Dire Times on Mount Hood

Timberline Ski Area on Mount Hood closes early, marking an end to summer skiing after a rough season

Marquee Image: A meager ribbon of snow was the result of warm temperatures and tough times on Mount Hood this summer. PHOTO: Marcus Caston

At the beginning of July, purple wildflowers bloomed a month earlier and a thousand feet higher than normal on Mount Hood. The Palmer snowfield and the glaciers near the volcano’s 11,239-foot summit, the highest point in Oregon, shined white in stark contrast. The snowpack, however, was unfathomably low.

The Palmer snowfield shut down summer skiing operations to the public on Sunday, August 2, a full five weeks earlier than Timberline Lodge Ski Area’s typical closing day on Labor Day weekend. The last time summer skiing ended early on Mount Hood was in 2005. That year, the lifts stayed open until August 18. For much of this summer, the lower half of the Palmer snowfield was nothing more than a melting ribbon of snow. Even at the mid-station, skiers had to take off their skis and walk 100 feet to load the chair. As a result, camps have had a rough year, and some have had to close early.

“It’s brutal. I personally have never had to walk onto Midway like you do now,” says Mount Hood summer skiing veteran Marcus Caston, who has coached at the Cascade Winter Sports Club—commonly referred to as “Party Beach”—for seven years and was previously a camper on the snowfield with the teams for which he raced.

Party Beach canceled its last session this year due to the snow conditions and diminishing space on the hill. “There’s just tons of rocks everywhere, and it’s kind of dangerous,” explained Caston. Last year was still a below average year, but the snowfield and glaciers were noticeably larger and reached much farther down the mountain all summer, allowing Party Beach to run until September 1. This summer, its last session was the week of July 13.

Skier treks across the lunar, snow-starved landscape. PHOTO: Marcus Caston
Ski racer treks across the lunar, snow-starved landscape. PHOTO: Marcus Caston

Cliff Burbank, the owner of Govy General, the general store in the small town of Government Camp at the base of Mount Hood, said that town has been hit hard, too. “This is the first year we’ve had a sales decrease in a long time,” said Burbank, noting that other businesses are seeing the negative effects as well. Less skiers, especially campers, means less traffic in town, but fortunately other sightseers have still been coming to the area this summer. The effects are compounded on the sub-par winter that shop owners already endured.

Timberline received only 297 inches of snowfall last winter. The ski area does not publicly disclose specific seasonal snowfall statistics, but resort representatives stated they average well over 400 inches annually, while OnTheSnow.com reports an average of 550 inches. Making the situation worse, a historic heat wave hit much of the Pacific Northwest in June and early July. The nearby town of The Dalles saw record temperatures, reaching as high as 108 degrees on June 26. The following day, June 27, Mount Hood experienced it’s warmest day of the summer with a high temperature of 81 degrees near the base of the Palmer chairlift.

Next door to the race camps, warm temperatures and low snow levels have also been wrecking havoc on Windell’s, known for shaping 60-foot kickers and building some of the grandest summer terrain parks in the world. The jumps were brown with dirt by the end of June. Last week, in its fifth one-week session of the summer, the largest jump was approximately 10 feet.

“It’s definitely shocking, to say the least. It’s incredible how low it really is out there,” said Cody Cirillo, who was in attendance for Session Four as a guest pro. “I give props to Windell’s and High Cascade (Snowboard Camp) for managing the snow conditions and keeping the stoke alive for campers.”

Jonah Williams airing it out earlier this summer, while the jumps lasted. PHOTO: Erik Hoffman
Jonah Williams airing it out earlier this summer, while the jumps lasted. PHOTO: Erik Hoffman

Camps have combated the warm temperatures with the age-old technique of spreading thousands of pounds of salt to melt and refreeze the surface layer of the snow, a controversial practice due to environmental concerns. According to Nick Visconti, Windell’s brand manager, all salt use is regulated, making it a challenge to build a park this year. Instead of the traditional use of snowcats, Windell’s is building many features by hand, just like the old days.

Windell’s will be able to complete its sixth and final session this week as planned, even if the conditions are less than desirable. Windell’s and Timberline have not reported any new plans to combat low-snow years in the future. Earlier this summer Whistler announced its plan to utilize snowmaking on the Horstman Glacier.

Early indications for a strong El Niño winter for 2015-2016 are at the front of many people’s minds in the Mount Hood community. Mount Hood Meadows issued a press release stating that strong El Niño winters average 413 inches of snowfall, which is on par with a normal snowpack. However, the long-term outlooks from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center forecast a dry and warm winter for the Pacific Northwest.

As private camps complete their last sessions and skiers schuss down what is left of the ribbon of snow, all skiers, camps, and businesses are left to do is wait for winter and hope those long-term predictions prove wrong.