Snow and Go
Wednesday, December 26, 2001
My computer is taunting me. "Winter Storm Warning in Utah," reads an e-mail from My-Cast.com, a weather notification service that sends daily forecasts and as-needed storm bulletins for my locations of choice. "Accumulations of 18-30 inches expected with locally higher amounts possible."
Well, I asked for it. As an incurable alpine skiing addict with a strong bias toward Utah, I have directed My-Cast to keep me apprised of the weather in the ski-heaven Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City. Never mind that I live in D.C., a 40-hour drive from the Wasatch, or that the fresh powder I so maniacally crave may not last more than a few days after it falls. It's not like I can just jump out West to ski on a few days notice, right?
Hmmmm . . . The above bulletin arrives Friday, Nov. 30, signaling the latest in a series of storms that left 10 feet of snow in the Wasatch in one week, a welcome pounding after an unusually arid fall.
I tilt back in my office chair, envisioning the craggy pitches of Alta and Snowbird, two of my favorite Utah ski mountains, swimming in snow. Surfing over to a ski chat room, I see that the weather has not only erased skittish whispers of an Olympiad on mud and a disastrous ski season, but suddenly has locals talking about the most prolific early-season snow onslaught on record.
Even more notably, Pacific storms are sweeping down from the Bering Sea like blitzing linebackers; snow is forecast in Utah for the next five days. That is the final straw.
First stop: Southwest.com, where I learn that Southwest Airlines has a 6:55 a.m. daily nonstop flight from BWI to Salt Lake City that would have me on the ground at 9:45 a.m. and, barring delays, skiing by noon. Let me repeat that: Wake up in Washington, ski Utah by noon. Plus, the carrier has a daily nonstop that leaves Salt Lake at 3 p.m. and lands at BWI by 9. Final test: Seats were still available in the lowest fare block -- $216 to $271 round trip -- for the next weekend.
Next stop: Google.com, where a search for "lodging in Snowbird and Alta" yields an eye-popping early-season rate of $160 a night for a ski-in/ski-out four-bunk condo on the ridge between the two resorts. Alta and Snowbird sit on opposite sides of one mountain, Mount Baldy; their parking lots are less than a mile apart, and it is possible to ski from one resort into the other (in fact, there is now a single Alta-Snowbird lift ticket that allows skiers to bound over the ridge without having to worry about hiking back to the lifts that they paid for).
Last stop: Smartpages.com, an online phone book, where I find the number for Lewis Bros. Stages, which shuttles skiers from the Salt Lake airport straight to the resort of their choice. No rental car required.
A flurry of phone calls and 30 minutes later, I've recruited four friends and booked every segment of a four-day getaway from D.C. (a trip that could easily be done in three days, if we weren't such greedy skiers). Cost and travel time: Not much more than a weekend escape to West Virginia.
Thursday, Dec. 6, noon Utah time, and seven hours after departing BWI: We are standing atop Snowbird, one hamstring stretch away from our first run of the season. Per the script, snow fell all week and the steep, severe mountains around us are caked in white. Dominating our view, across Little Cottonwood Canyon, is the 11,132-foot Mount Superior, a daunting, near-vertical cathedral of skyward-reaching rock and snow. Not your typical vision of a weekend escape from D.C.
And, as if to punctuate the phenomenal convenience of our plan, the clouds part briefly and we see the edge of Salt Lake City peeking through the mouth of the V-shaped canyon, 12 miles of twisty road below us. The drive from the airport had taken 45 minutes.
Snowbird is merciless, sharp and steep for all of its 3,200 vertical feet. Its efficient lift system is crowned by a 138-person aerial tram that climbs the mountain in eight minutes. We ski tram laps all afternoon. By 4 p.m. my quads are quivering, and I am craving beer and sandwiches. It is also snowing. Hard. Again.