Two dads from Vermont, delivering their sons to their first day of summer race training at Timberline Lodge, are making their way up the Mt. Hood access road, enjoying the spectacular Cascade scenery, "when some crazy girl in a Subaru" passes them on a corner at, shall we say, imprudent speed. A moment later, they pull into the parking lot. There she is again, already booted up, pulling on sunglasses and a GS suit. But wait a minute, isn't that...?
Yes, Picabo Street, the U.S. downhiller, who drives like she skis. Such star sightings are not uncommon on the slopes of Mt. Hood in summer. With 1,500 vertical feet of reliable snow accessed by high-speed quad, Timberline's Palmer Snowfield is where the action is for the North American racing community. Training has long been the draw up here and still dominates the culture. The trip to Hood is a racer's rite of passage, a pilgrimage often made as an adolescent. U.S. Team athletes and coaches are ubiquitous; ski academies offer summer training to their students; and several private camps draw droves of hopefuls from the Midwest and beyond for a mix of skiing in the morning, "summer" activities in the afternoon, and all the usual teen hi-jinks of summer camp. Lately, snowboarders have moved in, bringing a distinctly countercultural flair as they practice their moves on several halfpipes and terrain features.
Summer skiing is big business for Timberline, which in the winter is a quiet day area for Portland skiers. Daily revenues in the summer easily outstrip those of winter.
The snow of Palmer Snowfield (not a glacier, because it is stationary) is what you'd expect in July, when the temperature usually dips below freezing each night. The surface is rock-hard at opening bell(7 a.m.), softer as the sun climbs high, unskiable slop by closing time (1:30 p.m.). To battle the melt and buy precious minutes, coaches and athletes use heavy sacks of snow-hardener, which must be shouldered for the trip to the hill. Up here, you're either a one-sack man or a two-sack man.
Real estate is precious: not slopeside condos (there are none), but ski terrain, which is apportioned in parallel lanes, each just big enough for the task at hand (be it slalom, GS or speed training). Heaven help the day-skier who wanders into this Break-A-Way forest, sole province of the aggressive Lycra tribe. The tourists-vastly outnumbered-get their own generous slice of snow. Lift tickets are $37.
Skiers and boarders aren't the only summer visitors to Hood. Nestled as it is at the nexus of Cascade summer recreation-land, the Lodge attracts annual hordes of outdoors people. Hikers come to summit Hood (11,245 feet; a fairly accessible climb, though not to be taken lightly). Anglers work the region's pools and rapids for steelhead and salmon; windsurfers scud across wind-whipped Columbia River Gorge, an hour away; and tourists come just to see the sights. The Lodge is extraordinarily beautiful-more like a cathedral of the mountains than a hotel. WPA laborers built it at the height of the Depression, and its workmanship speaks of a bygone era, yet it is pleasantly humble. Sure, you can rent a private room with fireplace for $200 a night. But the view is just as spectacular from the window of a "chalet" room, where $75 gets you a bunk and shared bathroom.
The Lodge is a celebrity in its own right, featured in several movies, from The Bend in the River with Jimmy Stewart, to Lost Horizon and, yes, The Shining (exteriors only). The building is government owned, but managed by the family that also operates the ski area.
What passes for a town is six miles down the road in Government Camp: a collection of bars, stores, hotels "and a couple of dogs asleep in the road." Gear manufacturers stay for the summer. They come to test their prototypes, check out what the competition's got, push their brand into the hands of key athletes and just be where the action is.
And everywhere the views are beautiful: Snow-tipped Cascade volcanoes line up north and south, floating in the blue haze above the green of Northwest forest. But keep an eye on the rearview mirror, and pull over to do your gawking. Or incur the wrath of Picabo.
Timberline ski area and lodge are open year-round, except during routine lift maintenance in September.
Information 800-547-1406; www.timberlinelodge.com
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