Meanwhile at Mt. Hood #4: The Life
Nine hours of summer photos on the Palmer Snowfield
WORDS & PHOTOS: Ethan Stone
6:24am: For the past seven hours, Tyler’s sunglasses have ridden the brim of his cap in anticipation of this moment, when the first rays of sun crest the ridge to the east. Wike, 28, is a freestyle terrain groomer for Timberline Ski Area who spends his nights prepping the resort’s terrain park for the next day’s business. When the first sunlight hits his snowcat and he finally gets to drop those shades over his eyes, it means that the night’s work is almost done.
Getting a good groom in the summer is no easy task for Timberline’s snowcat operators. The snow is inconsistent—swampy slush mixed with patches of sugar and salt-rotted ice that create new challenges with every cat pass. As the summer wears on, each day brings new rocks and less snow, and the narrow snow roads that provide access to different parts of the ski area become increasingly difficult to maintain.
8:24am: Slalom gates slap the snow in quick succession as Reed Drechsel spins another lap. Drechsel, 22, is a camp counselor for Timberline Summer Ski Camps, one of the many race camps that turn the Palmer Snowfield into a sea of gates every morning. Once he’s ushered his campers through breakfast and warm-ups, he assists the coaches or takes laps on his own, training for his senior year on the ski team at Castleton State College, Maine, where he’s the team captain.
Though freestyle camps like Windells and High Cascade draw lots of summertime attention thanks to their well-oiled media machines, ski racing still reigns supreme on the Palmer Snowfield. Today is no exception—the lift line is crowded with spandex, shin guards and Shred goggles, with teams ranging from Bridger Bowl to Russia sharing space on the snowfield.
9:22am: On the easternmost lane of Palmer Snowfield, next to the rock ridge adjoining White River Canyon, a group of U.S. Ski Team skiers and coaches pack down a set of mogul jumps in preparation for a training session. Heather McPhie, 29, launches a backflip first hit, then starts practicing D-spin 720s, hiking the jump for quick hits.
Last season McPhie, the world’s first Red Bull-sponsored mogul skier, won three World Cup stops as well as her second consecutive U.S. Freestyle Championship, making her one of the U.S.’s best hopes in Sochi. Now’s the time to get her tricks warmed up for the coming Olympic season.
“We’re focused a little bit on skiing, but mostly just on taking the jumps we’ve been working on the water ramps to snow,” says McPhie. “We’re seeing how it goes and what we need to work on before we put it into the moguls.”
10:58am: Michael Perry might be the most stoked person on the mountain today. The 63-year-old Vietnam vet and Timberline day-lodge janitor is a snowbike enthusiast, and the only biker with official permission to ride Palmer in the summertime.
“I won Employee of the Year and the Snow Goose Award, the two highest awards, so they let me come up to Palmer once, two years ago,” he says. Now he’s allowed to bring his bike up to Palmer any day that he works.
After shredding Palmer top to bottom all morning, Perry will work from 2 to 10pm tonight vacuuming floors and cleaning bathrooms. It’s plain to see that he loves his life, and his bike.
“The happiest day of my life was when they let me up on Palmer,” says Perry, who also skateboards and kitesurfs. “I do everything possible to support snowbiking here at Timberline.”
12:10pm: “This is now a loaded firearm,” Chris instructs, casually but firmly, as Kaile engages the breech lock on the line launcher. “Don’t point it towards anything that you don’t want to destroy or kill.”
Kaile, a second-year summer hire on the Timberline Ski Patrol, is getting shown the ropes, literally, on Timberline’s lift evacuation protocol. She points the line launcher over the lift cable, pulls the trigger, and short order is ascending a rope via Prusik loop to the chair some 30 feet overhead.
Timberline’s patrol hires on extra staff like Kaile to handle the extra summer traffic. Yes, this is a ski area that’s busier in the summer than in the winter. Once work wraps up here in the fall, she’ll head back to Alta for her second year on the patrol there.
2:13pm: Below Palmer, in a thin vein of snow running through Mile Canyon, brothers Tristan, 18, and Tyler Shu, 20, are in the middle of another rail hiking session in the Timberline park. The so-called public park stays open through August, offering local skiers and visitors an alternative to the expensive private camps.
While other jibbers are trying k-feds and 270-ons, the brothers Shu are doing tricks that don’t have names yet—weird, wiggly maneuvers that defy the traditional concept of sliding rails on skis. The brothers (there are three in all) spend the summer as diggers at Mt. Hood Summer Ski Camp, and their strange trickery is a common sight in the public park.
“I think of it more as playing,” Tristan says of his style.
“It’s just having fun, sessioning with your friends, trying new tricks,” adds his brother. “There are a lot of good skiers up here, so you’ve got to be doing something different.”
3:22pm: “Time to go home!” Brian Stanford, Timberline’s terrain park manager, gently nudges his clientele towards the exits as the park crew starts its closing lap. The lift stops turning at 2 p.m., but the public park remains open for an hour longer for those who want to hike.
The crew methodically rakes out each lip and the sides of each rail, doing the close-up work so that Tyler, when he comes in tonight, won’t have to get close to any of the rails with his machine and risk damaging them.
He’ll fill in the bomb holes, even out the ruts, and lay down a crisp groom before the sun rises again. Tomorrow, it starts all over again.
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