What Mt. Hood’s fading summer ski season means

As year-round skiing in the Pacific Northwest diminishes, what else will be lost?

 

On a cold morning in September, the clouds rolled over Oregon’s Cascades. Dark grey and dimpled, they looked like overstuffed pillows snagged on the mountain summits. It’s on days like this that Jon Tullis, spokesman of Timberline Lodge ski resort at Mt. Hood, watches the Palmer Snowfield at 8,500 feet — often with worried thoughts. On that day, only a thin layer of snowflakes fleeced the Palmer, a dusty white patch on a brown mountainside. September doesn’t usually bring much snow, but after a mild winter last year and a hot summer, this month has so far kept up with the kind of disappointment that’s been commonplace all year long.  Timberline Lodge sits in the heart of the Central Cascades, which has been going through its most severe drought in decades.

“We’re seeing areas of the mountain that we don’t normally see,” Tullis says. Palmer Snowfield is a layer cake formed by centuries of snowfall, on top of a permafrost layer of geriatric ice in a depression on Mt. Hood’s southern face. Geologists have dated the Palmer’s existence back to 1350, though it has probably been there for much longer. This year, a warm winter followed by an exceptionally hot summer has caused the Palmer to retreat dramatically — even exposing the green permafrost. At its best, it’s a 100-acre expanse of snow. Now, its mass doesn't reach the chairlift.

Like the first domino in a series to fall, skiing is one of the immediate, and highly visible, casualties of climate change, which is making shorter seasons with less snowfall more frequent. By the end of the century, snow depths in the West could decline by 25 to 100 percent, according to a report by the National Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit that mobilizes the winter sports community to fight climate change. Inevitably, ski areas at lower elevations, and even those in more favorable snow zones like the Cascades, face warmer and more uncertain and erratic futures that could look a lot more like 2015.

The cascade of consequences is long, from shifts in local economies to the depletion of local watersheds. That’s particularly true on Palmer. Unlike most ski resorts in the West, Timberline often stays open through the summer, drawing international skiers thanks to Palmer’s dependable snow surface that holds up even on the warmest summer days. But with the snowfield’s retreat, that’s changing. Timberline’s public operations shut down August 3 this year, the earliest since 1979 when the first chairlift to access the area was installed. Normally, people ski there through Labor Day.

The Palmer Snowfield is near the Eliot Glacier on Mt. Hood. Historic photos compare the glacial mass of August 1901 to August 2015.
Darryl Lloyd

As the summer skiing window gets shorter, athletes that depend on year-round turns will have fewer areas to train domestically. Ben Babbitt, 31, is the head coach of Alpine men’s ski racing at Ski Club Vail. His group tries to get in between 45 and 60 training days during the off-season— mid-April through mid-November. For several years, Timberline Lodge — the Palmer Snowfield — and Mt. Bachelor, also in the Cascades, were their best, and most affordable, options. “It’s really critical that we have places like Timberline and Mt. Bachelor that allow us to travel cheaply and get those days on snow that we need,” he says. 

This summer, however, Babbitt had to cancel summer ski camps at Timberline. Instead, Vail Ski Club ventured elsewhere, to Argentina, to New Zealand and to an indoor skiing facility in Lithuania. Those increased travel expenses fell on the skiers and their families. “The kids definitely know that what they are seeing is the start of climate change,” Babbitt says.

Oregon has more mountain ice than most (it’s second only to Alaska), but experts say the region’s disappearing summer skiing and shrinking snowpack are leading indicators that major climate shifts are happening. “It’s not just about skiing, but it is this canary in the coal mine — it’s really, really visible,” Anne Nolin, professor of geography and head of the mountain hydro- climatology research group at Oregon State University, says. “When things go from bright white, glittering snowpack to brown dirt and flaming forests, everyone sees it.”

With the smaller snowpack, Nolin and a team of OSU researchers took streamflow measurements this summer that were the lowest they’ve ever seen. That has a ripple effect beyond the ski area. When less meltwater flows into the streams, economies that depend on summer recreation suffer, too. This season, rafting companies experienced some of the fewest viable days for kayaking and rafting on the nearby Deschutes River. “Our society tends to ignore the fact that rural communities depend on what others might consider an elitist sport,” Nolin says. “I’m concerned about the loss of income to rural communities that depend on summer and winter recreation — everyone hurt financially this year.”

All things considered, Timberline Lodge is in a fortuitous place high in the Cascade Range. The area gets 450 inches of snowfall a year on average. Tullis doesn’t hesitate to proclaim that Timberline Lodge has the longest season in North America — for several seasons, that has been true. Even with the shortened season this year provides, the ski area has a buffer. That gives Tullis and his colleagues a chance to respond — one they intend to take advantage of. This fall Timberline is mapping the Palmer Snowfield using LIDAR —infrared sensing that measures distance by reflected light. That will help them make snowfarming — moving snow from other areas of the mountain and stockpiling it on the Palmer — more effective. With insight into the snowfield’s natural topography, Timberline’s management will know which areas of the Palmer will sustain the most snow to preserve as much of the Palmer as possible.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...