Snowbird already has some of the best snow, some of the best steeps, and definitely the best rooftop spa in ski country. Does that leave any room for improvement? Snowbird must think so. For this season the ski area will put a high-speed detachable quad into Mineral Basin, a south-facing bowl (previously reserved for cat skiing) that, once open, will increase Snowbird's skiable acreage by 25 percent. I had to check it out.
At the Hidden Peak summit, I was greeted by a marauding wind. Plumes of white stretched like airplane banners from the spires of the 11,000-foot Twin Peaks, which loom over Little Cloud Bowl. I followed my guide, patroller Mike Morris, down a wind-lashed ridge to the top of the Little Cloud chair. We hooked a left under the boundary rope and descended southward into Mineral Basin.
Suddenly there was silence. As I stood on the mountain's lee side, the morning sun spread a warm salve on my face and set aglow a wide bowl of granite outcroppings, sheer cliffs, and 400 acres of untracked snow. I dropped in. My skis porpoised through the legendary Utah fluff. It swam up my thighs, flowed over my shoulders. The ride was so sublimely wonderful that I almost skied over a roll beyond which lies a forbidding 80-foot wall of black rock called the Hamilton Cliffs. Though I wasn't up for the flight, I could already see the powder-day huckfests that will undoubtedly occur next season.
"We're going try to discourage that type of activity," said Morris, "but I'm sure it will happen." As we traversed into a long drainage called Powder Paradise, I spotted another high-elevation proving ground: a north-facing rock wall called The Bookends. Striped by 10 brilliantly skiable 45-degree lines and fitted with the safety net of a powder runout, The Bookends will surely be another arena for nascent freeskiers. The lines, while out of bounds, will be skiable for backcountry skiers at safe times. Though I insisted I didn't mind a little hike, Morris informed me they were quite certainly closed.
My disappointment was short-lived, though, as a bounding run down Powder Paradise proved the name true. Like most bowls, the 1,489-vertical-foot Mineral Basin does suffer from some less-than-thrilling runouts at the bottom, but they're not as bad as some, including Vail's Sun Down Bowl. As for size, Mineral Basin is about twice as big as Little Cloud Bowl on Snowbird's front side, with about the same pitch.
The new quad-the Mineral Basin Express-will haul skiers straight up the middle of the basin, over terrain benched with short, steep pitches that, depending on grooming, could either be intermediate or expert. I also scoped lines that, if groomed just right, might qualify as Snowbird-style beginner runs (which is to say intermediate at most other resorts). The official terrain reckoning for Mineral Basin is 20 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate, 30 percent advanced, and 20 percent expert-a veritable bell curve. This roughly approximates the distribution found on the front of Snowbird, though I didn't see any Mineral Basin lines that would approach the difficulty of upper Great Scott. The chairlift will end near the tram on the Hidden Peak plateau.
Along its east side, Mineral Basin shares a ridge with Alta. It's an adjacency that would seem to beg for an interchangeable lift ticket or a merger. Neither is planned.
Though the majority of Mineral Basin is on private land that Snowbird purchased over the last 15 years (mostly mining claims), the resort company said it still conformed to National Forest Service guidelines for erosion-control and water-management procedures. Still, the expansion has encountered some opposition. Snowbird's principal foe has been a group called Save Our Canyons. The group is opposed to any and all development in the canyons near Salt Lake City, and it's Snowbird's future plans that have SOC most irked.
"We oppose Snowbird's desire to build a 78,000-square-foot structure a pproposed building combining a restaurant, retail space, and a community center on Hidden Peak," said SOC president Gale Dick, "as well as its proposed expansion into Scotties Bowl and its wish to build a chairlift to the ridgeline above White Pine Canyon." Though both sides seem destined to remain at loggerheads, Snowbird has announced a November 20 opening date for Mineral Basin.