Mt. Hood, Ore., is a rite of passage for any ski addict. Indeed, U.S. Ski Team summer training on Hood's slopes was an annual pilgrimage for me for roughly 15 years. Throughout that time, I wondered about the little hut on the Timberline Ski Area snowfield where we trained.
The Silcox Hut rests at 7,000 feet-about 1,000 feet above Timberline Lodge at the area's base and 1,500 feet below the top of the Palmer chairlift, which offers the only year-round skiing in the United States. Occasionally while riding Palmer, I'd see an early-morning hiker bound for Mt. Hood's summit and trace his foot-trail back to the hut. I imagined cold concrete and some cots inside, but in all that time I never ventured in.
So it was with great curiosity that I returned to Mt. Hood last fall, this time to stay at the Silcox Hut. Built in 1939, two years after the completion of Timberline Lodge, Silcox originally served as the top terminus and warming hut for the Magic Mile chairlift. When the Mile was relocated in 1961, Silcox was decommissioned until Friends of Silcox, a mostly volunteer group, set in motion an eight-year renovation plan for the structure. It reopened in 1993 and now hosts overnight groups. I went to Silcox last year in October with a group to test skis, and though skiing was the priority, bonding was a secondary but necessary ingredient. And what better place to bond than a hut?
We flew to Portland, and then drove an hour to the mountain, where we spent our first night at Timberline Lodge. No trip to the ski area is complete without a thorough tour of the lodge, which is a showpiece of Cascadian architecture and the skillful use of indigenous materials. The main part of the lodge is built around Douglas fir columns and massive volcanic rock fireplaces. Recycled materials make for unique decor throughout-wooden staircases with newel posts made of old telephone poles and decorated with native animal carvings, andirons forged from railroad steel, and rugs woven from old uniforms and blankets. Each of the 60 rooms-ranging from suites with fireplaces to bunk rooms-is outfitted with handcrafted rugs and furniture.
After a night of mountain elegance, we packed our bags, left them in the Timberline Lodge lobby and headed out for a day of skiing on the firm snow of the Palmer snowfield. As the snow softened, we shouldered our skis and climbed to Hood's 11,245-foot summit, something else I had never done on previous trips, when we were always rushed to leave the mountain after training. But now, knowing we had all day and all night on the mountain, time constraints vanished. The snow was firm enough to support us, with just enough softness to let our boots dig in. Steady footholds were key in the final push through the Pearly Gates, a steep narrow pitch through two snow- and ice-encrusted rock pinnacles.
From the top we looked north to Washington's Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens, west to Portland, east to the desert, and south to Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Bachelor and beyond. What we had originally intended as a few minutes to soak in the view turned into an hour. By then the descent route was coated in perfect corn snow. The upper steeps are enough to demand attention, then give way to the gentle shoulder of a smooth alluvial field. No one in the group could restrain from letting loose hoots of pure skiing satisfaction.
Back on the snowfield we pushed through what had become granular mush to the hut, where cold beer and outdoor picnic tables awaited. After our alfresco happy hour, I was at once totally exhausted and completely refreshed. For the first time, I went inside the hut, where our gear awaited us, having been transported from the Timberline Lodge while we skied.
Silcox is more rustic than Timberline, without the decorative touches, but there is beauty in its rugged simplicity. Inside the downstairs entrance are the sleeping accommodations, consisting oof a common room and six cubicles with four bunks each. At the back of that floor are two restrooms with showers. From there, heavy stone stairs lead up to the Overlook Room. This is the center of activity, where people gather around a yawning rock fireplace, eat their meals at burly wooden tables and benches, and congregate to take in a sweeping southern view of the Cascades, which stretch nearly to the California border. Looking north brings a view straight up Mt. Hood's flanks to its frosty summit, and at night the sky glows with the lights of Portland. The heavy iron and wood furniture, and the walls and floors of volcanic rock, are balanced by the airiness of the natural light and high vaulted ceiling. The effect is a comforting intimacy that feels more chalet than hut. Indeed, people expecting wind whistling through the cracks are greatly relieved to see the cozy interior.
Steve Buchan has been the manager and host of Silcox for the past eight years. The Boston native was drawn to the area by his passion for skiing and climbing. Managing Silcox requires cooking, cleaning, transporting gear and, most importantly, seeing to it that the guests have a good time. "When people come here they are already pleasantly surprised," Buchan says. "So all I have to do is keep them happy." He does so by serving breakfast and dinner, and basically turning the hut over to guests, allowing them free rein.
Visitors to the hut range from small groups of friends or wedding parties to family reunions or corporate gatherings of up to 24 people. The remoteness allows people to relax, and inhibitions are blown away with the breeze that sweeps down the mountain. People cut loose-way loose. "I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing people have a good time," Buchan says. "I tell everyone when they leave: 'Your secrets are safe with me.'"
The only exception to these non-rules is when vicious storms roll in, and Buchan lays down rules for safety. Though guests have been snowed in only once in eight years of operation, the weather can be brutal at night, with 85 mph winds not uncommon and record gusts of 160 mph. Thankfully, lava-carved canyons on either side of Silcox's perch protect it from avalanches. And when the storms clear, the view is as expansive as the skiing.
Our night in the hut afforded us first dibs on the Palmer lift for a morning of laps on firm snow. Because it was October, our skiing was all on the Palmer, but in winter Timberline expands to 3,590 vertical feet and 1,430 acres of skiable terrain served by six lifts.
To me, those October days couldn't have been more ideal, but Buchan's favorite time is during spring's long warm days, when crowds are at a minimum and snowpack at a maximum. Every season provides a different kind of experience. In winter, much time is spent warming up from the day around the fireplace, and in summer, guests take to the outdoors with longer climbing and skiing expeditions. Summer nights bring the opportunity to look down on Fourth of July fireworks and up at August meteor showers.
Buchan's one recommendation: If you can only stay one night, stay the night after the climb to the summit, to better enjoy the fun of the hut. I can vouch for that. And don't be disappointed if, like our group, you leave him with no secrets to keep. A couple of days of skiing, climbing and staying on the mountain may make an evening of good food, good wine and good company all the excitement you need.