Believe it or not, it is mid-May. For those following a traditional cross-country calendar, this means the start of a new training year, building toward the 2022/2023 competition season. And, for many of the top American athletes, this means it’s time to make an annual pilgrimage to Bend, Oregon for the on-snow camp of the season at the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center.
The weather gods were kind to the camp attendees, with nearly a foot of fresh snow falling on Mt. Bachelor last weekend, restoring it to mid-Winter conditions. April was also a fruitful month for snowfall, setting up for a base-depth of 92” currently reported on the trails – not bad for May!
To learn more about the camp and what has made Bend and Mt. Bachelor a staple of the U.S. Ski Team’s early season training, FasterSkier connected with head coach Matt Whitcomb, who shared that he has been coming to Bend almost-annually for the last 26 years.
He first experienced the trails at Mt. Bachelor during the 1996 U.S. National Championships.
“I was rooming with Justin Beckwith (current NENSA Competitive Program Director),” Whitcomb recalled fondly. “Amy Caldwell took us out and then Sverre [Caldwell] joined us, and we had our first experience racing Nationals. And it really jumped out as this town that had skiing at its center, not only alpine but cross country.”
The following summer, Whitcomb, Beckwith, and a couple additional training partners hopped into a car and drove to Oregon to spend the summer of ‘97 in Bend.
“But we weren’t, by any means, the first people to do this – we were following in the footsteps of Justin Wadsworth and Pat Weaver and a whole bunch of other people. And by our senior year [at Middlebury College], we had twenty-something people driving out from the east just to experience what Bend has in late May and June, and we’d be there through August until we had to go back to college.”
What Bend has in late May and June, he said, is a vast array of diverse training opportunities, which most importantly includes snow.
“That’s probably the first thing that really drew us in, particularly as people from the East.”
He shared that the snow report they had received from Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center manager Sue Foster was measuring the accumulation from April storms in feet, not inches.
But it’s not just the access to snow on its own that makes Mt. Bachelor worth the trip.
“The trail system is world class. You’re skiing through Douglas fir — just these massive, old old trees on creative, windy, hard trails, and on a good year they’ll have close to 30 or 40 kilometers groomed for us still in May.”
In addition to its geographical location and an accumulation of over 300” of snow annually, the elevation of the Nordic Center preserves the snowpack for late season skiing. The parking lot sits at roughly 6,000’ above sea level, while trails range from 5,750 to 6,400’.
This puts Mt. Bachelor in a similar altitude zone to Soldier Hollow, UT, offering athletes both an early season bump in red blood cells and the opportunity to fine tune their altitude skiing strategies, “which is something that we really value. Because skiing at altitude is not just something for the aerobically gifted; it’s also something for people that develop the skill of how to actually ski at altitude. So that’s been great.”
Whitcomb also lauded the convenience of Mt. Bachelor relative to their lodging down in Bend, roughly a 25 minute drive down the mountain at a significantly lower elevation of roughly 3,300’. In addition to easy access to the trails, this gives the team the opportunity to train high and sleep low, as well as to enjoy non-ski training modalities in a totally different climate.
“So recovery is complete. We can also go roller skiing in the afternoon, we can go mountain biking, we can run in shorts and tee shirts. It’s like you’re experiencing the summer and the winter on the same day for two weeks in a row.”
Overall, Bend and Mt. Bachelor have become a special place for Whitcomb, and for the many athletes who have made their way there over the years.
“It’s just such a wonderful environment. The way these cascade forests smell this time of the year when the new growth is coming up — you step out of the car when you first arrive and it’s like, ahh. I could be blindfolded and tell you exactly where I was.”
While Mt. Bachelor offers high quality grooming all season, Whitcomb also spoke to the relationships the US Ski Team have developed with the trail operations team, and their willingness to adapt their usual grooming patterns to best serve the visiting skiers. This year, Whitcomb is looking to replicate the track format of a World Cup stadium so the team can practice “switching lanes in the finish and figuring out how to develop more speed — a bit of a twist to our [usual] speed training.”
At the helm, and helping US Ski Team coaches interface with the grooming team, is the aforementioned Nordic Center Manager, Sue Foster, who Whitcomb says has been an invaluable resource over the years.
“She meets us in the lodge every day, she helps us prepare the TV and the chairs so that we can do a little visualization before every session. And she’s just a delightful, inviting person that makes you want to come back and see [her.] It’s rare that every athlete on the team knows the names of the people working the lodge, but Mt. Bachelor is one of those places.”
Off the ski trails, Whitcomb shared that a highlight for many athletes is the lower elevation terrain in Bend, where the unique volcanic geology of Mt. Bachelor sets up for miles of tacky “hero dirt” for afternoon rides.
“The mountain biking is some of the best in the US, particularly in May, before it’s gotten dusty.”
During the late spring, many trails along the Deschutes River are also beginning to open up, and often the team will be dropped off an hour and a half up-river to enjoy a point-to-point run back to their cluster of rental houses.
This year, the team is spread between three large rental homes in close proximity, with the staff house centrally located to host nightly team dinners catered by USOPC chef Megan Chacosky. To reduce COVID risks among the team and staff, masks are still worn during team meetings, allowing them to safely happen in-person. Though mask mandates and COVID safety precautions are largely being dropped, Whitcomb expressed the importance of keeping athletes and staff healthy, setting everyone up for success during the high-volume summer months of training.
“I think the world has made a major shift to decide that the pandemic is over, but we’re pretty well aware that the COVID is not done yet.”
Finally, Whitcomb cited the greater ski community in Bend as a reason the camp has been such a valuable component of the annual training cycle.
“As far back as I can remember, it didn’t matter whether we are registered with a local club or not, we were always being invited by [coach/director] John Downing to the XC Oregon sessions. He’s still a good friend of the team, and we have so many locals in town that are helping us out and welcome us every year to town.”
Acknowledging that he was only giving the short-list of names from the Bend skiing community who have supported and welcomed the team each year, he also noted former physiologist at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs Tim Gibbons, who builds excitement for the camp by giving Whitcomb snow reports all winter, indicating how the trails are shaping up for spring skiing. And lastly, he thanked the members of the Mt. Bachelor Ski Education Foundation (MBSEF), including nordic director Dylan Watts.
This community support allows the team to maximize their time training in Bend, while also creating opportunities for outreach via programs like Fast and Female or hosting workouts for the MBSEF junior athletes. This partnership helps the team feel connected, and also stoke the enthusiasm of the next generation of cross country skiers.
“It just really feels like a family that we’re coming back to every year. So thanks to everybody that has always been welcoming. We try to be great ambassadors for the sport, and we need partners like this [to continue to move forward as a nation].
The Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center is known for it’s world class spring cross-country skiing. You can find more information about spring conditions at mtbachelor.com.
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646