I got into Portland the night before. After a couple months of intense travel, it was good to finally be in my home state. I flew in from Billings, where I was for a funeral, and I was late. After a couple of delayed flights, I arrived around midnight. I was also ill. I stepped off the plane, walked into the arrival gate, and emptied the day’s worth of meals into the nearest garbage can.
I spent the next day on the couch. But when I got a text from my coworker and friend Katie, who now lives in Portland, asking if I wanted to go skiing that night, I knew I had to rally. I grew up skiing at Mount Hood. Of all of the nuances and possibilities on that vast mountain, night skiing at Skibowl is my favorite of its offerings. I packed some green tea, aspirin, and my nephew's leftover Annie's macaroni and cheese--a few bites of which were all I could stomach that day. I got in Katie's car feeling like a shell, and we headed east as darkness fell.
Skibowl is simple: It has an Upper Bowl and a Lower Bowl (Skibowl East, also called Multorpor, connected by a cat track and also open at night, is where my mother learned to ski, and services mostly intermediate terrain). A double chairlift, painted blue, has wooden seats and a tendency to slowly lurch up the mountain. It takes skiers to the top of Lower Bowl and the bottom of Upper Bowl, which is nice, because once you're there, you don't need to go anywhere else.
Upper Bowl is 750 vertical feet. Its front side is a full half mountain of glades and open pistes with boulders that make fun poppers. The most exciting line is directly under the chairlift, where two separate cliff bands can require mini airs, followed by a steep pitch through trees. But whether it’s a straight-forward groomer, rolling glades, or bumps, the Upper Bowl has an array of flavors. Another ancient double chair takes you to the top of the bowl in less than 10 minutes. All of the terrain up there is lit, or at least partially lit. The skiing is open until 11 p.m.
When Katie and I pushed off down the slope, the snow was unbelievably good. We skied foot-deep, light powder. I shook my head and smiled. You've got to be kidding me. It was some of the best snow I've ever skied there. Situated lower on the flanks of Hood than Timberline or Meadows, Skibowl's Achilles’ heel is that it's often too warm. I've spent many days and nights riding those dying chairlifts in the rain or skiing knee-ruining heavy snow. Last season at this time, Upper Bowl wasn't open--the tracks of the alpine slide still showing in the trace of snow all the way down the mountain. This evening was different.
Skiing at night has a veil of surrealism to it--or maybe it's just that you can't see very well. That feeling is amplified when you're storm skiing. I got to know the backseat well that night. It was snowing so hard my face was wet and throbbing. What a great burn. We took a break in the Warming Hut, a tiny wooden structure situated between Lower and Upper bowls that always has a big fire. I had a tea while the others enjoyed a Hofbrau. When we came back out, around 8 p.m., lifties had turned on the generator to get everyone off the lift. It broke; they needed a new part. For a place that feels like it’s constantly underachieving, the conclusion of one of the best days or nights of skiing I've ever had there, seemed fitting.
On the drive back to Portland, I had something I hadn't in a few days: energy. I had a few more bites of Annie's.
Emily and I used to ski this mountain every weekend, during the day, on Timberline, chasing gates while our Hungarian ski coach barked phrases we barely understood. We skied together once since then, on a stormy Tahoe day five years ago, while I was on assignment for this magazine. That was the last time the Tahoe area had a great winter, and when she picked me up from my sister's house in Portland on a gray afternoon, she lamented missing the storms there while visiting her parents for the holidays.
A road closure brought us to a detour along rural back roads neither of us had been to before. It was foggy, and green, and it felt like Oregon in a very comforting way. At the time we were conversing about finally settling down--during the last decade we've both chased careers and snowfall--and making a community near the mountains. Maybe this was the place?
My parents had driven to Mount Hood earlier that day, and they warned me about traffic. I forgot that a) it was the holidays and b) the Northwest was fiending for snowfall after a disastrous previous winter. Sure enough, as we rolled in around 5 p.m., the parking lot was packed and full of energy in a way I had never seen it before. Because it's the closest chairlift to Portland, not to mention the cheapest lift ticket of the three bigger ski areas on Mount Hood, Skibowl attracts a lot of beginners. The magic carpet and Lower Bowl lifts were strained, but we skied right on to the Upper Bowl lift all night.
The snow was wind-buffed magic. We took turns chasing one another. Emily skied like a rabbit, with quick, bouncy slalom turns like the ones we used to make turning around gates as kids. We mostly stuck to the peripheries of the bowl, skiing the sides that were less rutted out, although, to her slight discomfort, I did lead her through the rocks underneath the lift. It was nothing compared to the Headwall, something she skis regularly at Squaw, but the dark light added to the degree of mystery. After that run, we skied up to the Warming Hut and shared a Hofbrau by the fire. We skied until 9, then crossed the highway to the Mount Hood Brewing Company for dinner.
After a drive through Govy, the snowbanks already impressive, she dropped me off at my parents’ cabin, in the national forest east of Rhododendron. It was snowing again, and the fresh snow on the labyrinth of branches and trees enveloping the Zigzag River looked surreal.
The next day my friend Kade, a colleague at POWDER, made the drive up from Bend, where he was visiting family. He brought a growler full of Boneyard IPA, skis, and anticipation for his first winter visit to Oregon's tallest volcano.
We took the afternoon to read and write, but as the lights turned on, we geared up. Kade found a radio station dedicated to early 2000s rap while we made the 10-minute drive from my cabin to Skibowl.
The Upper Bowl was quiet again. The snow was something between the powder and the wind buff of the previous nights, still soft and forgiving. We discovered that it skied best directly under the chairlift. We took airs and flashed chalky turns lap, after lap, after lap. At one point, we each took tumbles as we avoided snow-covered boulders we only saw at the last moment.
We stepped into the Warming Hut and had a couple of Hofbraus. It was nearing 9 p.m. when we skated back to the Upper Bowl chairlift, said hello to the liftie, and boarded yet again.