MOUNT BACHELOR, Ore. -- For days on end, the sun had blazed in a clear winter sky and skiers had ridden the Summit Express chair to the tiptop of 9,065-foot Mount Bachelor, the highest lift-served elevation in Oregon and Washington.
It's a bit like riding to the top of Dr. Seuss' Mount Crumpet -- high and exposed, with stunning, jet-pilot views of Central Oregon's high desert, the Cascade Lakes and neighboring Cascade peaks.
The day I visited, the big storm came.
Checking online before heading up on the 21-mile drive from the town of Bend, I saw that the ski report said 2 inches of new snow. Maybe just enough to mellow out the icy slopes.
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But the weather gods weren't settling for that.
"That's more than 2 inches of fresh!" an exuberant, 20-something snow hound yelped as he strode past the rental counter while I yanked on my boots.
"Yeah, and it's still snowing!" came the happy reply from the rental guy. The snow drought was over.
And it didn't stop. For days. This was the Martin Luther King holiday, and 100 inches of new snow pounded Bachelor that week, nearly tripling its base.
The good news: I was carving down the mountain that morning with my skis buried in powder. The bad news: The summit was closed, with winds gusting to 53 mph at the top. No views today.
No worries. If you can't find a ski or boarding run to make you happy on Bachelor's 3,683 acres of lift-accessible slopes -- 1,000 acres more than Crystal Mountain, and more than 3 1/2 times the size of Mount Baker Ski Area -- you're just not trying.
Locals love it
"Oh, man, I like a lot of things about Bachelor!" said Ed Boero, a city councilman from nearby Redmond, Ore., whom I met as we rode up the Sunrise Express chair.
"I like that it's a big area, with terrain to suit just about everybody. On a clear day from the top, you can see all the Cascades, for 360 degrees around. And you can ski 360 degrees! Dropping off the top into the back bowls is my favorite. There's a wide variety around the back side of the mountain, with some of the best glade skiing in the Northwest."
And these eastern slopes of the Cascades are a pretty reliable provider of powder. "I skied 50 days last year and 30 of those were powder days," Boero said.
For Seattle skiers weaned on the see-it-all, ski-it-all Summit West, the take-away message is that this ski area is so sprawling it could take a couple weeks to sample all 10 chairs and 71 runs, ranging from the easy-green "Marshmallow" above Sunrise Lodge to the double-black diamond "Who Da-Thunk" on the mountain's back side (just below the dauntingly named "Wall of Voodoo").
"It's like a giant playground," said Todd Konwinski, another Bachelor regular, who runs a computer store in Bend. "This is 25 miles from my front door. I love getting up here during the week when no one's here, and on weekends you get to meet a lot of nice people from out of town."
But even on my holiday-weekend visit, I rode some chairs on my own. When it came time to load, there was nobody else in sight.
Location, location, location
Bachelor isn't a ski-out-the-door resort with luxury condos. There's no lodging on the mountain, but there's a make-you-giddy consolation prize: Just down the hill, a half-hour away, is Bend, which offers a big variety of lodging -- budget-priced, such as Motel 6, to premium boutique, such as downtown's Oxford Hotel -- along with a diverse population of outdoors junkies fueled by a fast-growing collection of craft breweries and pubs open for aprhs-ski tasting, tours and music jams. (Travel Oregon recently reported that 81,000-population Bend now has more craft breweries per capita than any other city in a state aslosh with microbrews.)
Mount Bachelor spokesman Andy Goggins spins it as the best of both worlds. "We have an incredible wilderness-skiing experience, with 2 million acres of Deschutes National Forest around you rather than the typical highly developed base village -- and with Beer City USA just down the road."
On the upper edge of town are the Seventh Mountain Resort (with ice rink, year-round heated pools and free weekend ski shuttle) and Mount Bachelor Village, on the scenic Deschutes River Trail. Twenty minutes southeast of Bachelor, the four diamond-rated Sunriver Resort has everything from luxury cabins to six-bedroom vacation homes.
The day I skied in a snowstorm, I returned to sunny skies in Bend, which isn't uncommon since the mountain wrings a lot of moisture out of eastbound weather systems.
If driving in snow isn't your favorite thing, take the Mount Bachelor Shuttle, part of the region's public-transit system. For $11 round-trip, park at the Bend Park-N-Ride lot and leave the slip-and-slide driving to the pros.
Not your average ski hill
In the realm of Northwest ski resorts, several things set Bachelor apart. The terrain is so varied, the men's U.S. Ski Team trained here last spring. With one of the highest nordic parks in the region, that's another popular training ground.
Also, Bachelor has instituted several "hey-that's-cool" kind of programs, such as:
--Variable pricing for lifts, based on weather factors (cheaper if the weather sours) and how many chairs are operating during your visit. (Outside of holiday periods, the all-day adult ticket price can vary from $53 to $73.)
--Free nordic skiing for downhillers. Had a great morning on the slopes and ready to shift gears? Show your all-day lift ticket and get a free afternoon pass for Bachelor's 35 miles of nordic trails.
--The "Track Your Turns" system. Because Bachelor lift tickets are individually encoded, when you swipe your ticket at each lift a record is kept, so you can check online to track where you've skied -- including how quickly you made each run, how many vertical feet you skied, etc.
It's a new toy to play with on your smartphone when you're finishing the day with a couple Deschutes brews back in town, before the bluegrass band starts playing.
On this visit, my electronic record didn't track me to the summit. Next time I ski Bachelor, I'm hoping for that peak experience.
* Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or bcantwellseattletimes.com.