Skiing the best snow on Earth: Park City, Alta, and Snowbird

They have been at the top of my “must ski” list for a long time. Park City, Utah was rated fifth best ski resort in the Western United States by Ski Magazine in 2006. Nearby Alta and Snowbird average 500 inches a year of fluffy, dry powder. Alta is considered to have the most reliable, high-quality ski snow in the world, and was ranked Number One by Outside Magazine in October 2008 for snow and terrain.Snowbird ski4 Feb 2014

To say I was exceptionally eager to ski these three ski playgrounds was putting it mildly.

Despite the reputation, I grew worried as our trip date approached. A good quantity of snow fell at the first of the month, but not a single flake had fallen for three weeks. Would our timing be awful again for a ski trip??

Fortunately, there was justice in the world – at least for me on this trip. The day before my arrival, a foot of light, fluffy, soft powder falls on the Utah resorts we intend to ski.

Flying into Salt Lake City from Denver, our plane arrives at sunset, which provided an exceptionally scenic view of the Great Salt Lake, which appeared to be glowing orange as the sun set on it. And despite my living on the front range of the Colorado Rockies, I was surprised by the big, bold impressiveness of the large mountains that surround the Salt Lake Valley on all sides.

As I drive from the airport to my hotel on Interstate 80 and Interstate 15, I notice immediately that Salt Lake City if afflicted with highway GIGANTISM. The interstates are ten to twelve lanes in size. Of course, the ungodly amount of public money that was spent to build these HUGE monster roads did nothing to avert congestion in the region. Indeed, they did the reverse: We know from studies that these massive highways INDUCE new car trips that would not have occurred previously, which means that the Federal and State governments have spent ruinously large amounts of public money to create massive congestion every single day during the morning and evening rush hours. On my first day there, I felt extreme stress, unease, and anger. I was in fear for my life due to the crazy, high-speed jockeying of all the cars on the regional superhighways.

Every day, twice a day, commuters in the area must put up with the huge dose of stress and fright. How do they do it? How do they avoid high blood pressure? Do their relationships with friends and spouses suffer from the daily psychological damage? Is the region better off now that so many new car trips and suburban sprawl have been induced by the 14-laners?

Unfortunately for my Florida ski buddy, he loses a day in arriving, because his flight is canceled due to winter weather. And it is NOT weather in snowy Utah. It is weather in normally sunny and warm Florida.

As I head out to the car from my hotel room in Sandy, Utah on the first morning, stormy weather is still making itself felt in Utah. I come upon another skier who sees me with my gear. He asks what my plans are. I tell him I’m going to ski Alta. He informs me that the Alta website is reporting that the access road is only allowing four-wheel drive cars and cars with chains. I have a small, two-wheel drive rental car. Oops.

Park City6 UT ski Jan 2014Good thing I have run into him. On his advice, I opt for Plan B on the first day, then. Despite no prior plans to do so, I decide to drive out to Park City – a world-class resort I’ve long wanted very much to ski.

My first day at Park City is superb. A large number of exciting runs to choose from, including a healthy selection of tree glades, which are almost exclusively my ski preference these days. Because I am skiing alone, I’m getting on and off ski lifts much faster than I would if I had a ski companion. So on this first day, I ski an astonishing 22 runs – including two under the lights (I made a deliberate decision to ski the resort into the night hours to avoid the crushing highway congestion). Best-ever powder (much of it virgin, untouched powder – secret stash conditions) and tree glades I’ve ever skied. Favorite run: Motherlode Meadows. I get a good taste of Park City, and enjoy it enough to want to perhaps return some day. Here are photos I shot at Park City.

To further delay my return to avoid the rush hour frenzy, I stop at Squatters brew pub for some food and excellent oatmeal stout.

I was later to be reminded that I had once seen that the Canyons ski resort is top-rated for tree glades, and since I did not have an opportunity to sample Canyons at all, there is even more reason for me to consider Utah skiing again.

I pick up my friend that night at one in the morning at the airport. For his first day, we learn that the Alta access road is accessible, so we head there. It is my first experience at Alta. After a pretty good day of skiing, my impressions of Alta is that the resort, while in many ways good, has too many runs that are too easy, and too many that are too Alta ski resort6 Feb 2014difficult. Several chutes/gullies are found here, which I personally enjoy. But on this first day, we find tree glades to be too sparse and too small (in contrast to Park City).

In addition, too many runs require an uphill hike to access.

Given the disappointing features, we decide to sample neighboring Snowbird the next day. We don’t make the decision lightly, as we had just bought a four-consecutive-day lift ticket for Alta, and skiing Snowbird requires us to pay another $30.

As it turned out, our first day at Snowbird was substantially more enjoyable than our first day at Alta. Rather steep like Alta, but the tree glades and chute runs we find are much more to our liking. We enjoy several “dream” tree glade runs (some of our best-ever glade runs) in the secret stashes we discover. The deep powder we find at Snowbird is so forgiving that we find it irresistible to ski even impossibly steep runs (knowing we can control our speed in the powder). We are, in fact, often skiing runs we have no business being on, as they are normally runs that only extreme expert skiers have any hope of surviving.

For the entire day, it snows on us heavily (a first for me as a skier), despite weather forecasts of zero to ten percent chance of snow. As a result, we were essentially “skiing by Braille,” as our vision was so severely limited that we could not see hardly anything in front of us. In addition to the blinding snow, my 16-year old ski goggles (bought at Panorama Ski Resort in Canada) decide to reach the end of their useful life on this day. The scratches on the lens and the loss of ventilated padding (which is thereby regularly filling my goggles with snow), in combination with the snow, gives me the sensation that I’m skiing blindfolded. Not good for a skier like me, who needs to ski at high speeds and in tree glades that require lightning reaction speeds.

I make the call to end our ski day earlier than we had planned, as it becomes apparent that it is just way too dangerous for me to ski without reasonable vision.

We had started our day at Snowbird on their famous aerial tram, which is somewhat disconcerting. The tram moves at a relatively fast speed, is elevated to an unusually tall height, and delivers skiers to the somewhat scary upper reaches of the mountain. This is particularly true for us, as newcomers to the resort, not at all knowing if skiable runs awaited us at the tram summit. Adding to the anxiety, we are positioned at the front of the tram, and at an open window as the tram cuts through bitter cold wind, fog and snow on its way up.

Given the harrowing tram experience, we opt not to return to that lift.

Mike Byerly after sliding down a chute at Snowbird ski Feb 2014We opt for a second consecutive day at Snowbird the next morning (and the $30 added fee). We are thrilled to discover spectacular tree glades. And the combination of brand new ski goggles (which provided what seemed like my best-ever vision while skiing) and the soft, deep powder gives me, by far, the most confidence I have ever felt as a skier. It is no wonder that deep, fresh powder is sometimes called “ego snow,” as I felt invicible. Without fear. Like I was suddenly an expert skier. No matter how impossibly steep or tight the run looked, I found that I opted to ski it without hesitation (runs that just a few weeks ago would have seemed impossible). Cutting fast through big moguls was done with joy and ease. It is said that one must look relatively far ahead (rather than what is immediately in front of you) to best ski moguls and trees. With my big confidence on this day, I find that I’m looking ahead without thinking about it. After all, I have no fear that I will be negotiating what is dead ahead.

My favorite runs at Snowbird? Tiger Tail, Primrose Path, and Black Forest. Favorite runs at Alta? Nina’s Curve,  Westward Ho.

Plenty of soft, fluffy powder in the trees. Steep and deep. Learned that fresh powder means the skier can ski fearlessly. We didn’t hesitate to do runs that would have seemed impossibly extreme in the past. I never felt so confident or so skilled as a skier. It is said that Utah resorts get the best snow on earth. We can now see why.

Overall, as I look back at our Utah skiing, I would say that the skiing is excellent. Both Alta and Snowbird, however, Snowbird ski8 Feb 2014are relatively skimpy when it comes to providing signage for runs. We often had to guess where to go. Both resorts have outrageously steep runs, and the skier is often surprised to find himself looking at a cliff dead ahead. Both are intimidating when you drive into the canyon and arrive at the main parking, as the very steep mountains loom over and around you menacingly. And, unfortunately, both Alta and Snowbird require far too much poling and hiking to reach a number of runs.

Nevertheless, they are both world-class, and I recommend them for other skiers. Photos I shot at Snowbird are here. Photos I shot at Alta are here.

Our last day in the Salt Lake City region is a needed day of rest and healing from our days of rather aggressive, bruising, exhausting skiing. We spend the day sightseeing in Salt Lake City. Once again, the unbelievably huge roadways and confusingly gigantic intersections boggle my mind. Shocking. And as a colleague says, great opportunities for “road diets” (removing travel and turn lanes to improve the obese sizes).

As is typically the case, I’m only interested in visiting the historic areas of the city. Like most all cities, the more recent areas of the urban area are sickeningly car-happy or afflicted by modernist buildings, which leaves placelessness that has no charm. There is no “there there” in such a post-apocalyptic setting.

Fortunately, the modernists and conventional traffic engineers have not yet destroyed areas in or near the “temple square” area, where walkable neighborhoods and charmingly gothic buildings are in relative abundance. Our timing allows us to enjoy the daily noon organ performance at the impressive Mormon Tabernacle building.

Tabernacle2 Salt Lake City Feb 2014

I find Salt Lake City to be somewhat creepy and awkward. Why? Because while walking around in the town center, one frequently gets the impression that locals you meet have a hidden agenda. That the happy, friendly persona I encounter from locals I come upon is ARTIFICIALLY happy and friendly because the local knows happy and friendly people are more likely to persuade non-locals to consider the merits of Mormonism. Proselytization, in other words, seems to be just under the surface of those you meet — and seems to be something you will eventually be subjected to in the conversation.

We also visit the exceptionally charming, gothic “city and county building,” which has lovely faces in each of the four directions it faces. The county courthouse across the street is also worth visiting to at least enjoy the front lobby area.

On the grounds of the city/county building, we find, happily, a secular monument – a surprise in such an obviously and aggressively religious community. The monument reads: “I pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, for liberty and justice for all.” No mention of the relatively recent, religiously degrading and unfair “UNDER GOD.” My hat is off to the City

We visit the Utah State Capitol Building, which sits desolately up on a hill far from any other buildings (or even trees). The inside of the building is magnificent. Do not miss it. We get a tour of Brigham Young’s “Beehive” house. The beehives are seen all over Salt Lake City, and are a symbol of industriousness.

Temple Square5 Salt Lake City Feb 2014A great many monuments, statues of people, water features, and public art are dispersed throughout the city.

As a grand finale, we enjoy great glasses of beer at the Red Rocks brewpub, and have an interesting chat with the pub brewmaster, who generously provides us with a delicious bottle of his Russian Imperial Stout (10.2 percent alcohol).

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Categories: 2011-Present, Skiing, Utah | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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