The mayhem starts at about 3:30 on this weekday afternoon. We're on one of the last chairs of our day at Mt. Ashland, feeling pooped after chasing fresh tracks and timber bashing, when the mountain suddenly starts rocking. Within minutes the place is inundated with hundreds of dwarfs, jibbing off trees, ripping bump lines under the lift and hanging from the chairs. Upon closer inspection, the dwarfs aren't really dwarfs at all, just kids in Mt. Ashland's after-school skiing programs. Last year, more than 2,300 local kids visited the hill, a number that markedly demonstrates the resort's commitment to community.
With 1,150 vertical feet and 200 skiable acres serviced by just four chairs, tiny Mt. Ashland manages to pull a lot of weight within the larger community it serves. It is the quintessential hometown hill: a place truly by and for the people who live and work in the town of Ashland (pop. 19,490) and the larger, more urban Medford (pop. 62,030).
The mountain was started by a grassroots effort in 1963. Though it has at times been owned and operated by private interests, the spirit that cut the first trails, built the base lodge and installed the first chairlift, ropetow and T-bar still exists today in the shape of the Mt. Ashland Ski Association, the not-for-profit group that currently operates the hill.
The co-op has made the effort to get locals skiing by starting them out young and making sure that the sport remains affordable. Lift tickets are just $28 per day, with serious discounts offered on season passes. And the affordable after-school programs have grown explosively during the past decade. The programs offer, in addition to skiing, a science component that teaches students in one of the best classrooms you could wish for: the great outdoors. Plus, Mt. Ashland's 40 acres of nightskiing mean there's still plenty of time to rip it up after school or work.
The seeds for community ownership of the ski area were planted in the early Fifties, when Dan Bulkley, then the physical education director of Southern Oregon State College in Ashland, decided to spread the skiing gospel by teaching his students how to ski. A car shuttle evolved into a portable ropetow, which led to Bulkley convincing the townspeople of Ashland to pony up for their own ski hill. By 1963 the place was up and running.
Ownership of the area was transferred several times in the ensuing years until 1983, when Washington state's Stevens Pass ski area bought it. Nine years later, when Stevens Pass threatened to close Mt. Ashland, the community rallied around its local hill for the second time. Local attorney Stephen Jamieson teamed up with Rogue Ski Shop owner Bob Matthews to create the not-for-profit Mt. Ashland Ski Association. The organization had to raise close to $2 million to purchase the ski area. Through a combination of state grants, a Rotary Club gift of $500,000 and a citizens' effort that netted $675,000, the mountain was able to open on Dec. 10, 1992-owned by and for the people.
The mountain's grassroots history has served it well in recent years. Because of its not-for-profit status, Mt. Ashland has freed itself from many of the requirements that come with operating a ski resort in the 21st century. There are no real-estate plays happening at the base area or golf course developments. And Intrawest won't be building a formulaic new base village here anytime soon. With a mandate to serve both the people and the environment, Mt. Ashland has become an exemplary steward of the sport and the land. While the children's programs act as a skier generator, adults have not been forgotten. Adult season passes sell for $399, and a variety of free programs, such as video analysis and $15 lift tickets on Tightwad Tuesdays, are geared toward the big folk.
The mountain offers a top-notch experience that's a combination of low-key Oregon hospitality and professionalism, attributes that are shared by the town of Ashland that nestles in the vaalley below the mountain.
"I love it here," says Scott, our bartender at the Bulls-Eye Bistro in the Ashland Springs Hotel, as he helps us relax after our first day on the hill. "The mountain has a bit of everything-steeps, trees, groomers. It's small, but it packs a lot of punch."
Local residents quite frankly make the place work. "We could operate without the volunteers, but the volunteers are an essential part of the mountain," says Rick Saul, Mt. Ashland snowsports director.
"Parents get involved because their kids get excited about the programs," adds Muriel Ames, a former board member and president of the Mt. Ashland Ski Association who chaired youth activities during her eight-year tenure. "Mt. Ashland makes a wonderful contribution to the community through the youth programs, which have a strong educational component. Some of the kids who come to ski after school would otherwise never get the chance to learn about the alpine environment. Mt. Ashland gives them a window into the wilderness."
On this day, with 6 inches of new on a soft base God only knows how deep, it's easy to get excited about Mt. Ashland. We're especially excited that, even though we've slept in after enjoying a night out on the town, there is plenty of untracked snow left. With half the terrain geared toward experts, we get our fill. Our smiles widen an hour later, when the ski patrol finishes avalanche control and opens the Circe, with its huge cornice hanging over heart-thumping steeps. The Circe is complimented by open-glade skiing off the Ariel chair, a perfect destination for intermediate and expert powder hounds. Families and cruisers will also find plenty to like about the Ariel chair: Dream and Caliban are wide-open groomers with great views of the valley below the resort. For mogul lovers, Upper Tempest lives up to its name.
We're even excited to see the dwarfian invasion, with its hordes of little people piling out of school buses and building kickers. Happy, that is, until an unruly gang of 10-year-olds nails the untouched line we've been eyeing all day and saving for our last run. It's a slice of sweetness that the local kids snarf up without so much as looking back at us because, after all, it's their hometown mountain-and they own it.