A ski village at Mt. Bachelor
Anyone who skis or snowboards at Mt. Bachelor Resort sooner or later asks an existential question: Why isn't there a lodge or village at the mountain?
Other big ski resorts around the continent offer such amenities and convenience. From the big ones like Whistler in British Columbia to smaller ones like Snowshoe in West Virginia, where the peak (4,848 feet) is lower than the base at Mt. Bachelor, a village is part of the ski experience.
Imagine being able to ski in and out of a cabin or lodge on the mountain. Imagine not having to drive back and forth from Bend or Sunriver every day. Imagine securing the Californians and other out-of-towners safely on the mountain where they won't clog up our roads and get confused by our roundabouts.
It's a pleasant dream, but it's not going to happen, at least not any time soon.
Still, the idea was whispered on the cold winds this past season as traffic was often brutal between Bend and the mountain.
On a good day, say a weekday without clear weather, one could make the drive in a breezy 20 minutes up Century Drive.
Weekends, holidays and days with fresh snow and ice were another matter. Frustration mounts quickly as precious winter daylight slips away in the morning, or hot body humidity stinks up the car after a day on the slopes.
"When there was snow and ice on the road, it could take an hour each way. Accidents backed up the road," Maya Holzman, a snowboard instructor at Bachelor, said. "Travelers weren't prepared. There'd be people trying to put chains on in the middle of the road."
Holzman mostly relied on the Cascades East Transit (CET) bus to get to work. In order to ensure she arrived in time for her 9:45 a.m. check-in, she caught the 7:45 shuttle. The 8:20 just couldn't reliably get her there on time.
And she wasn't alone catching the early shuttle. From November to April, the Mt. Bachelor shuttle carried 46,064 riders. There'd usually be three early buses leaving the park and ride, and they were often standing-room-only.
Mt. Bachelor Resort's operator Powdr Corp. doesn't share exact figures about the number of customers, but the 2015-16 season was its biggest since 2005-06, when more than half a million people visited. Average attendance for the top-20 days a decade ago was 7,462, so figure more this past season.
"I worked some record-breaking days up there and had students from all over the country," Holzman said.
Todd McGee, owner of the Powder House on SW Century Drive in Bend, pegs the busy season on better weather and folks being on better financial footing.
"This was a unique year. We had two weak winters back-to-back. Then all of a sudden we had a great winter and the economy turned around at the same time," he said.
Judy Watts, CET's outreach and engagement administrator, heard that parking at the mountain became an issue a few times during the season. "They were running out of parking," she said.
Watts suggested that to ease congestion and parking, all concerned should work harder to encourage carpooling.
Mt. Bachelor Resort President and General Manager John McLeod rejected the idea that parking ever became a serious problem. "I don't believe we ever over-filled the parking lot this year, but we came close on a few occasions," he said.
Overflowing parking lots or not, the possibility of removing a few hundred cars from the road during busy days has some appeal.
A village on the mountain
Before a village with lodging could happen at Mt. Bachelor, several people and organizations would need to get on board, starting with the resort itself.
Right now, it has no interest in a huge expansion. Indeed, its promotional literature touts the fact that it is rustic, not all fancy like those other ski resorts.
According to the literature, "Mt. Bachelor is a true destination despite the fact that—uniquely among America's major ski areas—it has no slopeside, lodging, no fancy base villages, no condo developments or any other sign of the high-priced foofaraw so common at major ski areas nowadays. We don't have it, we probably never will, and we're actually pretty darned proud of that – because we've got something much better."
Marketing collateral tours the feeling of "wilderness and solitude" that doesn't exist at other resorts. When they are done for the day, Bend and Sunriver are just "down the road a short piece."
Holzman, the snowboard instructor, said the wilderness feeling and the fact that Mt. Bachelor is less commercial than some other places is part of what she loves about it.
Justin Yax, a spokesperson for Mt. Bachelor, stays on message. "The addition of lodging or a base village like at Squaw Valley or Whistler would detract from the unique experience of skiers and snowboarders at Mt. Bachelor," he said. "Right now, Mt. Bachelor is very comfortable with and supportive of the lodging community in Central Oregon. We want to make those relationships as successful as possible."
Mt. Bachelor promotes local lodging options on its website from the "On the Cheap" Entrada Lodge to the "If you want to make your friend envious" Oxford Hotel, Tetherow Lodges, and Pronghorn Club and Resort.
Suppose, however, that Mt. Bachelor did want to build a village with lodging, dining and shopping. That would only be the start. The big sell would be at the U.S. Forest Service. Mt. Bachelor is located entirely within the Deschutes National Forest. The resort has a special use permit to use the land, and any changes require federal approval.
Forest Service satisfied with current resort
Jean Nelson-Dean, a public affairs officer for the Deschutes National Forest, said a major expansion is not in the cards.
"We want to keep development as low as possible up there while still providing recreational opportunities," she said. "Our mission is to provide the recreational opportunity while maintaining the health of national forest lands."
That's not to say all development is out of the question. The Forest Service and Mt. Bachelor a couple of years ago agreed to a 10-year master development plan. It includes a new lift, new tubing area, more parking and other infrastructure. It does not include overnight lodging.
The plan went through environmental and public review before approval.
The new eastside Cloudchaser lift is the resort's first priority. No specific timeline for the other elements of the plan are yet in place.
At Sunriver Resort, where a quarter of the winter guests ski or snowboard at Mt. Bachelor, the idea of a village barely registers.
"Our stance is that they're not going to allow it, so it hasn't really entered our mindset," Senior Marketing Manager Molly Johnson said.
Nelson-Dean pointed out that if Mt. Bachelor were to build a village, it would not likely solve traffic problems. Hundreds, maybe even a thousand, people sleeping at the mountain would need food and other goods. Truck deliveries would add considerably to traffic on Century Drive.
In addition, tourists coming to Central Oregon would not likely be content to stay in just the village on the mountain. They would want to check out the craft beer scene in Bend, the restaurants and everything else that draws people to the region.
Even if a village at Mt. Bachelor wouldn't solve traffic problems, that's not the only reason to consider it.
Powder House's McGee says he's heard conversations about building a village at Bachelor a few times before. It always comes to nothing, and he's fine with that. Even so, he does see some upside to the idea. Rather than a drain on local hotel rooms and restaurants, he suggested it could bring in new customers to boost business for everyone.
"We lose a lot of club skiers because we don't have ski-in and ski-out," he said. "I think in the long run (a village) would benefit Bachelor and the community."
Many club skiers would stay on the mountain, but many would stay, dine and shop in town, too, he said.
David Blair, a former staffer for Sen. Ron Wyden who was on the slopes at Bachelor 15 to 20 times this past season, believes the Forest Service might not be so big a hurdle for the feds.
"If the community goes along with it, it happens. If the community opposes it, it doesn't happen," Blair said. "The Forest Service and elected officials would go along with whatever the community wants."
He took no position on whether a village is a good idea, but he suggested that it's a conversation worth having once every few decades just to make sure Mt. Bachelor and Central Oregon are doing what's in the best interest of long-term prosperity.
"Mt. Bachelor is so important to the community in so many ways," he said. "We should be interested in its economic vitality because it affects our region's economic vitality."