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Peak Conditions
Sleek or Scruffy Slopes? In Utah, Take Your Pick.

By William Triplett
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 30, 2008

You don't often see ski resorts reflecting a town's dueling cultural influences, especially in Utah, which was founded almost exclusively by people of like minds and hearts.

But Mormon pioneers were not alone in settling Ogden, 35 miles north of Salt Lake City. Outsiders had an equal, and a most unwelcome, hand in the process.

Therein lies a tale of how two approaches to skiing can coexist in one area, occasionally a little uneasily but pretty much always to the benefit of every skier, from bunny-slopers to black-diamond demons and beyond.

The resorts of Snowbasin and Powder Mountain (east and northeast of Ogden, respectively) are about 30 minutes by car from each other. Both offer a rich variety of terrain: bowls, chutes, glades, groomers and more.

Apart from that, however, the two might as well be in different states, if not countries. It has much to do with Ogden's unorthodox and lurid history, traces of which are still evident. Things are far quieter these days, but local lore has it that mobster Al Capone once said Ogden was too wild for his taste.

* * *

Call Snowbasin an exercise in splendor. I'm a fan of big, wide, empty groomers that lope, snake and dip endlessly amid sweeping vistas and then deliver you to a mostly line-free chairlift. With 113 trails chiseled into the sides of six adjoining peaks, Snowbasin had plenty of these when I was there last Presidents' Day weekend. That's right: One of the most popular ski holidays, and I never saw more than maybe a dozen people at any lift.

At 2,800 acres, the amount of skiable terrain is respectable, though not huge. (Park City Mountain Resort, in the not-too-distant Wasatch Range, has 3,300 acres.) The lack of crowds probably has more to do with the fact that Ogden just doesn't have the cachet of Park City, and I suspect Ogden's regulars hope it never does.

Snowbasin's views can be breathtaking, particularly when you pause after coming off the tram to Allen's Peak (the second highest, at 9,500 feet). Looking off the back end, you can survey Ogden laid out below; off different vectors, you can catch glimpses of Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming in the distance.

Experts and would-be racers gravitate to the top of Allen's Peak mostly for two reasons: First, that was the starting point of the 2002 Winter Olympics downhill events; second, ungroomed, deep-powder trails with nearly 3,000 feet of vertical are accessible.

Only double black diamonds, the real expert trails, run from the top of Allen's Peak, but about a quarter of the way down you can gently carve your way onto a big blue (or intermediate) cruising trail that lets you glide to the multiple intermediate trails of Mount Ogden, the next peak over. Or stay on the diamonds and dive-bomb your way down to the base of the resort. The toughest trail I like is a single black diamond, which is why, after a highly embarrassing start on the men's downhill, I set sail for Mount Ogden.

Despite its abundance of snow and trails, what distinguishes Snowbasin is the Euro-style grandeur of its amenities and the state-of-the-art efficiency of its on-mountain equipment. The latest lift system whisks you to the tops of Snowbasin's peaks, and high-powered snowmaking machinery provides amply when storms, on rare occasion, fail to. Restaurants sport polished marble and wood decor, and Earl's Lodge, at the base, boasts elegant stone fireplaces and Venetian glass chandeliers.

Don't bother looking for such luxury at Powder Mountain. Don't even look for snowmaking gear. Or more than one high-speed lift. Forget about radicchio in your salad. Forget about a salad.

Powder Mountain is old school: You come for the plentiful snow dumped only by clouds over 5,500 acres of skiable terrain with 114 trails. You can lunch at any of four eateries -- on such no-frills fare as grilled sandwiches and chili. Indeed, compared with Snowbasin, Powder Mountain is a picture of austere localism. But it has a unique beauty and lives up to its name.

Topping at 8,900 feet, Powder Mountain is not as high as Snowbasin but is more spread out, and its trails seem to go on forever. With its Lightning Ridge Snowcat ($12 gets you a ride up to otherwise inaccessible and usually virgin terrain) and special tours for expert skiers who thrive on occasionally knee-deep powder (Snowcat Powder Safari, $300 per person with guide and lunch), this place draws the hard-core. But it also has more beginners' trails than Snowbasin, and its plentiful intermediate slopes cut through spectacularly wooded areas and powder bowls.

Again, it was a holiday week, yet for almost the entire time I spent on Powder Mountain, it could have been a normal Monday. Almost every trail I hit had untouched snow. When I stopped I could hear the softest of breezes in the trees. Maybe I had drunk the Kool-Aid, but there was often a real feeling of skiing the wilderness. I could see why Skiing Magazine not too long ago described Powder Mountain as "Your Own Private Utah."

* * *

Why such a stark contrast?

This relatively small patch of land would probably have been the exclusive province of Mormon settlers in the 19th century had it not been for the transcontinental railroad, which was completed just outside Ogden in 1869. With the railroad came workers from across the country, some even from abroad, who established camp on the edge of town.

And with the workers came drinking, gambling and prostitution. Not to mention brawling, bootlegging and drug dealing.

Mormon leaders eventually succeeded in shutting down the tent city, but its denizens moved into downtown Ogden, along 25th Street, which is near the major train station that was built to accommodate the transcontinental railroad and another line that passed through the area.

Ogden became the crossroads of the West. Passengers, usually rich, traveling between San Francisco and Chicago often stopped to visit.

To accommodate those outsiders, pricey hotels, restaurants, shops and other establishments proliferated. The houses of far less repute were eventually closed around the time of Prohibition, but the deluxe trappings and well-heeled visitors continued to be central to Ogden.

Locals kept to themselves.

Today, the train station is more museum than anything else, and much of downtown Ogden looks a lot like any other simple Western town: Banks and businesses line the streets; the skyline is relatively low and square. Family-style dining abounds.

The once rough part of town, 25th Street, is now called Historic 25th Street. The frontier-style architecture remains; mountains rise dramatically in the distance, adding to the Old West atmosphere.

The illicit trades may be gone, but an outsider joie de vivre still prevails, mainly in the form of boutiques, restaurants and bars. My favorite was the City Club, a two-story watering hole that boasts an amazing collection of Beatles memorabilia. Obscure posters, photographs and prints of the Fab Four adorn nearly every inch of wall space along with all the usual LP covers and buttons. Throw in at least one autographed guitar (by Paul), Beatles wigs and, of course, Beatles music, and you feel as though you're in a time warp with a cool backbeat.

One day when I decided to give the skis a rest, I had what I like to think of as a quintessential Ogden experience. It started with an afternoon drive outside town, amid blocks of modest single-family homes and then into open, rolling, snow-covered countryside. Before heading back into town, I stopped in the Shooting Star Saloon, a holdover from Ogden's unruly past. Built in 1879, it's said to be the area's oldest joint, and it looks it: scarred, stained wood paneling, stuffed elk and moose and even a St. Bernard on the walls.

Back in town, I checked out the Salomon Center, a mega-sports-entertainment-plex for families. Want to surf in winter? You can at the center's indoor facility. Teenagers seemed to love it. Maybe you'd like to check out the feeling of anti-gravity: Step inside the wind tunnel and float for a couple of minutes.

A few blocks away stands Peery's Egyptian Theater, built in 1924 in the image of Grauman's Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, in authentic Egyptian Revival style. Despite a sometimes troubled history, Peery's is still operating, and at a high level. I caught an extraordinary performance that evening of the internationally renowned Paco Peña Flamenco Dance Company, which was on a U.S. tour.

Then I went to the City Club, where per state law I had to become a "member" in order to drink alcohol. The bartender sponsored me. Or was it the guy next to me?

Can't recall. I was too busy wondering what kind of crowd a Beatles concert would have drawn in Ogden.

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