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Rows of white decorate the south side of Mount Hood as groomers work to preserve precious snow. Photo courtesy of John Ingersoll.

Timberline grooming crews are strategically storing snow to preserve the lucrative summer camp scene on Mount Hood, with months to go until summer and snowpack levels far below average.

On Sunday I counted 30 rows of snow west of the main run down the Palmer Snowfield at 8500 feet, resembling a slopeside farmer's field all in white, snow barriers with gulches in between. The barriers are designed to capture snow as it blows across the mountain, and Timberline's freestyle grooming manager Caleb Hamilton and his team have been sculpting them with care all over Timberline's upper reaches, to preserve precious snow for a spring season running into May and a summer season that usually runs through August.

Mount Hood hosts at least 18 summer ski and snowboard camps, as well as racers, snowboarders and skiers from all around the world taking advantage of the longest-running snow season in North America. Some of the greatest skiers and snowboarders in the world are Mount Hood summer regulars: Ted Ligety, Kelly Clark, Sage Kotsenburg, Andrew Weibrecht and Nick Goepper, to name a few.

Summer campers pay thousands of dollars for a week of training on Hood, and summer season passes at Timberline are more expensive than winter passes.

Putting all of those camps together is an advanced exercise in planning and logistics, and Timberline has been pulling it off for years. But the summer season on Hood was built on a history of deep snowpacks, with 500-plus inches of snow falling in a typical year. The snowpack this season is the lowest on record and about a third of average, with 49 inches at 5880 feet as of March 1.

It is important to note that the snow has held up much better at 7,000 feet and above, where most of the summer action takes place. Palmer has had decent conditions for months. Several storms this season — including the storm in progress right now on Mount Hood — have brought rain below 7,500 feet and snow above.

Timberline spokesman Jon Tullis says, "It’s still too early to say" how the lower snow levels will affect summer camps.

"We will still pick up snow on Palmer," Tullis says, “but who knows how much. Camp bookings are keeping pace with past business models. As far as the snowfield goes, in 2005 (a major drought year) we still skied every day up on Palmer through Aug. 18th."

Mike Annett, who runs Mt. Hood Summer Ski and Snowboard Camps, says he has made no adjustments for his summer camp plans, although "some small camps may be squeezed out."

"I think we have enough snow to last until August 24th," says Annett.

Robin Cressy, who has worked as a coach and videographer with Annett for years, says:

I think there is more snow this year at this point of time compared to low snow years 2005 and 1992.  In 2005 Palmer did close the lifts around August 18, and we had to cancel our last 2 sessions in late August/early September. In 1992 we managed to make it to the very end.

In ‘92 I remember the last day or two of summer, we had to carry our skis up Palmer each run loading at the midway station, walk over bare ground as we unloaded the lift and put our skis on about 20 yards away from the top terminal.   It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t ideal.  It was more challenging for coaches who had to carry drills and gates in addition to their skis up the lift.

John Ingersoll, founder and president of High Cascade Snowboard Camp, says the snowpack at 7500 feet looks okay from his perspective, and he expects to be able to run camp on Mount Hood this summer as usual:

2005 was our worst year ever in my memory going back to 1984 and HCSC made it through on-hill for all six sessions.  We also have comprehensive and off-the-hook off-hill programs that are a big part of our overall snowboard and camp experience.

Ingersoll notes that even after the poor snow year of 2005, High Cascade saw a higher than normal return rate of campers for 2006.

"We are poised and registering campers for an awesome and banger summer," says Ingersoll. "We have many additions and surprises."