Cotton for Soft Powder? Head to Utah - Brian Metzler [Rocky Mountain News]
March 4, 2007
I'm sound asleep in the cozy confines of rustic Alta Lodge on a mid-December morning when I'm jolted awake by the indisputable sound of an avalanche bomb thundering in the distance.
When I see that it's only 6:49 a.m., I realize my late-night wish came true. It's another powder day at Alta Ski Area.
Thanks to frequent avalanche control work on snowy mornings, you don't need an alarm clock when you're staying at the Alta Lodge. Located just a few hundred yards from the ski area's main base spot at the top of sparsely populated Little Cottonwood Canyon, it's the ideal perch for an ambitious powder hound.
Eager to get started, I get dressed, enjoy a light breakfast and patiently wait for the lifts to start churning at 9. By the time I get outside at 8:30, there already are 200 people as geeked as I am about the 13 inches of new powder, so I opt for the smaller line for the shorter Wildcat lift instead of the summit express Collins quad with everyone else.
I'm so excited on the first ride up, I almost get nauseous looking at all of the untracked powder below me. But once I start bounding through the abundant mounds of snow - literally one face shot after another - I lose track of time, which run I'm skiing and even the whereabouts of my wife.
Although its snow is legendary, Alta lacks - and actually resists - most of the fancy amenities like those at Utah's bigger destination resorts such as The Canyons, Deer Valley or even neighboring Snowbird. It only upgraded its primary Collins chair lift from a slow-moving two-seater to a high- speed quad a couple of seasons ago.
But it more than makes up for the lack of a base village, fancy restaurants and massive terrain parks with a pure skiing experience at a relatively affordable price.
Alta has 116 trails spread over 2,300 acres of terrain, including dozens of fun, high-angle shots accessible with easy traverses off lift-served runs. There are plenty of blue cruisers to keep intermediates happy, and for the most ambitious powder junkies, Alta also has loads of hike-to terrain with wide-open bowls and steep chutes.
Plus, Alta is one of North America's few holdouts that still doesn't allow snowboarding. I'm not about to make any cracks against snowboarding because I'm typically on a board one out of every three or four days I'm on snow.
But on a powder day at Alta, loose snow doesn't slough off the steeps nearly as fast as it does at board-friendly resorts.
To top it off, lift tickets are only $52, a bargain when you consider there are plenty of resorts (in Utah and Colorado) with single-day tickets that top $75 this winter.
Because of all that, Alta attracts a unique blend of hard-core skiers, from bearded old-schoolers in outdated gear to purist telemarkers earning their turns to the young hucksters on superfat boards. It's similar in that way to Arapahoe Basin, only five times bigger and with six rustic lodges at its base.
"This is the life - skiing insane powder all day," said Alta local Bryan Childers, who works as a ski technician, bartender, valet, bellman and busboy at one of the lodges. "I basically work early in the morning, go out and ski for about five or six hours, work again at night and go to bed and do it all over again the next day."
Wearing a pair of widebody Volkl Gotama skis, Childers, 23, is in the young huckster category. He grew up in Durango but has lived in Crested Butte, Jackson, Wyo., and Alta, since finishing college.
"I make just enough money to get by, and it's pretty weak when it comes to the social scene because there aren't many women that live up here," Childers said. "But I'm willing to sacrifice all of that for the season."
Several other people I meet on chair-lift rides are transplanted Coloradans living in the greater Salt Lake City area. All seem to have an affinity for their former skiing grounds but none are disappointed where they are now.
It doesn't hurt that this seemingly remote canyon is 30 minutes from Salt Lake City and much closer from its south suburbs.
There is more than enough terrain at Alta for a three-day weekend of skiing, especially when there is new snow.
But with open borders to Snowbird along Alta's southern and western flanks, scratching up $71 for an AltaSnowbird Day Pass is well worth it.
Snowbird has 2,500 acres of terrain to explore, including 500 adventurous acres in its Mineral Basin back bowl. With large, modern lodges, 12 restaurants, a snowboarding-friendly environment, several high-speed quad lifts and a massive aerial tram, Snowbird is almost the antithesis of Alta.
Except for the fact that it also gets 500 inches of snow of legendary snow every winter.
I enjoyed my epic weekend of powder in Little Cottonwood Canyon and was sorry to have to leave with another storm on the way. But with the ease of accessibility to the Denver area and cheap flights, I knew I'd be back soon.
"It's all about the snow," said Kent Hyden, 24, a former Western State College student and Crested Butte resident who lives in Utah and ranks Alta and Snowbird at the top of his list. "I love Colorado and have a lot of friends there, but I live here because of the snow."
Plenty of options
Alta boasts 116 trails spread over 2,300 acres of terrain. From blue cruisers for intermediates to plenty of hike-to terrain with wide-open bowls and steep chutes for the more ambitious, Alta has something for everyone.
Well, everyone except snowboarders. Alta is one of the few holdout areas that still doesn't allow snowboarding.
But it's not all about the copious terrain. Alta has an annual snowfall of about 500 inches. It doesn't get just any snow; the ski area is famous for its light snow.
Alta and Snowbird are 29 miles from Salt Lake City International Airport, which makes it easy to get a full day of skiing after a morning flight. On a separate trip to Utah, I left my house for DIA at 5:45 a.m., boarded a 7:55 a.m. flight to Salt Lake City and clicked into my bindings at Alta before 10 a.m. After a day at Alta and Snowbird, I returned to Salt Lake City, had dinner at the airport and boarded a flight to DIA at 7:35 p.m. I was back home and asleep by 10:30 p.m.
• Fly: United, Frontier and Delta fly direct 70-minute flights to Salt Lake City from DIA. A search on Orbitz.com showed mid-March round-trip flights ranging from $133 to $166.
• Shuttle: Don't rent a car. Take the 35-mile Alta Shuttle bus service from Salt Lake City International Airport to Alta and Snowbird ($28 one way; $52 round trip; AltaShut tle.com). Shuttles leave the airport every 20 to 30 minutes.
• Planning: Alta offers free skiing on its Sunnyside lift from 3-4:30 p.m. every day. The Sunnyside lift accesses three short green runs, two short blue runs, one steep black run and Alta's only terrain park. Visit Alta.com for more details.
In December, Snowbird opened a 600-foot tunnel through its summit into the Mineral Basin back bowl terrain. The first of its kind in North America, the 12-foot-by-10-foot tunnel houses a conveyor belt that leads skiers and riders through the mountain in 4 minutes.
Why a tunnel? It was developed in conjunction with an updated high-speed quad into the Peruvian Gulch area to create an alternative to waiting for the aerial tram and to give access to intermediate terrain without the many switchbacks and a steep run off the tram summit.
Some of the best terrain in Utah is located out of bounds. The Ski Utah Interconnect Adventure Tour offers advanced skiers the chance to experience some of the backcountry terrain of the Wasatch Mountain Range while connecting six of Utah's resorts. For $195, a skier can join a daily guided ski tour that weaves in and around Snowbird, Alta, Solitude, Brighton, Park City and Deer Valley resorts. Telemark or alpine touring gear is highly recommended but not mandatory; snowboarding is not allowed because of some of the tedious traverses. The cost includes guides, lunch, lift tickets and transportation to the starting point. Visit SkiUtah.com for more details.
Brian Metzler [Rocky Mountain News]