The last time I visited Snowbasin, outside Ogden, Utah, my buddy and I waited five minutes for a young moose on the access road to clamber over the snowbank to safety. We pulled over and stopped so as not to further panic the poor stick-legged creature. We were in no hurry. The road was otherwise empty, and the powder would wait. Snowbasin sold all of 150 lift tickets that day.
That was in March 1998. This time, in March 1999, I was passed at Mach 2 on the same, winding, Forties-era road by a Chevy U.S. Ski Team truck. At the wheel: downhiller Chad Fleischer, he of the leopard-spot hair and fresh from a career-first podium finish at the World Cup finals in Spain. It was 6:30 in the morning. We were both headed to the U.S. Alpine Championships and the debut of Snowbasin's new downhill course, one of two that will host Olympic speed events in 2002.
Last time I was there, Jimmy and I rode the area's leisurely triple chairs and hiked 15 minutes north to the top of a wooded sub peak called John Paul, and then another 10 minutes to the ridge crest where Ogden's urban patchwork and the multi-hued Great Salt Lake sprawled, dizzyingly, at our feet. We skied three-day-old powder that sparkled like broken glass: on John Paul, in Middle Bowl, in Porky's Bowl, and over the boundary ridge to the south in the 2,000 alabaster acres of Strawberry Bowl. You could count on one hand the number of tracks out there.
This time, a shiny new high-speed quad swept me straight to the top of John Paul and the women's start, feet dangling over much of the downhill course. From there a 15-person, jig-back tram rose in a single swoop of wire to the top of previously inaccessible Mount Allen. This is where the men will push off directly onto a 35-degree pitch and near-instant speeds of 70 mph.
Suddenly, here at the new Snowbasin, there were two gondolas, one up into the heart of Middle Bowl, and another, even longer and higher, from a new base area all the way to the ridgeline above Strawberry. Overnight, there were moguls in the trees. In one swift, incredible building season, Snowbasin's owner, Earl Holding, had converted Olympic necessity into a mind-boggling makeover.
I sat on temporary bleachers at the site of a 30,000-seat stadium as the women's course was christened. (Both men and women ran the women's course for Nationals; the parallel men's course will be inaugurated this season.) Provo-native Holding, autocratic, self-made Sinclair Oil magnate, introduced new Salt Lake Organizing Committee head Mitt Romney, the post-scandal hope, a coiffed and burnished paragon of clean. Veterans of the 1957 Alpine Nationals, held at Snowbasin, paraded the flags of participating Winter Olympic countries. Ribbons were cut. Native Americans called upon the four directions, called upon "Grandfather to bless the spirit of the athletes." Holding, who fought the Forest Service and local environmentalists for years to make the controversial expansion happen, said, "Well, it hasn't gone easily. If I got any more heat, I'd be burned up." Then, in a circle of Indians and green-jacketed Smokies and SLOC bigwigs, he literally passed the peace pipe.
Change is hard. And sudden change is harder. Confronting the new Snowbasin was, for me, a little like coming home to find my mother had had breast implants, and a nose job, and laser eye surgery, and a hair extension. You'll get used to it in time, I told myself. I guess.
Understanding grows. Memory fades, adapts, is layered over with new memories. I told myself the mountain itself remained unchanged: skier-perfect Mount Ogden with its Alta-like terrain, steeply bald above, lightly treed below the bowls, and with enough folds and drains, nooks and crannies to keep a good skier happily exploring for years. And I did reprise some of my old favorite lines. But every time I rode one of the spanking white gondola cars or bumped into safety-red downhill fencing I had to pinch myself in disbelief.
The racers, of course, haad no such trouble. Most had never been to Snowbasin before, and few were even born when course designer Bernhard Russi won his Olympic gold for Switzerland in 1972. Russi, architect of the last four Olympic downhills, stood proudly at the dedication. Holding introduced him as "Bernerd...the man who took what God gave us and made it better."
Chad Fleischer, as expected, took the men's race in a blistering 1:13.54 over the short but unusually steep course. So steep and twisting, in fact, is the John Paul track, nicknamed "Wildflower," that more than half the racers, men and women, failed to finish.
Twenty-one-year-old Bode Miller, a World Cup slalom phenom last winter, described his DNF to a squirming admirer: "I was heading right for that tower, and I was like Noooo!"
"Did you fall?"
"No, but my skis were crossed like this...Whoa!"
Women's winner Kirsten Clark, also a fresh-faced 21, didn't finish a single training run but came through on race day to clock a gold-medal 1:18 flat. "It was tough," she told the press, "but this is really a great course, and it's really great we're going to have the Olympics here in 2002."
A sort of mini-Olympic glow pervaded the race arena. Bode autographed cow bells and neckerchiefs. Fleischer, who was itching to start higher and be pushed harder, talked about his burgeoning confidence to ESPN. A seemingly endless parade of ponytailed Picabo wannabes skidded across the finish and handed their downhill boards to their moms while they donned de rigueur training shorts. The future was wide open. The sun shone. And Earl Holding beamed.
When it was over, I headed down to the Shooting Star Saloon in nearby Huntsville looking for stasis. The Star is the oldest, continuously serving tavern in Utah, having pulled its first draught in 1879. Behind the bar, Carol Conway took my order for an ever-unchanging Star Burger: two beef patties, cheese, pickle wedges and a whole Polish sausage barely contained between buns.
"You know," she said, drying a beer glass, "they named one of the jumps on the course 'Shooting Star.'" On the wall behind me hung the stuffed head of Buck, the world's largest Saint Bernard. Buck weighed 300 pounds when he died in 1957, and the taxidermist, having no dog armature big enough, used a snarling, pointy-nosed bear skull instead. So there's poor Buck, I mused, changed in perpetuity, certain to be misunderstood. He was probably a real sweetheart.