"You know what's so interesting about this hill?" asks Witt Anderson, a 50-year-old telemark skier from Portland who's made tracks to Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort, on the east side of Mt. Hood's volcanic cone, for about 15 years. "It's got multiple-personality disorder."
Unlike the same condition in human beings, Anderson explains, at a ski resort this is a good thing. At least at a ski resort in Oregon, where most areas are cut into volcanic slopes of uniform pitch, making them rather homogeneous and potentially bland to ski. "Meadows has its share of moderate, volcanic terrain, but Heather Canyon shakes things up," says Anderson, a high-level staffer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "It gives the hill a steep, wild side."
Weather adds another personality quirk. "Yesterday you needed a garbage-sack raincoat to stay dry," Anderson says. "Now look at this place." Beyond the Cascade Express-the quad we're riding to the resort's 7,300-foot apex-the snow-plastered white pyramid of Mt. Hood contrasts sharply against a cloudless blue sky. "This mountain throws you something different every day...concrete yesterday, powder today."
We exit the chair and warm up on freshly groomed corduroy. Above us, the treeless slopes of Mt. Hood, Oregon's highest peak, rise a neck-crimping 4,000 vertical feet. Below us, the ski runs drop into a zone of gnarled, wind-twisted conifers. "My family loves this aspect of Meadows," Anderson says. "Nice grooming, wide-open runs, above-timberline skiing, big scenery."
These qualities, along with the relatively short 65-mile zip to Meadows on Highway 26, are what motivate Portlanders to pack up the Explorer for the scenic ride to the Cascades. Many skiers bypass closer hills such as the lower, less spectacular Ski Bowl, and Timberline, which tends to be stormier. Neither has the size, amenities and diversity of terrain of Meadows, where 2,775 feet of vertical balloons to 4,475 when the snowcats run in the spring, dropping skiers in the untracked pow above Upper Heather Canyon.
Riding the Cascade Express again, Anderson describes the mountain's layout. Meadows is superimposed like a diamond on the slopes of its namesake volcano. The Cascade Express services the top of the diamond; various halfpipes and terrain parks are stashed on the left side; the intermediate forest trails of the Hood River Express compose the bottom; and 750 acres of lift-assisted backcountry in Heather Canyon is on the right side.
That latter portion is Anderson's hallowed ground and, after shuffling along a flat traverse near the top of the resort, we peer into Heather Canyon, a 2,000-vertical-foot plunge bulldozed by a receded glacier. Scoping out the double-diamond drop of A-Zone, Anderson wastes no time exploiting what Meadows is often drowning in-new snow. He jumps off the headwall and a geyser of spray explodes from the tails of his powder boards. "Like Utah!" he yells, vanishing behind a crystalline veil.
Several times we link the circuit of chairs to lap the precipitous, treeless bowls of Upper Heather Canyon. Later, we tackle the steep trees of Lower Heather Canyon, occasionally joining forces with other skiers who lead us to hidden glades, obscure chutes and secluded stands of trees. "If you're talking dollars, it's day skiers from Portland like me who make Meadows tick," Anderson says. "But if you're talking soul, it's the skiing windsurfers from Hood River, like the guys we've been following, who give the hill character. They're the ones always up here exploring the adventure terrain."
By the time shadows swallow the hill, I'm lusting after a brew, and Anderson's thighs are quaking from his freeheel masochism. We ride the double chair out of Heather Canyon and cruise intermediate trails through the dense forests of the lower mountain. Cramping racks Anderson's legs every so often, and he stops to shake lactic acid out of his thighs. "Thank God, I'm not fighting the traffic back too Portland tonight."
While Highway 26 is the artery supplying Meadows with its Portland-based lifeblood, an increasing number of skiers who are spending consecutive days on the mountain are skipping the 90-minute commute. At day's end, they drive 35 minutes north on Highway 35 to the state's windsurfing capital, Hood River, situated in the Columbia River Gorge. With breweries, wine-tasting rooms, boutiques, galleries, taverns-some Gucci, some grungy-Hood River defies pat description. It's a four-season spot with umpteen outdoor options, from mountain biking and golf to kayaking and salmon fishing. This time of year, Meadows skiers can tear a page from every chapter of the book, schussing by morning then descending into Hood River-where temps can hit 65 degrees in April-to hike, bike, golf or windsurf.
Asking Anderson for a one-sentence lowdown on the town of Hood River, he spews a paragraph, not quite able to put his finger on the pulse of the place. Suddenly he's got it. "You know why this place rocks?"
I shake my head.
Anderson laughs. "It's another case of multiple personalities."