Mt. A up and running

Judy Allen knew just one place to be Thursday, and nothing short of a natural disaster was going to stop her and her husband from getting there.

"We always come to Mount Ashland the first day," said Allen.

Thursday marked the start of the 2009-10 ski season at Mount Ashland, and several hundred skiers and snowboarders responded by carving the runs of Upper and Lower Juliet, Tempest, even the "bunny slope."

"This is my first time snowboarding," said Bonnie Meachem, who spent much of her day falling, getting up and falling back down. "For some reason, I didn't think I would be falling down this much."

Mountain officials were unsure at first whether snow levels would be adequate for the safe operation of ski runs. But more than a foot of new snow last weekend and throughout the week gave them the go-ahead to open three of the mountain's lifts — Sonnet, Comer and Windsor.

Thrillseekers of all ages lined the parking lot in advance of Thursday's 9 a.m. opening.

"We've been here since seven," said Curran Shaw, who made the trip with his friend Taylor Hazen. "We wanted to be the first ones to get here."

Distinguishing just who arrived first was difficult, as scores of eager skiers conversed in the parking lot throughout the morning, some having beaten mountain staff to the top by as much as an hour.

"Just driving up to the mountain, going over those turns, you know what time it is," said Bryan Falk. "You feel the adrenaline. It's time to shred."

Mountain staff spent an anxiety-filled week waiting to see if they would make good on their promise to open on time. The thrill of finally getting underway had all but replaced any anxiety by Thursday afternoon.

"It feels great," said Rick Saul, marketing director for Mount Ashland. "Everybody's here and in a good mood. We're in full swing."

Saul and other staff even managed to squeeze in a few runs between a busy day of work.

The mountain will operate seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Jan 3. Afterward it will switch to a five-day schedule, Thursday though Monday.

Work was the furthest thing from the minds of most on opening day. Many skiers said their daily responsibilities, like work or school, could take a back seat in favor of some much-needed fun for one day.

"We took sick days, us and our kids. Everyone was sick," said James Epperson, covering a smile as he spoke.

"It feels absolutely fantastic," James' wife, Julia Epperson, said. "Not only skiing, but just being up here in the mountain and snow. It's beautiful."

Three of the mountain's four ski lifts are currently up and running. The fourth, Ariel, could be ready next week. Ariel takes skiers to some of the mountain's most advanced runs.

Experienced skiers and snowboarders said they didn't mind missing out on those runs for a day or two; the thrill of being back on Mount Ashland was good enough.

"It's awesome, I'm so excited to be here," said Katie Dukovcic. "The snow's epic."

So epic that some area elementary school students got an early start on their holiday vacations to take part.

"My dad brought us up," said Ashland student Frank Bungay, splitting a meal in the ski lodge with friend Mitchell Fennell. "I think everyone thought it was OK to come."

"The snow is way better than last year," Fennell added.

Officials say they have every reason to believe the 2009-10 season will be a successful one. With a snow-filled winter potentially on the way, and a fan-base ready to support the mountain whatever the season brings, that optimism seems contagious.

"It's good to be back up here," Bungay said. "I'm going to come at least three times a week during the break."

Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Contact him at eglucklich@gmail.com.

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