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Oz and the boys are fiddling with explosives. "In about 90 seconds, open your mouth and cover your ears," Oz yells to the 12 of us huddled nearby in a windswept clearing. We nod dutifully. Then he yanks the fuse and heaves the stick of dynamite over the ridge. We count down whump! The muffled explosion's compression reverberates in my ribs. Somewhere over the cornice, an unstable slab of snow gives way and scours the North Wall of Oregon's Mount Bailey.
With that hazard tamed, Rick "Oz" Oswald and our two other cat-skiing guidesTodd Still and Pete Tashmangreen-light our traverse to the next descent, ominously dubbed Hardway.
As with all the pitches we've tackled today, I can't see what I'm about to ski, and I won't be able to suss out the terrain until I'm in the run and committed to completing it. I usually enjoy steeps, but I also have a fierce independent streak, and this blind-faith businesscombined with declining visibilityfuels my apprehension: Where are these guys taking us?
As the group's only woman, though, I'm determined not to wimp out. So I traverse toward the unknown like a doomed lemming. When I peer into the maw, I'm flooded with relief.
Hardway is not a rock-strewn couloir but an inviting gully that's about 150 feet [46 meters] wide, lined with pines and cushioned with untracked powder. It falls away at about a 45-degree pitch before spilling out into the flats some 1,200 feet [365 meters] below. Eminently skiable. Downright glorious.
One by one we drop into knee-deep drifts. I watch the burly Oz transform himself into the picture of grace. His legs bob through the waves of snow, up and down, side to side, like a sewing-machine needle. I follow suitalbeit not as sweetly.
Swinging wide to cut fresh tracks, I succumb to the exhilaration of gravity and its give-and-take with the braking action of untouched snow.
As our group reassembles at the edge of a hemlock grove, Tashman waits on top, counting heads like a mother hen. Once he confirms that we're all accounted for, he picks the cleanest line and nabs big air off an outcrop. Then we head down to the "catch line"a long, roly-poly traverse that leads us back to the waiting snowcat. When we scramble aboard and get ready to do it again, the goofy grins say what no one needs to put into words: Now, this is skiing.
"People are sick of corduroy," says Gus Gustafson, the owner of Mount Bailey Snowcat Skiing. He refers to the striated surfaces of machine-groomed trails. "Skiers want something new, something special. And once they experience it, they keep coming back for more."
As proof, he notes that 85 percent of his clients are repeat customers, and he cites other evidence: the resurgence of telemark skiing, the tracks that fan out from backcountry gates at downhill resorts, the bumper stickers plastered on Subarus ("Snow From Heaven Not Hoses"). Gustafson argues convincingly that skiers and snowboarders are hungry for the raw essence of the sport.
Enter snowcat skiing. Lumbering uphill in what's essentially a bulldozer with an oversize, heated cabin is slower and less glamorous than taking a helicopter, certainly, but the weather that thwarts heli-skiing choppers just means great conditions for the snowcat crowd. (Added bonus: Cats can't drop from the sky.) What's more, cat skiing is cheaper$200 a day or soand many companies are located within a couple hours' drive of ski resorts.
I had heard good things about the outfit at Mount Bailey. Its terrain is substantial, I was told, its snow plentiful and dry, and after more than 20 years of operation, it ranks among the oldest cat-skiing companies in the United States. Yet, despite all this, it has remained outside the national spotlight, probably because it's not in Colorado, California, or Utah. It would be something new and special. And isn't that the point?
* * * *
Earlier that morning, we started with an hour-long ride up to 8,000 feet [2,440 meters]just 363 feet [110 meters] shy of the mountain's summit. Outside, it was an ocean of graythe sky the color of skim milk and the snow coming down hard, drifting into big swales of meringue.
I could tell the pitch was growing steeper: The cat groaned against the angle; twice we slid backward. That gravitational pull represents Mount Bailey's main attraction.
While many cat-skiing operations serve up intermediate terrain, Bailey offers that plus some serious tilt40, 45, even 55 degrees.
"There's 6,000 acres [2,430 hectares] in the permit area, and maybe 50 acres [20 hectares] of it is unskiable," says Gustafson, which means that you and a dozen others get a mountain bigger than Vail all to your greedy little selves.
When we emerged from the cat, the visibility was low: The summit, looming right above us, practically disappeared against the flat, ashen sky. With Oz leading the way, we dropped off to the northwest, through a glade that doglegged down to what would be a blue cruiser at a resort, by far the day's easiest run.
The snow was midweight powderdry enough to send up rooster tails. Most of us were advanced skiers, and we handled it with glee; the lone snowboarder positively ripped.
It didn't take us long to ease into a happy rhythm: Ride 20 minutes uphill in the cat, groan at Oz's jokes. Pile out, follow the guides to their next chute of choice on the North Wall. Get instructions ("Stay to the right of Todd, to the left of that big rock"), then soar, soar, soar. Regroup, follow the catch line back to the cat, exchange wild-eyed grins. Repeat, with time out to breathe and take in views of the surrounding peaks.
After six hours, we've logged six runs and 15,000 vertical feet [4,570 meters]. The pale sky is deepening into pewter twilight. At the bottom of our last North Wall run, I spin around to soak up a final look. No whining chairlifts. No cheesy Tyrolean time-shares. Just the beady stare of a squirrel and the harping of a jay hidden high in a red fir.
And, above, a series of long, lonely scribbles in the snow.
Click locations for ski guides.
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