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The Big Easy

The Big Easy

Features
By Susan Reifer
posted: 02/02/2004

When it snows at The Canyons, the message light on the phone in your room blinks insistently as it waits for you to wake up. "Welcome, and thanks for staying at The Canyons Resort," the message says. "This is Kelly with your morning snow report at 7:10 a.m. Five inches of snow have fallen in the past 48 hours, with an inch of that in the last 24. It's snowing on the mountain this morning, and the forecast is calling for 2 to 4 inches of accumulation today. Sixteen lifts will be operating, servicing 106 trails and all eight of our peaks."

Eight peaks. The magnitude sinks in while coffee brews on the granite kitchen counter in my roomy suite at the slopeside Grand Summit Resort Hotel. From here, all I can see is one not-so-gigantic mountain with a broad cut down its face. It's not until I walk the few steps out the hotel door and onto the gondola that I glimpse the true immensity of the place. What appeared to be the ski area is merely a bump that obscures the rest of the terrain. As the gondola car crests that first rise, The Canyons' sprawl-a six-mile-wide expanse of snow-dusted peaks-bursts into view. A sign on a lift tower reads "Wow." My thoughts exactly.

A few of the peaks are craggy and jutting; the rest are rounded and more demure. All are forested thickly with aspens and fir. Groomed boulevards, gladed steeps and undulating meadows trace patterns on their flanks. And with relatively few skiers, that easy-skiing Utah snow will still be there this afternoon and, as it turns out, tomorrow and the day after that.

The Canyons, located four miles north of downtown Park City, is Utah's upstart giant. Just six years ago, when it was a dilapidated, 1,400-acre snowboarder hangout called Wolf Mountain, few nonlocals even knew about it-let alone skied it. Neighboring Park City Mountain Resort (3,300 skiable acres) and Deer Valley (1,750 skiable acres) grabbed all the destination visits. But times change. The Canyons is now Utah's largest area, with expansion plans that could make it the nation's biggest within the next decade. Sixteen lifts (seven of which are high-speed) access 3,500 skiable acres and three on-mountain restaurants, and the burgeoning base village is quick and painless to navigate. Four large buildings and a smattering of small structures encircle a sunken amphitheater called the Forum. Instead of ersatz Bavarian, the theme is loosely Southwestern. A massive archway, curved walls and earth-toned stucco, timber and stone create a Santa Fe-meets-modern-resort effect.

The entire village has been built for ease. There's no such thing as a room that's cramped or far from the lifts. Even now, at 20 percent of its intended buildout, the village has enough amenities that visitors can stay put if they choose. Meanwhile, Park City, with its century-old charm and dynamic array of shops, cultural events, movie theaters, nightclubs and restaurants (more than 90), is a five-minute drive away, while Salt Lake City International Airport is a 30-minute trip. And the crowds? With 6,500 skiers on the busiest days, the only time you'll feel crunched is at the end of the afternoon (there's only one main run to the base).

In short, if you're the type of skier who dreams of Vail-scale terrain with maximum vacation ease, plenty of off-slope diversions, rare crowds and even rarer pretension, The Canyons could well be your place.At 8:30 a.m. on the Sunday morning of a sold-out holiday weekend, the activity in The Canyons' base area is best described as low-key drift. College kids carrying snowboards meander toward the Forum's fire pit to meet friends. Three Florida firemen stroll out of Montaña, a casual restaurant serving bagels and breakfast burritos, and into the rental shop next door. A man and his young daughter order a family's worth of coffee, cocoa and Krispy Kreme doughnuts from a kiosk.

Things are no more frenzied around the corner at the Flight of the Canyons gondola. It's the prima route up the mountain, and by midmorning there will be a wait, but there's no hint of one now. The Canyons Managing Director Scott Pierpont and I walk up to an eight-person car and jump on board.

The Flight unloads at Red Pine, the mountain's center point, where early risers eat breakfast inside a timbered, two-story day lodge. The Canyons' network of lifts and access roads fans out in four directions-south to Tombstone (the gateway to the resort's four newest peaks), straight up Saddleback, northwest into the gently rolling High Meadow beginners area or north to Lookout, the mountain's original soulful core.

Pierpont and I head for Saddleback, a high-speed quad that climbs the spine of a ridge to a 9,000-plus-foot summit. Morning mist drifts through the namesake canyons that separate the resort's peaks. We glide down a typically spacious Canyons run: rolling, true to the fall line, ideal for skiers who like to carve. On the way up Super Condor Express, a high-speed quad that serves the original-and most popular-section of the mountain, Pierpont notices a downed section of rope and fresh moose prints in the otherwise immaculately groomed corduroy below. "That happened in the past hour," Pierpont says. "Apex was just groomed this morning."

From the top of Super Condor we make tracks north, on the steeps of Condor Woods. Skiers are beginning to fan out across the mountain, and Pierpont wants to find that moose. He drops over a knoll and down a long, narrow path studded with occasional trees. I follow. The snowpack isn't deep, but what's there is light and easy.

The runs off Condor's north side feed into a gully called Boa, which marks the resort's northernmost boundary. We glide slowly down the canyon. At the foot of a moderately moguled black-diamond called Snow Draw, Pierpont spots his quarry, a large moose and her yearling calf, sauntering out of the aspens and across the trail. He watches, clearly delighted, then radios patrol and advises them to close the access to Snow Draw and its adjacent runs until the majestic beasts move on. The Canyons may be the fastest growing resort in ski country, but it's still a window to the wilds.

It is a well-kept Park City secret that this wildness extends to The Canyons' ski terrain itself. When longtime Patrol Director Tim Hagan (now vice president of mountain operations) signed on in the early '80s, the area was called Park West and was favored by locals in the know for its long, consistent pitches and steep off-piste terrain. In patrol terms, that means plenty of potential avalanche pathways, which in turn means hand-detonated explosives, Avalauncher guns and rescue dogs-exactly the kind of office supplies that make professional ski patrollers happy to go to work. "This is patroller heaven," Hagan says. Heaven got a bit more challenging in 1997, when the new owners implemented an aggressive growth plan. Over the course of a single summer, the resort's terrain effectively doubled. It quickly expanded again-then again. What had been three peaks became eight, marching south from the original Park West/Wolf Mountain core toward Park City Mountain Resort. Suddenly there were large snowy meadows and ample intermediate slopes, plus new swaths of tree-speckled off-piste steeps with long, sustained drops. A whole lot of ski country, in other words, that had never before been patrolled. The patrol staff quickly swelled from 18 full-timers to 49.

The Canyons' highest peak, 9990 ("Ninety-nine Ninety"), where experts revel in the resort's toughest in-bounds terrain, is among the patrol's big new challenges.

On a powder day, 9990's chutes are deep and uncrowded, and they stay that way for days. But today it's clear and gusting at the summit. The jagged wilds of the Wasatch backcountry that roll away to the west seem near and sharp, like a looming ocean frozen midsquall. The top of the Snowbird Tram and the far boundary of Solitude's back bowl-about 15 miles away-are tiny features in a big white horizon. New on 9990 is a backcountry access point into the woolly Wasatch backcountry. For those savvy enough to handle the avalanche-prone snowpack, off-piste skiing is now a quick skin trip out The Canyons' back door Greg Clark, a local lawyer and entrepreneur, is just such a skier. A professed Altaholic for 10 years, Clark now skis the majority of his 40-50 days each winter at The Canyons. "There are five different north faces to ski," Clark explains. "I like the diversity of the terrain and the fact that you can get out into the back-country so easily."

Serious off-piste ski hounds like Clark aren't the only locals drawn by The Canyons' bounty. "There's a real sense of discovery here," says Richard Sheinberg, as he stands at the top of Peak 5. Sheinberg, a former New Yorker with the accent to prove it, is a Canyons season-pass holder and property owner who also skis 50 days a season. "No matter how many times you've been here, there's always some new terrain to find-a new piece of the woods, a new chute. And if you want to ski long groomers with continuous pitch, there are some great ones."

Midway down a run called Sanctuary, Sheinberg dips into the trees and stops next to a large house nestled in the woods. We're in The Colony in White Pine Canyon, a tony gated community of ski-in/ski-out parcels ranging in size from four to 113 acres. They're another byproduct of The Canyons' expansion. Some of the houses look like giant day lodges perched majestically by the slopes. Others, like this one, are more discreet.

Two pairs of skis are parked alongside an outdoor spa made of imported quarry stone. A nearby door leads into a ski room with heated slate floors-only one of the decadent yet tasteful touches in an 11,000-square-foot mountain getaway that somehow manages to meld into the landscape. In fact, the mansion, which includes features like a plush screening room and a temperature-controlled wine cellar with a terra cotta tile floor, is invisible from the slopes.

The home belongs to a San Francisco Bay Area couple who work in the upper ranks of one of America's leading computer companies. The couple, who prefer to remain anonymous, explain that they eschewed California's Tahoe and its crowds for the easy access and captivating terrain of The Canyons. "It's easier to get here than it is to get to Tahoe," says the husband. The flight from San Jose to Salt Lake City takes a mere 90 minutes. "Another half-hour, and we're here in our house. Twenty more minutes and we're on the slopes."

The ski-out from The Colony is long and rippling, a Hahnenkamm for intermediates. We wind past more mansions and under bridges and end up at the bottom of the Tombstone quad. Two lift rides and 30 minutes later, we're back at the base area, where cheerful greeters welcome us. Vacationers drift through the village, pausing to grab cookies from a kiosk before heading to their hotel rooms. Up a steep set of stairs at Smokies, a '70s-style day lodge that's one of the resort's two remaining original buildings, locals gather in the large open room, pouring Budweiser into plastic cups and eating finger food slathered with barbecue sauce. I pause in front of the glass back wall, which looks out across a wooden sundeck to The Canyons' terrain park, where experienced freestylers are riding its angled and arched rails. Meanwhile aspiring jibbers-mainly little kids and their parents-try the mini-rails, mini-jumps and mini-pipe in the Grom Park.

I leave Smokies and walk the few steps to the Grand Summit Resort Hotel, trying to decide between a soak in my suite's deep jet tub, a nap by the living room fireplace or an appetizer with a glass of California white at the cozy Westgate Grill.

I opt for all three, in exactly that order.

By the time my seared ahi arrives, the firemen from Florida are there at the bar, rosy and full of tales. Across the room, a fair-haired family celebrates at a table for 12. Little kids rueatures in a big white horizon. New on 9990 is a backcountry access point into the woolly Wasatch backcountry. For those savvy enough to handle the avalanche-prone snowpack, off-piste skiing is now a quick skin trip out The Canyons' back door Greg Clark, a local lawyer and entrepreneur, is just such a skier. A professed Altaholic for 10 years, Clark now skis the majority of his 40-50 days each winter at The Canyons. "There are five different north faces to ski," Clark explains. "I like the diversity of the terrain and the fact that you can get out into the back-country so easily."

Serious off-piste ski hounds like Clark aren't the only locals drawn by The Canyons' bounty. "There's a real sense of discovery here," says Richard Sheinberg, as he stands at the top of Peak 5. Sheinberg, a former New Yorker with the accent to prove it, is a Canyons season-pass holder and property owner who also skis 50 days a season. "No matter how many times you've been here, there's always some new terrain to find-a new piece of the woods, a new chute. And if you want to ski long groomers with continuous pitch, there are some great ones."

Midway down a run called Sanctuary, Sheinberg dips into the trees and stops next to a large house nestled in the woods. We're in The Colony in White Pine Canyon, a tony gated community of ski-in/ski-out parcels ranging in size from four to 113 acres. They're another byproduct of The Canyons' expansion. Some of the houses look like giant day lodges perched majestically by the slopes. Others, like this one, are more discreet.

Two pairs of skis are parked alongside an outdoor spa made of imported quarry stone. A nearby door leads into a ski room with heated slate floors-only one of the decadent yet tasteful touches in an 11,000-square-foot mountain getaway that somehow manages to meld into the landscape. In fact, the mansion, which includes features like a plush screening room and a temperature-controlled wine cellar with a terra cotta tile floor, is invisible from the slopes.

The home belongs to a San Francisco Bay Area couple who work in the upper ranks of one of America's leading computer companies. The couple, who prefer to remain anonymous, explain that they eschewed California's Tahoe and its crowds for the easy access and captivating terrain of The Canyons. "It's easier to get here than it is to get to Tahoe," says the husband. The flight from San Jose to Salt Lake City takes a mere 90 minutes. "Another half-hour, and we're here in our house. Twenty more minutes and we're on the slopes."

The ski-out from The Colony is long and rippling, a Hahnenkamm for intermediates. We wind past more mansions and under bridges and end up at the bottom of the Tombstone quad. Two lift rides and 30 minutes later, we're back at the base area, where cheerful greeters welcome us. Vacationers drift through the village, pausing to grab cookies from a kiosk before heading to their hotel rooms. Up a steep set of stairs at Smokies, a '70s-style day lodge that's one of the resort's two remaining original buildings, locals gather in the large open room, pouring Budweiser into plastic cups and eating finger food slathered with barbecue sauce. I pause in front of the glass back wall, which looks out across a wooden sundeck to The Canyons' terrain park, where experienced freestylers are riding its angled and arched rails. Meanwhile aspiring jibbers-mainly little kids and their parents-try the mini-rails, mini-jumps and mini-pipe in the Grom Park.

I leave Smokies and walk the few steps to the Grand Summit Resort Hotel, trying to decide between a soak in my suite's deep jet tub, a nap by the living room fireplace or an appetizer with a glass of California white at the cozy Westgate Grill.

I opt for all three, in exactly that order.

By the time my seared ahi arrives, the firemen from Florida are there at the bar, rosy and full of tales. Across the room, a fair-haired family celebrates at a table for 12. Little kids run laps around the table, as big kids slouch and roll their eyes. People are as comfortable here as they are on the mountain. And that's the secret of The Canyons: It holds everyone-from moose to locals to traveling families-in one all-encompassing, mountainous embrace.s run laps around the table, as big kids slouch and roll their eyes. People are as comfortable here as they are on the mountain. And that's the secret of The Canyons: It holds everyone-from moose to locals to traveling families-in one all-encompassing, mountainous embrace.

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