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Ski Resort Life

Fire on the Mountain

A new lift on the mellower face of Mt. Bachelor's 15,000-year-old volcano sparks new life for locals and visitors.

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The light is soft and metallic as hundreds of skiers gather low on the flanks of 9,068-foot Mt. Bachelor. Hidden among the sagging hemlocks far from the day lodges and ski schoolers, the spot feels remote, but the energy is electric. A pair of large speakers rattles the crisp Oregon air with a “Starboy” remix. There’s a beer tent and the pours are free. The snow is deep. The mood couldn’t be more buoyant.

“What a day!” booms a skier behind me, a guy in a yellow jacket, hoisting his plastic cup.

“Can you believe this?” says his friend in an orange Salomon helmet. “So much snow! It’s, like, the freshest of freshies!”

Mt Bachelor
Rest easy—the last volcanic activity of Mt. Bachelor was between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago.Photo courtesy of Mt. Bachelor

Powder days bring out the best in all of us, but today, a glorious Friday in mid-December, is particularly awesome. Fifty-one inches of 18-degree fluff have fallen over this stretch of the Central Oregon Cascades near Bend during the past week and more storms stain the Doppler. But the reason for the super-stoke consuming this crowd is even cooler, for it only happens once in a long great while: A brand new high-speed quad is about to whirl to life, the first for Bachelor since the Northwest Express chair came online in 1996. Even better is why this new $6.5 million marvel, called Cloudchaser, is here. It gives skiers access to 635 acres of new glades, gullies, and playful shots that have only rarely sported any tracks at all. Freshest of freshies indeed.

Life in Bend feels enviable these days and not just because of the goods that Cloudchaser brings. The city of nearly 90,000 people about 20 miles east of Bachelor is one of the country’s fastest growing communities, with an urban appeal that continues to blossom in a rural setting. Bachelor still uses Bend as its main après attraction—there’s no lodging or Switzerfaux village on-site—so you can cap a day of bouncing through new terrain as locals might: with a cocktail at a new speakeasy-style bar tucked in a broom closet at the quirky McMenamins Old St. Francis School Hotel or over a spicy pot of khao soi curry at Wild Rose. The brewery count now stands at 22. Over at Worthy Brewing, owner Roger Worthington likes his stars as much as his suds and built an observatory on top of the pub for galaxy gazing with your winter ale. The off-the-menu kimchi burger at The Row comes with the clearest mountain views of any bistro in town.

beer at mcmenamens
A Bend favorite, McMenamins Old St. Francis School Pub produces its own beer in its basement brewery.Photo courtesy of McMenamins

For families, Bend keeps getting better, too. There are curling lessons and ice skating at the Pavilion. If Bachelor’s 4,300 acres—the sixth most terrain in the country for a single resort—don’t wear the kids out, take them to Mountain Air, a new indoor jumping facility where 26 trampolines and air bags make for high-flying dodgeball matches, spectacular basketball dunks, and the airiest corks you’ll never throw.

“You know, a lot of the same things I liked to do as a kid are still here; it’s just that more people are doing them,” says Terry Foley, 75, who started skiing Bachelor before the ski area was even founded in 1956. “Bachelor and Bend have to exist to support each other rather than compete with each other and I’ve always liked that.”

Back at the lift, Bachelor President and General Manager John McLeod whips out a Rambo-worthy knife and cuts a red ribbon to officially open Cloudchaser. The crowd lets out a collective hoot that drowns out the speakers. I score chair No. 8 and head on up feeling giddy even without the beer.

Even without Cloudchaser, Mt. Bachelor has never really wanted for terrain so the riches unspooling below me now are almost embarrassing. The stratovolcano four hours southeast of Portland now sports 11 lifts, and some of them spin all the way to Memorial Day. After a short break, they fire back up again for a few days around the Fourth of July. You can rip 360 degrees off the sastrugi’d summit to soak up views from Mount Adams to Mount McLoughlin. Black diamonds dive for 2,365 vertical feet off the northwest flank. The groomers off Outback and Pine Martin were meant for screaming. Red Chair? That’s where you find secret stashes practically in view of the parking lot.

Velvet in Bend Oregon
Velvet, in downtown Bend, is a popular après spot after a day at Mt. Bachelor.Photo credit: Brian Becker

I live here but the long season means there’s never really a bad time to visit. The mountains collected more than 600 inches of snow last season — the most since 1992. A bad winter here might mean “only” an eight-foot base. A good winter, like this one, can yield a 100-inch base before Christmas. 

And that’s where the real magic of Cloudchaser comes into play. The lift sits on the mountain’s tamer, leeward, southeast side so riders don’t get chewed in the teeth of the storms that routinely put windward lifts on hold. In fact, today, opening day, is a perfect example of the cloud-routing phenomenon. The wind is raging over on Northwest. Outback’s socked in. Here, for my entire eight-minute ride to the top, dainty snowflakes swirl in a puff of breeze. “The clouds are chased away!” says Drew Jackson, director of sales and marketing, and he’s not really joking.

At the top I wait for no one and head skier’s left into a blue called Convergence Zone, letting the tips of the QSTs hiss in fast-flowing arcs. The sides of the run well up to form a broad, fl at half pipe that I slash with gusto before hooking up with the bottom of another blue called Flying Dutchman. This used to be the farthest run to skier’s left. Now 13 more runs spill around to the east, giving beginners and intermediates room to roam away from the green-heavy Sunrise lift.

Over the course of the season I get to know Cloudchaser well. The massive lift lines of opening day quickly fade and my daughter, Evie, and I learn to traverse skier’s right to hit Wanoga, a rolling, swooping blast of a run with fast, flowy lines through the trees that may live to be my new favorite run. We pick our way down Jet Stream, right under the lift, and open it up on Cirrus. My wife, Heidi, and I take Evie, who is 8, on her first slack country powder experience in five inches of fresh in the Low East, a black diamond area that drops through the hemlocks and funnels through canyons to hit a catchline back to the lift.

On that day, one of the last I’ll log for the season, I watch Evie follow her mom into a pleasing gulley just off Wanoga where the snow is still untracked. One turn, two turns, three, and four: By the fifth I can’t see them anymore though bursts of Evie’s giggles waft through the needles like fairy charms. This is why we ski. Soon I too am lost in the kinds of clouds I could chase all day.

Tim Neville lives in Bend, Ore., where his favorite winter days are spent on the slopes of Mt. Bachelor with his wife and daughter.