In the college town of Eugene, Ore., everybody is outraged about something. Young activists dangle from old-growth trees to block timber crews. Black-clad anarchists smash store windows and rail against the greed of Big Business. At the city's edges, people in mossy-roofed trailer homes with chainsaw woodcarvings adorning their front lawns give slit-eyed looks to talk of Big Government and tree-huggers.
Despite disparate views on just about everything, Eugene residents do share some common ground: disdain for the rat race and the pretense of corporate America, and an appreciation for Willamette Pass, the family-owned-and surprisingly challenging-ski hill 70 miles east of city limits. At the Pass, skiers in camouflage fatigues ride the lifts with snowboarders tricked out like living pincushions. Consider it the lion laying down tracks with the lamb.
I'd long wanted to suss out this local hill, intrigued by rumors that Eugene's private stash harbors slopes so steep they might be more safely enjoyed at the end of a rappel rope. Its setting, however, is what first arrests the eye. Willamette Pass sits at the crest of the central Oregon Cascades on a twin-tipped peak furred with old-growth trees. Odell Lake rests at its foot like a mini Lake Tahoe. Cluttering the horizon are the Northwest's contribution to the Ring of Fire: the cracked and gleaming diadems of old volcanoes Diamond Peak, Broken Top and the Three Sisters. To the east, Mt. Bachelor's cone lies close enough that you can see the headlights of snowcats grooming at night.
If its setting is grand, the state's third-largest ski area doesn't swagger. The skiable terrain covers a modest 550 acres of national forest and has a 1,563-foot vertical drop. There is a tubing hill but not a single spendy on-slope condo. The sole timber-frame day lodge is crowded on weekends with families and junior ski teams eating brown-bag lunches. Looking for a spa treatment to work out that lactic acid? You'll have to release your toxins on 13 miles of nordic trails.
Roy and Edna Temple founded Willamette Pass ski area in 1941, logging a slice of 6,683-foot Eagle Peak and putting up a ropetow. The place remained frozen in time until 1982, when the Wipers, a Eugene ski family known in town for their large cemetery and funeral home, took control. Local ownership is fitting: 85 percent of Willamette Pass' visitors arrive from Eugene, the state's second-largest city, and lower Willamette Valley communities. Tim Wiper, the 44-year-old president/general manager and a former ski racer, is a hands-on type who can be seen driving snowcats or fixing door locks.
The ski area may be a throwback to an earlier age, but the family hasn't let it get lost in a time warp, says Director of Skiing Randy Rogers, who started skiing here as a child in 1958, when "facilities" referred to the four-hole outhouse. This season the owners will add the state's first six-pack chairlift from base to summit, cutting the ascent to Eagle Peak from 15 minutes to five. A new gondola connecting the parking lot across Highway 58 will eliminate the game of chicken long played between 18-wheelers and stumblers in ski boots. "He's like a latter-day Dave McCoy (of California's Mammoth Mountain) or (Ski Hall of Fame member) Nelson Bennett," Rogers says of Wiper, a friend since high school. "He could be doing anything else in the world with his time and money, but he's got it invested in the ski industry, and he does it with a passion. This whole six-pack project," he adds, "is not popular with his accountants."
From the base, the Pass isn't exactly daunting. As at volcanoes Bachelor and Hood, the mountain's terrain fans into a mellow apron. Most of Eugene's skiing population learned to snowplow on frontside groomers such as Duck Soup or By George, the huge, treeless and frequently groomed swath extending down Eagle Peak. All runs on the front lead down to the day lodge. Families can split up in the morning, and t only place they have trouble locating each other is in the acre lunchroom of picnic tables.
Up high, however, this blue-square playground shades to deep black. "I love the top of the mountain," says Kim Cunningham, a 10-year season-pass holder from Springfield. "It's got that super grade." Thirteen of Willamette Pass' marked runs exceed 35 degrees in spots. Locals at "Flatchelor" have been known to invoke the 10-Inch Rule on big snow days, driving 90 minutes to Willamette, whose steeper slopes can handle big dumps.
Willamette's marquee steep is RTS. On the trailmap, that's shorthand for Really Tough Skiing-although locals refer to it by a more off-color name. The 700-vertical-foot former speedskiing course tips 52 degrees for a moment and averages 45 degrees. (Black runs usually don't reach beyond 40 degrees.) A skier fell beside me and slid. And slid. The old saw about extreme skiing rang in my head: You don't fall down, you fall off.
Next to Eagle Peak is Peak 2, home to the eight-run Backside. Experts beeline here on powder days for runs down Escalator and Destiny. But with such runs having a JV vertical drop of only up to 886 feet, they're a lot like hors d'oeuvres: great stuff as far as they go, but not quite enough to satisfy an all-out hunger.
Longtime Willamette Pass snowboarder Rain Couture, co-owner of Eugene's Boardsports, offers this advice about both the hill and his hometown: You can get bored with both in time, Couture says, if you don't know where to look for fun. Head for the terra incognita on the trail map, he advises-the unlabeled, woody interstices in the runs.
Willamette Pass' twin peaks are carpeted with towering old-growth Douglas firs and mountain hemlocks that keep snow from getting blasted by weather. "You get off the top at Mt. Bachelor at 9,000 feet and it's windy," says Chris Stowell, manager of Berg's, a 50-year-old ski shop that's a Eugene institution. "But at the Pass, they've got tree coverage, so even when the wind's blowing, it's really fun. You don't get blown off the hill." Between the Backside's Northern Exposure and June's Run, skiers dart among moss-covered trees that resemble silent old men in rags.
A warm spell before my visit, however, has turned the skiing crusty and treacherous. A liftie notices the slump in my shoulders. "There's always soft stuff on SDN," he offers, pointing to the mountaintop. Ah, the acronyms. This one stands for Steep, Deep and Narrow-a small, unpatrolled bowl punctuated by a cliff-band near RTS. SDN shares the pitch of its neighbor but is covered with old-growth trees that close ranks. The snow is soft and sloughs as I make self-preserving turns among the black trunks. Next time wear a helmet, I think to myself, if only so the funeral can be open-casket.
At the bottom, the liftie sees my smile and returns it. I could be a raging anarchist. He could be one of those nuts that hates the United Nations. But we both know a good time when we ski it.
Willamette Pass, Oregon Essentials