Utah's Powder Mountain lives up to its name.
From the top of the Paradise chair at Powder Mountain, longtime local Roger Arave is describing the lay of the land. To the east, a couple dozen trails meander through stands of aspen in a series of gentle, beginner-friendly basins. To the west, a few steeper pitches drop into another basin, beyond which lies a day lodge, more beginner terrain, and the access road from the Ogden Valley. Truth be told, as ski-area vistas go, it's pretty underwhelming.
What's impressive, however, is the perfectly pitched slope right in front of us, which, as its name -- Straight Shot -- implies, takes unflinching aim on the fall line. Paralleling the lift line, it falls for a good 1,600 vertical feet and is buried under a foot-thick blanket of fresh powder. There are all of four tracks on it, a fact I find just short of astonishing.
"Where iseverybody?" I ask.
"Snowbird or Alta, I suppose," says Roger, a knowing grin spreading slowly across his face. "Ready to ski some powder?"
Oh, yeah. Way ready.
Located 19 miles from Ogden (and an hour or so north of Salt Lake City), Powder Mountain may just be the biggest little resort you've never skied. Unlike Park City, Deer Valley, or Snowbasin (which sits across the valley), the resort is hosting no Olympic events this winter. Nor does it typically turn up during the usual debates over who's got the best powder, the way Alta and Snowbird invariably do. And yet, if you're looking for fresh -- up to 500 inches a year of blower snow that lasts for days on end -- then "Pow Mow" is definitely the place.
It's also one of the oddest ski areas around, with a layout that almost defies description. Essentially, the resort is divided by its access road, with a small lodge and beginner lift on one side, the main lodge in the middle, and another lodge and parking lot at the top. In between, around 70 named runs sprawl across half a dozen basins accessed by four chairs (all slow fixed-grippers), three surface lifts, and enough meandering cat tracks to confuse a big-game hunter.
But the real Pow Mow isn't on the trail map. The best goods are to be found on the area's outlying slopes, which are accessible via a fleet of machines that includes damn near everything but a Zamboni. On any given day, there's a groomer towing skiers up Lightning Ridge, a free shuttle bus picking up other skiers at the bottom of Powder Country (the backcountry slopes on either side of the access road), and one or more snowmobiles towing yet more skiers to assorted stashes in between. There's even a heli-ski outfit, Diamond Peaks, based in the parking lot. New for this season, guided tours will access Wolf Creek Canyon, another rarely trafficked bowl beyond Lightning Ridge. Simply put, Pow Mow is the alternative-access capital of skiing.
All of which makes it arguably Utah's largest ski area -- 5,500 acres if you include everything but the chopper. That's bigger than Alta and Snowbird combined. Yet the place remains unknown to most skiers, many Utahans included. Between Pow Mow's remote location and self-replenishing snowfall, its slow chairs and sprawling OB, fresh tracks are almost a given. "We try, but we can't seem to ski it out," says Roger, grinning again. "There just aren't enough of us."
But a guy's gotta try, which is why, after a morning of face shots off Paradise, I'm happy to oblige when Roger suggests we head for whiter pastures. (Considering the man is a part-time patroller and heli-guide as well as my host at his nearby B&B, who am I to argue?) Besides, he's just received word that Lightning Ridge is about to open, which means we may even be able to ski Pow Mow's newest addition, the 800-acre expanse of Wolf Creek Canyon.
But first we have to ride up the Sundown beginner chair, skate down a short ridge, and join the other powderhounds grabbing the rope loops that dangle behind the resort's LMC grooming cat. An easy 10-minutte tow later, we're at the top of Lightning Ridge, from which open snowfields stretch out in every direction. To the north, 9,422-foot James Peak blazes white against the sky, offering primo turns to heli-skiers and willing hikers. To the south, the twin knobs of Powder Country drop 1,000 feet or more down to the access road. And in between, facing east, a series of steep chutes drops off the front of our ridge, twisting through rock outcrops and aspen groves before leading back to the area proper, allowing you to start the circuit all over again.
Or not. As everybody else takes off, Roger heads the other way, where the ridge forms the high shoulder of Wolf Creek Canyon. The guided tours into the canyon will combine a few thousand verts of pristine powder, a scenic ski out to the valley below, and a shuttle-bus ride back to the area. Today, though, it's just us, and when Roger offers me first dibs, he doesn't have to ask twice.
The slope, a broad boulevard between stands of pine, is absolutely perfect. Angled enough so that I can maintain momentum but not so steep that I have to worry about what's below, it's a thousand-foot straight shot through knee-deep snow. After 10 turns, I'm grinning like an idiot; after 20, laughing like a fool; after 30, too blissed out to keep counting. Collapsing in a heap at the bottom, I can see why the locals have been poaching the area for years, and why many call it "DMI." "You could always ski it," says Roger -- there's that grin again -- "but the rule was, don't mention it!"
Oops, looks like I just blew that one, although I doubt it really matters. Most skiers will continue to flock to the usual name-brand resorts because they offer the fast lifts, fancy hotels, and other amenities that Powder Mountain lacks. And that's okay. Long after those places are tracked and trashed, Pow Mow will be dishing it up for anyone willing to seek it out.
Lift Ticket: $37
Lightning Ridge Rides: $7
Guided Tours of Wolf Creek Canyon Offered by Request: $50 for one person; $30 per person for two skiers; $25 per person for three or more
Night Skiing: offered daily, 4:30-10 p.m.
Info: 801-745-3772; powdermountain.com