POW­DER FOR THE PURISTS

CAT SKI MT. BAI­LEY DE­LIV­ERS THE GOODS, EVEN WHEN YOU CAN’T AC­TU­ALLY SEE THEM.

Skiing - - Untracked Line - By Tim Sohn

“This isn’t about get­ting

to the bot­tom first,” said guide Rick “Oz” Oswald, try­ing to tamp down my ob­vi­ous overex­cite­ment at star­ing down a prime-look­ing, 2,600-foot tree run on Mount Bai­ley, an 8,376-foot vol­canic hulk in the south­ern Ore­gon Cas­cades. “This is about ski­ing un­tracked lines, and there are plenty of them.”

It was my first day there, but Cat Ski Mt. Bai­ley, which claims to be the coun­try’s long­est-run­ning cat-ski­ing op­er­a­tion, has been do­ing this since be­fore back­coun­try was cool and be­fore there were fat skis to deal with the area’s 600-plus inches of an­nual snow­fall. It’s had an ex­clu­sive per­mit to 6,000 acres of na­tional for­est land since 1979. But if Bai­ley has re­mained rel­a­tively un­known, there’s good rea­son: It’s a pain in the ass to get to.

After turn­ing east from I-5 at the small south­ern Ore­gon town of Rose­burg, about an hour south of Eu­gene, you follow the North Um­pqua High­way 80 miles along the wind­ing course set by the fa­mous fly-fish­ing river it’s named for, grad­u­ally gain­ing el­e­va­tion as you go. You won’t see much in the way of snow un­til you’re nearly at Di­a­mond Lake Re­sort, an old-school col­lec­tion of lodge build­ings and cab­ins that serves as the cat-ski op­er­a­tion’s home base. Be­hind the lodge, across the frozen lake, Bai­ley rears up on the hori­zon.

Or at least it’s pur­ported to. When I ar­rived the moun­tain was socked in, and op­ti­mism was fad­ing by the time I met Ross Dun­can, the lead guide, who lives in Bend and is in his ninth year work­ing on Bai­ley. Dun­can, who has skied all over the world, had whet­ted my ap­petite when we spoke on the phone prior to my ar­rival: “I’ve had some of the best ski days of my life here,” he said. But look­ing out the win­dow at the driz­zling, gray dawn, I was tempted to stay inside by the crack­ling fire.

Of course, as any­one who’s skied the Pa­cific North­west can tell you, you shouldn’t make any de­ci­sions based on what’s hap­pen­ing in the park­ing lot. Once we got in the cat and started climb­ing, con­di­tions—and moods— im­proved. It was on the ride up that first morn­ing that I met Oz, a bear­ish man with an epic wal­rus mus­tache who grew up in Buf­falo, New York, and fol­lowed his pas­sions west,

even­tu­ally land­ing at Mt. Bai­ley in 1981, where he’s guided more than 50 days a year ever since. When he started, it was $35 per day. Now it costs 10 times that, but aside from the price very lit­tle has changed. You’ll get six to eight runs, 2,500 to 3,000 ver­ti­cal feet per run, with daily skiers capped at 12, the cat’s ca­pac­ity. (They tried two cats once, years ago, but found it to be overkill.) This is not a frilly op­er­a­tion. It is a place for purists, and the clien­tele re­flects that— mostly hard­core pow­der fiends from the West Coast.

That first day was a lit­tle wet—“It’s a snowflake trapped in a rain­drop’s body,” said Oz—and the top re­mained socked in, but seven 2,500-foot runs from 8,000 feet were enough to re­veal the po­ten­tial of the place. I checked in with the or­a­cle be­fore leav­ing. “To­mor­row’s the day,” Oz said. “Po­ten­tially sig­nif­i­cant ac­cu­mu­la­tion. Ten inches.”

The next morn­ing, we ar­rived to three inches down in the park­ing lot. Up top, Oz’s prophecy was ful­filled: We were met by 10 fresh inches of sur­pris­ingly fluffy snow, de­cent vis­i­bil­ity, and tem­per­a­tures right around 20 de­grees. Per­fect. Our group of 12 was strong, from some old-timers who ski mul­ti­ple days a year at Bai­ley to some GoPro­tot­ing young snow­board­ers on the hunt for any moun­tain fea­ture that might launch them. They found plenty as we worked our way through an im­pres­sive ar­ray of chutes, glades, and bowls with names like West Bend, Hard Way, Heroin Hill, and In­crediBowl.

Then came the sun. “Oh, yeah! I can see the sum­mit!” Oz said, rid­ing in the cat just after lunch. He said into the walkie-talkie on his back­pack strap, “We’re clear to go to the top.”

A few claps erupted—ev­ery­one had been beg­ging to go up there—and the climb did not dis­ap­point. Though our win­dow of vis­i­bil­ity closed quickly, it was easy to see how much more of this moun­tain there was to ex­plore. After our 3,000foot run down through shin-deep pow­der, which cul­mi­nated in a mag­i­cal, rolling cruise through an old-growth Doug-fir for­est they call Big Tim­bers, I asked if there was a lot more to ski. “Oh,” Oz said, “you guys haven’t seen the half of it. Much less than half, ac­tu­ally.” I looked at one of my fel­low skiers and we just shook our heads.

At the end of the day, rid­ing the cat back down to the pickup point, ex­hausted and ex­alted by one of the best days of ski­ing I’d had in years, I asked the guides how they’d grade the day com­pared to other Mt. Bai­ley days.

“I’d give it a C-plus,” Dun­can said. “Don’t take that the wrong way. To­day was awe­some, but we have high stan­dards, and it gets way bet­ter.”

Oz was a more for­giv­ing grader. “I give it a B,” he said. “If you’re ski­ing any­where, any­how, I don’t think it can ever be any­thing like a C-plus.”

That first day was a lit­tle wet— “It’s a snowflake trapped in a

rain­drop’s body,” said Oz—but seven runs were enough to re­veal the po­ten­tial of the place.

Guide Ross Dun­can on the north­east as­pect of Mount Bai­ley, with Mount Thielsen’s spike on the hori­zon.

Clock­wise » Un­load­ing for another run at the coun­try’s

longestrun­ning cat-ski

op­er­a­tion; scop­ing a line; Dun­can makes good use of the spa­ces

be­tween.

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