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Spring brings ski heaven.

Byline: Mike Stahlberg The Register-Guard

The last day of winter is less than a week away, but don't think that means the end of ski season. To the contrary, for many snow sport lovers, spring's arrival signals that ski season is about to start in earnest.

"My crowd, this is when they really start gaining interest," says spring skiing enthusiast Jarl Berg of Eugene.

The co-owner of Berg's Ski Shop loves to join friends backcountry skiing in the Three Sisters Wilderness at a time of year when the weather is good and the risk of avalanche is reduced.

"The Broken Top area is my favorite," Berg said. "It has the best vistas."

Spring is embraced on the slopes of downhill ski areas as well as in the backcountry. Many skiers and snowboarders lick their chops over the snowcone-like consistency taken on by their favorite runs on warm spring days - not to mention the blue sky and warm sun.

"I love spring - it's absolutely my favorite time to ski because I love to ski in the sun," says Chuck Shepard, owner-operator of Hoodoo Ski Area at Santiam Pass.

"We have a lot of people who prefer what's called `corn snow,' ' adds Janette Sherman, communications manager at Mount Bachelor Ski Area west of Bend. "That's our No. 1 draw in

the spring - people coming for those corn snow conditions."

Corn snow is a granular snow formed by alternate thawing and freezing as warm days are followed by cold nights.

When corn snow warms up in the morning "it tends to be kind of like fresh snow - it carves nicely and all that," Shepard said.

With the deepest snowpack in four years now piling up in the Cascades, ski-area operators throughout Oregon and Washington are virtually assured of having a bumper crop of "corn" this spring.

"We have tons and tons of snow, and its not going anywhere," Sherman said. Mount Bachelor's "snow stake" showed more than 200 inches at mid-mountain Monday morning.

And more could be on the way. It's not uncommon for snow depths at Cascade ski areas to actually peak in the month of April. As last week's blizzard illustrated, snow is still accumulating.

"This is the best conditions going into spring vacation I've seen in my 10 years at Hoodoo," Shepard said. Hoodoo had 120 inches of snow on its manual gauge Monday.

What a contrast to last year at this time. The winter of 2004-05 - marked by one of the most severe "snow droughts" in the Cascades in decades - saw an abbreviated ski season at most Oregon ski areas. Hoodoo, for example, was already closed for the season by mid-March.

In fact, at this time last year, the Oregon Department of Transportation "road cam" at Santiam Pass showed the roadside covered with nothing but red cinders. There was no roadside snow in sight. On Monday, ODOT reported 103 inches of roadside snow at Santiam Pass.

As a result, Shepard expects to be able to keep Hoodoo's lifts running six days a week through April 9. After that, he plans to be open weekends only through the end of April.

At Willamette Pass Ski Area, mountain manager Ray Gardner says the fact that the ski area has runs on south- as well as north-facing slopes means that "you can follow the sun, which gives you pretty good spring snow conditions throughout the day."

Gardner says Willamette Pass plans to continue with its Thursday-Sunday operating schedule through April 2, then switch to weekends-only.

With 69 inches on the ground at the lodge, snow won't be the deciding factor.

"I would love to ski through April on the weekends," he said, "but it will be up to guest visits to determine that. If folks keep coming on the weekends, we'll keep skiing."

Mount Bachelor, meanwhile, has always been a West Coast icon of spring skiing. Along with Mount Hood, it offers snowpacks that can be counted on to outlast the interest of all but the most dedicated of skiers.

Mount Bachelor is actually "a better mountain for spring skiing and snowboarding than for mid-winter skiing," the editors of the Ski America and Canada guidebook write on SkiSnowboard.net, their Web site, .

"In the spring the entire mountain is almost always open. In the winter, the summit can be closed 30 to 40 percent of the time because of high winds. Because this mountain has so many exposures, the snow conditions change during the day. This means plenty of great skiing and riding without slush."

Sherman said Mount Bachelor's management hasn't yet firmed up its end-of-season schedule. Typically, however, the resort continues daily operations until about Memorial Day but scales back hours of operations in mid-April. (Before new owners took over operation of the area in 2003, it was not unusual for Mount Bachelor to remain open through the Fourth of July.

Once the resort shifts to its "spring hours" mode, Mount Bachelor will be open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Skiers and snowboarders can expect the Pine Martin, Skyliner and Summit Express lifts to be running (and a few bucks to be shaved off the price of a daily lift ticket).

Spring skiing offers other advantages - including the fact that you can often drive to the ski area without worrying about whether you'll need to "chain up."

Then there's the opportunity to ski in T-shirts and shorts. (Don't forget to slather on the sunscreen, however. Reflected off the snow, the sun at high altitude can burn winter-whitened skin in a matter of minutes.)

Indeed, spring skiing can be like a day at the beach, a fact that both Hoodoo and Mount Bachelor emphasize by offering pond skiing as their respective seasons come to an end.

Pond skiing is a bit of spring silliness that involves skiing down a snowy slope and onto the surface of a small pond constructed for the event.

Meanwhile, for Nordic skiers, skiing on corn snow can be like gliding on ball-bearings. Exploring the backcountry is easier because setting a trail is not much of a chore in the spring, after the snow has settled into a firm base.

In other words, it's much too early to put your skis away for the season.

"You definitely should not do that," Berg said. "Especially this year."

CAPTION(S):

Brian Smith of Bend works his way through Mount Bachelor's halfpipe during his own spring fling last year. Conditions are considered optimal for the 2006 Northwest spring ski season. Andy Tullis / The Bulletin Dan Norkunas of Bend goes for a 360-degree spin on Mount Bachelor, where operators expect skiing to last through May.
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Title Annotation:Recreation; Primo 'corn snow' - high as an elephant's eye and then some - has skiers flocking
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 14, 2006
Words:1106
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