Close Encounters

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Weird and wonderful things happen at Mt. Shasta, Calif. Snowstorms materialize from thin air. You can be skiing in clear, bluebird weather and suddenly become engulfed in a mini-blizzard, with flakes drifting down from a cloudless sky. When you notice that the snowmaking guns are silent, you begin to think this flurry-from-nowhere is some wizardry that Mount Shasta Ski Park has dreamed up to baffle and delight its customers. If you aren't familiar with Shasta's anomalies, you can go nuts trying to locate the source. Actually, it lies about 7,000 feet above the highest slopes of the ski area, near the 14,162-foot summit. This dormant volcano has an array of microclimates, and even though conditions can be whisper-calm mid-mountain, winds of 100 miles an hour or more can be howling at the top. At such times, snow is blown onto the lower reaches, thus creating instant "storms."

Plenty of other things about Shasta are cloaked in mystery, too. For decades, it has been a lightning rod for the unexplained and the occult, as well as an "energy" source for out-of-body experiences. No doubt about it; this is a peak that belongs in the X-Files.

The stories abound. Residents have reported strange bells ringing from the mountain, though there are no churches on its flanks. Some groups believe that Shasta is inhabited by a prehistoric race of tall beings known as Lemurians, who have a third eye and supernatural powers. Others claim that survivors of the Lost Continent of Atlantis dwell within the nether regions of the mountain. Various Indian tribes have tales of "little people" who emerge from secret caves to play mischief on unsuspecting humans.

Not to be left out of this mystical matrix are the UFO followers. At locations on and around Shasta, there are peculiar, 30-foot-high mounds that seem to form a pattern, perhaps resembling ancient, unexcavated cities in Mexico or Egypt. Other areas have large circular burn marks and scars on the ground, as if caused by some type of landing aircraft. There are those who say that unusual cloud formations mask the landings of flying saucers.

And then there are "the lights." Mike Thompson, general manager and one of the founders of the Ski Park, usually doesn't pay much attention to the local legends. And yet, he's still scratching his head over a trio of odd experiences that even he can't explain. Thompson, a pragmatic sort of guy who has climbed and hiked virtually every square inch of Shasta, recalls a time, 20-odd years ago, when he and three friends were doing some late-evening stargazing. "We were at timberline, at about 9,000 feet, and because it was fall there wasn't any snow on the ground," he recalls. "At about 2 a.m. our attention was drawn to the summit, roughly a half-mile away. We saw a series of lights coming on in pairs-like runway lights at an airport-and working their way down in our direction. We lost our composure, jumped into the car and raced home." A few years later, he and two climbing buddies were camping on the backside of the mountain when they saw a huge moving pattern of lights, perhaps 2,000 feet above, fly over them. On yet a third occasion, during the day, Thompson saw what he presumed was a meteorite-"a white-hot, basketball-shaped object"-fall straight down on the opposite side of a ridge just a few hundred yards away. When he scrambled up the hill to investigate, Thompson could find no crater, no wisp of smoke-nothing.Scully and Mulder, please take note.

Of all the remarkable occurrences at Mount Shasta, one miracle that is undisputed is the existence of Mount Shasta Ski Park. The resort not only has survived since its relatively recent incarnation in 1985, but it has prospered well beyond most people's expectations. In the late Seventies, the mountain's first hill, Mount Shasta Ski Bowl, shut down after an avalanche toppled its uppermost chairlift. After the resort closed, Thompson and Phil Holecek, who had been school chums and ski racers, came up wi a plan to build a ski area on private land owned by Southern Pacific Land Company, the real-estate arm of Southern Pacific Railroad. The pair assembled a team that included local attorney Arnie Breyer and accountant Bill Heilman. But what they all had in common-empty pockets-was not exactly what the venture required. Still, they talked a good story-to the environmentalists, to the local bankers and to SP Land Company, which, as luck would have it, was managed by a former ski shop owner from Mount Shasta City. They got a lease to the land, convinced a bank to loan them money, and the rest is history. "It was like an old Andy Hardy movie," Breyer says. "When I look back, I find it all pretty amazing."

Skiers from the Shasta-Cascade region of California, southern Oregon and the Bay Area think the Ski Park is pretty amazing, too. Amazing for its lack of crowds, cheap lift tickets ($33), diverse terrain and ease of access.

Of all the ski areas in California, Mount Shasta may be the easiest to reach, despite the 295 miles that separate it from San Francisco (about 80 miles farther than Lake Tahoe's resorts). The testament? Last season the area drew a record 162,000 skier days-more than many resorts twice its size. Despite its modest complement of lifts (four, including one surface tow), the Ski Park is a sizeable Shangri-La of volcanic lava buttes and valleys, with a chairlift for each peak and well-designed fall-line runs. The area's southwestern exposure, low elevation and forested slopes afford protected skiing. And from the top of any lift, skiers have an impressive panorama of the juncture of five mountain ranges. Given its vertical drop of 1,390 feet and its 425 acres of terrain, the Ski Park has ample skiing to satisfy just about anyone. From the base lodge, you can ride the triple chair to warm up on gentle, forested slopes that meander off Marmot Ridge. Half of the trails, mostly beginner runs, lead back to the lodge. The other half funnel into a runout called Panther Creek, which also serves as a collector for the advanced and intermediate runs on the opposite side of the drainage. If you want steeper stuff, you can hop on the Douglas Butte triple chair and see what the powder is like on West Face, a black-diamond run directly below. Or you can work your way over to the bottom terminal of the third chair on North Saddle and Highland Glide, both of which are no-nonsense intermediate runs. The Coyote Butte triple chair reaches the ski area's highest elevation, at 6,890 feet, and offers all black runs except for one cruiser called Eagles Flight. From the summit you can see the entire trail layout, but not the top of Mount Shasta, which seems always out of view.

On-mountain amenities consist of a small day lodge with a rental shop, a pizza joint, a cafeteria and a bar. On sunny weekends, there's usually a band playing outside on the deck. One mile down the road, the area operates a 30-kilometer cross-country and snowshoe center. And for those who don't get enough turns during the day, the Park offers the largest nightskiing operation in Northern California (14 trails and all three chairlifts). While the Ski Park has a passionate local following, skiers who drive from the Bay Area-a 4 1/2- to 5-hour trip-say the effort is worth it. Bill Ogletree, who lives in the Napa Valley wine country with his wife and 10-year-old son, figures that a weekend at Shasta is about half the cost of skiing Tahoe. "It fits our budget. We can stay at a bed-and-breakfast or a motel very inexpensively, and the price of a season pass is equal to two or three days of skiing at Tahoe," Ogletree says. "What's more, the people here are great folks-family-oriented and down-to-earth."

That is, except for some who aspire to a non-secular state of consciousness. Mount Shasta City's unique blend of après-ski pursuits is not exactly typical of most ski towns. Off the main business district are the psychic healers and "intuitive counselors," and you can find their brochures in Has Beans, the favorite coffeehouse in town. You can arrange a session with Swan Ramachi, a self-described "contemporary mystic," who might be able to heal your gimpy knee. Or you can seek out Judith Mathieu, an "intuitive consultant" who helps you experience "energetic healing and clearing." If you're ready for the really big step, you can initiate "planetary transformation" from para-psychologist Kenji Kambara, who offers sessions in what he calls LifeSeed Therapeutics. Even if you're not a believer, at least it's something to do.

And making the transition from skiing to spiritual healing isn't that much of a stretch. Consider one example. Back in the late Seventies, when the old Mount Shasta Ski Bowl closed, a popular shop called House of Ski pulled up stakes as well. But the building wasn't empty for long. In its place came a New Age counseling service, whose owner simply crossed out the "Ski" and added a few words, making it read, "House of Health and Healing." Now that's harmonic convergence.rs," and you can find their brochures in Has Beans, the favorite coffeehouse in town. You can arrange a session with Swan Ramachi, a self-described "contemporary mystic," who might be able to heal your gimpy knee. Or you can seek out Judith Mathieu, an "intuitive consultant" who helps you experience "energetic healing and clearing." If you're ready for the really big step, you can initiate "planetary transformation" from para-psychologist Kenji Kambara, who offers sessions in what he calls LifeSeed Therapeutics. Even if you're not a believer, at least it's something to do.

And making the transition from skiing to spiritual healing isn't that much of a stretch. Consider one example. Back in the late Seventies, when the old Mount Shasta Ski Bowl closed, a popular shop called House of Ski pulled up stakes as well. But the building wasn't empty for long. In its place came a New Age counseling service, whose owner simply crossed out the "Ski" and added a few words, making it read, "House of Health and Healing." Now that's harmonic convergence.