Adam Miller shovels snow in preparation for the opening day of Mount Ashland. - Jamie Lusch

Flurry of activity

The shovel brigade was out in force Wednesday on Mount Ashland.

Grooming machines can move tons of snow, grade the slopes and top them with a silky smooth layer for skiers and snowboarders, but they're useless for close-in work like clearing the decks around the ski lodge and putting the final touches on the loading and unloading ramps around the chairlifts.

That's where the guys with shovels went to work in preparation for the ski area's anticipated opening today.

"This is one job where you definitely get your exercise," said Adam Miller of Ashland as he shoveled snow around the loading ramp at the base of the Windsor chairlift. He and other "lifties" (lift operators) were packing the snow to make the base of the chairs about knee height (18 inches) when skiers and snowboarders prepare to load.

Lifties, ski patrollers and the grooming machine drivers were all busy, along with the food service crews. Managers pitched in too, helping to spruce up the lodge before the eager hordes arrive for the 9 a.m. opening.

"Everybody's running around like crazy," said Ada Rivera, guest services manager, as she rolled white paint onto a wall in the lodge where vending machines formerly stood.

While the lift crews were shoveling, members of the ski patrol were hauling rescue sleds, bottled oxygen, splints and other medical supplies up the mountain on the chairlifts to sites where the gear can be retrieved quickly if it's needed.

"We can usually get it all up in about 48 hours," said Alex Grimaldi, a ski patroller from Ashland, as he waited to load a rescue sled onto one of the chairs on the Windsor lift.

Other patrollers were placing hundreds of bright orange stakes along the perimeter of the ski area and stringing more than a mile of rope to mark the boundary. Exposed rocks that might grab a ski or a snowboard were marked with stakes, and hazardous areas were closed off with stakes and ropes.

Operators of the grooming machines were packing the snow as it fell during the day. Running the machines over the snow compresses it and firms it so that it can be finished with the shallow troughs that make the ski surface look like bright white corduroy cloth.

That final grooming pass will come just hours before the mountain opens, said Ken Banse, grooming supervisor.

"We'll be out there all night," Banse said.

Mount Ashland's runs are not "flat-graded" like those at some ski areas, so the slopes need to accumulate two to three feet of snow to cover the surface deeply enough for the grooming machines to shape them into one continuous grade.

At least two adventurous skiers climbed to the summit on their own and skied down. Shady Challman and Hank O'Dougherty of Ashland pronounced the snow much better than they had expected it to be.

"We're up here checking it out for our buddies," they said.

Ski area managers were still hopeful they could open all four chairlifts today, but they were waiting to see whether enough snow fell overnight to cover hazards on some trails served by the Ariel chairlift, which goes to the summit of the 7,500-foot mountain.

After withholding snow for most of the first half of December, Mother Nature seemed to be doing her best to help out. A fresh storm rolled into Southern Oregon on Wednesday afternoon, and forecasters at the National Weather Service were expecting as much as a foot or more of new snow by the time the lifts start rolling.

A cold front was expected to push the snow level down to around 2,000 feet by early today, and snow was predicted through the weekend and into Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail

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