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Snowcat skiers find bliss in the Blues

Sun., March 2, 2014

DAYTON — People waiting in lines are not always pleasant and happy.

That is not the case here, where about 15 skiers and boarders eagerly await the arrival of a snowcat that will haul them and their gear to the top of Vintner’s Ridge and access to hundreds of acres of untracked powder.

It’s snowed for the better part of two days and people are in a fine mood. Old hands like Michael McFarland of Dayton share knowledge with first-timers. He describes the terrain and the choice between hidden glades full of secret powder stashes and an inviting slope cleared of its trees.

“Everybody loves the powder,” he said, grinning. “It’s a wide-open run on one side and a tree run on the other.”

The ridge is officially part of the terrain that Ski Bluewood leases from the Umatilla National Forest. But it is outside of the area’s groomed footprint. The only way to get to it is to hike or to pay a modest fee — $10 for a single trip or $19 for an all-day pass — to hitch a ride on a sleigh-pulled snowcat.

“When I was a kid, you could come here and hike,” said Mark Stephenson, a snowboarder from the Tri-Cities. “It was really hard, brutal, but now you can just take a cat. It’s really nice.”

It’s an unusual service. Many large ski areas offer backcountry access via snowcats. But they tend to be expensive, hundreds of dollars for just one day. At Bluewood, the price is cheaper in part because Vintner’s Ridge is not a true backcountry experience. Bluewood operations manager Jody Ream calls it side country.

“It’s in our ski area boundary but it’s quite a bit removed. Some people refer to it as the whole other side of Bluewood,” he said. “It’s some of the best side country around.”

Skiers catch the cat and then ski the ridge’s ungroomed slopes before linking back into groomed runs and the bottom of the ski hill. They then ride the chairlift back to the top where they can catch the cat again or hit the groomed runs. In addition to the snow cat fee, a Ski Bluewood lift ticket is required to reach Vintner’s Ridge.

The cat takes 20 to 30 minutes to make a round trip. So between riding the lift and waiting to catch the cat, turn around can be slow. But on a powder day, those in line say it is worth the wait.

“There aren’t many mountains that have a sort of semi-cat skiing experience,” said Darren Chertkoff of Walla Walla, who appreciates the solitude on the ridge. “It’s just you and the snow and the sled.”

Back on top, the cat soon arrives and the powder hounds pile their skis, poles and boards into the sleigh and grab a seat before the rig lurches up the ridge for its short trip to the top.

When it comes to a stop, they pile off, strap on their skis and boards and disperse into the waiting sea of white. Some of them go off a modest cornice and drop into the open slope. Others head for the trees and carve silky turns between them. Before long, the place is empty again with only faint sounds of skiers and boarders.

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