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Ski resorts welcome Ol' Man Winter's return

Busy summer offsets slower ski seasons at Skibowl, Timberline

After a winter that set records for low snowpack on Mount Hood, operators of the mountain’s ski areas are reflecting on their own records from winter 2015 — records they hope not to repeat in 2016.POST PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Timberline Lodge is Oregons iconic winter resort on Mount Hood, and operators are hoping for more snow this winter.

But despite a rough winter and a leery outlook on the upcoming season, resort staff hope to capitalize on their strengths to reinvigorate the flow of customers.

With a base elevation of 3,600 feet, and a top elevation of 5,100, Mt. Hood Skibowl in Government Camp was one of the Mount Hood snow parks that wasn’t blessed with cool enough temperatures for lasting snow during the 2014-15 winter ski season. Last winter, Skibowl was open for only 11 days to skiers, mostly over the Christmas season school break.

Thanks to the ski resort’s nine-gun snowmaking system, winter sports enthusiasts were able to enjoy many more days at the Skibowl East facility, closer to Government Camp’s business district.

“That capability carried us through, and we were able to offer something to our guests,” said Hans Wipper, Skibowl spokesman.

To augment the snowmaking system, teams collect fallen snow from the parking lot to pile up at the tube hill. To protect it from warm rains, they salt and cover it.

“We help mother nature along,” Wipper said with a laugh.

Resorts for all seasons

Much higher up on Mount Hood, Timberline Lodge and Ski Area, which partners with Skibowl for a seasonal “Fusion Pass” allowing skiers and snowboarders to hit slopes at both resorts, managed to avoid a significant drop in paying customers last winter.

“It was a disappointing season for the industry, particularly in the lower elevations,” said John Tullis, Timberline spokesman. “Speaking from Timberline’s standpoint, we skied over 200 days last season. Lots of folks enjoyed it.”

That said, all one has to do is glimpse the gray soil and rock where the Palmer Glacier typically gleams into the fall season to realize last winter’s mild weather left no resort unscathed. POST PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Timberline Lodge is the jumping off point for a plethora of hiking trails on Mount Hood.

“It was a short season for us,” Tullis said. “We skied (Palmer Glacier) to Aug. 3, and typically it’s open through Labor Day. All you have to do is look at the mountain now to see why. It’s a fraction of its normal (snowpack).”

Skibowl’s tube hill was open for 71 days for daytime as well as “cosmic tubing” under the stars. Through the winter, the park kept its bungee jumping tower and aerial zip line feature open.

Employees used the winter’s shortcomings to get a jump on the resort’s summer activities. In addition to the zip line and bungee tower, Skibowl’s Mt. Hood Adventure Park in the summer offers mountain biking, go-karts and an alpine slide, among other outdoor adventures. Last spring, the Malibu raceway, rock climbing and an alpine slide were added to the list of warm-weather activities. POST PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The chair lifts at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood may not be operating at full capacity this year if the region experiences another mild winter.

“That’s what makes us unique and special is we do have those things to fall back on,” Wipper noted. “We definitely didn’t make up for all that skiing, but we were able to offer something and keep people employed.”

Timberline, whose iconic lodge in the shadow of Mount Hood’s south peak draws visitors from all over the world, saw a healthy amount of spring, summer and fall traffic.

“Timberline is a four-seasons resort,” Tullis noted. “This summer was huge. Tourism numbers in the state of Oregon have been tremendously impressive. In talking with some (local) business owners, despite last winter, they’re real pleased with the summer business patterns and are bullish about the upcoming winter.”

Cautious enthusiasm

At Skibowl, having a variety of activities to fall back on is the result of the resort’s long-term plan to better serve mountain visitors. The plan dates back to 1987, when Kirk Hanna, now Skibowl’s longest-running owner, bought the nearly bankrupt resort and realized it needed more than skiing to keep it viable.

With winter just around the corner, however, Skibowl brush crews are getting prepared the season, clearing slopes in anticipation of skiers and snowboarders. In addition, the resort plans to open a new attraction when snow begins to fall. A 70-acre area at Skibowl East will be dedicated to a snowmobile loop, where adults can try out the vehicles and learn how to ride. POST PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Ski Bowl in Government Camp has survived recent years by offering year-round entertainment. But operators are concerned about continued lack of snowfall.

“If they like it, they can go on a longer tour,” Wipper noted.

Although ski and snowboard season pass sales haven’t taken off as much as the resort would like to see, Wipper remains hopeful.

“It’s a slow start, and I think that’s because of a lot of factors,” he said. “The biggest being it’s been 70-80 degrees and people aren’t thinking about winter yet.”

He expects season pass sales to pick up before the early season pricing deadline ends on Nov. 9.

“We’re planning on a good winter,” Wipper added. “If it doesn’t happen, God forbid, then we’ll fall back on our other activities and move forward.”

Tullis reported similarly sluggish pre-season pass sales as of mid-October, but remains confident outdoors enthusiasts will be more eager than ever to hit the slopes as fall turns to winter.

“Pre-season pass sales are slower than normal this year, but I hear and see just as much enthusiasm as ever,” he said. “I think skiers are little tentative about making that commitment up front. It might simply mean they’re gonna purchase daily tickets, old school-style, where you wake up, look outside, see what conditions are, and say, ‘Let’s go skiing.’”POST PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Pray for snow reads a sign at Ski Bowl in Government Camp, one of the many local ski resorts and businesses that have been hurt by low snow fall in recent years.