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The Real Deal

The Real Deal

Mountain Life
By Peter Shelton
posted: 09/15/2001

So, Deer Valley tops this year's Reader Resort Survey. Does this mean that skiers around the country have finally discovered the wonders of Utah skiing? Or, does this latest poll ironically confirm voters' continuing blindness to Utah's real beauty?

Because Deer Valley is not really Utah skiing. It is practically the anti-Utah resort. It is nouvelle-cuisine skiing in a meat-and-potatoes state.

Just across the Wasatch crest, Alta is, of course, the queen of no-frills sliding. Alta was born of the Salt Lake Winter Sports Association, an egalitarian outfit geared to the local skier. On his death bed, one of SLWSA's guiding lights, Joe Quinney, is reported to have told his successors, "What you do for Alta, you do for me. Take what you need to make a living, but keep the price down."Deer Valley was born, full-blown, like Venus, with a $29 lift ticket on opening day in 1981-a skyrocket of a price back then. Aspen, Colo., the perennial Neiman Marcus of skiing, charged $19 a day that season.

Deer Valley set out to set itself apart. The founding triumvirate included entrepreneur Edgar Stern, hotelier James Nassikas and the inimitable Stein Eriksen. Stern was the money man; he was the largest shareholder in Sears-Roebuck at the time. Nassikas brought to the mountains the exacting standards and fanaticism for service that were his trademark at the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco. And Stein added his considerable charm and iconic name to the project. Even more importantly, he lent it a bankable mystique as the very embodiment of skiing elegance.

The point was, and still is, that people of means won't blink at the cost of a lift ticket if they are made to feel pampered on and off the hill. And pampered they are. Uniformed valets lift your skis off the car rack for you. Breakfast in the day lodge, that humblest of ski meals, has been upgraded by the Snow Park natural breakfast buffet-fresh squeezed juices, melons, croissants, hazelnut bear claws, eggs Benedict.

You might feel funny clanking around the Stein Eriksen Lodge in your ski boots for lunch, what with the white linen, the silver service, the champagne and cheesecake, but, apparently, you get used to it.Most elegant of all, perhaps, a majority of the ski runs-none of which rival the exciting pitches at Snowbird, for example, or the alpine sweep of Alta-are buffed to Ivory-soap perfection twice a day by squadrons of state-of-the-art groomers. Clean fall lines and this king's corduroy underfoot make all comers feel like Stein. This is not skiing for Everyman, this is skiing for Priviledgedman, or for anyone who wants to feel like aristocracy for a day.

One more reason for Deer Valley's success, I'm convinced, is the proximity of Park City just a mile away. Park City is to Deer Valley as Times Square is to Park Avenue. It's a sprawling, brawling, high-energy mess of a former mining boomtown known to the outside world as the home of the U.S. Ski Team and Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival. To the teetotaling, family-oriented Mormons who dominated Utah society (and still do), Park City was an embarrassment of booze, bosoms and silver barons. The nightlife is great, and a guest at Deer Valley can even swing over for a ski day on Park City's somewhat less perfect slopes or venture a couple of miles farther north to The Canyons.

(The Canyons, by the way, gets my vote for worst ski area name change by an incoming conglomerate in North America. While "the canyons" does fairly describe the ski terrain at the former Wolf Mountain, nee Park West, it is also the term used by generations of Salt Lake valleyites when referring to Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, home to Solitude, Brighton, Snowbird and Alta.)

Anyway, I'm happy that Utah skiing is getting some recognition other than the Olympic bribery scandals. I've never been able to figure out why Utah has been a second-tier ski destination. Summit County, Colo., home to Breckenridge, Copper, Keystone and A-Basin, dooes more skier days than all of Utah combined. And this despite an impressive convenience gap: Eight major resorts, including all of the Olympic skiing venues, are within 40 miles of Salt Lake City's international airport.

And despite superior snow. This is emphatically not hyperbole. Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Powder Mountain (up north of Ogden) all average more than 500 inches a year. And we're not talking maritime glop here, we're talking silky, low-density, intermountain hero snow.

I would argue that Deer Valley, as pampering as it may be, is not even in Utah's top five in terms of the pure, on-snow experience. First, it's on the Wasatch backside, in the snow shadow of the big peaks. Park City and Deer Valley average 100 and 150 fewer inches than Alta and Brighton just west of the divide. Base elevations are lower, meaning more dependence on snowmaking, which negates that creamy sensual advantage Utah has over almost every place else. Top elevations are lower, too. Deer Valley's is 9,570 at Empire Canyon; Snowbird's tram tops out at 11,000 feet. You can ski all of Snowbird's 3,200 vertical feet in one swoop, where Deer Valley's maximum uninterrupted vert is 1,400 feet.

For a taste of real Utah skiing, I'd head up the (original) canyons right out of the city. To Solitude or Brighton, say, where ticket prices are stuck in a previous decade-smaller areas with populist attitudes, tremendous natural snow and terrain, and rarely a crowd. The slopes will be even emptier this winter as Olympic fever scares off a portion of the normal slidership.

Or I'd do what I almost always do when visiting the Wasatch and grind up the steep road in Little Cottonwood Canyon to the monarchs, Alta and Snowbird. Deemed too precious for Olympic development, they will become even better this winter with a new lift linking their already vast domains and a new joint lift ticket creating the closest thing on this continent to an alpine ski circus.Now there's a resort concept this Skiingman would vote for in a Utah heartbeat.

Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Montrose, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net, or check out his previous columns in the archives.

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