Standing at the top of lane 12 on Mount Hood's Palmer Glacier, a swarm of preteens on slalom skis buzzed around me. At 8'clock in the morning, they had already made three laps on the upper mountain, moving through drills and arcing strong, technical turns on the frozen glacier. Despite a dazzling alpine sun already tipping the thermometer above 60, the snow would stay firm for at least another hour.
Two years ago at this time, skiers from around the world were already packing up and heading home from their summer training on Mount Hood's Palmer Glacier. In 2015, the Palmer snowfield shut down their summer operations on August 2—five weeks earlier than the usual closing day on Labor Day weekend.
However, this winter saw 600 inches of snowfall on Mount Hood (with a few inches falling as late as June 9), which not only bolstered winter visits to Timberline Lodge Ski Area, but drew 90,000 summer skier visits. Summer operations are expected to extend through Labor Day weekend this year.
“It feels like we’re finally stabilized again, and we’re not dropping off anymore. We’re getting the perception back out there that the skiing is still really good up here,” says mountain manager Logan Stewart, who started working on the mountain as a lift operator in the late ’90s when Mount Hood was in its heyday for skiers and snowboarders looking to train and film all year round.
Located 56 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon’s tallest peak offers 3,690 vertical feet of skiing from near the top of the 11,245-foot volcano. As early as the 70s, the summer snow was used predominantly by ski racers running gates off an old double chair. By the late 80s and into early 90s, snowboard camps were getting started with hand dug pipes and terrain parks.
“It’s a pretty diverse place. In the winter, we're a family resort with intermediate terrain and it’s a lot of people coming up to go skiing on the weekends,” says Stewart. “In the summer, it’s everyone from world class athletes to up-and-comers to little race kids. One day you're dealing with mom and pop and then it’s Bode Miller and Shaun White.”
While the consistency of the snow and has kept Mount Hood’s summer ski program going for 40 years, drawing up to 100 different camps every summer, coming back from the low-snow year of 2015 brought out competition from places like Mammoth Mountain (open until August 6 this year) and Europe and South America.
“There’s always going to be that allure of doing something new—going to New Zealand or Europe, but Timberline is the most consistent and stable,” says Stewart. “If you’re serious about being a racer or a freestyle rider, you have to make the pilgrimage to Hood. We’re down to earth and get it done. That’s something we cling on to and embrace.”
Gretchen Emmons-Kelly, the hill coordinator who manages as many as 37 training lanes when the mountain is at full capacity in the summer, says staying open through Labor Day weekend this year is a great step forward, but Hood still has challenges ahead if it hopes to remain competitive with the other alternatives. The most important of which, she says, is housing.
“I’ve got employees camping in their cars the entire summer because they can’t find housing,” says Emmons-Kelly, who commutes an hour from her home each day and has worked at Timberline for 24 years. “We have our lodge, but it’s booked out years in advance, and even the kids can't find lodging in Government Camp. They’re being forced out to Welches or Hood River and that’s a lot of drive time.”
But despite the challenges of unpredictable snow and limited housing—a problem facing ski areas the world over—it’s the community that keeps Emmons-Kelly coming back for another lap on Palmer year after year, just like it does for so many others.
“It always draws me back. Skiing on Mount Hood and these coaches have been around for so long, the move from club to team to club, but it’s like a family reunion up here every summer,” says Emmons-Kelly. “It’s always the same people and there’s something to be said about that. There must be something really good about it, for all of us to keep coming back.”