Ski Utah – Greatest Snow on Earth [Utah license plate slogan]

A 3 day skiing weekend in Salt Lake City, February 20, 2004

Ever since coming to the United States had I wanted to explore more of its mountains, be it for hiking, hanggliding, mountain-biking or skiing. After a lucky twist of faith had thrown a free round-trip ticket on United Airlines my way late in 2003, I did some research into where I could go from Fargo on an extended weekend. As it turns out, Utah offers both easy access via the Salt Lake City airport as well as several outstanding ski resorts within 30-45 minutes driving time. From a Utah website:

If you heard amazing stories about Utah's incredible snow...believe them. Better yet, come try it for yourself. It truly is the "Greatest Snow On Earth!".

Friends had long recommended skiing in Utah – world famous for its dry and fluffy powder snow. I was easily convinced and so I signed up in early January for a 3 day weekend trip in late February to Utah.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Leaving the office just after 2:00pm I pick up Matt Keller, a friend who I met on our trip to Granite Peak last fall. We leave Fargo headed first to Denver, then to Salt Lake City. Both flights are on time and take about 1 hour. Good visibility gives us a glimpse of the Rockies, although the weather forecast calls for clouds and snowfall in the days ahead.

We get our reserved rental car and head for the Reston hotel south of downtown Salt Lake City. I found this place online while searching for good ski packages. In most US ski resorts you’ll find all the amenities you’ll want, but you also spend $200 or more per night, plus ski passes around $50-60 are the norm. So I was pleasantly surprised to find this ski package for $62 per night including a ski pass valid in any of the 4 major resorts Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude. We ended up skiing the first three out of those four in the next three days.

Next we drove downtown to rent gear – I needed skis and poles, Matt had brought his own. We found a store that was located near downtown, still open until 9:00pm, and even honored a 10% discount voucher we got in our hotel. I got some Atomic BetaRiders Carvers, very good gear for a very reasonable rate ($20/day). More skiing posters with unbelievable powder conditions wetted our appetite and increased anticipation of the greatest snow on Earth.

Speaking of appetite: We were also looking for some good food. We asked around and Baci was recommended for Italian cuisine. Over dinner we reviewed several pictures, inlcuding those from our Granite Peak trip. This put us in the right mood, ready for a burst of vacation ahead.

 

Saturday, February 21, 2004

We planned to start with Alta. We were told to either get up at 6:00am and beat the crowds on the road to the ski resorts or risk getting stuck in traffic. We left just after 7:00am after a hasty breakfast, only to find hardly any traffic and the huge Alta parking lot empty at 7:45am – no wonder, the lifts statr at 9:15am, so we had plenty of time for a second breakfast. The weather was quite warm, slightly above freezing, with wet snow coming down and melting on the ground in the valley. Over hot chocolate I pondered the shortcomings of picking calendar dates six weeks into the future to schedule weather dependent sport activities. You can’t control the weather, so you just roll with the punches.

 

The suboptimal weather could not dampen our spirits. Hey, this still beats waking up in Fargo and asking the question: What are we going to do this weekend?

 

We studied the Alta resort map and found only a half dozen skilifts or so. They have plenty of black diamond slopes here with very creative names such as “Bassackwards”, “Alf’s High Rustler” or “Eagle’s Nest”. We started slow given the high Alta-tude (8,000 – 10,500 ft), the poor visibility, and the somewhat unpredictable mix of 1 foot of powder covering icehard moguls beneath.

The terrain is steep, with the treeline going up almost all the way – much higher than in the European alps. The lift lines offer a good glimpse of the slopes and its more or less skiable variations. Often there are rockbands or full-blown cliffs sprinkled through the steep forest, so every here and there you’ll find warning signs “Cliff Area Ahead” to fend off would-be skiers and snowboarders. Actually Alta is closed to snowboarders and reserved exclusively for skiing – a somewhat unique concept. Nevertheless there is harldy any line too steep or crazy not to be attempted by some skiers. So while sitting on the mostly old-fashioned chairlifts you can contemplate the “line experiment” for the next run.

In the next days we would find even more unbelievable tracks jumping cliffs 25 ft high often landing in a tricky mix of trees and rocks. These tracks were mostly left behind by snowboarders, typically young males with their “brains turned off” (Matt’s rendition) and defying the laws of gravity as we know it (my rendition). I prefer skiing with the brains turned off (Whimp!) and gravity certainly applies to me, so I chose to ski runs uninterrupted by vertical layers of rock or ice. As you can see from the images, that still leaves plenty of steep chutes and trees to circum-navigate. There are several double-black diamonds as well, and it is safe to say that even an experienced skier will not get bored easily here.

One run (Alf’s High Rustler) has a very inviting long steep face sweeping towards the bottom. (It’s the run visible in the morning picture above just above the roof of the Alta Ski Shop.) To get there I had to traverse along a ridge with trees and rock formations. Following other tracks wasn’t as good an advice as you might think, primarily because there were tracks all over the place literally going down every gully or slope you could fit a ski through sideways – sometimes that was actually barely the case. Frequent stops in what can only be described as a dead end - for the “brains-turned-on-skier” anyways - and some backtracking to a more feasible traverse. The High Rustler lives up to it’s reputation, but with the legs burning I had to stop frequently to enjoy the run.

Even though we took a good long lunch break to refuel and relax a bit, we were both quite tired with wobbly legs at around 3:00pm. From past experience I knew that skiing all out on the first day would only result in sore muscles and thus severe impact for the following two days of skiing. Hence we called it a day early and checked out the ski shop at the base of the mountain. You could find all sorts of gear to rent and buy, as well as the usual tourist trappings like stickers, coffee mugs or T-Shirts with slogans such as “Altaholics Anonymous” or “If skiing were easy, they’d call it snowboarding”. I later glimpsed another T-Shirt musing about “10 reasons why a chairlift is better than a girlfriend” - but such content is not intended for mature audiences. It just seems a very typical byproduct of the teenage extreme sports scene.

For the rest of the day, Matt had found an interesting cinema movie called “Touching the Void” after the book by Joe Simpson about a mountain survival story. I had read the book and it is excellent. To anyone interested in mountain climbing, this movie is a must see. In the words of one critic:

"...the most harrowing movie about mountain climbing I have seen, or can imagine."

While this movie does not seem to be shown in all American cities, Salt Lake City’s Broadway Centre Theater did show it that weekend. The 7:00pm showing was sold out, but we got tickets for the 9:25pm show. That left plenty of time for dinner at Maccaroni Grill. The movie definitely is harrowing, truly a nail-biter. In the end, the first day brought what you want for your vacation: A never-ending series of highlights.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

We had set our sights on Snowbird today, which is in the same “Little Cottonwood Canyon” as Alta, just a few miles lower on the road. Snowbird features more lifts, inlcuding the huge, 125 passenger tram covering 3000 vertical feet in 7 minutes. This reminded me of the French ski resorts like Trois Vallees, for example with the very similar tram in Courchevel.

So we started off early and high on the mountain. The tram tops out on Hidden Peak at 11,000ft altitude – unfortunately near white-out conditions today with chilling cold wind, snowfall and very poor visibility. Too bad, as this surely must be a spectacular view from up here. Instead we quickly “buttoned down the hatches” so to speak and left for lower ground below the clouds.

Again, just like many paths lead to Rome, so do many slopes lead down this mountain – some across open terrain, others through steep forest. Here it is quite likely you don’t see the forest – ahem slope – for the trees.

As can be seen in the pictures, there is a growing percentage of skiers wearing helmets to protect their heads. Certainly in this terrain there is a chance to hit trees or rocks – as the terrain gets steeper, the margin of error gets smaller. I had always felt that skiing fast and/or steep represented a risk of getting your head banged up comparable if not higher than when riding on a bicycle. Hence I had bought a skiing helmet and new goggles recently at the REI store in Minneapolis. I am very happy with the model I picked: Light-weight, warm, unobtrusive. I quickly forgot I’m wearing a helmet and certainly take comfort in the additional protection it provides.

Due to the poor weather on the top of the mountain we retreated to the lower lifts below the treeline, which still offered plenty of steep runs and variety in slopes and terrain. The best powder was to be found in less steep sections, where the moguls were still soft, fluffy and invited to smooth rhythms going down under the lift fall line.

After several runs we stopped for lunch again. The main resort up on the mountain reminded me much of the similar places in Austria, except you find burgers, french fries and Hotdogs here instead of Germknödel or Kaiserschmarrn (sweet delicious Austrian dishes).

In the afternoon we explored other parts and lifts of the resort, inlcuding a lift with a snowboard fun park. That includes all kinds of ramps – BIG ramps for catching big air – slide rails and half pipes. Just like you’ve come to know it from the popular snowboarding Xbox games ;-)

One of the first ramps we saw consisted of two big tables seperated by a spectator area in the middle protected by a large “For Experts only” banner. We stayed a few minutes and studied other acrobatic jumps. We saw some pretty impressive 360s and even 540s jumps landed smoothly backward at high speeds and continuing at quite high speeds. I gauged the proper amount of speed by watching where others tok off. Then Matt posted with the camera and took a picture of me getting some big air.

Covering my face with the arms was unintentional, but probably favorable, as it hides the expression of terror I had at that moment: My speed was apparently higher than that of the guys jumping before me as I went straight for the ramp without any last-second slow downs. The ramp was designed such that an incline led up to the takeoff lip, followed by a flat plateau of about 30 ft, in turn followed by a steep runoff to ease the landing impact. Just before the takeoff you can’t see anything but the takeoff line against the sky, and a split-second later I was airborne looking down some 15ft or more to the landing spot – a perspective I am more used to when sitting in the chairlift! (The snow jet trailing off my boots is showing the parabolic flight path.) I easily cleared the flat-to-steep transition and landed far, however surprisingly smooth after maybe a 50ft leap. Quite possibly my largest jump ever.

I did jump several other ramps after that, all shorter but some with better style points than this one. And we found that taking pictures of fast moving action is tricky with my digital camera. Timing it right is to some degree a matter of luck.

We explored multiple black diamonds and short variations through the forest, sometimes feeling like in a natural half-pipe. We skied until after 4:00pm that afternoon. Again we felt tired and stopped prior to being completely exhausted. Towards the bottom in Snowbird we  waited for a shuttle bus to bring us back to the parked car. One unhappy skier with a leg injury was brought down in a sled by mountain rescue – reminding us that the laws of gravity are still applicable to the rest of us mere mortals.

Back at the hotel we tucked the skis away in our hotel room and indulged in hot tub to relaxe the muscles, swimming pool to cool off from the hot tub, and hot shower to shampoo hair and body. In what had by now almost become the daily routine, we were HUNGRY from all the fresh mountain air and skiing. Some more asking around led us to the market street grill, which offered a superb selection of fish much to our liking.

Hard as we tried, we could harldy think of anything which hadn’t gone smooth and per plan so far on this trip. Except maybe more sunshine, but then you don’t get the greatest snow on Earth from sunshine alone…

Monday, February 23, 2004

Hard to believe, but it was already time to check out and make plans to catch that airplane home later this afternoon! But first we had another 4 hours of skiing in store. We selected to go for yet another ski resort, this time to Brighton at the end of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Brighton is located higher, 8,700ft at the base, but has somewhat shorter and less steep runs. It also caters to the snowboard crowd in a big way, with the best half-pipe I have seen as well as more slide rails and ramps galore.

When you enter the quad lift at the base, you are greeted by an orange sign educating you about “Smart Style”:

Inverted Aerials not recommended and prohibited – ah, thanks for letting us know! Could have gotten in real trouble otherwise … ok, well not really. Matt was pushing extending his powder skiing skills in some nice slopes with maybe ½ ft fresh fluffy stuff.

The sky brightened up and some mountains in the distance became visible and beckoned with sunshine. Made it hard to focus on the skiers in the foreground. How many skiers are in the following picture? Hint: Watch for clouds of powder ;-)

It was time to refine powder skills, experience the weird JoJo flip turning in the vertical walls of the above pictured half-pipe and practice some more jumping – as well as taking pictures of it.

Near the top the sun broke through and revealed both the fresh snow-covered ridge line as well as the stunning view down into the basin of Park City.

 

There was a little bit of everything on that day, from deep shadowy powder to sunny groomed slopes to spring-like patches of aspen trees to steep rocky faces attracting suicidal snowboarder jumps and maneuvers.

When sitting in the quad lift speeding to the top – aptly named with fast sounding names like Express or Gadzoom – I couldn’t help but feel like a hunter in the forest on the lookout for fast moving creatures swooshing through the trees and trying to “shoot” them with digital photos.

Time flies when you’re having fun, and all too soon we had our last run at around 1:00pm. It was sad to stow the skis away midday given good conditions in a great resort pratcically empty that day – most people were back in the office today on Monday…

We had to say good-bye to this winter playground, but we pretty much vowed to return again. There is more fun to be had here for future winters. We were glad we had done the heattrick of three resorts in three consecutive days. We had skied and seen more terrain than I had in the last couple of years combined. For me it was a first in many regards: First skiing in 2004, first in Utah, first with helmet, first time flying someplace for the sole purpose of skiing.

We returned to Salt Lake City to return the rented skis and also to have Matt pick up some trekking boots he had discount-ordered at a nearby warehouse through the Internet. Finally we bought some snack for lunch, headed for the airport and returned the rental car. Everything continued to go according to plan, and we checked in for the first leg of our return flight. The sun came out at places and painted bright spots into the white landscape of the Salt Lake City basin, as we climbed out over the mountain ranges to the East.

Later we enjoyed a Starbucks coffee during the layover in Denver while reviewing the pictures of the last three days. I think you can tell from the smiles on our faces that we were quite satisfied with this trip.

We couldn’t think of anything we would do different were we to repeat this trip in the future. Although tired, we were very happy with the last couple of days and literally a thousand miles away from the day-to-day routine. Thinking of the next morning, when your colleagues in the office greet you with: So what have you done this weekend?