It's the most beautiful four
letter word in the English language, ALTA.
I was there once before, in 1984, on my first western trip.
At the time I looked in one of the lodges at the base. They
are traditional, the rooms are a little bit spartan, yet there
is everything a skier could want or need, great food, great ambience,
and location at the base of what may be the best ski area in
America. I vowed to stay there some day. There are other great
places of different character than Alta but none are better.
I know because after that '84 trip I decided to do a different
western place on every trip, and have now seen and skied almost
all of them. It was time to fulfill my vow.
I was registered for a Snowboard course at
Okemo, VT, but on the preceding Wed. there was still no snow
at Okemo. I had a free round trip ticket on Southwest Airlines
which flies from Baltimore to Salt Lake City. It would be so
easy. I booked it. Then I surfed the web for information on
the 5 lodges located at the base of Alta. They sit on the only
5 places that are not known to be in slide paths. I booked into
the Alta Peruvian Lodge for Dec. 9-15 at off season rates. It
was $150/day for a bed, 3 meals, a lift ticket and free shuttle
rides to any of the base areas. I knew I'd made the right choice
when the girl asked if I was without a car and, "may I reserve
a van ride for you?" I already knew that Alta had received
200 inches of snow since Thanksgiving Day. Nothing to do but
ski, eat, sleep for the next five days. This was going to be
good. The lodge is only 30 miles from SLC International Airport
and I arrived on Sun. evening just in time for dinner. The food
was not just good, it was sensational. I doubt you could do
better in any restaurant in Utah.
After dinner I got a call from PattiMac, a
friend from VT skiing who now lives in Utah. It hadn't snowed
more than 12" for 3 days in a row and some of the locals
complained that the groomed slopes were "crunchy".
They can feel free to call me any time conditions are that bad.
Patti was a delightful guide who did not mind frequent stops
to chat that enabled me to catch my breath. This was day one
from sea level and the lodge where I slept is at 8400 ft. with
the summits at near 11,000. We skied 5 of the chair lifts and
ended the afternoon skiing in the trees under the Germania lift
in deep lightly tracked powder.
I rediscovered all the great things about
Alta, that it is huge, that you see only 10% of it from the lodge,
that it is rugged and beautiful, that it reveals some of it's
ski secrets readily and hides others extremely well (Alta
trail map). Alta limits their ticket sales and the old slow
lifts insure that the slopes are never crowded. Nobody minds;
skiing like this is worth an occasional wait in a lift line.
Typically weekdays are not crowded at all and particularly so
in early December. There were 5 empty chairs for every one that
had a fanny in it. There are a lot of traverses and catwalks
to get to places and a lot of hidden powder stashes. The Alta
skier likes exploring. You come to Alta to ski. If you want
to ski and party, go somewhere else, ski and shop, go somewhere
else, ski and be seen, go somewhere else. Despite, or maybe
because of all this Alta is the only ski area in America that
has never lost money. They have finished in the black every
season for more than 60 years.
Alta remains a shrine, where you come to worship
mountains and snow and do a little skiing. In the 19th century
it was a silver mining town with a population of 10,000. The
mines played out and Alta became a ghost town, then was revived
in 1938 when skiing legend Alf Engen told a bunch of SLC businessmen
that yes, the mine shafts could be covered up and this would
be a good place to ski. He died a year or two ago at age 90.
A wooden bust of Alf, proudly wearing his ski instructor's pin,
stands at the entrance to the dining room at the Peruvian. I
rubbed his head for luck in the morning. Alta today reports
a permanent population of 407.
Tuesday morning I awoke to the sound of artillery,
my favorite ski country alarm clock. The ski patrol was shooting
down cornices formed by the wind overnight so that skiers would
be safe from avalanches. I had noted in '84 that Alta seems
to open their slide prone terrain before any of the other dozen
or so Utah areas will open similar slopes. A local explained
it. They have been doing this for 60 years. They have an intimate
knowledge of the terrain, to the point where they know every
avalanche trigger point, and just how much snow, wind, and wind
direction it takes to prime it for trouble. Their safety record
bears out their skill. On Thursday opening ceremonies would
be held for the new Mineral Basin area that connects Alta and
Snowbird. You can ski into the basin from either area and there
is one lift going up to Alta and one to Snowbird. For 4 years
before this opening the Alta Ski Patrol trained on, and did avalanche
control work in this area. There is now a combined Alta/Snowbird
lift ticket allowing you to ski both areas in one day connecting
through Mineral Basin.
I didn't get to Mineral Basin nor any of the
more famous steep runs off the High Traverse. The skies were
gray and the light was flat from Tuesday morning through Friday.
On the few occasions when I ventured into high treeless areas
I got a touch of vertigo when the line between snow and sky disappeared.
I tend to be conservative when skiing alone and Sunspot was
as far out the High Traverse as I went. However I love skiing
in the trees where the snow is soft and the trees provide contrast
and reference. I discovered the "Wildcat trees" a
beautiful area that seems to be skied only by a handful of locals
and ignored by everyone else. There are some narrow chutes in
those trees that are at least as steep as anything on the mountain.
The powder and the privacy were wonderful and I often could
stop for 5 minutes at a time and hear and see nobody. There
are 10,000 ways to ski those trees, taking different knolls,
drops, a jog to the left here and to the right there. I spent
about 2 1/2 days riding the Wildcat lift over and over again.
It was the best snow on the mountain and much of it was untracked.
On most of Thursday and Friday I skied with
Brad, who was also staying at the Peruvian. He is young and
single and works for a bank in Minneapolis. He was wondering
if life might be a little nicer someplace else that has banks
and also steep slopes with snow. A sweet young thing at the
shuttle stop told him that Wells Fargo Bank is headquartered
in SLC and I could hear the wheels start turning in his head.
Go west young man!
On Friday morning the long promised storm
had finally arrived. Flurries at breakfast soon turned into
1-2/hour snow with a howling wind. Even in the first hour
the drifts were deep along the tree lines and my secret stashes
were in perfect shape. At worst we had to go a mere 100 yards
in the open before finding the first tree, then drop down a convex
slope into the lee of the wind and thigh deep powder.
On the shuttle ride up to Albion we met another
Alta person. This place is full of people who would look ordinary
in a business environment, but they are not ordinary at all.
She was a small slight woman with a 60 pound pack sitting beside
her on the seat. She was going to ride the Albion lift, then
hike up 1000 feet in a white out blizzard to a cabin owned by
friends. She had provisions for a week and Christmas presents
for the friends she was going to meet there. The cabin itself,
which we did not see, was formerly the general store of one of
the mining camps and they had renovated it. Lest you think
this is hard core, the previous evening when we had shared the
large outdoor hot tub with a bunch of the lodge employees, we
discovered that among 5 of them they knew 4 different people
who had spent a whole winter living in snow caves so they could
ski at Alta. The folks who work at Alta are the most cheerful
and helpful people you can imagine, and why not. They are young,
fit, beautiful, and they are at Alta with 3 meals and a lift
ticket. Unlike so many ski areas I did not see any social barriers
or pretensions between the guests and the employees. The guests
that I met at meals almost without exception put my ski resume
to shame, and I have done a lot of skiing in a lot of places.
One woman, who looked comfortably less than 50, was on a 28
year streak of skiing at Alta and staying at the Peruvian. Half
the guests had multiple helicopter skiing weeks under their belts.
It was common to find people who had skied St. Anton, Chamonix,
Zermatt, the Dolomites, etc.
The last run of the week was the one I will
remember forever. All day long the Sunnyside lift had been open
and the Albion lift closed. Albion goes a bit higher and under
the top section is a beautiful round dome where we had watched
snow devils swirling. We could have climbed for it but were
spoiled by the goods that we could reach with no climbing. We
caught one of the first chairs and asked the liftie at the top
if it was open. He waved his hand and said, Its
all yours. Three turns into the run the wind suddenly
gusted to about 50 mph, a rising river of snow swept over the
surface, and I was lost in a white room. Not to panic, I just
kept making turns. The wind subsided, vision returned, and I
saw a roostertail of powder plus big chunks of windcrust streaming
out to the sides, as I ripped big sweeping turns down the convex
dome. To the left, Brad let out a primal scream. Further down,
I found a new slot through the trees. The deep snow was as smooth
as silk as I cut a sinuous line down a 10 ft. wide swath under
overhanging green boughs. Halfway down I flushed a snowshoe
hare that bounded away through the trees. I vowed to return
Photo credits: Top photo by John Lichtwrdt.
Three photo series of John Lee by Linda Peer.
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