Hiram Towle

Hiram Towle: Loving life at Mt. Ashland

Earlier in the day, Hiram Towle had been climbing towers on the Ariel chairlift, knocking off ice and doing other tasks in an effort to get Mt. Ashland Ski Area's most popular people-mover operating by early afternoon.

It was challenging, but he'd been successful, so a quick snack while relaxing in his office was the perfect elixir.

"This will be an ibuprofen night," Towle said between bites, wearily sinking into his chair.

Towle, 47, is Mt. Ashland's general manager. He's a hands-on guy. After getting the Ariel operating, he used his video camera while taking a few runs to film skiers and snowboarders enjoying themselves. In his third year at the ski hill, he's also been enjoying himself, whether dangling off lift towers, skiing fresh powder or seeing visitors savor snowy winter days.

"I grew up skiing at a little place like this," Towle said of his fascination with Mt. Ashland. "For me, it's getting back to the roots of skiing."

Towle took over at Mt. Ashland during the drought-shortened 2014-15 season, when it was only open 38 days. That was better than the previous winter when the hill never opened. Keeping the area even only temporarily open was a challenge, but he improvised.

"I come from the East Coast where we have to know how to 'farm' snow," he remembers of moving snow from the parking lot to runs.

Before coming to Mt. Ashland, Towle spent 13 years at massive Sunday River Ski Resort in Maine, which annually sees a half-million skiers. But he wanted to get back to his roots because, "I believe little areas like this are the lifeblood of the industry. Everybody knows we had a couple of bad years, but we managed to keep afloat. And it's my job to keep this area for future generations."

Towle believes providing for the future will attract new generations of skiers and snowboarders. A major step has been increasing youth learn-to-ski programs, from elementary school to Southern Oregon University students.

Ideally, he'd like to duplicate his own upbringing. Towle learned to ski as a 2-year-old — "I don't remember learning to ski. I just remember skiing."

He and his wife, Jeannine, who's also a skier, applied that philosophy with their now 5-year-old son, Hiram (the fifth), who clicked into his first pair of skis when he was 17 months old. "He doesn't remember learning how to ski. He just always has."

Towle believes just getting out and skiing — at any age — creates a desire for more.

"I just don't think you can duplicate the feeling of sliding downhill any other way. That exhilaration you get. It's not something you can do on a couch with a video game. I like the fact it gets kids outdoors, that it teaches them to be healthy. We are trying to encourage them to be skiers for life."

He's proud that Mt. Ashland is a nonprofit ski area, which reduces the cost of ski passes — $42 for adults on weekdays and $49 on weekends and holidays, $39 and $32 for youth 7 to 12, and free for kids up to age 6 and seniors 70 and older. Those prices, he boasts, are half the national average.

With support from the ski area's board of directors, Towle is planning several upgrades. For many years, ski hill managers focused on expansion, partly to offer more choices for beginners. He believes that's been resolved with the addition of the Sonnet chair. And because there's little overcrowding on the 23 runs and open bowl — an average weekend might seek 1,500 to 1,600 skiers and riders — the focus has shifted to improving skier visits.

"We don't have crowds on the hill, but we do in the lodge. It's a matter of putting our money in areas that need it the most," he said of plans to revamp the 50-year-old mountain lodge during the off-season. Its footprint won't be enlarged, but 1,000 square feet will be added by covering the two outdoor decks. In another change, lockers now in the lodge's basement will be moved to the rental shop building. The rental shop, which is now a significant walk from the lodge and Sonnet chair, will reopen in the lodge's revamped basement.

Towle believes improving Mt. Ashland's infrastructure will help the ski area's long-term viability and benefit the region.

"We are an economic driver," he said, noting the eight to 10 year-round employees, along with 130 to 160 winter staff, generate an annual payroll of $800,000 to $900,000. He notes the ski area generates business for restaurants, outdoor stores and shops during the months when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is between seasons.

Because Mt. Ashland is about a 30- or 45-minute drive from the valley, Towle knows firsthand the ski hill encourages people to move and stay.

"The Rogue Valley drew me in," he said of the lifestyle he and his family enjoy. "I came to visit and fell in love. The people, the culture, the food, the schools. The beer, the wine. We're close enough to do trips to the coast. We've got mountains, rivers, lakes, everything I want."

Towle believes Mt. Ashland is part of lure.

"You add your favorite pastime, skiing, and that's a win. It's pretty neat to have a little ski area that runs the gamut. Ashland and the Rogue Valley are very supportive communities. It's kept us alive."

— Reach Lee Juillerat at juilleratlee1@gmail.com or 541-880-4139.

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