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Deer Valley's New Sharp Edge

Deer Valley's New Sharp Edge

The dining is divine and the service impeccable, but the skiing has always been as pampered as the guests. America’s most lavish ski resort, however, has quietly been toughening up its terrain. ...
By Carrie Sheinberg, Contributor, SKI Magazine
posted: 08/04/2009

As Deer Valley expands its terrain outward into the steeps of Empire Canyon, the amenities to match haven't been far behind. 

Read the full article.

My dad always wants to ski Deer Valley. No surprise, right? Everyone’s dad wants to ski there. It’s where dads go. It might be a law or an axiom. Either way, it’s a place where fathers from all over the world go to be treated with the respect they deserve.

And you know what? They’re entitled. Darn right, somebody should carry Dad’s skis from the immaculately plowed parking to the lovingly groomed snow. Heck yes, somebody in uniform should appear and unobtrusively remove his tray after a lunch of prime rib and fingerling potatoes. And if my dad or anyone else’s should experience even the slightest sniffle, a box of pre-moisturized Kleenex should definitely await him at the head of every liftline. Deer Valley knows dads, and I have no problem with that.

The problem I have is that this morning, my dad wants me to come with him to Deer Valley. It’s 9 a.m., coffee brewing, dogs barking, a foot of fresh in the mountains. And Dad is asking me, again, to ski at Deer Valley with him today. Maybe even all day.

Aw, Dad, can’t we just go to The Canyons? Or Alta? Or Snowbird? Because I know Deer Valley. Back in the ’90s, fresh off the U.S. Ski Team, I spent nearly a decade living in Park City and skiing the Wasatch, and if one thing was clear about my romance with the mountains, it was that Deer Valley wasn’t my type.

What I don’t fully realize is that in the decade since I moved away from Utah, Deer Valley—once scoffed at by the locals for its precious image and its precious clientele—has almost completely changed its image—without actually changing its image. What that means, and how that happened, is quite a story.

“When we first opened,” says Deer Valley president Bob Wheaton, who came from Michigan to teach skiing, “the resort was met with a certain amount of skepticism within the ski industry. Our mission from the beginning was to elevate service and to focus on the overall experience, not just the skiing. And the ski area was much smaller then. We didn’t have much advanced terrain.”

Deer Valley’s stated philosophy of customer service is still a central selling point, but the area has grown steadily, from five lifts in 1980 to 22 in 2008. And aside from a dip in 2002—the year of the Utah Olympics—skier visits have risen every single season.

The reason? The skiing. It’s legit, and just because your dad wants you to ski there with him doesn’t mean it’s not. In the past few years alone, Deer Valley has opened hundreds of acres, some of them actually quite treacherous. The addition of the Empire Canyon lift in 2002, for instance, brought lift service to the Daly Chutes—an area my friends and I used to have to hike to from neighboring Park City Mountain Resort. In 2007, the opening of the Lady Morgan chairlift tacked on another significant swath of solidly expert terrain. Now, real skiers come to Deer Valley. To rip. And it’s not just my father who’s trying to get me to ski here. So are the locals, including both the backcountry crowd and the ultra competitive Masters racers. And they’ve convinced me I’m overdue to give DV another try.

***

I spent eight years living in Park City, the last few as a freshly retired racer, free of gates and race skis for the first time ever. At that point in my life, Deer Valley’s acres of perfect corduroy and meticulously maintained lodges could only offer so much in the way of adventure. I had more serious chest-pounding to do in the much more serious mountains a few valleys away. Real skiing was about danger; about the unknown and the unpredictable; about gravity and recklessness; about scarfing down a sandwich in the tram so I wouldn’t miss another run. Deer Valley had none of that. Quite the opposite: Its pampering and handholding insulted my hard-earned hardcore-ness.

I’m still having these nasty thoughts about Deer Valley’s reputation as I buckle my boots in the Snow Park Lodge. Dad is outside, already buckled and helmeted, eager to get going. Next to me is an octogenarian in a red one-piece ski suit (of course), struggling to get his boots on. Poor guy. Maybe I should help him. Perfectly coiffed families strut by en route to ski school. The typical morning base area chaos plays itself out, but somehow it’s happening quietly. Tastefully, even. After all, this is Deer Valley. The poor old guy is still working on his ski boots. “Do you know who that is?” a friend whispers. “It’s Fred Beckey.”

It turns out Beckey is a legendary climber and mountaineer who holds the all-time record for first ascents credited to one man. At 86, he’s still climbing. Check out his YouTube video from last fall; that’s him halfway up a rock face in the Adirondacks. And apparently, this wild mountain man still skis, too.

OK, I concede. So maybe Deer Valley has stepped up its hardcore rating to suitable-for-legendary-80-year-olds. Hardly enough to prove there’s been a resort-wide makeover.

Then: “Hey, Shiney.” I hear someone calling me over my left shoulder. It’s Hahnenkamm champion Daron Rahlves—America’s most successful downhiller ever—walking by en route to the Carpenter lift. He’s here to race in the first-ever World Cup Skiercross on U.S. soil. So are Casey Puckett, Jake Fiala—a bunch of my old teammates. Rahlves is dripping in race gear—jersey, pads, helmet—and the event starts in just a few minutes. Incidentally, he’s not coiffed.

It has been a record winter for snow in Utah—a year when even the snowflakes have snowflakes—and the last thing Dad and I want to do is hang around and watch former World Cuppers on an obstacle course. So we go straight up to Silver Lake Village, bang a left and head down to the Wasatch lift, aiming for Triangle Trees, Deer Valley’s “secret” pride and joy. (Don’t worry, Dad, I won’t tell anyone how to get there.) Triangle Trees is nothing more than glades, but it’s glades Deer Valley–style. Think of the difference between your kid’s rock-strewn Little League diamond and Fenway Park. In Triangle, all the nasty stumps and boulders have been tastefully excised by Deer Valley’s capable mountain crew. No matter how deep your tips dive, they’ll never touch a submerged rock or branch. This might take the hardcore out of the trees, but it’s still an adventure. Being able to point them downhill through white-barked aspens at race speeds and in library quietude is magical by any standard.

We arrive at the almost indistinguishable entrance to it, and I’m ready to dig into my own slice of heaven when I realize: It’s been eaten already. Not just nibbled on, either. Licked clean, more like. Somebody’s been stealing my freshies. A lot of somebodies. Five years ago, the snow in these trees would have stayed untouched for days. Now it’s cut up by a new and apparently not-so-rare species of Deer Valley skier: the off-piste adventurer.

“Word is out at Deer Valley now,” says Cameron Romeo, a ski instructor at the resort for the past 21 years. “You have to be on the lift at 9 a.m., ready to go, because the locals are out nowadays. I go get my five favorite laps, and after that I’m skiing crud the rest of the day.”

It isn’t what I was expecting. But Deer Valley crud is still Utah crud, and there’s nothing bad about that. I fly through the generously spaced aspens, stay left over the knoll, weave down the steeper face, then descend into the darkness of the spruces. I cross the road and keep going for what seems like a much longer run than I remembered. Once I come out of the trees for good and head for the Sultan lift, it makes more sense: Deer Valley has relocated the bottom of the chairlift, allowing for a much lengthier jaunt through the trees. Now that’s the kind of customer service I applaud.

***

Later in the week, I’m back, this time skiing with clients. The snow’s great, but I don’t expect to enjoy much of it. In fact, if you want to guarantee yourself a dull ski day, sign up to be the designated on-hill baby sitter for a bunch of visiting titans of industry. They don’t call them fat cats for nothing.

But one sure sign this isn’t your ordinary venture capitalist conference is the venture capitalist right in front of me, dangling from a tree.

It isn’t the way I figured my day would go. Hired by a group of Massachusetts VCs to ski with their clients for an afternoon, I expected an easy three-hour tour of the groomers, doling out a few pointers here and there.

Wrong again. Before I can even introduce myself, my group of frothing-at-the-mouth, type-A 40somethings announces they want me to “take them to the really good stuff.” Then they charge toward the lift. So I bring them over to Empire Canyon, figuring we can try the new Lady Morgan Express lift and Centennial Trees—my friends have been raving about them. As soon as we get to the summit, my gang, 15 strong, disappears below me, tearing down Lady Morgan Bowl through narrow passages in the rock band and into the snowy beyond. What the heck, I figure; they can afford the surgery. Had I actually skied this terrain before, maybe I could have helped Mike the VC avoid that tree. But probably not. I was just racing to keep up as we headed toward the towering pines. Who are these people?

Mike is fine, and the pace only quickens. We drop off to the left and fly through the trees. Since it’s my first time in these glades, I’m expecting the usual “Utah 20”—the 20 steep turns you find at most of the state’s ski areas before hitting the run-out back to the lift. But in these glades, completely sheltered from the gusting winds at 8,500 feet, the ground just keeps falling away, turn after turn.

We do laps until the lift closes and our legs are shot, then ski back to the bar at the Stein Eriksen Lodge with a little spruce pitch on our clothes and minus one iPhone. Gruyere burgers and raclette await us. I must admit, a little Deer Valley luxury tastes pretty good after a day like this.

***

Later, I make it back for one more day with my dad—this time with my husband, Paul, and my friend and former high school coach, Mike. The sun has come out and the powder has been mostly cooked. After a few runs in Ontario Bowl, we ex-Vermonters all feel like going fast. “To the Wasatch lift,” declares Dad.

No racer in her right mind would complain about a perfectly prepared, long, steep, wide-open groomer, and I am no exception. For high-speed carving, you’d be hard-pressed to find trails any better than Keno, Reward and Legal Tender under the Wasatch Express. We dive down, one by one, our angles increasing with every turn, skis biting into the snow, wind roaring in our ears. As the final pitch drops out from under me, I’m not sure my legs are strong enough to hold up to the speed, but I push ahead anyway, thankfully skidding safely to a stop at the base. I look up, expecting to have to wait a minute or two for Dad, but he’s right there behind me. Decked out in his flashy red jacket, silver Giro helmet and latest-model skis, he wears a grin as big as the arcs he just left in the snow.

“Wasn’t that great?” Dad says. “Yeah, it was,” I reply. And then I think to myself, “Yeah, it was.” Fast and thrilling, maybe a little scary. You could even call it a moment of genuine adventure.

It also occurs to me that 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought this possible—my dad keeping up with me and, frankly, me being in my mid-30s and still laying down tracks like I’d just made.

“It’s interesting to see what’s happening with the population as a whole,” Wheaton, the Deer Valley president, says later. “People are taking better care of themselves now. Being 50 or 60 today is a lot different than being 50 was 20 years ago. Part of it also is the equipment. People have the desire and the ability to explore a bit more.”

So these days, Deer Valley finds itself perfectly positioned at the nexus of two trends, where the revolution in equipment dovetails with big bank accounts attached to relatively youthful, active owners. In other words, technology meets resources meets services. Deer Valley has definitely arrived.

To be sure, some of Deer Valley’s old, clichéd reputation is deserved. You still see plenty of Prada and Armani spangling the groomers. You still pay $20 for lunch (if you don’t get a drink). And legend has it that if you get caught sneaking off to pee in the woods, you will be briskly escorted from the premises.

But is it so bad to be free of worry out on the ski hill? Maybe I’ve finally gotten old enough to appreciate Deer Valley, or maybe Deer Valley’s finally gotten good enough for me. More than likely, it’s a little bit of both.

As Dad, Paul, Mike and I finish the day at The Beach—an area of white lounge chairs spread in elegant disarray in front of the Silver Lake Lodge—I can’t deny the adventure I’ve just had. And I don’t want to.

Later, Romeo puts it this way: “The terrain, the lift capacity, the layout...if you were to take the pampered DV mystique away, I think the consensus would be that it’s just a flat-out good ski hill.”

And Romeo would know. He has taught there for two decades, but he’s also skied the Grand Teton and guided clients down countless peaks in Alaska’s Chugach Range.

“In its simplest form you have to strip a mountain to its terrain,” Romeo says. “Just the mountain. Forget the turkey chili. Is the mountain fun to ride? And the answer is yes.”

***

A Skier at Heart: Edgar Stern
Edgar Stern had a deceptively simple business philosophy, says Deer Valley president Bob Wheaton. “His belief was, ‘Treat your staff as you would your best guest. And treat every guest like a VIP.’ ” On that premise, Stern built one of America’s most successful resorts and forever raised the expectations of a ski vacation. He opened Deer Valley in 1981 with the then unconventional goal of running a resort like a five-star hotel. “Edgar always believed that service should never be compromised,” Wheaton says.

In the early 1970s, Stern, who died in October at age 86, understood that Utah’s new interstate, I-80, would make for a quick commute from the Salt Lake airport. He bought Park City Resort and the land that would become Deer Valley. He sold Park City in 1975 and made Deer Valley his passion.

Stern, a former director of Sears Roebuck and a pioneer in television and luxury hotels, was as unassuming as his resort is lavish. “He never cut a line in all the years that I skied with him,” Wheaton says.

A keen businessman, he also was a dedicated skier. But no noodling through bumps or trees for him. “No-Turn Stern,” as they called him, liked to point ’em down hill and let ’em run.

SIGNPOST: Deer Valley, UT
2,026 skiable acres; 3,000 vertical feet; summit elevation 9,570 feet (Empire Peak); 300 annual inches; 99 runs; 22 lifts. Lift tickets: adult $83; senior (65-plus) $59; child (4–12) $50; tot (3 and under) $21.

Lodging: Stein Eriksen Lodge, at the Silver Lake base area, is about as posh as it gets. You can peruse the trophy case of its namesake, the Norwegian ski great, between trips to the spa, pool and slopes ($510–$2,385; 800-453-1302; steinlodge.com). Families love the Black Diamond Lodge’s slopeside luxury condos near the Snow Park Lodge, home of ski school and daycare facilities ($630–$3,815; 888-976-2732; blackdiamond-deervalley.com). The Grand Lodge, situated at the base of the Lady Morgan Express, offers luxurious two- to six-bedroom units, extraordinary décor and all the amenities ($1,250–$3,800; 800-541-9378; www.resortswest.com).

Dining: Greater Park City is a gastronome’s delight. Deer Valley offers its own extraordinary dining experiences, among them Fireside Dining (the Empire Canyon Lodge goes candlelit gourmet) and Mariposa at Silver Lake Lodge (800-424-3337 for both). In town, try Wahso (435-615-0300) or Shabu (435-645-7253), both popular with locals for differing takes on Asian fusion. Robert Redford’s restaurant, Zoom (435-649-7614), keeps it refreshingly simple and delicious. For steaks, don’t miss Prime (435-655-9739).

Getting There: From Salt Lake International Airport (40 minutes), take I-80 east to Kimball Junction/Park City exit, then 224 south to Deer Valley Drive.

Info: 800-424-3337; deervalley.com

SKIING DEER VALLEY
On powder days, the steep new terrain gives experts a little more to chew on—and takes some of the pressure off old favorites. Strategy is key in getting the best—and most—of both. To see a trail map for reference and to read reviews, go to Deer Valley’s profile on SkiMag.com at www.skinet.com/ski/travel/resort/deer-valley.

For all the talk of Empire and Lady Morgan being Deer Valley’s rad new terrain, there are two points to remember as you plan your powder day. One, they typically open later than the more central terrain on Bald Mountain, and two, everyone’s so keyed up to ski them that the older terrain goes ignored.

So while you wait for the avvy control crews to work their way over there, be more than content to start your day on Bald Mountain. Head straight for the top via Sterling Express, then focus on the terrain under the Sultan and Wasatch lifts. Both serve up 1,400 vertical feet—as much as any other lifts at Deer Valley—and deliver you to long, sustained pitches. Warm up on powder-covered groomers—soft on top, smooth underneath, a classic Deer Valley experience. Then hit Triangle Trees—or whatever looks good.

Stay in touch with patrollers uniformed hosts for lift updates. They’ll help you beat the rush to Empire and Lady Morgan. At that end of the resort, adjacent to neighboring Park City’s slopes, you’ll find shorter but steeper shots. The Daly Chutes remain Deer Valley’s most extreme terrain, though they require a short hike. Better to first lap the new Lady Morgan terrain, especially the fairly steep trees of Centennial. For lunch, Empire Canyon Lodge is a less crowded than Silver Lake. And when you’re ready to head back toward Bald, hit the hike-to trees of Ontario Bowl at least once.

As always in Utah, mind the sun exposures, especially later in the season, when snow on the lower and more exposed faces tends to melt and stiffen.

- SKI MAGAZINE, JANUARY 2009

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