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Paradise Waiting

Paradise Waiting

Features
By Jackson Hogen
posted: 08/23/2002

Alta and Snowbird reside as neighbors at the head of Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon, yet the cultural chasm that separates these iconic resorts seems a galaxy wide. Alta is duct-taped ski pants, sack lunches and expertly self-tuned 3-year-old skis. Snowbird is designer labels, sushi and the latest super-fat powder boards. As potential celebrity marriage partners, the two areas seem as plausible as Jodie Foster and Ozzy Osbourne.
Yet marry they did. The ceremony was held Dec. 16 on Sugarloaf Pass, where Snowbird's new high-speed quad, Baldy Express, rises out of Mineral Basin to meet Alta's Sugarloaf quad, connecting the resorts. Alta was represented by its mayor of 30 years, Bill Levitt, a voluble octogenarian. Levitt is the retired owner of the Alta Lodge (his family still owns the inn), in whose dining room plans for Snowbird were laid out by Ted Johnson in the mid-1960s.

Johnson's eventual partner and Snowbird's owner since its inception, Dick Bass-whose résumé includes being the first person to reach the seven continental summits and at one time being the oldest climber to summit Mount Everest (at age 55)-was also on hand for the ceremony, as were Snowbird President and Chief Operating Officer Bob Bonar and Alta President and General Manager Onno Wieringa.

A slurry-like sleet driven by brutal winds raked the site, battering the celebrants and shaking the humble hut that marks the border crossing. Mocking the elements and their grim portent, Levitt shouted, "As Alf Engen (Alta's legendary ski school director) used to say, it's another beautiful day in the Wasatch!"

The weather proved to be prophetic. The storm that howled that December day was symbolic of the pasting all tourism took after 9/11. Alta and Snowbird then received another hit from an unexpected source: the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. The expected Olympic spillover never happened. The world came, watched, and went home without visiting the two resorts. Even local traffic dwindled as people allocated their dollars to the Games.

The few skiers who continued to cavort down the deserted slopes of Alta and Snowbird largely ignored the opportunity to ski both areas on one pass. The main reason was as old as the mountains: price. The new Alta-Bird pass cost $68, the highest tariff in all the land. Notoriously frugal Alta patrons couldn't fathom paying a $30 premium over Alta's regular $38 rate; they didn't come to Alta to pay more to ski, they came because it was comparatively cheap. Viewed from the Snowbird side of the divide, the increase from the regular $56 tram ticket was a mere $12. Twelve dollars for an additional 2,000-plus acres of extraordinary skiing sounds like a good deal, but most visitors didn't see it that way. Although both areas profess contentment with the sales of the $1,200 dual-area season's pass-only $300 more than a Snowbird one-locals didn't rush to snap them up.

"We entered a new frontier with the Alta-Snowbird pass and had no expectations of selling thousands of season passes and lines of people waiting to cross over," says Snowbird President Bonar. "We're going to find ways to make the day ticket more appealing, including possibly lowering the price."

Why didn't more people enjoy the European-flavored experience of skiing between two premier resorts? Price wasn't the only reason. Take the case of Guru Dave Powers, 51, who has skied at Snowbird every season since it opened in 1972. (He is known as Guru Dave not just because he knows every corner of this complex hill, but because as a student of comparative religions, he is a storehouse of information with a share-the-joy attitude.) He bought a Snowbird-only pass "because I can ski Alta any time I want for just $38. How often am I going to want to do that?"

The answer, for him at least, is not very often, even at $38. Guru Dave, like the rest of his tram-cramming cronies, is a Snowbird fan to the bottom of his Nordica ski boots. He is addicted to the almost insta access to nearly 3,000 vertical feet provided by Snowbird's eight-minute tram ride. Standing near Guru Dave on the tram is Michael Lyness, 49, a local lawyer who frequently arrives at Snowbird in the afternoon to crank out 30,000 vertical feet, catching every tram until close. You can't replicate that experience at Alta. As far as Lyness is concerned, Alta might as well be on Mars.

Riding the same tram is Jim Conway, a celebrated skier and guide who now boards. He, like all his snowboarding brethren at the Bird, can't cross the Alta border because Alta still bans snowboarding. One of the seismic differences between the two resort experiences is the presence of boarders at the one and their absence at the other. Which raises the question that sends chills down the spine of every Alta lover: If Snowbird skiers can now traipse into Alta, can snowboarders be far behind?

Not to worry, reassures Mayor Levitt. Alta's small community of businesses convened to look at the snowboarding issue, "and gave it real deliberation," Levitt says. "We knew we were turning down an economic benefit, but we did it because our customers, old and new, were dead against allowing boarders. And it wasn't a simple majority of visitors; it was over 90 percent."

Levitt's assurances are echoed by resort president Wieringa (referred to by all by his first name, Onno). "We're happy doing what we are doing," Onno says. "We just have to figure out how to sell enough ski tickets. But we know that what we're doing is right when we hear from snowboarders who are also skiers that it would be a mistake to allow boarding at Alta. We don't go to the bottom line to make our decisions."

If so many of Alta's visitors come here because it's snowboard-free and the price is right, why would they willingly choose to spend a lot more money to hang out with the very snowboarders they came here to avoid? You see the problem.

The oil-and-water personalities that compel most locals-and to a lesser extent, visitors-to hold allegiance to one resort is what makes skiing from one mountain to the other such a gas. The sudden sensation of skiing across an alien border hits the senses harder than the typical vacation decision of skiing one resort one day and the other the next. After a morning of retro-skiing at Alta, where hiking to ski is as common as snowflakes, to drop into Mineral Basin with its light-speed groomers and lifts is like crossing into another country. The killer vistas off Snowbird's Hidden Peak, the sweaty urgency of 125 tram riders stampeding to their favorite routes, the gut-clenching chutes off the Upper Cirque and the long, long run from top to bottom (which locals consume in one four-minute plunge) are only a few of the sensations that Snowbird provides that Alta can't.

Conversely, to migrate from the busy boulevards of Mineral Basin to the tranquility of High Greeley in the span of 15 minutes has a through-the-looking-glass feel. Even the fabric of time seems to subtly shift to a slower pace. This sensation derives from the different ways the resorts view lifts. Snowbird strives to please by transporting mass quantities of snowsliders uphill as fast as the resort can. At Alta, the objective is to manage the downhill capacity. This is why Alta's new Sugarloaf quad rarely runs at full speed. Why race to the top if skiing down is going to feel like sliding through Calcutta?

Diversity aside, the best reason to essay both areas in a day is the sheer panoply of the skiing. To be able to rejoice in the moguls of Alta's High Rustler and then revel in the wind buff on the far rim of Mineral Basin transcends the everyday ski experience. It imparts a flavor rarely savored in American skiing, of moving mountain to mountain, ridge to ridge. As Snowbird's Bonar observes, "Take away the lodges and shops and what do you have? Mountains and lifts. If you don't acknowledge the cultural divide, it's just more mountains, more skiing."

There are as many ways to take advantage of the Alta-Bird pass as there are runs in this 4,700-acre powder preserve. Tom Truss, owner of T&T Bike and Ski Service in Sandy, the community closest to the mouth of Little Cottonwood, opted for the dual season pass so he could hit the perfect sequence of powder stashes just as they are opened by the ski patrol. "I'll take the first shot down Mineral Basin, then ride the Baldy Express to Alta and catch the backside of Germania as it opens. I can take Keyhole back into Snowbird and be there when they drop the rope into Thunder Bowl and its awesome glades. Then I head back to Alta to snag Devil's Castle, which usually opens just after lunch. You can't beat it."

One new route created by the coupling of the resorts was shown to me by Flying Brian Beck, a Snowbird devotee who now splits his time with Alta. From the top of the tram, we take a five-minute hike up High Baldy and traverse to Baldy Shoulder. One moment you look down at the Peruvian side of Snowbird, the next second you are perched high above the Wildcat lift at Alta. From this eerie aerie, perfect-pitch steeps plunge down to a slot in the trees called Keyhole. Like many chute entrances in this canyon, the entry to Keyhole is brutish and short. But it soon opens up to sun-drenched slopes that lead back to the tram plaza that is Snowbird's social center.

If my experience is any indication, the most natural way to exploit the Alta-Bird ticket is to play on one mountain for most of the day, then switch to the second course for a bracing change of pace. The last lift out of Mineral Basin is at 3:30, which effectively severs the link between the areas, so it's advisable to drop back into your home base by then. A lot of skiing can be packed into the last hour at either of these areas. Despite returning to Alta at curfew, I'm able to squeeze in runs on Sugarloaf (a cruiser), Gunsight (a powder trough), High Rustler (the longest continuous-pitch, fall-line, kick-ass mogul field anywhere) and a final wobbly-legged romp off Wildcat. On the flip side at Snowbird, I can pack on so many miles in such a short time I'm afraid my thigh-burn will set my ski pants on fire.

Both Bonar and Onno speak diplomatically about the challenges of meshing their divergent business cultures. As Onno observes, "Both areas have had to adjust to each other. The melding of the two cultures has been...interesting."

One of the casualties of their incompatible ticketing systems was the ability to sell passes or upgrades at the border shack on Sugarloaf Pass. According to Onno, it had been Alta's plan to sell some kind of access to the other area at the summit, but the plan foundered on logistical shoals. Both resorts pledge to remedy the shortcoming this season, but during the inaugural season a good number of irate guests were turned back at the border. One gate guard admitted she sent disappointed skiers away "lots of times. They don't understand why they can't just ski down to their lodge."

And so forces as internal as accounting and as external as international calamity conspired to dilute the introduction of what should have been one of skiing's happiest events of recent times. But the Alta-Bird "dual-resort" idea is anything but stillborn. Management at both resorts is committed to making it work for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do. Its future rests on the solid footing of Bonar and Onno, both former patrolmen who remain passionate skiers. "It's a great opportunity for skiers and for our customers, so we're going to make it work," Bonar says. Onno shares the vision. "We knew to some people this would be a cool concept. So we did it. When it works, it is a cool thing, so we'll refine it and make it better."

The destination visitor who is most likely to embrace the two-area day pass didn't make much of an appearance. "I would have to throw this season out of any model I made, if I made any models," Onno says. The idea will probably take some time to catch e advantage of the Alta-Bird pass as there are runs in this 4,700-acre powder preserve. Tom Truss, owner of T&T Bike and Ski Service in Sandy, the community closest to the mouth of Little Cottonwood, opted for the dual season pass so he could hit the perfect sequence of powder stashes just as they are opened by the ski patrol. "I'll take the first shot down Mineral Basin, then ride the Baldy Express to Alta and catch the backside of Germania as it opens. I can take Keyhole back into Snowbird and be there when they drop the rope into Thunder Bowl and its awesome glades. Then I head back to Alta to snag Devil's Castle, which usually opens just after lunch. You can't beat it."

One new route created by the coupling of the resorts was shown to me by Flying Brian Beck, a Snowbird devotee who now splits his time with Alta. From the top of the tram, we take a five-minute hike up High Baldy and traverse to Baldy Shoulder. One moment you look down at the Peruvian side of Snowbird, the next second you are perched high above the Wildcat lift at Alta. From this eerie aerie, perfect-pitch steeps plunge down to a slot in the trees called Keyhole. Like many chute entrances in this canyon, the entry to Keyhole is brutish and short. But it soon opens up to sun-drenched slopes that lead back to the tram plaza that is Snowbird's social center.

If my experience is any indication, the most natural way to exploit the Alta-Bird ticket is to play on one mountain for most of the day, then switch to the second course for a bracing change of pace. The last lift out of Mineral Basin is at 3:30, which effectively severs the link between the areas, so it's advisable to drop back into your home base by then. A lot of skiing can be packed into the last hour at either of these areas. Despite returning to Alta at curfew, I'm able to squeeze in runs on Sugarloaf (a cruiser), Gunsight (a powder trough), High Rustler (the longest continuous-pitch, fall-line, kick-ass mogul field anywhere) and a final wobbly-legged romp off Wildcat. On the flip side at Snowbird, I can pack on so many miles in such a short time I'm afraid my thigh-burn will set my ski pants on fire.

Both Bonar and Onno speak diplomatically about the challenges of meshing their divergent business cultures. As Onno observes, "Both areas have had to adjust to each other. The melding of the two cultures has been...interesting."

One of the casualties of their incompatible ticketing systems was the ability to sell passes or upgrades at the border shack on Sugarloaf Pass. According to Onno, it had been Alta's plan to sell some kind of access to the other area at the summit, but the plan foundered on logistical shoals. Both resorts pledge to remedy the shortcoming this season, but during the inaugural season a good number of irate guests were turned back at the border. One gate guard admitted she sent disappointed skiers away "lots of times. They don't understand why they can't just ski down to their lodge."

And so forces as internal as accounting and as external as international calamity conspired to dilute the introduction of what should have been one of skiing's happiest events of recent times. But the Alta-Bird "dual-resort" idea is anything but stillborn. Management at both resorts is committed to making it work for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do. Its future rests on the solid footing of Bonar and Onno, both former patrolmen who remain passionate skiers. "It's a great opportunity for skiers and for our customers, so we're going to make it work," Bonar says. Onno shares the vision. "We knew to some people this would be a cool concept. So we did it. When it works, it is a cool thing, so we'll refine it and make it better."

The destination visitor who is most likely to embrace the two-area day pass didn't make much of an appearance. "I would have to throw this season out of any model I made, if I made any models," Onno says. The idea will probably take some time to catch on, though it should gain momentum as more people get used to skiing both areas in one day. But old habits die hard around here, particularly at Alta, where longtime guests become disoriented if a bathroom towel rack is relocated.

The dual pass should also change transit patterns. "People don't have to use the canyon shuttle anymore," observes Onno, "but guests haven't gotten that figured out." Once they do catch on, visitors will be the prime beneficiaries of this magical union of mountains, a rare case of the tourists trumping the locals.

The first year of marriage may have been disappointing, but the two areas are determined to stick it out. Their trailblazing effort could be a harbinger of unions to come, and their triumph a sign that different corporate cultures can combine to reach a common good. Perhaps Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley in California can finally arrive at a symbiotic solution or Deer Valley and Park City, only two canyons away from Alta-Bird, can drop the thin rope that now separates them. On the personal level, skiing has always been about breaking boundaries. It's an encouraging development to see the same spirit at work among the mountains that are the custodians of skiing's soul.

Mountain Tour
&149;Alta and Snowbird are powder havens, so that should be your motivation. Make no mistake: This is competitive powder skiing. Snowbird gets chewed up the fastest, so catch the first tram and grab what you see. Hit the Upper Cirque early. Once that's in tatters, scamper to the Peruvian Cirque, then run to Dalton's Draw or Mach Schnell. On your second tram ride, listen for what the tram operator doesn't mention among run closures. If Baldy or Thunder Bowl isn't uttered, dash in one of those directions. If they're still closed, work the area between the Gad Chutes and the Wilbere Chutes off the backside of the Cirque Traverse. Now hop over to Alta. Tip into Mineral Basin, follow the Bookends Traverse until you spot an open line, and ski down to Baldy Express.

Follow the pilgrims on the High Baldy Traverse and wrap around until you're looking down on Alta. Porpoise the powder on Baldy Shoulder to the Germania lift. Make the short hike into High Greeley. Powder junkies racing off to Eagle's Nest often overlook Greeley Hill. Next, work the other side of Germania by heading back to that lift and embarking on the High Traverse. If you see a clean shot into Jitterbug, Lone Pine or Stonecrusher, go.

If you opt to traverse to the end, then stay along the crest on skier's left into the tortured entrance to High Rustler, Alta's signature shot. By now you are eating an energy bar in lieu of lunch. Head to Devil's Castle's gate. This is inbounds wilderness skiing at its best. To reenter Snowbird, take the Wildcat lift and hike up about 100 yards to the entrance to Keyhole. If you don't care about getting back to the Bird, work your way over to the Supreme lift and traverse into Catherine's area. By now you will have crushed whatever energy reserves you had. Sleep well; you've earned it.

Almanac

  • Getting There Fly to Salt Lake City and take a 45-minute shuttle to Alta or Snowbird.
  • When to Go Because there is so much snow, any time can work.
  • Sleeping In The jewel in Alta's lodging crown is the Rustler (888-532-2582), where rooms range from rustic ($110 dorm rate) to refined ($419 deluxe room). At Snowbird (800-453-3000), you can't beat the convenience and amenities at the Cliff Lodge, with rates ranging from $179 to $329. ¥Dining Out If you are staying at one of the Alta lodges, dine in. Otherwise, head to the Bird and don't miss the sushi at the top of the Cliff or savor the succulent beef at the Steak Pit.
  • Apr*s-Ski Limited options, but the Tram Club in the base of Snowbird shakes at day's close and Alta hardcores enjoy suds at the Sitzmark at the Alta Lodge.
  • Kicking Butt The vertical wall of Snowbird's Upper Cirque is sheer terroor, but brings out the best in the best. Alta's elite plunder the backcountry, but inbounds they gravitate to the Germania lift.
  • Kicking Back Enjoy live jazz in the summit lounge, Cliff Lodge.
  • Activities There's catskiing at Alta, heliskiing out of Snowbird and hike-to skiing everywhere. And check out Snowbird's tubing.
  • Vital Stats Alta: base, 8,530 feet; summit, 10,550 feet; average snowfall, 500 inches; lifts, 1 detachable quad, 1 detachable triple, 2 triples, 4 doubles; day pass, $38; season pass: $895 (2001/02). Snowbird: base, 8,100 feet; summit, 11,000 feet; average snowfall, 500 inches; lifts, 1 125-passenger tram, 3 detachable quads, 7 doubles; day pass, $56; season pass, $900. Alta-Bird day pass $68 (may change); season pass: $1,200; Contact: Alta, 888-782-9258; www.alta.com; Snowbird, 800-232-9542; www.snowbird.com. though it should gain momentum as more people get used to skiing both areas in one day. But old habits die hard around here, particularly at Alta, where longtime guests become disoriented if a bathroom towel rack is relocated.

    The dual pass should also change transit patterns. "People don't have to use the canyon shuttle anymore," observes Onno, "but guests haven't gotten that figured out." Once they do catch on, visitors will be the prime beneficiaries of this magical union of mountains, a rare case of the tourists trumping the locals.

    The first year of marriage may have been disappointing, but the two areas are determined to stick it out. Their trailblazing effort could be a harbinger of unions to come, and their triumph a sign that different corporate cultures can combine to reach a common good. Perhaps Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley in California can finally arrive at a symbiotic solution or Deer Valley and Park City, only two canyons away from Alta-Bird, can drop the thin rope that now separates them. On the personal level, skiing has always been about breaking boundaries. It's an encouraging development to see the same spirit at work among the mountains that are the custodians of skiing's soul.

    Mountain Tour
    &149;Alta and Snowbird are powder havens, so that should be your motivation. Make no mistake: This is competitive powder skiing. Snowbird gets chewed up the fastest, so catch the first tram and grab what you see. Hit the Upper Cirque early. Once that's in tatters, scamper to the Peruvian Cirque, then run to Dalton's Draw or Mach Schnell. On your second tram ride, listen for what the tram operator doesn't mention among run closures. If Baldy or Thunder Bowl isn't uttered, dash in one of those directions. If they're still closed, work the area between the Gad Chutes and the Wilbere Chutes off the backside of the Cirque Traverse. Now hop over to Alta. Tip into Mineral Basin, follow the Bookends Traverse until you spot an open line, and ski down to Baldy Express.

    Follow the pilgrims on the High Baldy Traverse and wrap around until you're looking down on Alta. Porpoise the powder on Baldy Shoulder to the Germania lift. Make the short hike into High Greeley. Powder junkies racing off to Eagle's Nest often overlook Greeley Hill. Next, work the other side of Germania by heading back to that lift and embarking on the High Traverse. If you see a clean shot into Jitterbug, Lone Pine or Stonecrusher, go.

    If you opt to traverse to the end, then stay along the crest on skier's left into the tortured entrance to High Rustler, Alta's signature shot. By now you are eating an energy bar in lieu of lunch. Head to Devil's Castle's gate. This is inbounds wilderness skiing at its best. To reenter Snowbird, take the Wildcat lift and hike up about 100 yards to the entrance to Keyhole. If you don't care about getting back to the Bird, work your way over to the Supreme lift and traverse into Catherine's area. By now you will have crushed whatever energy reserves you had. Sleep well; you've earned it.

    Almanac

  • Getting There Fly to Salt Lake City and take a 45-minute shuttle to Alta or Snowbird.
  • When to Go Because there is so much snow, any time can work.
  • Sleeping In The jewel in Alta's lodging crown is the Rustler (888-532-2582), where rooms range from rustic ($110 dorm rate) to refined ($419 deluxe room). At Snowbird (800-453-3000), you can't beat the convenience and amenities at the Cliff Lodge, with rates ranging from $179 to $329. ¥Dining Out If you are staying at one of the Alta lodges, dine in. Otherwise, head to the Bird and don't miss the sushi at the top of the Cliff or savor the succulent beef at the Steak Pit.
  • Apr*s-Ski Limited options, but the Tram Club in the base of Snowbird shakes at day's close and Alta hardcores enjoy suds at the Sitzmark at the Alta Lodge.
  • Kicking Butt The vertical wall of Snowbird's Upper Cirque is sheer terror, but brings out the best in the best. Alta's elite plunder the backcountry, but inbounds they gravitate to the Germania lift.
  • Kicking Back Enjoy live jazz in the summit lounge, Cliff Lodge.
  • Activities There's catskiing at Alta, heliskiing out of Snowbird and hike-to skiing everywhere. And check out Snowbird's tubing.
  • Vital Stats Alta: base, 8,530 feet; summit, 10,550 feet; average snowfall, 500 inches; lifts, 1 detachable quad, 1 detachable triple, 2 triples, 4 doubles; day pass, $38; season pass: $895 (2001/02). Snowbird: base, 8,100 feet; summit, 11,000 feet; average snowfall, 500 inches; lifts, 1 125-passenger tram, 3 detachable quads, 7 doubles; day pass, $56; season pass, $900. Alta-Bird day pass $68 (may change); season pass: $1,200; Contact: Alta, 888-782-9258; www.alta.com; Snowbird, 800-232-9542; www.snowbird.com.er terror, but brings out the best in the best. Alta's elite plunder the backcountry, but inbounds they gravitate to the Germania lift.
  • Kicking Back Enjoy live jazz in the summit lounge, Cliff Lodge.
  • Activities There's catskiing at Alta, heliskiing out of Snowbird and hike-to skiing everywhere. And check out Snowbird's tubing.
  • Vital Stats Alta: base, 8,530 feet; summit, 10,550 feet; average snowfall, 500 inches; lifts, 1 detachable quad, 1 detachable triple, 2 triples, 4 doubles; day pass, $38; season pass: $895 (2001/02). Snowbird: base, 8,100 feet; summit, 11,000 feet; average snowfall, 500 inches; lifts, 1 125-passenger tram, 3 detachable quads, 7 doubles; day pass, $56; season pass, $900. Alta-Bird day pass $68 (may change); season pass: $1,200; Contact: Alta, 888-782-9258; www.alta.com; Snowbird, 800-232-9542; www.snowbird.com.
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