It's winter in Australia, but Rupert Michell has no interest in the puny ski hills of his native land. Instead, Michell took a 20-hour flight, then drove 1,000 miles to ski in Oregon—in June.
"Mount Hood is legendary, even in Australia," he says. "You see these really dope film edits coming out of this place with dirt mixed in the snow, and you're like, 'What the hell is this?' You find out it's this place in Oregon called Timberline."
Michell, a 23-year-old semi-employed bartender, wears a goofy fisherman's hat and a baggy Cosby sweater. He travels in a black RV, which he calls "the Zen Den," purchased in San Diego, before he headed north in search of powder and parties. His final stop was the peak looming on Portland's horizon, the tallest in the state and the only mountain in North America where skiers and boarders shred through September.
In winter months, Colorado might be the best place to ski. But in July, when the last lift closes at Canada's Whistler Blackcomb, the center of the snow-sports world shifts to the southwestern face of Mount Hood, where T-shirt-clad riders come to bomb the slalom gates or shoot Vimeo clips on the blue-and-yellow rails and tables at Timberline Lodge ski area. Among the curious tourists like Michell, I found grizzled ski bums, wannabe pros and careerists—all with stories about what drew them to the chilled-out chaos of Hood.
It starts with a geographic quirk. Timberline is relatively high in latitude and elevation—8,540 feet at the top of the Palmer lift, 1,000 feet higher than nearby Mt. Hood Meadows—but the unending season actually exists because of the wet, slushy winters that render Hood a little brother to powdery Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Baker ski resorts during the high season.
"The Palmer Snowfield has a glacierlike permafrost base," explains Brian Reed, Timberline's marketing director. "Dense, heavy ice acts as a refrigerator and keeps the upper snowpack from completely melting off. As long as winter storms continue to replenish the upper snowpack that sits atop the permafrost, the cycle will continue to allow for snow every month of the year."
Mount Hood's stark peak is often still surrounded by a fluffy halo, but no one minds: The Palmer lift carries riders to a sun-soaked glacier above the clouds. Timberline in summer is like South by Southwest or Sundance, the place to be for industry types to scout fresh talent and cut deals. Representatives from K2, Burton and Salomon are always loaning samples of next season's gear. Energy drinks and granola bars are aggressively foisted upon patrons in the parking lot. Parents shell out thousands of dollars to send their teenagers to the mountain in hopes they'll join the likes of snowboarders Shaun White, Kaitlyn Farrington and Sage Kotsenburg, all Olympic gold medalists who've trained there.
"Everyone who matters comes through Mount Hood in the summer," says Brooke Geery, publisher of YoBeat, a popular Portland-based snowboarding blog, and occasional WW contributor. "If you're a sponsored rider, an industry person, a magazine reporter, whatever—you take a trip to Mount Hood in the summer."
On the mountain, the stakes can be high. But you'd never know it from the scene six miles down the hill in the enclave of Government Camp. "Govy" becomes a haven not only for businesspeople who rent out chalets, but for diehard ski bums who refuse to stop riding for even a few months. An apartment there will set you back only about $400 a month, but plenty of people squat in neglected vacation homes or pitch tents on U.S. Forest Service land at encampments called Ewok Village, the Airstrip or the Graveyard. It might seem extreme, but when you live for snow, there's no beating an endless winter.
Charlie Sperr was the closest thing that Government Camp ever had to a mayor. Until his death in 2010 at age 86, Sperr owned Charlie's Mountain View, one of two bars in the non-village, a corner of Clackamas County that voters have twice declined to incorporate.
Sperr was an original ski bum, and one of the men who set the tone in his town. According to The Oregonian, Sperr spent his 85th birthday with "a girl on each arm, a beverage in hand, someone always kissing him." Sperr also ran the only cable-TV operation in town: "Charlie Vision" didn't have MTV for decades because "Charlie didn't like it," but it did broadcast the "Govycam," a live surveillance feed fixed in the parking lot of his bar. (Access the feed at charliesmountainview.com.)
Sperr's bar is pretty much as he left it, furnished with busted bench seats exhumed from the old Mount Hood skybus and decorated with shotskis and wall-to-wall wood paneling. It feels like the kind of bar that a movie-location scout would pick to shoot a scene involving lumberjacks beating each other senseless over which Molly Hatchet record is best.
At the bar, a gang of permanently sunburnt townies jeer at a pool player who dropped his cue, breaking one of the house rules. "Ten pushups!" wheezes a leather-faced man in faded Carhartt overalls. "Don't make an 88-year-old do 'em with ya, ya sissy!"
Very few ski towns have remained as terminally chill as Govy—a place where non-trustafarians can still afford to be ski bums. Approaching "Mount Hood's Alpine Village," it's not unusual to spot someone smoking weed out of an apple while sitting in the bed of a rusty, old Toyota Tacoma covered in Poler and Grenade stickers. Crews of gypsy snowboarders wake up in their Westfalia vans and shotgun tall boys of Rainier after hiking the mountain's free trails all day, then sleep in one of the makeshift camps that pop up along the access roads.
"I was very much surprised with how it hasn't been built out," says Michell, the Aussie. "There aren't any mega ski shops, everything is still small and kinda ghetto, and I like that a lot. I've always grown up knowing it was illegal to sleep overnight in a car park, but to come here and find that it's not only allowed but maybe encouraged."
People have tried to change that. In 2003, developers built a fancy condo development called Collins Lake Resort in Government Camp, following the condo boom that overtook many ski towns in the '90s. But the homeowners association filed a lawsuit against the condos' developers in 2006, and won more than $16 million in 2009, the largest construction defect claim settlement in Oregon history. Investors lost money, and enthusiasm for further development dried up. The locals—there are fewer than 200 residents—now seem allergic to development.
Among that cabal of townies is Ryan Hora, a mellow Cleveland native with a bald head and scraggly red beard. Hora first came to Govy at age 29, while on vacation from his job as a demographic researcher for Vail Resorts in Colorado. He was seduced by the vibe, and decided to join the ranks of people who work service-industry gigs in the rough-hewn town in order to enjoy an infinite snowboard season. He moved to Oregon and got a job at the Ratskeller, the only other bar in town and a family-friendly rival to Charlie's Mountain View.
"It was super-cheap, and I made a ton of friends right away," Hora says. "You can get 16 bucks an hour [in Vail], and it's nothing. I probably should've stayed there for the career, but I ended up hanging out here partying and regressing."
Hora's first Oregon home was in the Summit Apartments, a tacky Government Camp development known locally as "the Scummits." It was remarkably different from Vail, partly because the closest police station is 28 miles away in Sandy, meaning bonfires made with old mattresses and impromptu rail sessions in the parking lot fly under the radar.
"It's like living in a dorm, only you don't have to go to class," Hora says. "You wake up and you don't have anything to do, so you party and smoke weed all day. People are in a state of arrested development—they never really grow up or move along with their lives. They're snowboard bums. And that's totally fine here."
Hora spent his time working in the kitchen at the Ratskeller and snowboarding 150 days a year. Now 36, he's worked his way up to manager. He lives down the hill in Welches ("a mellow part of the mountain with less boarders and way more tweakers") and is enjoying the closest approximation of an adult life Mount Hood has to offer. He's still in it to ride, but he readily acknowledges intangible costs of the lifestyle.
"You wanna get by here and snowboard all the time? Easy," he says. "You wanna build a life? Not so easy. You can't do both. You can snowboard all the time or you can get your shit together. It's one or the other—unless your family is rich."
After injuring his knee, Hora started working more and snowboarding less. He spends more time with his girlfriend and dog. "I still can't see myself not working for a ski resort," he says. "I need the pass, so I can go out and ride whenever I want."
Whether or not Hora lives in the "real world" is debatable, but he's much happier on his current path than the one he would presumably be on if he had graduated from college. "If I stayed in Ohio, I'd be a fat loser drinking Bud Light all the time," he says. "I might have graduated from college, but then so what? I'd be miserable working in a cubicle somewhere."
Summer jobs on Mount Hood are in high demand, but nobody wants them for the money, which is barely enough to cover a night out at Charlie's.
For Christian Hobush, a 22-year-old member of the kitchen crew at High Cascade Snowboard Camp, free room and board is exactly what he needs to go pro—well, that and a GoPro camera. While some snowboarders make it to the pros through competition, just as many, like Hobush, do it by assembling videos of their best tricks. They ride every day on their free pass. Then, at the end of each season, they release a mixtape-style video in hopes it'll go viral.
"There's a sort of joke that snowboarding is run by some kind of illuminati, and one of the ways to go pro is by working at High Cascade," says Geery, the YoBeat publisher. "You just meet the right people. The people that can make snowboarding happen for you are all there."
Hobush—a short, fresh-faced kid with a wispy mustache—grew up in Alpine, Utah, just 15 minutes from the snow-sport hotbed of Park City. He and his older brother, Brandon, fell for snowboarding. By the time Christian was 17, he had convinced his parents he was serious about going pro. They were on board with the idea, but uneasy with the crowd Hobush was following up the mountain.
"When I stopped playing baseball, I transitioned to a different group that I skated and snowboarded with, and we all dabbled with different stuff, partying and drugs," he says. "I ended up going to jail for marijuana possession when I was 18. I got left holding the bag. I was just confused about why it happened to me specifically."
Rather than dwell on his misfortune, Hobush saw his legal problems as a turning point. He approached snowboarding competitions more seriously and began placing in events like the Volcom Peanut Butter and Rail Jam. He was briefly sponsored by DC Shoes and got to ride its Mountain Lab, a private snowboard park in Park City owned by DC co-founder Ken Block. Hobush began working on film edits and transitioned from "contest pro" to "video pro."
"That [video] comes out at the end of summer, and everyone gets stoked on it," Hobush says. "Mount Hood is absolutely essential if you want to pursue a career in snowboarding. If you don't come up here, you're just that much farther behind everyone else. I could definitely be way ahead of where I am right now if I had been here for the past few years."
Hobush wakes up at 5:45 am to cook breakfast and wash dishes for 12-year-old campers from wealthy families. He and the rest of the "K-Unit" wrap up around 9:30 and spend the rest of the day on the mountain. Every day is the same for him, which is exactly what he wants.
"There's no way you can remember what day of the week it is," he says. "You have the same day, and it's always the most epic day. All you have to do is work for a little while and then go have a blast and shred. It's really easy to forget about the real world and lose yourself."
Brooke Geery paid her first visit to Mount Hood when she was 15, having conned her parents into ponying up $2,000 in '90s money to become one of the neon-clad tweenagers shuttled up the mountain in gaudily branded vans so they can learn new snowboarding tricks from guys named Devin, Magnus and Slater.
That seems like a great investment 15 years later, considering that Geery is one of the industry pros who makes her livelihood in large part because of Mount Hood.
By the end of her first season, the Vermont native had a sponsorship deal with now-defunct brand Original Sin. "That kind of stuff doesn't happen anywhere else," she says. "The concentration of important people stopping through in the summer is huge. It's a very tight-knit community."
At 17, Geery, a sarcastic tomboy who likes to rep her blog on her T-shirts, started YoBeat. She moved from her native Vermont to attend Western Washington University. She came to Portland after college and worked full time on her blog. Now 33, she takes pride in being able to hang with the rowdy youngsters attracted to Mount Hood. Her Web traffic ranks right behind California's Snowboarder.com and Transworld, and she's netted enough advertising revenue to afford to buy an office off Southeast 82nd Avenue, in what she calls "the Flavel Arts District."
There, on the outskirts of the city, Geery keeps the spirit of Govy alive in snowless Portland, with a well-used skateboard halfpipe, a fridge full of Rainier and a cargo van one of her three employees lived in on Mount Hood last summer. Not to mention her massive contacts folder, which includes everyone who matters in the industry, people Geery entertains with trips to Portland strip clubs and food carts.
"YoBeat wouldn't be what it is without Hood," she says. "Not only does it give us something to write about in the summer, but it gives us unparalleled access to all the people we need to set us apart from just another blog."
At the top of the Palmer lift, the highest on the mountain, which is only open in the spring and summer, I follow Geery past a pile of backpacks and Gatorade bottles to join the queue. The sun is blinding up here, above the clouds. You understand how the ski bums in the camps below end up with red, leathery skin. A few feet from the chairlift, a pair of snowboarders exchange fist bumps and discuss the lines they have mapped out for their next run. A ski racer in a black unitard with an Audi logo slides in front of them and careens down the hill through a layer of clouds.
Geery has tempered expectations when it comes to the dreams of kids like Hobush and his co-workers, who get up early to cook breakfast for campers like she once was. She's seen a lot of kids come and go in her 20 years on the mountain. Even if Hobush doesn't make it as a pro, Geery doubts he'll regret spending one of his young summers on the side of Mount Hood, the last, best place to be stoked and broke.
"You've got kids who are jocking out and being super-serious, but the idea of being a legitimate pro snowboarder is so far-fetched for most people that I don't think they go to Hood expecting to go pro," she says. "It's an excuse to go to Oregon. Part of it is spending summer finding amazing things to do like jump off waterfalls, go fishing, go rock climbing—you can do anything you want here.
"Go to the beach, go surfing, go to Portland and look at strippers. I knew one kid from Michigan who got a job at Windells, and he doesn't even get to snowboard every day. He has to sit in an office all day and talk to irate parents, but he still thinks itâs awesome.â