"I'm so spoiled I don't want to ride chair lifts anymore." -- J.R. Hildebrand, chief guide, Wolf Creek Ski Adventures, Park City, Utah
You say you like your skiing steep, your crowds sparse and your powder dry? The Utah back country, especially in springtime, was made to order for you. Even after 40 years, Utah back country may be the best-kept secret in the Rockies. Barely 45 minutes from the Salt Lake City airport are hundreds of acres of wilderness in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains now accessible to skiers via innovative guide programs.
Since Utah traditionally gets its biggest snowstorms not in midwinter, but in March and April, spring is the perfect time to discover these hidden hills. This year, parts of the back country will be open for skiing through May, and probably June, depending on weather conditions and skier interest.
"Spring" conditions means chilly nights coupled with warm days in which the temperature can soar into the 60s. Such a climate creates crusty cold snow in the morning that gradually softens into what's called "corn" snow -- easy-turning stuff that sometimes becomes downright mush by midafternoon. "Spring" in ski country also means lots of suntan lotion, fewer clothes, longer ski days.
A few weeks ago, I spent 10 days in Park City and Snowbird with a friend, trying out novel methods of seeing the countryside on skis. I soared through fields of untracked powder thanks to a special Snow-Cat . . . experienced the fears and thrills of the "Utah Interconnect," a mountain-to-mountain trip on downhill skis, during an avalanche alert . . . and discovered an area called Solitude, virtually unknown to out-of-staters. I would have tried Snowbird's helicopter skiing had not the avalanche danger prevented it.
J.R. Hildebrand's Wolf Creek Ski Adventures bills itself as "the premier powder experience of the 1980s." A four-wheel-drive vehicle picked us up in Park City for the 27-mile drive east to the Snow Cat that would carry us into the Uintas, the only mountain range in the United States that runs east-west rather than north-south. We were headed toward a corner of the Uintas called Duchesne Ridge, a 10,000-foot crest.
Marty Bonorden, Wolf Creek's mountain manager and ski guide, remarked, "We have a favorite canyon -- the West Fork of Mill Hollow. We try to shoot for the best skiing and also untracked snow." The choices are many, because Wolf Creek has a U.S. Forest Service permit to roam over nearly 34,000 acres of the Uintas.
About six feet of snow had already accumulated on the Duchesne. Since back-country snow is not packed down, we were warned that we could conceivably run into the top of a tree; "If you see a lump in the snow, ski around it," J.R. said laconically. With trepidation, I asked if we eastern skiers could handle back-country powder. Marty replied, "Some people catch right on. Other people never do."
Wolf Creek is in its second year of running commercial tours. Basic cost: $120 per person per day, $104 if you have a group of 10. The company makes it clear that its Cat trips are for strong, hardy skiers, who have some experience in soft, loose snow. "It helps if you're able to adapt," Marty said. The local skiers with us on this excursion obviously were both experienced and adaptable; several guzzled beer as a breakfast nip.
Besides the advantages of virgin snow and comfort, Cat skiing takes you to the back country when a helicopter cannot. "Today is a prime example," J.R. explained. "The chances of a chopper going up today are real remote because of the overcast conditions. When we get up to 10,000 feet, there's no telling. We might have eight to 10 inches of new snow up on top and it might still be snowing. That's part of the experience -- going out and finding what's out there."
The Cat carries 14 skiers, two guides and one driver, packed together like sardines in ski parkas. It was designed in Sweden for the Swedish military to patrol arctic areas. The bright yellow vehicle is not luxurious, but it does the job.
A long, bumpy ride on a fire trail took us high into the Uintas, with six-packs swaying from storage nets above us. We sat in facing rows, as if in a subway car, complete with straps above us, which we frequently grabbed when the Cat made a big turn. Marty casually passed out PIEPS avalanche beepers, as well as a liability disclaimer form to sign.
Before long, we were a raucous, jovial crew, joking about being killed by a flying six-pack. Marty's rules: Don't ski on top of somebody if there is an avalanche, and watch out for creeks covered by snow.
I whispered to my tape recorder: "Not terribly reassuring." But the ridges proved to have a general pitch of about 20 to 30 degrees for 200 to 300 feet. Then we'd make a traverse and do another few hundred feet, which was no problem for us novice powder hounds. (Any steeper would have been tough to handle, unless we were good at controlling speed, although the Salt Lake skiers called for the 45-degree-angle slopes.
As we approached the first run, Marty announced, "I've got a little half-canyon that will please everybody and scare nobody." The Cat stopped. We were on a barely discernible road in an open space of surpassing, misty beauty. An immense, untracked, treeless slope loomed before us, although we could not see beyond the first dip. One by one, we jumped out of the warm vehicle into soft, baby-talc snow.
We managed just fine, the novices taking the easier route, the experts a steeper, faster one. It was exhilarating and a little frightening being out in the wilderness with no lifts, no ski patrol, indeed, no other skiers. It was almost as if we were on a hunting trip, except we were on skis, floating through the airy powder. We met at the bottom, where the Cat was waiting to pick us up.
The second run took us through an open bowl, gently graded, then into some trees as least three inches farther apart than on the first run. A chipmunk crossed my path. The next run, we jumped a creek without knowing it. "That bridge is over a creek," shouted J.R., as we approached the crossing in the woods. Whoosh! Made it. Later, going through trees, J.R. yelled "stay high, stay high!" Yet directly in my path were large branches hanging from a ponderosa pine. I simply bashed right through them, snapping them with my arms as I cruised past. Definitely "react-or-die" type skiing, I decided.
Rick Hovey, a Wolf Creek guide, was extremely helpful. By giving us tips on bouncing through the snow, developing a rhythm that is quite unlike eastern skiing, or even western packed-powder conditions, he got me and another back-country novice through the day.
We learned to stay loose, keep moving and forget about independent leg action, since the important thing was to have weight on both skis. Our turns were in slow motion, as if there were a three-second tape delay from the time we rotated our knees and the time our skis actually turned. The deep snow also slowed us down even when we weren't quite sure what we were doing.
Being a novice, I likened Snow Cat ridge skiing to spilling over the edge of a dam; first came the adrenaline rush of terror, then the sense of sailing right through the white stuff.
After six runs, we were whipped. Still, the sun had nudged away the clouds, we had eaten a decent box lunch, Jackson Browne was crooning on the Cat's stereo, and I felt I had experienced a true adventure, a bit like my first white-water raft trip. We had the delicious feeling of being far from civilization. As for avalanche danger, Rick shrugged and said, "If this were perfectly safe, it would be crowded out here."
I was hooked. The very next day, I was ready for the "Utah Interconnect."
Several years ago, the local ski association, Ski Utah, began conducting "Utah Interconnect" tours to show vacationers that they could link five -- count 'em five -- ski resorts in a single day, with back-country skiing in between. The trip begins when you ski up and over the Park City resort, then it swings down to Solitude and Brighton in Big Cottonwood Canyon, then across the "Highway to Heaven" trail to Alta in Little Cottonwood Canyon and finally across a ridge down into Snowbird.
On a good day, the full Interconnect, at $75 per person, is not only an adventure; it is an eight-hour endurance event.
Mine began on a scary note. Avalanche danger across Highway to Heaven was so high, our guides explained at the base of the Park City gondola, that we would only be able to cover the first three areas. The price immediately was reduced to $35, and, with that, leader Ray Santa Maria handed each of us a PIEPS, which looked like a Walkman in a pouch, to sling around our necks and tuck under our sweaters.
In case any of us were buried by an avalanche, the PIEPS would emit a beeperlike tone, enabling the guides to find us under the snow. "You tend to think skiing is just good fun, but you suddenly realize it's a danger-filled sport when you're handed this," one participant murmured.
Everyone listened intently as the Interconnect guides conducted a brief but thorough "How-to-stay-alive-under-a-slide" lecture. Summary: You shed your skis, poles and packs, then try to "swim" with the tide of snow. If buried, you put one hand over your mouth and nose to create a breathing space, and stick your other hand up out of the snow if possible. At this point, you're supposed to relax, which is like being told to stay cool while your house is on fire.
"Try not to panic," concluded Dave Cotter, another guide. "The best thing you could do would be to pass out. Saves energy." A grin spread across his tanned cheeks: "We're going to have a good time. You guys better have a good time. Don't worry."
With that, 12 intrepid Interconnectors rode the Park City gondola, with its grand view of the old mining town, to Summit House, a cafeteria just below 10,000-foot Jupiter Peak.
It was zero degrees and sunny under a cornflower-blue sky as we skied to the bottom of the Pioneer lift in Park City's steep Jupiter bowl. The guides moved quickly, carefully watching to make sure we had the skills to keep up. Everyone passed that first test. The snow was fresh and sticky from the freezing air; we didn't know it yet, but we would be in for a lot of skating and cross-country walking on our downhill skis.
Wasting no time, we headed straight onto the chairs of Jupiter Lift to ride to the very top of Park City, Utah's largest ski area. In the ski patrol shack on the resort's roof, Dave pulled a neck gaiter out of his backpack and insisted I wear it to protect every piece of skin above my ears and below my hat. Frostbite was in the wind, like a deadly but invisible virus.
With what seemed like one sharp left turn on a snowy, narrow tree trail, Ray led us out the "Back Door." I felt an involuntary shudder as we dipped under the "out-of-bounds" marker. Despite the Cat skiing the day before, the phrases "out of sight, out of mind, out of your mind" all crept up my frosty cerebellum. No time to think, though. "Back Door" is a shallow dish of a bowl. On this particular day it was loaded with several feet of crusty, windblown snow. As we fanned out, pushing out turns toward a road we barely could see even though it was just a few hundred feet below us, several Interconnectors made their first face-plants of the day.
The excitement of skiing a famed back-country trail kept me upright. All too soon, we were on Guardsman's Pass, a jeep road that is the gateway to Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Guardsman's Pass is sometimes a schuss or a jumping-off route to more steep terrain. That morning, it was a slow, plodding skate-and-pole run, although our hard work was rewarded with a scenic landscape of handsome firs and spruces around us. Looking up, we got teasing glimpses of Scott Peak.
It was 11 a.m. by the time we broke through the trees to the edge of the main road up Big Cottonwood Canyon. Across the road was a new wood plaque announcing Solitude, and a hand-painted sign that made me do a double take. It said "Monday Madness -- $6." That's right, you $25-a-day lift-ticket turkeys, in Utah on certain weekdays you can ski monster mountains for the price of a Vermont breakfast.
There was bad news waiting for us, however.
Ordinarily, the Interconnect group would cross the road, ride a chair and ski the Sol-Bright trail, which connects Solitude with its neighboring resort, Brighton. But avalanche danger had forced the closing of the road. Instead, a van collected us and drove us the few miles to Brighton.
It might not have been the "real" Interconnect, but it could well have been the coldest on record. By the time we got to Brighton (base elevation, 8,755 feet, or nearly 1,000 feet higher than Solitude) the temperature was dropping at an alarming rate. My goggles froze over. Brighton is a rustic, laid-back area, currently celebrating it's 40th year and the opening of a new lift. It has plenty of vertical, good glade skiing, and -- are you ready for this -- $5 lift tickets on certain weekdays.
I could barely see Brighton through my frozen goggles. Halfway down Thor, a smooth intermediate thoroughfare off the new Snake Creek triple chair, Ray peered at my face and shouted, "Your nose is white; get down to the van, fast!"
Thank goodness for guides. I flew to the bottom of the hill. Several Interconnectors who chose tree runs reported plenty of snow, plenty of pitch . . . and only a handful of other skiers crazy enough to be out in arctic weather.
From Brighton, it was back to Solitude for a sweet-and-sour chicken hot lunch (total cost, $5) at Houlihan's, the resort's friendly pub. Said Dave, as we skied Solitude that afternoon, "This place is a secret. Don't tell anyone."
Sorry, Dave. Got to. Not that eastern visitors should bypass the joys of Alta, Snowbird, Park City and Deer Valley, all close by. But what a majestic slice of alpine real estate Solitude is! With over 1,000 acres of skiable terrain, it is larger than many better-known Rockies areas. Honeycomb, in particular, is a honey of a treeless back-country-like bowl, dotted with the remains of old mines. In some ways, Solitude is the real Alta, the place where the Salt Lake hot shots learn their first turns, the place where you can ski from the highest cornice right to your car in the parking lot.
Finally, Mark Wilson, a transplanted Virginian who runs the Solitude village area, and Greg Cuyias, a Ski Utah guide, put on their Telemark skis and took me to eyeball Highway to Heaven.
Two chairs lead to this celestial trail, the passageway to Little Cottonwood Canyon -- Alta and Snowbird. The chairs, Sunrise and Summit, offer perhaps the most stunning mountainside vistas in all of Utah skiing.
But the ride is mere prelude. At the "Summit of Summit" chair (that's what the sign says!) there is a huge hole blasted through solid rock, forming stony gates that lead to a short, 25-yard uphill walk. At the end of the hike is the boundary of the Solitude area. Beyond the rope: the 400-yard-long Highway to Heaven.
An apt name? You bet. Surrounding it is a vast swath of Gillette Foamy, coating a canyon that dips into an unseen lake below. On a good day, the guides send Interconnectors across the Highway one by one, a lonely, scary, avalanche-prone traverse over as gorgeous a snowfield as you will ever find.
This February day, I could only glance longingly at Highway to Heaven. Good thing, too. We later heard that a major slide had occurred on the traverse that very afternoon at just about the time we would have made our crossing.
But what a way to go! Some seafarers want to be buried in the briny deep; to me, the snows of the Utah back country seem as peaceful a final resting place as I could desire.
J.R. was right. Who needs chairs, anyway?