The Downhill Racer was wearing a blue Patagonia vest and wraparound shades, and his shock of blond hair shook as he negotiated the firm bumps on Badlands with measurable grace, his marquee smile visible 50 yards away.
“Sundance is about skiing that’s as unfettered as possible,” Robert Redford explains when he stops. His face may be a relief map of his 72 years, but Redford remains strikingly handsome, with eyes as blue as the sky over Mt. Timpanogos.
Unfettered, authentic and environmentally conscious nearly four decades before green became everyone’s business, Redford’s Sundance Resort is a working paradox. It’s as much preserve as playground, with 5,000 of its 6,000 acres placed into an environmental easement years ago and only 450 acres dedicated to its slopes. Sundance manages to meet the needs of a diverse community—from Mormons to movie moguls. It’s a crazy quilt of well-heeled guests, earnest locals and day-trippers from the Park City resorts, 30 miles southwest. That makes sense, since season passes, at $499, are priced for middle-class families from Provo, not media titans from Los Angeles. That’s not the case with the elegant lodging. The suites, cabins and homes are the definition of mountain swank, with oversized fireplaces, heated walkways and decks with direct views of Mt. Timpanogos. They’re scattered throughout the campus—tucked away in a pine forest, hiding at the end of a stone path.
Talk about a schizophrenic business plan. Yet as more resorts transform themselves into mountain theme parks, Sundance looks refreshingly original, a model of small-is-beautiful development, preserving both the natural landscape and the unavoidable quirks of a small-scale operation.
Those quirks are easy to spot. Start with a lone, tortoise-slow quad at the base that makes two stops before it even gets you to the foot of the back mountain, where another snail-paced lift awaits. The ski school is housed in a yurt. Director of mountain maintenance, Jerry Hill, with a face as rugged as the Wasatch, has run the show for 50 years, since back when it was a ropetow hill called Timphaven. The vibe is reminiscent of the small hills of New England and the Midwest that you might have learned on. But then, your home hill didn’t have Bearclaw Cabin at its summit, festooned with mementos from Redford’s 1972 classic Jeremiah Johnson and complete with a view of neighboring peaks that rivals any resort in the West.
It’s been said that skiing is secondary to the Sundance experience, and it’s true that you don’t come here to log vertical. Hard-chargers might be bored after three days. Or maybe two. But on a powder day, you could have all 450 acres to yourself. Nearby Alta can be skied out by the afternoon of a major storm, but at Sundance, there can still be soft stuff in the trees days after a big one blows in.
Redford stumbled upon what would become Sundance while riding his motorcycle from his home in California to college at the University of Colorado in the 1950s and saw totemic 12,000-foot Mount Timpanogos. “It reminded me of the Jungfrau in Switzerland,” he says. “It stuck in my head.”
He later met and married a girl from Provo, came back, and bought two acres for $500 in 1961 from the Stewarts, a sheep-herding family who ran the mom-and-pop Timphaven operation. Redford built a cabin and lived the mountain-man lifestyle here with his young family when he wasn’t on set making his early films. By the late 1960s, developers were beginning to change the face of Utah. Redford scrambled, using some movie earnings and rounding up investor friends to purchase another 3,000 acres, heading off a development of A-frames that would have been marched up the canyon on quarter-acre lots.
“I was determined to preserve this, but it was not bought with big money,” Redford later explains over a bowl of cauliflower soup in Bob’s Room, his backroom sanctuary at the resort’s Foundry Grill. “That kind of development was the reason I left Los Angeles. So I bought the land and started the Sundance Institute before there was anything here. I was advised that I was out of my mind. But I wanted the perfect marriage of art and nature.”
It took years, but he pulled it off. The Sundance Institute routinely draws famous writers, directors and filmmakers. From that came the Sundance Film Festival and later the Sundance Channel. At the resort, the Sundance Art Shack, with a glass-blowing facility, does more than pay lip service to Redford’s artistic aims. And what other resort can call talks by Madeleine Albright and Maureen Dowd après-ski entertainment?
But to make it happen, Sundance had to make money, which is why Redford decided to make it a ski resort. The first of its 95 cottages were built in the late 1980s. There are also 300 private homes, 10 of them in the rental pool. The development isn’t conspicuous, as it is at so many resorts, but artfully tucked into the trees. On the far side of the valley, in a vast meadow with a tree break at its center, is Redford’s own retreat.
At its base, Sundance is an organic layout of cabins, paths and winding roads. It has more in common with an Adirondack camp than a Ritz or a Four Seasons. It’s always quiet, and with space for just 250 guests, it never feels crowded. When you arrive, you ditch the car and stroll or hitch a ride in the resort’s fleet of Toyota Highlander Hybrids.
The single-story public buildings are clustered in several groups, connected by wooden walkways. You can find casual eats at the wood-fired Foundry Grill. It serves an egg-and-chorizo avalanche known as Joe’s Special that just might be the ultimate ski breakfast. The Tree Room is the elegant, subtly lit star, a restaurant filled with Redford’s beloved Native American art. True to its name, there is indeed a massive pine tree bursting through the floor, with hundreds of corks at its base. Walk down the corridor to the Tree Room and you get an illustrated timeline of the evolution of the resort, from the photos of the Ute Indians to the Timphaven ropetow, from Redford in Jeremiah Johnson to black-and-whites of Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino in Institute workshops.
But the resort’s centerpiece is the Owl Bar, with its venerable rosewood bar, which was commissioned by none other than Butch Cassidy. The outlaw had it crafted in Ireland, and Redford discovered it a century later in a bar in Thermopolis, Wyo., covered in Formica and shag carpet. It took 18 months to restore.
The low-key feel of Sundance extends to the materials. There’s wood everywhere, much of it barn board that recalls both the Wild West and early ’70s hippie architecture. And through it all a river runs, a rambling tributary of the Provo that slips under wooden bridges.
Then there’s the staff, many of whom have been around for decades. Foremost is Jerry Warren, director of skiing and mountain operations, who is something like the soul of Sundance. He was at Timphaven when Redford bought it, left to run the show at Snowbird, and returned to what is clearly his spiritual home. Warren is not only a legendary ski coach and teacher: He’s Redford’s ski coach and teacher. “Bob is technically better now at 72 than when he made Downhill Racer in 1969,” Warren says.
There’s no question that the spirit of Redford permeates the place. There are plenty of pictures of Redford and Paul Newman from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Yet it doesn’t feel like a Hollywood ego trip. And Redford uses the resort as you might. He skis most days for a couple of hours, he socializes, and he usually has lunch in the Foundry Grill with his fiancée, Sibylle “Billy” Szaggers, and their friends. He’s gracious if approached. He doesn’t preen or glide through the place like a detached owner checking on an investment.
“When he’s dining or skiing, he’s talking to frontline employees,” says co-general manager Chad Linebaugh, who started busing tables here 14 years ago to get a season pass. “Bob pays attention to lots of things, from the color of the ski school jackets to the lighting in the Tree Room.”
If you want to find Redford on the slopes, head to Bishop’s Bowl, some of the steepest terrain on the hill, and other blacks such as Grizzly Ridge and Redfinger, or Shauna’s Secret, named after his daughter. “Skiing was not available to me as a kid in Los Angeles,” Redford says. “I came from a working-class family. I learned skiing late, when I was 30.”
That was three years before he made Downhill Racer, in which he played a cocky American ski racer. But get Redford on the subject of skiing, and the focus is not the Hollywood vision of the sport but Pete Siebert, Friedl Pfeifer and other godfathers of American skiing. “I came in at the tail end of those 10th Mountain guys who started resorts like Waterville Valley, Vail and Aspen,” he says. They’re clearly his heroes, and he likens Sundance to Sugarbush, Vt., in the mid-1960s, when it was small and stylish.
But change is afoot. Well, a little bit of change, Sundance style. Look for a couple of new lifts, new trails and up to 60 more rooms. They’re also re-lighting the mountain for nightskiing. It’s to thank the locals, says Redford.
“We’ve let it slowly evolve with time,” he says as he adjourns for a few afternoon turns. “But as we go forward, we’re going to continue to make this place reminiscent of skiing the way it used to be.”
SIGNPOST: Sundance Resort
450 skiable acres; 2,153 vertical feet; summit elevation 8,254; 350 annual inches; three lifts. Lift tickets: adults $45; kids 6–12 $22; seniors 65 and over $12; kids 5 and under free.
Lodging: The cabins vary from 450-square-foot studios to 750-square-foot Sundance suites. Mountain Suites and Mountain Lofts are 900 square feet and have kitchens, ensuite bedrooms and dining areas. Studios start at $342 per night in winter. Mountain Homes have three or four bedrooms and, often, multiple decks, expansive living areas and outdoor hot tubs. From $421 (http://sundanceresort.com).
Dining: The Foundry Grill offers three meals daily, from morning omelets to rotisserie rack of pork for dinner. On Sundays, they do a brunch. The Tree Room is fine dining at its best, hushed and perfectly lit, where grilled wild boar chop and ahi tuna are on offer. So is a great wine list. Redford himself worked to build the room and notes that the enormous Navajo rug on the wall has “indigo dye from the cavalry coats of soldiers the Indians had killed.”
Après-ski: The Owl Bar, where you can enjoy Utah’s own Wasatch brews, get a good burger and listen to a soundtrack that might be vintage Al Green or Junior Wells; $5 membership required.
The Festival: The 10-day Sundance Festival (http://sundance.org) is January 15–25 and is so popular that Redford, its creator, refers to it as “a wild beast.” Not surprisingly, Sundance, the resort, is invariably sold out for the first weekend of the festival. But the rest of the week, most deal makers, celebs and PIBs (people in black) want to be where the action is, in Park City. So the resort often has vacancies during the festival’s final week. And very few skiers. Book now.
Don’t Miss: Take a pair of skate skis out on the perfectly groomed 26 kilometers of the Cross Country Ski Center. But first make sure you’ve booked a Four Winds Massage in one of the six treatment rooms at the Spa at Sundance for later on.
Getting There: Fly into Salt Lake City. It’s about an hour’s drive to Sundance.
Info: 801-225-4107; http://sundanceresort.com
- SKI MAGAZINE, DECEMBER 2008