At Fergi, they say 2 inches feels like 6.
Bumper stickers to that effect are sold at Ferguson Ridge Ski Area, just a few miles outside Joseph in the rugged Wallowas of Eastern Oregon. In Portland, six hours west, that might raise a few eyebrows, given this family-friendly spot also offers free access to the bunny hill rope tow so it can get local kids into skiing.
Not out here, at Oregon's smallest and most laid-back ski area.
Compared to tiny, volunteer-run Ferguson Ridge, Baker City's Anthony Lakes looks like Mount Bachelor. There are no fancy triple chairlifts, craft beer bars or Square readers here—just a rope tow, a T-bar and three shacks. Alongside the rental hut, there's a T-bar operator's stand with the type of clutter you expect to see at a small-town gas station and the ironically named "Grand Lodge," which is a tatty traincar-sized shed with a wood-fired stove, Christmas tree lights and a photo of the 1937 Enterprise-Joseph Lions Club.
Ferguson Ridge is off the grid—literally. It's powered by a generator and there's no cell service or Wi-Fi. All transactions are cash or personal check. If you forget $20 for a lift ticket, it's a 10-minute drive back to town to the ATM.
This has been a very good season at the slope the locals call "Fergi." They have a base of 30 inches—and if it doesn't feel like 90, it still feels pretty good thanks to a starting elevation of 5,200 feet and the clear skies of Eastern Oregon. Given climate change, there are no guarantees. Fergi sits just above the normal snowline in the high, dry desert. Joseph gets an annual average 17.56 inches of precipitation, less than half of Portland's average.
"It's been really good, both in terms of snow and the volume of people skiing," says Jerry Hustafa, who runs the place. "The ski area is north-facing, so we pretty much keep what we get."
As he says this, Hustafa is emptying trashcans in the Grand Lodge. Hustafa, who works for the Forest Service as a botanist, is the president of the local Lions Club, which took over this mountain a few years ago. Emptying trash comes with the title. It's 9:30 am, and his two big white dogs are running around the parking lot as the other volunteers start trickling in.
Fergi is open only Saturday and Sunday. The ski shop is manned by Charlie Kissinger, who has laid out vacuum-sealed packets of probable elk jerky on the counter.
"I think it's elk," he says. "Take some if you want, I'm trying to clean out my freezer." (I take some; it's very good.)
The T-bar—a tow rope with plastic bars on retractable metal cables that literally drags you up the 640 vertical feet to the top—is also manned by volunteers, who learn their trade a few minutes before opening at 10 am, "give or take 10 minutes."
Mostly, that involves hopping up to pull down the plastic bar on a retractable steel cable and hand it over to a skier, a process not unlike a basketball player leaping up for a rebound and making an outlet pass.
That T-bar is secondhand, purchased and reassembled by Fergi's founders, 10 local families that bought the land off a timber company.
"They got it in pieces and were able to put it together and get it working," Hustafa says. "Between the ranch hands and the commercial fishermen, we're lucky to have some really, really skilled guys here."
There's obviously no lodging at Fergi, but you can stay in a heated yurt at Wallowa Lake State Park just a half hour away. There's even a heated shower room and flush toilets. On my visit, I had the entire park to myself. And here's the thing: It's really worth the trip. Because while the terrain is limited, the snow sparse and the frills nonexistent, Fergi is a great place to ski.
Bluebird days come in bunches. The snow is dry and powdery, not wet and lumpy like in the Cascades. Those volunteers groom that snow into a smooth carpet. And, obviously, a whole family of four can ski and eat for the price of one person at a Mount Hood resort.
I saved that bit for last as a favor.
"We like just the right amount of publicity," Hustafa says, after I introduce myself. "Not too little, we need people, but not too much, since we like it to be laid-back."