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Lee and Molly Juillerat ride the chair up to Peak Two at Willamette Pass. Photo courtesy Lee Juillerat

Snow remembered Willamette Pass this year

It was sunny, the powder was deep and untracked and, most surprising of all, we seemingly had the mountain to ourselves.

"There's nobody skiing the powder," my daughter, Molly, gee-whizzed as we rode the Peak 2 chairlift for yet another run on the backside trails of the Willamette Pass Ski Area. "It's wonderful, but it's strange. Where is everyone?"

It might be that downhill skiers and snowboarders have forgotten that Willamette Pass, appropriately located on the summit of Highway 58 between Chemult and Oakridge, exists. In recent snow-sparse winters, the ski and snowboarding area has been closed or just briefly open.

"We forgot what it's like to have snow," Tim Wiper, Willamette Pass's owner, told me earlier that morning, noting the hill was "dirt" in early December and happily stacked with more than eight feet of snow 10 days later. "Mother Nature's pretty interesting."

The skiing was pretty interesting, too. Molly, who had been at Mount Bachelor a few days earlier, was delighted by the contrast — Willamette's low-key, relaxed atmosphere and the lack of lift lines. Throughout the day we skied onto empty chairs. Several times when I stopped to take photos of skiers, I waited, and waited some more, often several minutes. While Molly made fresh tracks in deep, sweet powder that came up to her waist, I mostly stayed on groomers, delighted to be back skiing a year after having knee-replacement surgery.

The skiing was delicious, and so were the views. From the top of Peak 2, an elevation of 6,683 feet, we were surrounded by trees draped in frozen snow. The panorama included Waldo Lake and a series of neighboring peaks.

Most impressive was snow-draped Diamond Peak, which changed moods as the teasing sun variously shined brightly or played peek-a-boo behind shifting clouds, including spaceship-like lenticular clouds. From Eagle Peak, at an elevation 6,666 feet and the terminus for the six-pack Eagle Peak Accelerator chair, and from the jumping off points for two nearby runs, Good Time Charlie and Eagle's Flight, Odell Lake looked close enough to ski jump into.

We mostly skied runs top to bottom non-stop. After a quick stop at the lodge for lunch, we were back at it. Molly led the way down Destiny, a black diamond run. She skied smoothly, carving crisp turns. I followed, far less gracefully.

As it neared 4 p.m., when the lifts close, we kept it going. "One more," turned into "one more, please." Sure, why not. Days like that are delights worth savoring.

But the skiing didn't end that day. Three days later, with Molly's husband, Andy Hamilton, making it a threesome, we spent another day on an only slightly more peopled mountain. Some runs, like By George, that had been deep powder, had been groomed as smooth as corduroy. Molly and Andy headed off to the powder, skiing farther and farther from Where's Waldo and other runs to create their own fresh tracks.

Willamette Pass claims 29 runs, including choices that include several suitable for beginners, mild to challenging intermediates, and suck-it-up, elevator-shaft steep black diamonds like High Lead and the legendary RTS. Willamette is also among Oregon's older ski areas, dating back to 1941, when it opened with a rope tow. The Wiper family bought the area in 1982, gradually adding the lodge, a snowmaking system and, in 1992, significantly expanding the terrain by opening up the backside.

While the majority of skiers and riders come from Willamette Valley — Eugene is 66 miles away — Wiper says the area also entices people from the Rogue Valley and Klamath Basin. While recent years have been challenging economically, he's focused on the current ski season — hoping for more snow and more skiers.

"It will take years to recover, but that's in the past. We're positive. We're in this business because skiing is a great sport," he insists. "Who knows if it's going to be a fickle snow year. So, if it is, we should all get out and ski."

Before we left that first day, I bought Molly a five-day pass, on the condition that I'll join her some of those days. Go ahead, twist my arm.

Lee Juillerat has been writing about outdoor adventures in Southern Oregon and elsewhere for more than 30 years. He is also a regular contributor to the outdoor-travel website High On Adventure at www.highonadventure.com. He can be contacted at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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