarders would experience 3,690 vertical feet of shredding, from above the 8,000-foot level to the 4,800-foot level.
'That's an experience that won't be available every year,' Tullis noted. The lower lifts typically close in April, and Palmer regularly opens in mid-to-late May.
Meadows poses formidable challenge
Mt. Hood Meadows will operate daily through Sunday, April 27, then will transition to weekends for as long as guests wish to keep going.
'So long as our skier visits tally 4,000 or more on a weekend, we'll commit to open the following weekend,' Matthew Drake, chairman and CEO of Mt. Hood Meadows, wrote on his blog.
'It lets guests vote with their ski boots,' Kaden commented.
Last season, Meadows stayed open through the third weekend of May. In 2005-06, the slopes stayed open into the first weekend of June.
'We are experiencing an amazing season,' Drake wrote, 'receiving March storms with incredible powder conditions. With more than 15 feet at the base area, we will have great conditions through the end of our season - whenever that is!'
Cost to ski
Meadows: Unlimited spring ski pass: $119; $54 per adult for the 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. or 1 p.m. to closing shifts; $47 for adults to ski between noon and 4 p.m.; $25 for night skiing, 3 p.m. to close. More info: www.skihood.com.
Skibowl: Unlimited spring ski pass: $88; $33 per adult for the same hourly shifts as Meadows on the weekdays; $39 for shifts on weekends and holidays; $33 per adult for half-days on weekends (noon to 4 p.m.); $25 for night skiing, 3 p.m. to close. More info: www.skibowl.com.
Timberline: Unlimited spring pass: $99; $49 for an 'anytime' pass; $42 for adults between 1 and 4 p.m.; $23 from 4 to 10 p.m. More info: www.timberlinelodge.com.