“This isn’t about getting to the bottom first,” said guide Rick “Oz” Oswald, trying to tamp down my obvious overexcitement at staring down a prime-looking, 2,600-foot tree run on Mount Bailey, an 8,376-foot volcanic hulk in the southern Oregon Cascades. “This is about skiing untracked lines, and there are plenty of them.”
It was my first day there, but Cat Ski Mt. Bailey, which claims to be the country’s longest-running cat-skiing operation, has been doing this since before backcountry was cool and before there were fat skis to deal with the area’s 600-plus inches of annual snowfall. It’s had an exclusive permit to 6,000 acres of national forest land since 1979. But if Bailey has remained relatively unknown, there’s good reason: It’s a pain in the ass to get to.
After turning east from I-5 at the small southern Oregon town of Roseburg, about an hour south of Eugene, you follow the North Umpqua Highway 80 miles along the winding course set by the famous fly-fishing river it’s named for, gradually gaining elevation as you go. You won’t see much in the way of snow until you’re nearly at Diamond Lake Resort, an old-school collection of lodge buildings and cabins that serves as the cat-ski operation’s home base. Behind the lodge, across the frozen lake, Bailey rears up on the horizon.
Or at least it’s purported to. When I arrived the mountain was socked in, and optimism was fading by the time I met Ross Duncan, the lead guide, who lives in Bend and is in his ninth year working on Bailey. Duncan, who has skied all over the world, had whetted my appetite when we spoke on the phone prior to my arrival: “I’ve had some of the best ski days of my life here,” he said. But looking out the window at the drizzling, gray dawn, I was tempted to stay inside by the crackling fire.
Of course, as anyone who’s skied the Pacific Northwest can tell you, you shouldn’t make any decisions based on what’s happening in the parking lot. Once we got in the cat and started climbing, conditions—and moods—improved. It was on the ride up that first morning that I met Oz, a bearish man with an epic walrus mustache who grew up in Buffalo, New York, and followed his passions west, eventually landing at Mt. Bailey in 1981, where he’s guided more than 50 days a year ever since. When he started, it was $35 per day. Now it costs 10 times that, but aside from the price very little has changed. You’ll get six to eight runs, 2,500 to 3,000 vertical feet per run, with daily skiers capped at 12, the cat’s capacity. (They tried two cats once, years ago, but found it to be overkill.) This is not a frilly operation. It is a place for purists, and the clientele reflects that—mostly hardcore powder fiends from the West Coast.
That first day was a little wet—“It’s a snowflake trapped in a raindrop’s body,” said Oz—and the top remained socked in, but seven 2,500-foot runs from 8,000 feet were enough to reveal the potential of the place. I checked in with the oracle before leaving. “Tomorrow’s the day,” Oz said. “Potentially significant accumulation. Ten inches.”
The next morning, we arrived to three inches down in the parking lot. Up top, Oz’s prophecy was fulfilled: We were met by 10 fresh inches of surprisingly fluffy snow, decent visibility, and temperatures right around 20 degrees. Perfect. Our group of 12 was strong, from some old-timers who ski multiple days a year at Bailey to some GoPro-toting young snowboarders on the hunt for any mountain feature that might launch them. They found plenty as we worked our way through an impressive array of chutes, glades, and bowls with names like West Bend, Hard Way, Heroin Hill, and Incredi-Bowl.
Then came the sun. “Oh, yeah! I can see the summit!” Oz said, riding in the cat just after lunch. He said into the walkie-talkie on his backpack strap, “We’re clear to go to the top.”
A few claps erupted—everyone had been begging to go up there—and the climb did not disappoint. Though our window of visibility closed quickly, it was easy to see how much more of this mountain there was to explore. After our 3,000-foot run down through shin-deep powder, which culminated in a magical, rolling cruise through an old-growth Doug-fir forest they call Big Timbers, I asked if there was a lot more to ski. “Oh,” Oz said, “you guys haven’t seen the half of it. Much less than half, actually.” I looked at one of my fellow skiers and we just shook our heads.
At the end of the day, riding the cat back down to the pickup point, exhausted and exalted by one of the best days of skiing I’d had in years, I asked the guides how they’d grade the day compared to other Mt. Bailey days.
“I’d give it a C-plus,” Duncan said. “Don’t take that the wrong way. Today was awesome, but we have high standards, and it gets way better.”
Oz was a more forgiving grader. “I give it a B,” he said. “If you’re skiing anywhere, anyhow, I don’t think it can ever be anything like a C-plus.”