Feeling Empowdered While Skiing in Utah
The snow is 'awesome' at resorts near Salt Lake City
SALT LAKE CITY
At the age of 5, I made my first tentative glides across the steep Utah slopes in what was then the most advanced ski gear available. Bamboo poles clutched in my mittened hands, I took a few steps before falling with a crash, my wooden skis almost cracking underneath the weight of my clunky, lace-up boots.
My ski gear has improved since then. Though I now live in Europe, I still prefer the Utah slopes and simple resorts from my childhood - especially Alta and Brighton - over fancier European counterparts.
"Utah has one of the best ski areas in the world, as far as I'm concerned," says Rich Hamilton, an avid skier who has turned his passion into a lucrative career. He now manages the retail ski department at a Salt Lake sports store.
"We're having a great season," he says. "I went out last week and every day there was knee-deep powder. I haven't had a bad day yet this year."
When it comes to snow for skiing, it's quantity - and quality - that count.
Utah has both. Its mountains get an average of 500 inches of snowfall annually, allowing the state to offer 14 downhill and seven cross-country ski areas. Most of the resorts are within a 45-minute drive of Salt Lake City, and many of the skiers hail from there and surrounding areas.
Utah's snowfalls, facilitated by mountain peaks that reach heights of 11,000 feet (Salt Lake is about 4,500 feet), have given credence to the state's unofficial motto: "Greatest Snow on Earth."
Each year, moisture-rich clouds sweep from the Pacific Ocean over Utah. As they hover over some of the most arid areas in the United States en route, the moisture is literally cooked out of them. As these clouds then enter the Rocky Mountains they cool quickly, unleashing torrents of thick, rich powdery snow.
Because of the incredible amount of snow, Utah's ski season lasts an average of six months. In a good year, some skiers have been able to enjoy their favorite sport through the Fourth of July.
In fact, skiing in shorts and bikinis is not that uncommon here. "There are about three months in the year in Utah when in the morning you can go skiing in the resorts and then come downtown and go golfing," says Mark White, director of ski tourism for the Salt Lake Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
When the snow comes late in the year, snowmakers allow the resorts to open a few weeks earlier. The process is relatively simple: Water is pumped through a giant fan that creates a very fine mist, which freezes and falls as natural snow does.
"Snowmaking has been around for a number of years but keeps getting better and better," says Mr. White. "There is a real art in creating it. Now it's almost indistinguishable from man-made snow."
Most skiers agree. "Skiing around Salt Lake is totally awesome!" says skier Kevin Conrad, who was wearing a Barbie sweatshirt and jeans. He works as a preschool teacher when he's not on the slopes. "The fresh powder is such a rush! It really is the greatest snow on earth. It's absolutely incredible!"
Guaranteed snowfalls are perhaps one reason Utah was chosen to host the Winter Olympics in 2002, although the state's international airport, many interstate highways, and variety of resort areas contributed. But while the event is years away, skiers can already take advantage of some of the future Olympic sites.
The Utah Winter Sports Park, for example, offers a bobsled/luge run open to the public. Originally designed as a training facility for the US ski team, today intermediate or better skiers can take free-style aerial or Nordic jump lessons for about $20. And Olympic alpine courses are now available at Deer Valley, Park City, and Snowbasin resorts.
The simple ski resorts of my childhood are still the biggest drawing card, mainly due to their value for money and lack of pretension.
Virtually all Utah ski areas, however, seem to have escaped the touristy atmosphere of similar places in Europe and even Colorado, where the latest equipment and fanciest aprs-ski attire sometimes seems to take precedence over everything else.
Big Cottonwood Canyon is a favorite ski area, home to Alta, Brighton, Snowbird, Park City, and Solitude resorts. As it is largely a National Forest area, it has managed to remain free of mass development, although Park City is very built up at its sprawling base.
Upgrades have been made in recent years. Park City has installed a six-passenger high-speed chairlift as part of a $3.5 million refurbishment plan.
Snowbird has increased snowmaking, along with more snowboarding and night skiing opportunities.
Solitude offers new condominiums, but Alta - my personal favorite - has weighed in with a simple new chair design and an improved rope tow.
"Alta is more of a locals' mountain," explains ski fanatic Jerrad Strand. "There's a lot of good terrain and they limit the amount of people. It's a fun place to ski."
Alta is wonderful because it seems to have changed imperceptibly from when I was a little girl, struggling for my bamboo poles and balance at the same time. It's still the one place where you are almost bound to run into old friends in line for the chairlift. "Alta does have one new restaurant," Mr Strand concedes, "but for the most part it's just a simple little place where the locals love to ski."
HOW TO HEAD FOR THE SLOPES
Salt Lake International Airport offers rental cars from all major car agencies, some of which have special inclusive ski packages. In snowy weather, a front-wheel drive car is recommended. Chains are a must in extremely heavy snow.
Skis can be rented at the airport. If you plan on skiing at just one resort, it's easier to rent from the resort itself. Alternatively, Salt Lake bounds with independent ski rental agencies, which often are cheaper.
Canyon Sports Ltd: Offers special discounts: Third day rental is free. About $20 a day. Snowboards and clothing also available. Tel: (801) 322-4220.
Ski-n-See: Ski and snowboard rentals, often with special discounts and free hot wax. Tel: (801) 595-0407.
While die-hard skiers prefer staying at the resorts, others who want to experience Utah night-life might prefer accommodation in Salt Lake City. The Salt Lake Convention and Visitor's Bureau recommends the following:
Alta Peruvian Lodge: Facilities include restaurant, private club, recreation room, and heated outdoor swimming pool. Rates (including 3 meals per day) range from $81 for a dorm room to $154 for two-bedroom suite. Tel: 800-453-8488.
Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort: 800-453-3000.
The Cliff Lodge & Spa: A 532-room deluxe ski in-ski out hotel with rooftop spa, conference and business centers, and four restaurants. State-licensed child-care facilities available. Rates range from $59 for a dorm to $879 for two-bed suite.
Lodge at Snowbird, Iron Blosam Lodge & The Inn: Each lodge offers kitchens, fireplaces and access to the resort's dining and exercise facilities. Rates for Lodge and Iron Blosam range from $195 for a room to $615 for one-bedroom condo with loft. Rates for The Inn are slightly cheaper.
Best Western Olympus Hotel, Salt Lake City. Free airport shuttle, ski bus transportation to resorts available, family restaurant, heated pool, spa, exercise room. Rates: $75-120 per night. Ski packages available. Tel: 800-426-0722.
SKI LIFT TICKETS
Day tickets at resorts average $30. Pick up airport brochures for discount ski packages, which may also be available from your airline/hotel/rental car agency.
Utah Winter Sport Park: Practice jumping or take advantage of bobsled and luge runs at future Olympic sites.
Tel: (801) 649-5447.