Growing up snowboarding on the East Coast can feel like having a starting position on a AAA baseball team. Sure, there are some decent facilities, and the tickets are cheap. But tell a real powder hound you cut your teeth on the mountains of North Carolina, and you’re bound to get a confused expression.
“Wow, there are slopes there?” they will say in wonderment, followed by the requisite, “You really have to go out West.”
The true believers don’t stop there.
“There’s nothing like the fresh pow,” they’ll cue.
“The runs are sick.”
“And the black diamonds are actual black diamonds.” Not like the fake ones we’ve been pretending are challenging trails, apparently.
On occasion, the polite ones will slip in my favorite pearl of wisdom:
“Well, if you learn on all that ice in the East, you can snowboard anywhere.”
So by the time my family and I headed to Park City, Utah, for our first big Western adventure, I was convinced that I’d be flying down runs that were hundreds of yards wide, cutting through feet of fresh snow on my nearly hour-long descent.
And I’d be good. Because, according to conventional wisdom, I had essentially trained in the worst imaginable conditions. Like a cyclist riding in the Alps to experience lower oxygen levels, I’d spent my formative years mastering my edge changes on sheets of ice at Appalachian Ski Mountain. (I still love you, App, and your “ladies ski free” nights.)
Oh, how naive I was.
Although I had one of the most memorable trips of my life, it was not without a few mishaps and unmet expectations. I did, however, glean several helpful tips for other first-timers.
One of my grand delusions about snowboarding out West was that the weather would always be exceptional — nothing but dry powder and crisp 28-degree days. No sleet or ice or I-don’t-even-know-if-that-is-liquid-or-frozen storms to contend with there.
Imagine my horror when we touched down on a 57-degree February afternoon in Salt Lake City. Fantasies of bounding through fluffy snowdrifts disappeared like ice melting in the balmy air. We had unwittingly booked a trip during a notably warm season — one that had locals worried about losses in revenue for the winter resorts and an impending drought in the coming summer.
Our spirits lifted, however, as we drove the 30 miles from the airport to Park City, an old mining town nestled in a canyon in the Wasatch mountain range. The temperature dropped steadily during our ascent, and we were happy to learn once getting settled that nearly all the slopes were open.
Monday morning, we found freshly blown and groomed snow, which made for fine conditions during the first chunk of the day. Our Sunday night arrival also paid off — we enjoyed a fairly empty park for the first few days, devoid of weekenders. This helped conditions, which were worse on heavily trodden slopes but relatively good on back hills.
The overall experience felt more like a spring trip than full winter, and was decent once we embraced it. After all, our Carolina blood might have frozen in subzero temperatures. The weather pattern also encouraged waking up early — something not all of us were naturally disposed to do — and packing in a full day before the afternoon sun.
A thick fog and light rain had us worried Tuesday night. But, to our delight, we discovered that the rain at the base had turned to snow on the peaks. Along with my father, who is a skier, I found a noticeable layer of fresh powder on the back of the Summit House along the Silverlode Express lift the next morning. Our childlike grins returned. We hopped around and glided down the Mel’s Alley and Hidden Splendor runs. My brother Michael, a fellow snowboarder, tapped in after a few runs. We stumbled upon Short Fuse, which meandered through the tree line and also held some fresh powder. We stopped and laid in it, feeling the few inches absorb our weight without melting or dampening our clothes.
“Yes,” I thought to myself. “This is what the hype is about.”
As with many families, not every member of mine is a winter sports enthusiast. Dad, Michael and I are enamored. Mom hates it. This was not a surprise — she’d been postponing this particular trip for years, going as far as bribing us with European vacations to divert our attention.
But her general disdain came into clear focus midweek, as we discussed the day over heaping bowls of pasta at Buona Vita Cucina in downtown Park City.
“I’m scared to turn my skis straight,” mom said, recounting her day zigzagging across the bunny hill. “I don’t like feeling like I’m sliding down a mountain.”
“That is kind of the point of skiing,” I said. “So, you really don’t like it, do you?”
Wisely, going into our trip, we had made it a top priority to find a resort that had more to offer than rustic lodges.
Park City, the host of the annual Sundance Film Festival, which had ended a few days prior, was perfect. There are about a dozen art galleries and boutiques, as well as the famed Egyptian Theater, offering a range of activities including screenings and stand-up comedy.
We primarily focused our non-slope time on our collective favorite activity: eating. On our first night, we hit the High West Distillery & Saloon, a throwback to the town’s raucous mining days. The 100-year-old livery stable and two-story Victorian house are connected by a glassed-in walkway prominently displaying the facility’s copper stills.
The food, a hearty selection of elevated bar staples with a Western focus, is surprisingly complex. The bison burger is a crowd favorite, along with the roasted peppers and charcuterie. Michael ordered a whiskey tasting flight (which we all sampled) and the bison cottage pie. We rounded out the table with spicy wings, onion soup and chicken schnitzel, washing it all down with a few High West Lemonades and Hot Toddies before rolling back to the condo satisfied and exhausted.
Later in the week we treated ourselves to a feast at Wahso, a French-infused Asian grill on Main Street with an almost discordant antique Shanghai style. The wagyu beef and pork short rib ramen hit the spot, however, and we left fueled for another day on the snow.
My family often jokes that I am a sickly person: If the flu is going around, I will get it. An opportunity for a sinus infection? I’ll seize it. Add chronic migraines and general clumsiness, and it’s not surprising that I’ve seen the inside of a lot of emergency rooms.
So I should have thought more of that wave of nausea that hit me before lunch on our first day on the slopes. I blew it off thinking it was simply time for some water and a sandwich. But after staring at a grilled cheese for about 15 minutes, I began to blame a lingering cold. My blame shifted again to the onset of a migraine after I wound up on the bathroom floor, unable to leave long after I’d emptied the contents of my stomach.
Mom forced me to hobble to the car and go to a nearby clinic. The best part of traveling with family as an adult is having a mother there to treat you with Vitaminwater and Pepto Bismol, like a child. The worst part, however, is having her treat you like a child. Anyway, she was right. As I waited for the receptionist to make a copy of my insurance card, I attempted to excuse myself, then proceeded to pass out while throwing up.
A bag of IV fluid brought me back to life, and I heard the ER team tossing out possible causes for my epic fallout.
“Altitude sickness,” they said.
I was shocked. “Isn’t that a nauseated feeling you get when, say, hiking with sherpas into the peaks of the Andes? Not chilling with your family at 8,000 feet?”
“Did you go up to the top of the mountain today?” my doctor inquired.
“Have you ever exerted that much energy at that elevation?”
Well, I’ve traveled around Switzerland. But maybe not.
“Have you been dehydrated?”
I had had a lingering cold, recently flew across the country and have been thirsty since entering my late 20s, so yes, yes I think I have been.
“That’ll do it,” he assured me.
A good night’s sleep and a few bottles of Pedialyte later, I was feeling mildly hung over but good enough to go back out. I was a bit perplexed, though: Could altitude sickness really have knocked me flat on my back?
That skepticism lingered until our last day, when we drove over to Canyons Resort. Following an ambitious morning, and one of the steepest but best runs of my snowboarding career, I was feeling the “I drank too much whiskey last night” pit in my stomach despite not consuming any alcohol. So I took an extended hydration break.
Dad also started to look green but pressed on. By the time the slopes were closing for the day he was in rough shape. We barely made it back to the Park City side before his lunch was projected into the condo hallway.
Later, Dad said he felt the shift after going down a particularly high run, and he’d forgotten to drink water most of the day. And it all made sense.
Perhaps there are perfectly synced families or friend groups in the world, those who can impeccably coordinate their comings and goings. If these miraculously attuned bands of humans exist, I’ve never been a part of one. Perhaps because I’m the one who is constantly late.
This is, in my opinion, the most compelling reason to find lodgings slopeside. Coordinating schedules is hard enough. Add to that varying skill levels and massive amounts of gear, and it becomes a recipe for public meltdowns.
We found the perfect condo through VRBO in the Lodge at the Mountain Village, which overlooks the PayDay lift and a half-dozen shops and restaurants. The convenient location freed us from having to designate a meeting place or forcing someone to hold down a table for dinner. We came and went as we pleased — stopping at different times for food and water breaks, or to shed a layer as the afternoon sun kicked in.
It also helped us get an earlier start, sauntering out to the lift early in the morning without having to pack up the car or wait for a shuttle. And in the later afternoon, we hit the hot tub and watched experienced riders on the Merrill Mini halfpipe and Three Kings run and terrain park through the giant windows.
The best part of snowboarding in a place like the Wasatch Range vs. the Blue Ridge is the scale: Everything is bigger, longer, more intense. This is especially true in Park City, which became America’s largest ski resort, with 7,300 acres of skiable area, after being acquired by the company Vail Resorts and linked to Canyons by the new Quicksilver gondola.
The number and variety of runs could have kept us entertained for weeks. With only a few days, we decided on a taster’s menu, trying a run once or twice before skipping to the next. It took us three days to experience nearly every run within our comfort zones at Park City. A remarkable experience for Dad, Michael and me, who are used to limited options and lifts that last longer than the runs.
We started with Mom on the First Time lift and got our bearings, then moved to PayDay, a solid blue (medium difficulty) run along the western side with impressive views across the mountain.
Then back up to where Town Lift comes in, and up Bonanza, then west to McConkey’s, where we got our first real glimpse of some fear-inducing bowls, made all the more outrageous-looking with little snow cover. The next two days were spent along various blue runs, and so on, until we had covered the park.
We took the same sampler approach for our day at Canyons, jumping on the Cabriolet and Red Pine gondolas. The High Meadow area was a treat for Mom, providing a trio of beginner runs up in the middle of the mountain with a beautiful view. The Red Pine Lodge is another brilliant spot, with bunches of tables and chairs outside offering a break that was lovely, given the springlike conditions of our trip.
Michael and I took off up the Saddleback Express before weaving our way over to the Super Condor Express, on the far eastern edge. We sat at the top of Upper Boa (one of our favorites), watching in admiration tinged with anxiety as a few daredevils trekked to the top of the Murdock Bowl. Maybe with a few more feet of snow, we joked.
We ran down Upper Annex Ridge — way more difficult than a single blue, in my opinion — before cutting all the way down Willow Draw and having a disastrous ripcord experience that took us to the Orange Bubble Express. Late in the day we made it over to Tombstone and the grid of blue runs, slushy from the afternoon heat.
For Michael and me, the best were the adventure runs — marked with funny metal sculptures — which wove briskly but steadily through tree cover. A radically different type of ride than anything we’d experienced.
Home Run was another gem. An aptly named green (beginner’s) run, it spans Park City Mountain, providing an easy route to its base. This is a godsend when you’re staring down black diamonds with wobbly, tired legs.
As the lifts were closing and sun was setting on our last day at the resort, I followed the entirety of Home Run from the top of the Pioneer lift all the way to our condo back in Park City. It was one of those dreamy rides — so smooth your mind is lulled into a meditative state, focused only on the picturesque surroundings and that weightless, gliding feeling. It has become a precious memory, one you pull out while staring out an office window at snow showers, daydreaming about the trip of a lifetime.
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1345 Lowell Ave.
Park City, Utah 84060
Lodging on the property ranges from $180-$1,000. One-day lift tickets are about $100. Epic passes, which grant access to all Vail Resorts properties, start at $619. Group lessons for children and adults start at $215, with private lessons extending to $550.