written by Kevin Max | featured photo by Tim LaBarge
On September 28, 1937, an entourage of hundreds of dignitaries and craftsmen assembled on the south flank of Mt. Hood. History was in the making from what had just been made. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife rolled up the winding dirt road through the Ponderosa pines, and as the auto swung around the final curve, the massive and new symbol of his administration’s policies came into view.
That day, in the dedication ceremony, FDR said that Timberline Lodge was “… a monument to the skill and faithful performance of workers on the roles of the Works Progress Administration … I look forward to the day when many, many people from this region of the Nation are going to come here for skiing and tobogganing and various other forms of winter sports.”
More than seventy-five years later, Timberline Lodge and Government Camp are the draw … not only for “people from this region of the Nation” but for people around the world.
Day 1: Get Local | Burger Up
At a certain elevation, vertical rain turns into sideways snow. It’s the latter laying a fresh covering on Government Camp this November day. Before winding up to Timberline Lodge and settling in, we take in gear and sustenance in “Govy,” the unincorporated mountain town at the bottom of the six-mile Timberline Lodge access road.
Park at one end of town and walk its length up and down. Neither wind, rain, snow, nor sarcasm has killed off Bud Valian and his ski shop, so we stop in to rent snow shoes. Poke your head through the Dutch door in the back of the small shop and you’ll find Bud there tuning sets of skis. “I’m still here,” says the 80-year-old ski technician with a dose of defiance and humor.
The true value of Valian’s isn’t the latest ski technology, though there’s plenty of that, but the most candid appraisal of it. Goggles with digital information? “More crap,” says Bud’s wife, Betsy. Apex ski boots with detachable frame? “Pretty cool,” she says as she pulls the inner boot out of the frame. “You won’t fall walking around the lodge in these.”
From Valian’s, it’s into the maw of Charlie’s Mountain View next door, where, for $7.50, you can get yourself into a good burger. (Get your fix here, because this staple is scarce up the road at Timberline Lodge.) In a “Pray for Snow” party here tomorrow, locals will gather like they have for forty years and try to pull off the feat they’ve somehow managed over that time, beer begets snow.
We stop for a few forgotten provisions at Govy General Store and point up the access road through a deluge of slanting snow, as if someone had turned the snowglobe sideways to disorient gravity and her loyal subjects.
It has been two years since my last visit to Timberline Lodge, but the majesty of its grey blocks of finely masoned stone, its massive vaulting timbers and steeply pitched roof are as impressive as the mountain itself.
There’s no better place to take it all in than in the Ram’s Head Bar on the third floor of the lodge, with an Ice Axe IPA.
Day 2: Olden Days | The Rat
We wake to a foot of new snow and the possibility that the Pucci chairlift will open for the first time this year. No matter. We brought skins to earn our turns. “It’s old-time skiing,” I tell my daughters, to disguise the inevitable hard work involved in the uphill hiking. I don’t have many psychological tricks that still work on these 11 year olds, but their continued fascination with the “olden days” is something that can still be fairly exploited. As parents, my wife and I have leveraged the “olden days” with the girls to put off the purchase of new bikes, to shorten math problems from their newer, longer form and escape the dessert menu, often citing the dessert-less days of yore.
There is coffee and tea service in the great hall of Timberline, but today’s activities will demand calories. Across the parking lot from the masterfully crafted Timberline, Wy’East Day Lodge appears bunker-like in its concrete form. The Wy’East Lodge houses a ski shop, a ticket office and the Black Iron Grill, where the bagel and egg sandwich figures highly among our choices.
Though it’s technically pre-ski-season, the Otto Lang run behind Timberline has good coverage and, incidentally, good karma for shooting moving pictures, one of our goals today. This run was named for Lang, who grew up skiing in Austria before making his way to America to found the first ski schools at Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker. He was later discovered by Hollywood, a connection which he, in turn, used to produce ski films.
Into the white we climb, hiking up Lang until the illusion of the “olden days” is wearing off and Timberline has faded from sight. We dial in our cameras, hoping to record one perfect run, click in our skis and cut through the snow as if it were freshly grated coconut. The run had an exhilarating first-of-the-season feel that lasted a half dozen more runs and until lunch.
We measured the hours in turns, runs, ascents and descents on Lang until hunger bit. Government Camp’s best pizza is found at “The Rat,” or Ratskeller. Families pack the lower level, huddled around big screen TVs and collectively groaning for the Ducks.
After punting around Govy for a few hours to see what’s new, we head down to The Resort at the Mountain to catch happy hour and its alpine fondue and seared pork belly. The Resort also has an excellent spa. As if to make that point for us—at such an unfortunate time—it’s fully booked.
As a family, we’ve really taken a shining to nights at Timberline. What Advil doesn’t cure, the heated pool and hot tub will. The cultural sweet spot of the lodge, though, is its three-story columnar fireplace, the centerpiece around which small pods of handmade furniture are perfect for reading, playing board games, sipping drinks and reconnecting with family through the art of conversation—the kind that doesn’t require phones.
Outside the big picture window, a flood light illuminates gusts of snow in lively night dance before we settle in for the night.
Day 3: Lift Service | Free Running
On the last day, we’re going to mix it up a bit between different elevations and forms of recreation. First, it’s into the coveted Cascade Room for a classic breakfast buffet: eggs, sausage links, waffles, fruit, cheese, and biscuits and gravy.
The Pucci triple lift is open after a foot-and-a-half dump of new snow overnight. The news has spread and every chair is full. The mountain is humming. There are the mountain town regulars who live for snow and participate in an alternative language about skiing. “Duuude, this freeeesh is siiiack.” There are families getting the kids off to an early start and teens navigating their angst through turn after turn. Altogether, it feels good.
After a half dozen runs, we stop for a late alpine lunch and switch gears, piling into the car.
We head down the mountain and into Zigzag where there is a seven-mile loop that leads to the beautiful Ramona Falls.
In Zigzag, we take Lolo Pass northeast and back into the forest until we reach the trailhead. A light rain falls as we take off at a trot along the trail. No need for any “olden days” persuasion on this run as the girls are energized by the spontaneous outbreak of parkour, or so-called free running. There are slick boulders to slip over, stumps for launching, rocks to slalom and riverbanks to descend. We never do reach Ramona Falls that day. We do, however, run the Ramona trail with a goofiness it has never seen.