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Taking Flight

Taking Flight

We chucked an Alta snob into Snowbird…and might have permanently altered her winter migration patterns.
By Evelyn Spence
posted: 01/28/2014
Snowbird Feature main
Photo by: Adam Barker

They were talking about it all Friday long, they of the fat skis and frameless goggles. The National Weather Service in Salt Lake City has issued a winter storm warning for heavy snow and strong winds, which is in effect from midnight tonight to noon MST Sunday. When we had lunch at the Seven Summits Club, where the hostess asked us if we’d like to wear sheepskin slippers while we dined (we obliged as if this sort of thing happens all the time when we’re skiing), they were talking about it in the buffet line between the lox platter and the carving station. Affected area: the Wasatch Mountains of northern Utah. When we clomped into Snowbird’s 125-person blue tram and squeezed together until we were breathing into each other’s waterproof-breathables, they were talking about it. Snow accumulations: 10 to 20 inches through Sunday morning with locally higher amounts possible southeast of the Great Salt Lake. When we drank what the locals drink for après (a shot and a beer for five bucks, which today was a Beam and a PBR) at the Tram Club—an underground bar where the only windows look onto massive red bullwheels turning—they were also turning, to each other, over their cheese fries and ranch dressing and talking about it. How big is it going to be? Is Sunday going to be the deepest day of our lives?

Speculating about snow is something that happens at every ski area. It’s what skiers do: We check the weather, and check it again. We hope and then we float and then, of course, we gloat.

But when you’re staying in Little Cottonwood Canyon, where the tram reaches from Route 210 up 3,240 feet to the top serrations of the Wasatch, the conversations are particularly intense and pervasive. Here the powder is often as perfect as it comes: a little lighter than powdered sugar, a little heavier than smoke, drifting down at the rate of 500- plus inches a season. Snowbird snow is irresistible, in the sense that it doesn’t resist, not against your tips, not your knees, not even your waist. People move to Utah for Snowbird and stay for decades. People who live in Manhattan book flights here when the weather looks good. If enough snow falls, UDOT not only closes the access road, it forbids anyone from leaving their accommodations. During this “Interlodge”—a giddy imprisonment— there’s not much to do but talk. And so everyone at dinner and in the Cliff Lodge elevators and in the hot tubs talk about— what else?—the snow.

An Interlodge means no one can come up from Salt Lake City, just 35 minutes away. An Interlodge means that when the lake effect has petered out and the avalanche danger is finally over and the bombs are silent, the mountain is open only to those who were lucky enough to beat the clock. Officially, 35 percent of Snowbird’s terrain is advanced, but it skis much bigger and way badder than that. For those who love steep slopes and the whispery sound of P-tex on piles of dendrite flakes, there’s not much in the world that’s better than the ’Bird.

Me, I grew up trying to plow through Cascade Cement and occasionally skied in a garbage bag. I lived for seven years in Colorado. And we spent as many family vacations as we could at Snowbird’s neighbor, Alta. But I’d never hit Utah just right: pristinely blue skies and the kind of snow that steams up and chokes you. On Friday they were talking about it, and Saturday too, as the air filled with white. I went to bed on Saturday but didn’t sleep much. After 34 years of skiing, I was finally on the verge of getting very, very lucky.

Seen on approach, up the granite rift of Little Cottonwood, Snowbird isn’t what the uninitiated would call warm and fuzzy. The unified, midcentury modern architecture— unchanged since the resort’s founding in 1971 and necessitated by numerous slide paths above—has been called “brutalist,” thanks to its exposed concrete construction. The topography, though it includes almost 700 acres of beginner-friendly runs, verges on intimidating, but it’s the kind of dream trail map a ski bum might draw in his spare time. Baldy, Great Scott, Upper Cirque: Snowbird’s flagship steeps are notches on the expert skier’s bedpost.

Except you can’t talk about Snowbird without talking about Alta.

Or rather, I can’t talk about Snowbird without talking about Alta. My Seattle ski pedigree was brown-bag lunches, hardboiled eggs, gristle sandwiches, homemade cookies, fanny packs, faux-Norwegian sweaters, cotton turtlenecks, butt flaps. The word “powder” meant anything new precipitating from the sky, and thanks to the Northwest, it often hit the ground and solidified into something between a Slurpee and fresh grout.

My family was old-school when everyone else was old-school. No, we were older- school. Perhaps that’s why, when we took our first Spence ski trip out of state, we drove right past Snowbird to a timeless place just up the road with few frills and many leather- booted telemarkers. Alta’s terrain and its hike-to steeps and its unpretentious vibe felt like home, except the snow was unbelievable. It’s why I kept coming back to Alta for years, staying at the Peruvian Lodge, where the hallways smelled like wet ski boots. I was an Alta snob.

But every time I unloaded at the top of the Sugarloaf quad and looked down into massive Mineral Basin, every time I saw the tram docking at the next peak, I wondered if my loyalties were misplaced—or poorly distributed. Sure, I’d sampled the ’Bird before, a day here, a day there, but always returned to the Peruvian bar when the lifts stopped spinning to have a beer in a plastic cup next to the pheasant on the wall and the life-size wooden Indian chief. It’s one thing to give a resort a token visit; it’s entirely another to spend five straight days there, experiencing everything (and I mean everything) it has to offer.

It was time to see how the other half skied. So that’s what I did. I did Snowbird.

I tried snowmobiling—zooming (actually, puttering like a soccer mom) from the bottom of Mineral Basin down the American Fork drainage and up so far we could see all the way to Heber. I tried a custom massage at the Cliff Spa, where my therapist admitted she learned to ski at Alta because “there was one lift that was free after 3 p.m.” (She added: “They’re a different breed over there. I don’t want to sound stuck-up because a lot of my friends ski there, but they are obsessed.”) I tried—ironically enough—an Alta Roll from the sleek sushi bar at the newly renovated, blond-wood Aerie restaurant on Level 10 of the Cliff, where the floor- to-ceiling windows looked out over the alpenglow on Primrose Path. I tried the Filet Oscar special—filet mignon topped with béarnaise, crab, and asparagus—at the Steak Pit. My waiter, Jud, had been at Snowbird for 40 years. I chatted with Neil Cohen, who’s been here since 1972 because Snowbird has people whose sole job is to wander around and make sure everyone is satisfied. (No, they don’t have these people at Alta.) I almost tried cat skiing—a brand- new program called Snowcat Skiing for Nature, which includes a huge breakfast, a pre-public tram ride, and half-day tours in previously unaccessed old-growth forest— but got busy trying too many other things.

It hardly mattered, because I skied. A lot. When I traversed out the top of Mineral Basin to Bookends, I found a few laps of fresh; when I got to the summit of 11,000- foot Hidden Peak, the Road to Provo—a long traverse under toothy East and West Twin—had opened up, and I followed the lemmings far over to Last Choice, a rolling run that dropped me into the rope maze of the brand-new Little Cloud quad. I scouted a line through what looked to be Shireen, then picked through a couple tree runs under Gad 2, where the stashes were knee-deep. I forgot about Alta. Everywhere I pointed it, there was vertical: easy to find, challenging to ski, and waiting—waiting— for a wallop of a storm.

Utah-born Julian Carr, who’s landed jumps off 200-foot cliffs, told me, “Alta is like a Model T; Snowbird is like a Lamborghini.”

Sierra Quitiquit, a yogini, model, and local pro, told me, “Alta has more facial hair, Snowbird has more Skittle thugs.”

Ski-film star Sage Cattabriga-Alosa told me, “Because of the gathering on the tram platform, there’s a much larger feeling of social experience at Snowbird. Alta is more laid-back and you have to do circuits—utilize traverses and side-step hikes and bounce back and forth between terrain areas.”

Of course, Carr and Quitiquit and Cattabriga-Alosa are at the far end of the sport’s bell curve. But it doesn’t matter whom you ask: Everyone seems to agree that while there’s no animosity between Alta and Snowbird—other than the fact that Alta still doesn’t allow snowboarding—some obvious cultural differences exist. There are people who think the lift towers at Alta are wooden. That the ladies at Alta don’t shave their armpits. That, in order to fit in at Alta, you have to drive over your clothes in the parking lot before you put them on.

(photos by Adam Barker)

On one ride up Mineral Basin, I talked to a couple from Madison—she had an Alta sticker on her skis, he had a Snowbird sticker on his—who were at the ’Bird for the first time but had skied Alta before. “At Snowbird, you don’t have to rent a dorm bed,” he said. “It’s upscale but not snooty.” Later, a man from Germany told me, “I skied Alta yesterday, but Snowbird is better, because the slopes are more difficult, and there are less traverses.” In the Cliff’s rooftop hot tub that afternoon, a woman with a Brooklyn accent informed an older gentleman in a cowboy hat, “I skied all the greens at Snowbird today. Trust me, there’s nothing to ski here. It’s too steep. Go to Alta.” One instructor said, “At Alta, it’s like you get to experience the history of skiing. At Snowbird, people just charge.”

So. Some people feel strongly, some people love both, and even the most diehard partisans agree that both resorts are world-class. What is undebatable is that Snowbird operates on a whole different scale from Alta—and it doesn’t rest on its laurels. The tram, built in 1971 for $3.5 million, was innovative then and is no less impressive today. The Cliff has more than five hundred rooms. There are 15 staffers who coordinate lessons for 250 ski instructors who teach 10-year-olds how to dig avalanche pits and middle-aged moms how to drop cornices. In 2006, a $1.4 million, 600-foot-long skier tunnel was built through the ridgeline to connect the Peruvian lift to Mineral Basin—the first of its kind in the States. This past summer, the old Gad 2 double was upgraded to a high-speed quad, just like Little Cloud the summer before, bringing the number of zippy lifts to six. And there’s much more to come: Snowbird has started work on a 22,000-square-foot building on Hidden Peak with a restaurant, 360-degree views, outside seating, and windows that angle down so the reflecting sun doesn’t glare down into the valley—a sort of architectural camo. After that, it plans to put a new tram up American Fork Twin Peaks and a lift in Mary Ellen Gulch, which will add 780 acres to the area’s 2,500.

And no matter the new developments, it all feels of a whole because—unlike at many other large resorts—everything at Snowbird, from the restaurants to the pro shops to the lodging, is owned by the resort itself. It means quality control (and really good all-inclusive travel packages) without fussiness and out-and-out luxury. It means the Plaza Deck looks like the Cliff looks like the Iron Blosam Lodge (which, charmingly, was the name of a claim misspelled by miners in the 1870s). It means there’s a unity here that is rare at ski hills this big and this famous, and a community that seems as unified as the resort’s lowercase Helvetica fonts and the honeycombed cement.

It means that, no matter where I went, I couldn’t smell wet ski boots.

At a memorial service at the top of an

11,000-foot mountain for a man you don’t know, it helps when there’s a front moving in. Winds yowl and temperatures settle somewhere below a bitter seven degrees, so everyone, including you, wears frameless goggles and helmets the garish colors of Skittles and you can bury your nose into the tall collar of your jacket and listen.

On Friday morning, I caught an early tram along with a hundred-plus strangers to remember Glen Doherty. He was a former Snowbird employee who became a Navy SEAL and was killed in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. He was from Boston. Down canyon, he lived in an apartment complex called Candlestick. Everyone was scrummed next to the Hidden Peak tram dock, listening to stories. The main reason for the memorial was naming a new run after the man—Glen’s, it’s called, way down the Cirque Traverse and just before P-Tex Point. Runs don’t get named often, even here. Snowbird changes with the times, but a lot of things stay exactly the same. The way most skiers like it.

“We were the misfit toys,” someone yelled over the gale. He was standing next to a grizzled patroller holding an American flag. Many heads nodded. “We moved here in the ’90s because we never fit in anywhere else.”

The hundreds, they cheered. The hundreds all clicked into fat skis, knocked poles together. We skied straight into the gale and down the traverse, a river of royal blue and grape purple and lime green, rising and falling over the whoop-de-doos. At the top of 35-degree Glen’s, we waited while the tram descended, then stopped overhead; the dozens of people who couldn’t ski stood at the open door, hundreds of feet above. They cheered. We cheered. Glen’s brother held a paper bag over his head. He pointed his snowboard down the slope and made a GS turn and he waved the bag and Glen’s ashes sailed out pyrotechnically and darkened the new white snow. We all cheered again and a hundred people skied down Glen’s and the ashes were gone.

I’d never seen anything like it. But then I’ve never lived in a ski town, and my own father didn’t want a memorial. I couldn’t say, that blustery morning, if Snowbird and its community were different from Alta and its community, from the other canyon, from that resort in Wyoming or Tahoe or B.C. I was an outsider, privileged to be on top of the Wasatch. I could only realize that where runs are scary and snow is lovely, families like this are formed. People work hard, and then they fly downhill. And for a few short days, I did too.

On Saturday night, after cherry-cola barbecue lamb riblets at the Lodge Bistro, the walk back to the Cliff was magical in the way that only white Christmas lights illuminating thickly falling flakes can be. It wasn’t long until yellow paper signs in the Cliff’s elevators were taped next to the buttons: interlodge travel restrictions within the snowbird village are in effect until 8:30 a.m.

After 34 years, I was finally stuck.

And on Sunday morning, after bombs rattled my bedroom windows, the martial law was lifted. The sky was cartoon blue. In the red tram car, everyone was using outside voices, loud ones. As the box swung over Tower Number Three into view of the entire cirque, pristine and buffed into creamy ripples from the wind, someone yelled, “Can you just drop me off here, please?”

From the summit, I skied the fringes of Regulator Johnson with flocks of others, everyone biding time until the ropes dropped on Peruvian Gulch. While most of the crowd was suckered into waiting in the tram maze again, I skied seven or eight runs near the base area off slow little Wilbere chair— Harper’s Ferry, Harper’s Ferry East. The official people reported a lot of inches, but I forgot to write it down because I knew it was more than they claimed. It was enough that I was getting snow in my mouth and bursting through it with my torso. Every time I took a lap, it seemed that no one else had discovered that run. I could hear screams of joy all the way from the Peruvian quad. It was open now. Feeding frenzy. I took one last ride up in the blue box and traversed skier’s right, and right some more, down what they call Cheater Baldy—hike-to terrain without the hike. It was untouched. So was the far flank of Blackjack, down through some bare saplings.

I’m sure that the same powder fell just up the road. I’m sure that, had I been at Alta, I’d have been perfectly happy. Yet I was sort of glad I wasn’t there. Because while I don’t mind the smell of wet boots, I’ll take sweet almond massage oil any day. I love me a brown bag, but I’d gladly trade it for elk tenderloin. And though it’s sometimes rewarding to sidestep your way to the goods, to rock a parka from the Clinton era, to reconnect with an older school, it’s not the only way to ski. I learned, at the ’Bird, that there’s more to skiing than just skiing. But in the meantime, I was deep into the thing itself. I floated off a pillow, then another, and I got a shot of snow down my neck, and I actually laughed. For a born- and-bred Northwesterner, it was almost like skiing through air, and on that bright blue Sunday, I didn’t want to be anywhere else.

après » The Tram Club (its windows look out onto the massive bull- wheel) is dark and retro, with specials—shot and a beer for $5—that attract locals. For a more sophis- ticated scene, mosey up to the lighted bar top at the Aerie Lounge.

eat » You wouldn’t associate Utah with sushi, but the Aerie’s is as good as it gets. The Lodge Bistro does meats—and chocolate- rum soufflé—right.

must ski » Traverse The Cirque until you find your line. The Gadzoom terrain is underrated, and the new Gad 2 quad will make it even sweeter. Hit Gad Chutes, the Door chutes, Tiger Tail, and the trees skier’s left of Pearly Gates.

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