There is a Northwest saying on a bright and cloudless day: “The mountain is out.”
It means you can see your local mountain — perhaps Mount Hood or Mount Adams, maybe even St. Helens.
Our volcanic peaks are majestic gods that lie in repose among untamed forests rather than jagged ranges crowding far-off horizons. Our mountains are mighty things that shine when the curtain of clouds lifts to reveal their eminence. They seem personal and singular, close enough to touch.
We knew nothing of mountains when my family moved across the country and planted roots between Mount Hood and Mount Adams. From the hill above our home we could see them shining at twilight.
Two mountains with very different personalities.
Adams, like most of the north side of the river, is more rural, more primitive. To this day there is not a single ski lift on its slopes. Like St. Helens before she blew her top, the mountain is tolerant of human incursions but untamed and unbothered by our activities. Adams is still wild country. A mountain as a mountain should be.
Mount Hood seems attached to the big city of Portland, the old Barlow Road encircling its southern slope like a possessive arm around its shoulder. It is this southern route that Portlanders caravan up on weekends in the winter, their Subarus and SUVs racing up to the massive parking lots of Skibowl, Timberline Lodge and Mount Hood Meadows.
‘See you at the bottom’
Growing up, I spent many days on Mount Hood as a scrappy low-budget ski bum.
I learned to ski at Cooper Spur, a well-kept secret on the mountain’s north side. I was probably just 11 when I learned to ski. One quick lesson at the rope tow before my stepfather brought us over to the T-bar, which dragged us to the top of the only hill. He led us over to a tree-bordered run and said, “I’ll see you at the bottom.”
We crashed on our way down, falling at first with each attempted turn. By the time we reached the bottom, we were skiers. Not in the sense that we were any better, or by any means competent. Rather, we had lost the fear. We felt the mountain had done its worst to us, and we had survived.
So we clambered over to the T-bar, ready to go again.
I love any excuse to get on the mountain, to turn at the top of the lift and see the blanket of treetops stretch away below. I love being above the clouds and to catch the other mountains peeking their white heads up to be painted purple, pink and orange in the setting sun.
Cooper Spur is the perfect place to learn. The runs are relatively short and uncrowded. The trails are simple and clearly marked. Simplicity is something you only really appreciate when you are much older. My brother and sister and I soon outgrew this little ski resort and found more challenging experiences higher up the mountain.
Skiing was a rich man’s sport even 30 years ago, but we managed. We cobbled together used skis and hand-me-down ski pants. I have never owned a new pair of skis in my life.
As a kid growing up in the Gorge, we skied at night and whenever we could get a deal; weekends and day skiing were too crowded, too expensive. We kept our skis in the car and could be on the slopes an hour after the school bell rang. Mount Hood Meadows had Franz Bread nights in the 1980s. A lift ticket was just a couple of bucks if you had a Franz wrapper.
I remember riding up the mountain after school in the bed of our truck, sliding around under the canopy with skis and poles.
We never became good skiers, but we got so that there was no slope that could deter us — even the cheese-grater moguls of “Elevator Shaft” at Meadows or the icy glacier at the top of the Texas lift.
We started skiing after Thanksgiving and didn’t stop until summer. I went skiing the day after graduating from high school. We skied in freezing rain and fog and the blinding, icy slopes of spring.
Something for everyone
After college, marriage and kids, it took a while to get back to skiing. My wife, Amy, and I tried cross-country and loved it — no lift tickets, no crowds. We took the girls up Mount Hood every year for sledding.
Yet it took a while before they were old enough and I was brave enough to shell out for rentals and lessons.
The lessons were great, but the personalities of the girls, like the personalities of mountains, were attracted to different things. Older daughter Lindsay fell in love with the quiet solitude and snow-flocked conifer trails of cross-country skiing. Younger daughter Grace loves the challenge, speed and adventure of downhill skiing. One girl is Mount Adams, the other Mount Hood.
Which leads us back to Cooper Spur.
David Rose Cooper was a Scottish immigrant who built a toll road up the north side of Hood in the 1880s. He started the first hotel for those adventurous souls wanting to get on the mountain.
It was really just a summer tent camp for guided expeditions up from Hood River — well-furnished tents and a kitchen with Cooper’s wife doing the cooking and daughters waitressing. A year later in 1889 a more permanent establishment was created higher up the mountain at the 6,000-foot level: the Cloud Cap Inn. In 1890 the first ski trip on Mount Hood was recorded.
In 1927 the land was cleared by the local ski club, and a ski jump was set up at what is now the Cooper Spur Ski Area. In the 1950s, a man named Jack Baldwin set about establishing little Cooper Spur as a family-friendly and affordable place to enjoy the mountain.
These days it is owned by Mount Hood Meadows, but it retains the spare simplicity of mid-20th century skiing.
The Cloud Cap Inn is closed to the public except for special tours, but there is still a very nice hotel and cabins surrounding a fine restaurant on the mountain’s north side at Cooper Spur. You can walk outside your hotel room door, put on your cross-country skis and enjoy the meadows and groomed trails of the surrounding forest.
The ski area is much improved from back when I was learning to ski. There is a single lift that gives access to a few short, simple slopes, uncrowded and uncomplicated. Perfect for beginners building their skills.
Little old Cooper Spur is like the mountain itself. Something for everyone.