On and Off the Slopes, Over the Top - Cindy Hirschfield [The New York Times]
April 4, 2008
IT started with-the cheesecake. We were at the cafeteria in Earl's Lodge, a sumptuous
timber building at the bottom of the Snowbasin ski resort in Utah, meaning to grab a latte and some muffins before heading up the mountain. But as we approached the counter, my husband's eyes grew wide.
"What is that" he asked, pointing at a concoction of cake, raspberry-streusel topping and whipped cream worthy of a Parisian patisserie. So much for the basic breakfast bagel.
We ate in the cafeteria dining area, which was richly appointed with thick carpeting, upholstered chairs and gold-plated, Baroquestyle chandeliers so large that they were almost funny. Then we went out to ski the hike-to chutes and extensive steeps that we fondly remembered from a previous visit.
Snowbasin is like that. The ski area, 33 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, has over-the-top facilities and over-the-top terrain. Kevin Stauffer, a guest services coordinator, said the resort had an unofficial motto: "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing."
That piece of cheesecake also indicates the change that has gradually come to Snowbasin. When the 2002 Winter Olympics were awarded to Salt Lake City in 1995, and Snowbasin was picked to play host to six Alpine races, the upgrades began in earnest. Earl Holding, who also owns Sinclair Oil and the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho, poured $100 million into improvements, including a new access road and a modern snowmaking system. Two baseag-ea buildings and a pair of onmountain restaurants went up. A new lift system, with two gondolas,, a tram and a high-speed quad, was strung into place.
Hotels and condos are planned, too. Mr. Holding owns about two square miles at the base of Snowbasin, acquired in 1996 through a land swap with the United States Forest Service, and the resort is working on a master plan for development.
Unlike other resorts that have lavish on-mountain amenities but so-so skiing, Snowbasin has expert terrain that is on a par with higher-profile areas like Taos or Crested Butte. Real skiers come here, not just people who like to dine or shop against a steep and snowy backdrop.
In fact, you pretty much have to ski or plan to learn to want to visit the resort, unless you're happy wliing away the day beside one of the six 6replaces in Earl's Lodge. There are no hotels or condos at the base. No pricey boutiques and, aside from a tubing hill and a small Nordic trail system, no distractions from the downhill skiing. The nearest lodging is 10 minutes away by car.
That's partly why, when compared with other Utah ski areas like Snowbird, Deer Valley and Park City, Snowbasin still lies below the radar at many out-ofstate skiers and snowboarders. Location is another factor. The drive from Salt Lake City takes all of 45 minutes, but the seven resorts even closer to the city tend to siphon off skiers eager to get first dibs on Utah's dry, light snow. And as recently as eight years ago, those who braved the old windy road from Ogden Valley to Snowbasin were greeted by little more than an aging skierservices building adjacent to a parking lot.
Opened in 1940, Snowbasin is one of the country's oldest ski areas. The resort plugged along for 40-some years, under various owners, with minimal change. That pattern began to change in 1984, when Mr. Holding bought the ski area, which was then nearly bankrupt.
No matter the amenities, though, the terrain has always been there. Nearly 3,000 acres of seemingly endless bowls, svelte chutes, powder-filled glades and wide-open cruisers are draped below a ridge punctuated by six distinct peaks. Both no-holdsbarred skiers and those who prefer their thrills in moderation have plenty to explore. The mountain is open to interpretation rewarding, especially, those who seek out skiable lines beyond the 113 runs marked on the trail map. And while the feeding frenzy at the Salt Lake resorts depletes the supply of untracked powder by noon, at best, Snowbasin skiers who rarely top 4,000 on a weekend day and number even fewer on weekdays can find fresh stashes days after a storm.
On a Saturday morning at the end of January, my husband and I, perhaps spurred on by that cheesecake, began our day with a ride up the Needles Express eight-person gondola. Eight minutes later, we were just below the Needles, a series of toothy rock spires that march up a ridge to a 9,000-foot summit.
We skied a succession of groomed runs punctuated by short forays onto powdery side hills back to the base and hopped the John Paul quad and then the Mount Allen tram, which has cars that resemble giant soup cans. After taking in the expansive vista off the ski area's backside the town of Ogden spread out below, and Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada in the distance we bypassed the Olympic men's downhill course and its near-vertical start in favor of a fiveminute hike to the top of No Name Peak.
The trails that spill off Mount Allen and No Name, on the ski area's northeastern edge, are the expert skier's bread and butter: up to 2,800 vertical feet of ungroomed terrain that weaves in and out of trees, under and over rock outcroppings and across gullies. It was where we found patches of boot-deep powder, too, though it had been four days since the last storm.
Thanks to an efficient lift system (Ski magazine rated Snowbasin tops in lifts last year in its annual reader survey), it doesn't take long to get from one side of the resort to the other. Before lunch we also took a few runs on Snowbasin's southwestern end, where long expert and intermediate trails trace the contours of a treeless, diamond-shaped area below Strawberry Peak and an adjacent ridge. Picture part of the Back Bowls of Vail, minus a few hundred people.
For lunch, we stopped at the on-mountain Needles Lodge, where the cafeteria features Bavarian-style dishes. The lower level, with overstuffed chairs and a fireplace, resembles a hotel lobby. Lunch was generous portions of schnitzel and spaetzle, and for a moment we were lulled into thinking we were at a swanky club until we spotted a few skiers as they hop-turned down Lone Tree, an elevator-shaft chute etched into the face opposite the lodge. The spell broken, we headed back out.
The luxe factor was nice, but it was the skiing, after all, that we were really there for. Fancy chandeliers and powder that stays pristine for days on end.
Cindy Hirschfield [The New York Times]