Ski circus. Wilderness skiing using chairlifts and Alpine (downhill) equipment just hasn't existed in the United States as it has in Europe. But Utah's Interconnect Adventure comes pretty close.
Park City, Utah
A TASTE of European skiing has come to Utah's Wasatch Range. Skiers returning from Europe's Alps abound with tales of skiing between resorts in interconnecting systems called ski circuses. Starting in Switzerland, they may drop into northern Italy for lunch, take a series of lifts to other resorts, and arrive back in time for apr`es-ski Swiss fondue. Until recently, if a skier wanted to escape crowds and explore the wilderness, he had to take up ski mountaineering, buy Nordic equipment, and learn cross-country techniques. Wilderness skiing using chairlifts and Alpine (downhill) equipment just hasn't existed in the United States as it has in Europe. But Utah's Interconnect Adventure comes pretty close.
By skiing with guides licensed by the US Forest Service, it's possible to ski five of Utah's most popular resorts all in one day. Park City, Solitude, Brighton, Alta, and Snowbird, all less than an hour from Salt Lake City, are linked by remote passes beyond ski-area boundaries.
Interconnect Adventure guides design routes according to skiers' ability, but since there are narrow traverses and about 200 vertical feet of climb, skiers should be at least strong intermediates, says Bob Bailey, Interconnect's director. In the course of the 22-mile trek from Park City to Snowbird, skiers are apt to encounter every possible snow condition. Their skills at powder, moguls, steeps, traverses, narrow turns, and tree skiing are sure to be tested. So will their endurance.
Mr. Bailey starts the five-area tour with instruction in the use of Pieps, electronic avalanche beepers worn by each skier. The possibility of snowslides is the price paid for skiing pristine areas. He packs his group into the Park City gondola, warms them up on groomed runs, then leads them aboard the Pioneer lift, highest of Park City's 14 chairlifts. In a matter of minutes, they climb 3,000 feet to the 10,000-foot summit and slide nimbly under an out-of-bounds marker. Immediately the crowds and noise of a busy resort disappear. Before them lies wilderness studded with evergreens, aptly named Back Doors Bowl, unseen to the skier without a guide. They whoop and plunge downward, regroup at the bottom, follow a cat track, and head through the trees.
The mood shifts with the terrain. In absolute quiet they cross a remote meadow covered with surface hoarfrost -- light, dry crystalline plates reflecting the sunlight. Two cross-country skiers, thinking they had the back country to themselves, are surprised by skiers in Alpine equipment. Such remoteness is rarely experienced by the mad-dash downhill skier.
Ahead, an innocent-looking break in the trees becomes a roller coaster of narrow turns and washboard trails. In single file, Bailey leads his group out of the woods at a road. As if portaging on a canoe trip, they shoulder their skis, cross the road, and discover the lodge at Solitude.
Then it's up a couple of lifts to the Summit Chair to zigzag between Brighton and Solitude, sister resorts known to Utah residents for their unusual runs swooping around limestone outcroppings, their lack of lift lines, and their appealing prices ($8 weekdays).
They head around a mountain. Then they see it -- the Highway to Heaven, a smooth, steep bowl nearly a third of a mile wide with a narrow traverse slicing right through an avalanche path and ending in an uphill switchback rising 150 feet to Twin Lakes Pass. The first guide starts out, disappears around a rock, emerges as a tiny figure on the other side, and begins the uphill zigzag. Wide-eyed, they take the trek one by one so as not to disturb the snow. They all must cross by 12 noon, when the sun hits the slope and may let go a slide. Alone on the precipitous track, his uphill shoulder nearly scraping the mountain, his downhill pole feeling for snow, each skier concentrates entirely on the sliver of track ahead.
Once across, they eat and celebrate, take in the surrounding spectacle, then plunge down into powder where the wind has whipped the snow into peaks. They leave sinuous tracks, careen around ridges, edge their way through trees, and again emerge onto groomed slopes.
It's 2:30, so this must be Alta, someone says in the spirit of whirlwind European travel. At Alta, the powder paradise of the West, the sky dumps 500 inches in an average year and the longest run is 3 miles long.
But the same is true at Snowbird, so Bailey must hustle them along in time to catch Snowbird's giant tram that carries 125 skiers up nearly 3,000 feet to Hidden Peak Summit, their last run.
``Probably within seven years,'' Bailey says, ``these five areas will be linked by at least four lifts in order to open up all that terrain -- more than 8,300 acres.'' When that happens, the circus of 46 lifts will replace the extensive traverses of Bailey's route, and there will be unlimited opportunity for downhill skiing on ungroomed slopes. But for now, Interconnect Adventure gives a preview. Practical information.
A six-hour, four-area tour beginning at Snowbird operates Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday for $65. The whirlwind eight-hour, five-area tour begins at Park City and is offered Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday for $85. All tours include lunch (either privately catered at Houlihan's in Solitude or at the highest pass, Twin Lakes, depending on the weather and route) and return by van to the point of departure. Group size ranges from six to 14, including at least two guides. The season begins in mid-December and ends in mid-April. Tours are subject to weather, snow conditions, and minimum group size, and may be canceled at any time. For details, write Interconnect Adventure, c/o Ski Utah, 307 West 200 South, Suite 5005, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, or telephone (801) 534-1779.