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A double-edged flake Snow pads slopes, plagues roads

Skiers return to slopes with pent-up desire after sitting out ski season of 2004-2005

December 3, 2005

By 8:20 a.m., the Mt. Hood Express chair lift is carrying Jock Bradley and a ski buddy up for a second run down the six inches of fresh powder that fell Tuesday night.

They are debating a subject neither has had the will or pleasure of arguing for awhile: Which ski day was better: Yesterday or today?

Bradley thinks yesterday was the better day.

The snow was a little drier, he says. A little deeper. The lift lines were about as long.

Yes, his buddy rebuts. But today the snow is almost as good. And look, he points. It’s a blue, blue sky.

Both skiers agree, however, that Friday’s and Saturday’s conditions will likely outdo Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s.

And both skiers, they assure each other, will be here to experience them.

Admittedly, Jock Bradley hasn’t been the best ski partner lately.

The 44-year-old adventure photographer has, in recent years, been too busy with work, kids or something, anything else to fight his way up a snowy mountain road.

Many of his friends didn’t even know he skiied, let alone raced on his New Hampshire high school ski team.

But this year they do.

“I’ve already gone skiing more this year than I have skiied in a long while,” he says in a faded New Hampshire accent.

Bradley has already skied five times in this 19-day-old season, accounting for five of the 47,000 visits Mt. Hood Meadows has recorded since the 11-lift ski resort opened on Nov. 11.

“That’s not a record but it’s close,” said Dave Riley, general manager and vice president of Meadows.

Meadows’ best November was 1994, when it recorded 50,027 visits. But, says Riley, that year it opened in the month’s first week.

Making up for lost time, business —

“The skiers and riders are making up for the days they didn’t get last year,” Riley said. “People are so excited they’re coming much more frequently than normal.”

And they’re bringing a stimulant to Hood River County’s economy with them.

As of Nov. 30, Meadows was already writing pay checks to more than 600 employees.

“That will grow and be up to more than a 1,000 by Christmas,” Riley said. “We haven’t had night skiing yet. That’s a whole other shift of people.”

Night skiing began on Wednesday night.

Last season, Meadows’ paid staff peaked at 750 for a few weeks before a late January warm-front melted the 37-inch base to 19 inches, forcing management to suspend operations until March 22 and lay off 721 employees.

Recreation and amusement business skidded.

Dallas Fridley, the labor economist for Oregon Employment Department, found a $1.1 million dip in recreation and amusement payroll during the first three months of 2005 – due mainly to Meadows’ two closures.

“In 2004, the payroll (for January, February and March) was $2.7 million,” Fridley explained. “In 2005, it was 1.6 million.”

(Recreation and amusement businesses include ski areas, bowling alleys, movie theatres and sporting clubs).

This season’s payroll, Fridley said, should resemble the recreation and amusement industry payroll of early 2004.

Already the Hood River Hotel has cashed in on business Mount Hood’s ski areas has lured into Hood River.

“So far it’s a much stronger start to a great season,” said general manager Cathy Butterfield. “The encouraging thing is we have so many excited people calling in for this weekend. And probably to some degree because they didn’t ski last year.”

The Hood River Inn has already sold close to 500 Meadows lift tickets, which it sells at discounted rates with the reservation of a room.

“That’s about 475 more than we sold last November,” said Chuck Hinman, general manager of the Hood River Inn. “The early snow has been a great help to our room business. We’ve probably averaged 10 rooms a night that we could attribute directly to the ski conditions.”

How much snow has accumulated really? –

On his third chair lift ride of the day, Bradley is sitting with three strangers.

The greedy chase for the mountain’s last few lines of untouched powder has scattered and swallowed the four buddies with whom he drove earlier this morning.

But Bradley doesn’t mind too much. He knows the mantra on days like this:

“No friends on a powder day,” he smiles. “No friends today.”

Bradley is chasing the virgin slopes too. And to find more of them, he’s heading over to Shooting Star, where he believes the lift lines will be meager and the fresh lines will be abundant.

From the chair lift, a few minutes later, he watches as dozens of one-man armies, wearing skis or snowboards, loot some of the last remaining fields of untouched powder.

It’s a difficult seat in which to sit. But Bradley shouldn’t be too anxious.

He is skiing in the one dry spot in what has been – and should be a week of fresh snow.

The National Weather Service predicted on Thursday three straight days of probable snow storms through Saturday night depositing as much as 44 inches on Mount Hood.

That would add to Meadows’ current 62-inch base and promote the amount of snowfall from about normal to above average.

The average peak snow base at Meadows is about 430 inches.

Meadows’ peak base was 52 inches last year. The snowpack never reached more than 31 percent of average.

Right now, says Jon Lea, snow supervisor for the Oregon and Washington Snow Survey, a division of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, it’s 100 percent of average.

On the eastern side of Mount Hood, specifically where Bradley is cutting tracks through looted meadows, the snow pack measures 118 percent of average.

But snowwater – a measurement of water within the snow – is still lagging a bit.

(Snow is usually comprised of about one-third water and two-thirds air).

As of midnight, Dec. 1, snowwater accumulation at the Oregon Natural Conservation Service’s Mount Hood test site at the base of Timberline’s Pucci chair lift measured 11.1 inches, 72 percent of normal.

“Not a real good number yet,” Lea said. “But it’s gaining. And we’re still early in the season. It could catch up in a day or two with what we’ve been seeing these last few days.”

Last year at this time, Lea had measured just three and a half inches of snowwater at the Mount Hood test site, 23 percent of average.

“We have four times more snow on the ground than this time last year,” Lea said. “What we’d like to see is storm for a day, then nice for a day, storm for a day, then nice for a day. That would give it time to stabilize.”

Bradley, a 10-year whitewater kayaker, wouldn’t mind if storms blanketed the mountain with snow every day until May.

More snow in the winter means more whitewater in the spring and summer.

Right now, however, Bradley is celebrating his reunion with his skis.

In the three and a half hours his legs gave him to ski today, Bradley explored the Vista Ridge, both sides of Cascade Express, Mt. Hood Express and Shooting Star.

He hasn’t yet seen the famed Heather Canyon or White River Canyon.

He’ll get to those later.

His legs, he knows, will get stronger as the winter gets whiter.

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