The Colorado Rockies may offer more trails for skiers, but the Wasatch Range in Utah offers much more of that incredible white fluff called powder. In fact, nearly 500 inches of powder snow are dumped annually on Utah ski resorts.
Already this season, most of the state's resorts have been blanketed with plenty. With such favorable conditions early in the season, it looks like the resorts may be heading toward another good year, perhaps even surpassing last year's fairly sizable turnout.
Despite freezing temperatures during my recent trip to Utah, the slopes at three major resorts were packed with powder skiing enthusiasts. Powder skiers, it is rumored, are not easily deterred by such adverse conditions as blizzards or bitter cold. As long as there is plenty of that feathery light snow around, they will indulge. They claim it is the ultimate skiing experience.
Even at the risk of suffering torturous frosbite, powder skiers are known to make yet one more run solely to enjoy the feeling of floating through the soft-as-goose-down snow. For three days, I joined them in braving the elements. I tried to be as avid as any of them, but the bitter temperatures did deter me somewhat and forced me into the lodge more often than usual.
On my first day of skiing at Alta the sun was bright, the skies clear and the snow glistening. But temperatures were blustery: 12 degrees below zero at the top of the mountain, in the low teens at the base. A chilling wind swept across most runs. Nonetheless, skers dotted every slope and anxiously jumped up and down while waiting in 15-to-20-minute-long lift lines.
The area, which is renowned for its alpine runs and the region's best and most consistent snow, had a good 90-inch base. In the spring the new snow base reaches depths of up to 15 feet, enabling the resort (like most of Utah's ski areas) to remain open until May.
After a few cold runs, a few quick warm-ups inside the lodge, and a few more even colder runs, my frozen body and brittle face urged me to call it a day. After all, it might be warmer tomorrow.
The next day I tried Snowbird, one mile west of Alta in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Snowbird offers 1,900 acres of skiable terrain for all levels of ability, and, as the resort's motto proclaims, "Snowbird is for People Who Love Skiing."
With more than a 70-inch base, snow conditions were good on many runs, especially in the Gad Valley and throughout the Peruvian Bowls. However, situated a little more in the shade than Alta, Snowbird was even colder than its neighbor. Although the aerial tram provided some comfort, as soon as skiers stepped out onto 11,000-foot-high Hidden Peak, the shivering and shuddering began. Everyone left the Peak as quickly as possible. It was too unbearable to stand there for more than a few seconds. The slopes offered a little warmth, but not much.
After skiing Snowbird, it took me about four hours to thaw. I had to keep reminding myself that powder skiing is exhilarating.
The third day I skied at Park City, Utah's largest ski resort. A little north of Alta and Snowbird, Park City's terrain covers 2,200 acres with more than 65 designated trails. The resort offers night skiing on Payday, the longest lighted night run in the Wasatch and Rocky Mountains, and helicopter skiing with Utah Powder Guides.
In spite of gray skies and light snow, the area was crowded. The gondola line, in particular, was long because skiers wanted to ride to the top with some protection from the strong mountain winds. Since there was no sun to supply a little warmth, the chairlift rides, most of which ran 10 to 15 minutes, were brutal. As the snow began falling more heavily, the lodge became more and more packed and the lift lines thinned out considerably. It was getting just too cold, even for diehard powder skiers. Frozen eyelashes, mustaches and beards, and deep red faces proved the weather was quite beyond the tolerable stage.
But even if bitter temperatures force skiers to cut short their skiing, there is always warmth to be found in each resort's lodges, restaurants and bars. Alta has five lodges, two condominium complexes, some great restaurants and warm, friendly bars. Lodge rates are usually based on package deals, and range from $22 to $78 per person.
Snowbird, more of a village than Alta, offers skiers a choice of four lodges, a couple of condominiums and a number of shops, restaurants and lounges. Again, lodge prices are based on package plans and for the most part run a little higher than Alta's prices.
Once a booming silver mining town, Park City boasts of being a unique, complete year-round resort town that still exudes the Old West mining spirit. It certainly offers an abundance of lodges and hotels, including a new Holiday Inn and a new Park City Convention Center, complete with a theater, 10 meeting rooms and 200 hotel rooms. The city has 31 restaurants and 16 bars and nightspots, as well as an Art Center, art galleries, a racquet club and a variety of shops.
Since these three resorts are all less than an hour's drive from Salt Lake City, skiers can also stay within the downtown area. Salt Lake offers public bus transportation to four resorts -- Snowbird, Alta, Brighton and Solitude -- for only 50 cents.
Aside from the piles of powder, Utah's ski areas do have another advantage over Colorado's resorts. Lift tickets in Utah are cheaper. Park City's all-day lift price is the steepest at $12, Snowbird's is $8, Alta's is $7.50, Brighton's and Solitude's are $7, and other smaller areas' rates range from about $5 to $7.
For some great powder skiing at reasonable prices, Utah's Wasatch Range has the mountains to try. And not to worry about cold temperatures, because they usually average between 20 and 30 degrees. I just happened to ski the same three days when an unusual cold front decided to pass through.