By Brandon Alves
Spring is a time of change; trees are filling in with bright green leaves, flowers are bursting open, the sun is beaming down strobes of hotness and legs are coming out of hibernation. The damn snow is melting, and that means ski season is almost over.
Well, aside from the legs part, let’s just say some of us aren’t totally ready to give up on winter. As a mountain man, a sense of urgency overcame me as I realized the days of snow are numbered. I needed one last big day.
I heard it was Mt. Bailey’s last week of cat ski operations, so I rallied the crew and headed for the mountain. Strike missions like this are always the best because nobody has the time to conceive expectations, leaving tons of room for minds to be blown.
As we meandered our adventure van along the breathtaking North Umpqua River and through the forest, we found ourselves heading into a storm. A light drizzle spewed from the sky and it felt like temperatures were dropping. We kept thoughts of the elusive late season powder day to ourselves as Andy talked us into stopping the van on the side of the road so he could cast his fishing pole into the river for a bit.
The water was an interesting shade of blueish green. Andy called it steelhead green since this is the color of water that steelhead are notorious for being tricked by half-baked fishermen with fake bugs. With nobody around but us, we found ourselves on one of the most majestic rivers in Oregon. Gigantic cliff faces and thick forest collided into the river's edge, and with the low hanging clouds from the storm, it felt like we were sitting in a Travel Oregon Magazine ad. While sitting there watching Andy fish, I couldn’t believe that this place was literally on the side of the road. I guess sometimes it’s best to keep things simple.
Oregon is funny that way, that feeling of desolation isn’t always hard to find if you’re creative.
Rolling into the western Cascades area is always a trip. You're greeted by a series of beefy volcanoes, jaw-dropping alpine lakes, and jolly locals that seem like they haven’t left home for decades. Diamond Lake, the lake that rests at the feet of Mt. Bailey, freezes over in the winter, allowing one's imagination to wonder how the hardened lake and snow covered mountains look in the summer without their winter coats on. There’s a feeling at Diamond Lake that’s unique because there isn’t a huge tourist scene. Skiing usually comes with heavy tourism, second homes, and extensive land development, but not at Mt. Bailey. It’s too far out there. The isolated feeling gives you a sense of what skiing was like before it turned into a profitable business. It’s refreshing to be forced to disconnect from the ego-driven culture of snow sports and engage in a mind state that connects you to the sport in a genuine fashion by way of nature seeking, beer sipping, fun having, and storytelling. These are the places where cheeks grow sore because smiles don’t leave faces for days on end.
At exactly midnight rain drops turned into snowflakes, and by the time we woke up in the morning around six inches had accumulated. Lake level snow means higher elevation slopes will surely be full of deep powder and boosty rides. The stoke factor was officially off the charts. After a big cup of joe and a beacon check we piled into the snow cat and made the bumpy journey to our first decent.
Unloading from the cat we stepped directly into the eye of the storm. Crispy winds slapped us in the face as snowflakes frantically ran across the sky until they settled on the ground forming a fresh coat of light powder. Game on, as Wayne Cambell would say.
As far as we knew, we were the only people on Mt. Bailey; accommodating our next level liberation. This was a time to live in the moment, to leave nothing on the table.
One at a time we dove head first down the creamy slopes.
As the first run jitters wore off, our nerves and bodies loosened up, the mountain was ours for the taking, and the crew began to send it.
Day one was unreal. Getting a late season powder day on a strike trip is like fishing for trout and hooking a tuna. Minds were blown, cheeks were growing sore and the stoke was still chart topping. After an eventful evening full of good eats and quality beer, we woke up to a vast blue sky and rising temperatures. As the sun thawed the hard snow, the guides configured a plan of how to effectively chase the sun and its ability to create the perfect soft snow texture. Skiers and snowboarders call this perfect soft snow texture ‘corn’. Quality corn snow is the perfect blend of hard and soft snow, and in my opinion, it is as good as mid-winter powder snow. Finding good corn is like baking a good cake. You need impeccable timing and the perfect amount of ingredients. Let’s just say that our guides are professional corn snow bakers and used their skills to uncover some of the ripest corn snow we've ever skied.
Reaching the summit is rare, as temperamental conditions are regular. From the top of Mt. Bailey you can see the Cascade volcano chain stretch for hundreds of miles. The most eye-catching mountain was Mt. Thielsen. With its pointy shape, Thielsen looks like a dagger pointed at the sky ready to shank any cloud that dares to pass over its summit.
Mesmerized by the beauty of the Cascade range, everyone took an unplanned moment of silence to take it all it. From there we skied a steep south facing pitch with perfect corn snow. Everyone had a fresh line and some of us found decent sized cliffs to huck our bodies off. Though the last time that Mt. Bailey erupted was around 100,000 years ago, we felt like we had erupted that afternoon. Mt. Bailey was ours that day and we treated her good, as she did to us.
High on life and sore from the many laps we took, we packed up the van and zig-zagged our way back home. The moment a trip ends is always awkward. Everyone wants to keep the good times rolling. The goodbyes are hard to do and everyone feels a bit lost at the end. We are lost because in those unforgettable moments we were found. It felt good. It felt right. We live for the days we spent at Mt. Bailey and we cherish the times when the stars align in our favor. Times like these can never be replicated, but we sure as hell try.
We keep them fresh in our thoughts and we reference the amazing experiences to keep us on the right track. Cheers to strike trips, good people, and no expectations! Until next time...