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Destinations: Underground Utah

Features
By Helen Olsson
posted: 03/31/1998

Beneath the glamour and grooming, the Park City triumvirate harbors a hairball side.I admit it. I was an Alta snob. Back in '91, I spent a winter ski bumming there and developed an uppity attitude toward that trio of pathetic little ski hills around Park City. Or Park Shitty. In my vague memory, Park City ski area was mostly wide-open, funnel-like expressways littered with snowplowing Texans. Sure, there was some interesting terrain buried in the back, but it took so long to get to, you'd turn gray on the lift. Word was that Deer Valley, known also as Bambi Basin, was buffed flat as a pancake so the furs wouldn't fly off the rich folks. The third area, now called The Canyons, was a nonentity.

But in the years since, I'd heard that there was some really gnarly terrain on the other side of the Cottonwood canyons-even a stash of hairy chutes at Deer Valley. I figured I'd give the areas a try. And even if the skiing was lame, I expected that the town of Park City-this I'm not afraid to admit-would offer up a more scintillating après-ski scene than, say, a pitcher of beer at Goldminer's Daughter in Alta.

Conveniently, the Park City areas are all located within three miles of Park City's main street. My hubbie, Jeff, and I found it was easy to pinball between the three. And our timing was perfect: The heavens opened up and heaped great gobs of snow everywhere. Sixty inches in six days!

All three areas are mostly below tree line and situated at relatively low elevations for Utah (you sleep at 6,900 feet in Park City, as high as 8,950 at Alta), but otherwise each one has its own distinct character. At The Canyons, with more skiable acres than Snowbird, we discovered a huge playground of ridges and bowls and gullies and trees and, yes, canyons. It was a gargantuan natural terrain park ripe for exploration. Behind Park City's mostly mellow frontside, we found a three-mile ridge with four powder-choked bowls stacked next to one another, crowned by the rocky, chute-filled Jupiter Peak. And at Deer Valley, when we weren't skiing untracked in deserted glades of aspen, we skied chutes and bowls in the area's new Empire Canyon.

At night we trolled the town's eateries and watering holes. We met friends of friends and ended up with a posse of ripping skiers who skied us into a pulp. By the end of the week, I was sorry I ever called those hills pathetic.

Jeff and I watched bad skiers windshield-wipering down groomed runs, scrubbing the surface slick below the Sterling Lift. We were en route to Deer Valley's highest summit, Bald mountain, one of two peaks stacked above and behind the area's front peak. Jeff surveyed the scene and announced that if he, a solid advanced skier, could ski everything we set out to ski this week, it couldn't be too gnarly.

It all looked pretty tame from the lift, but Deer Valley is like a mink coat with a leopard-skin lining. And the key to the wilder side is a special experts-only trail map. We followed it to steep shots hidden in the trees of Ontario Bowl, Sunset Glade, and The Black Forest. And to the tree-lined Mayflower chutes, which required a cornice hop and 12 careful turns down a 38-degree pitch. But even that was over before we could feel that butterfly stomach of truly scary skiing. Jeff was keeping up just fine.

We'd made plans with Heidi Voelker, a former U.S. Ski Teamer and the area's ambassador, to take a snowcat tour of the 500-acre Empire Canyon. The area, which butts up to Park City's McConkey's Bowl, adds an off-piste dimension to a mountain known for manicured slopes. (This year, two new chairs replace the cats.) As the cat rumbled up the ridge, Jeff Brown, Deer Valley's director of snow safety, said, "Feel like huckin'? Have I got a cornice for you." It was massive. The 25-foot lip oozed layers of snow like peanut butter and jelly squished between two hunks of Wonder bread. The only taker: Chris Samuels, a Mammoth local who was touring Utah in search of photo ops. He pushed back, hauled off in a tight ball, and landed in the wide chute below, making GS rns to rein in his speed.

With her blond hair, green eyes, bright orange Völkls, and fluorescent green one-piece, Voelker dropped in like a neon explosion. She made powerful arcs down Chute 2, which Brown had named Chandelier Chute for a cold midthigh day when the snow had shattered like broken crystal. Where Jeff and I skied under the overhanging maw, the slope was littered with death cookies underneath a heavy blanket of snow steep enough to avalanche. I made a dozen sweet turns and one tremendous neck-straining somersault.

We traversed over to Chute 4. Looking up, all I could see was a nearly vertical cliff band, but Brown assured us it had been skied. Its unofficial name: W2, for Wheaton's Woody. Had I skied it, it would be called H2, for Helen's Heart Attack. We skied its 30-degree apron, the thick snow turning to heavy gunk in the trees 650 feet below. A sweaty, disheveled mess, Jeff opted out of a second cat tour. The challenge had been met: Deer Valley had indeed upped its hairball quotient. It occurred to me then that the Deer Valley logo-a stoic- looking, forest green deer head- looks a lot like the label on a Jägermeister bottle. And that there are a few shots of throat-burning Jägey at this otherwise Chardonnay resort.

After chicken curry in a clay pot at Taste of Saigon, we headed to O'Shucks for a beer. Peanut shells crunched underfoot as we walked into the long, narrow one-time police shooting gallery. Decorating the brick wall were rusty license plates, old skis, and O'Shucks T-shirts promising Big Nuts, Good Head. It was a Sunday night but the place was humming. A girl with lips the color of blood walked by and gave Jeff's inner thigh a squeeze. Behind the bar, wearing a little black Armonk, N.Y. name tag, Chris Paulding moved quickly. He was pulling 32-ounce schooners-like wine glasses on steroids-from the rack made from old skis above the bar. He went to Green Mountain Valley School at Sugarbush with Brant Moles and Jeremy Nobis but gave up ski racing in favor of freeskiing. We made plans to ski with Chris and friends the next day at The Canyons.

Maybe it was the name, but I did not want to go down the Plumber's Crack. Paulding, Chris Bremmer (another P.C. local we met at O'Shucks), Jeff, and I had traversed along the tree-covered face off Tombstone and were peeking down a 40-degree funnel that narrowed to the width of a ski. Instead we took 37 Degrees North, etching half moons in the soft snow until the clearing dumped us into the trees below, then spit us into a gully runout. It was gloriously steep, like Alta, but lacked the sustained vertical that leaves your quads screaming for mercy.

Even now, at 3,860 acres, The Canyons is Utah's biggest little-known resort. Not for long, though. "There's small, medium, and large," American Skiing Company CEO Les Otten later told me. "The Canyons will be freaking huge." It's already on the way: For '98-'99, ASC will string a new chair up to Ninety Nine-90 peak, accessing even more ridge and bowl skiing.

We had plenty to explore as it was. We rode Condor, a cold and windy double that creaks up a long ridgetop (thankfully, ASC has since replaced it with a high-speed quad). We jumped into one of the never-ending glades that spill off the ridge. The trees were tighter than an A-cup on Dolly Parton; the snow, belly-button deep. Paulding's pale blue jacket with Eager Beaver Tree Service on the back disappeared into the forest. I was sure I'd lost Jeff until he emerged, his neck scratched and bloody. "I hit two trees back there," he said with a strange grin, "not one, but two." It was more adventure than skiing, but it left us feeling like we'd been somewhere, done something.

Aside from three inches overnight, it hadn't dumped in days, but few skiers had ventured into the trees. The gladed ridge of The Pines was virtually untracked, and white surf boiled around our thighs as we darted through aspen and fir. We had the place to ourselves. Though it was a weekend, the lodge was quiet at 8:30 a.m.; the shiny new, brightly painted gondolas were mostly empty. "Look around," said Bremmer. "No one knows about this place." Not a bad reason for choosing The Canyons with a capital "T."

Jeff and I were sitting in a booth in the Morning Ray when our nose-ringed waitress squealed, "Oooooh, gnarly... fur coat!!!" The woman who'd just walked in pretended not to hear her. We pretended not to laugh. We had coffee, sourdough pancakes, and big plates of eggs. Overhead, a system of fans, belts, and pulleys twirled neckties in lazy circles. We were gearing up for Park City and nearly a foot of fresh. I was also gearing up for long chair rides.

But since I'd last skied Park City, they'd put in two new high-speed chairs. In no time, we were whisked to the Jupiter lift, which accesses a three-mile ridge with four heaping bowls of trees, chutes, cornices, and steeps. The terrain looks more like Alta than anywhere else in Park City. I rode up with Eric Zerrenner, 28, a fireman and ex-P.C. ski patroller; Paulding; and his roommate Christina Nicholas, 26, a waitress, shop rat, and freeskier.

From the top, it was a 15-minute hump along the ridgeline to Scott's Bowl. Paulding got a running start, launched the eight-foot cornice, landed in the thick snow, and cut powder 11's the length of two football fields. The rest of us huffed our way to the bottom through the thick, soft steep-and-deep. At the bottom Jeff looked at me, a bead of sweat running down his temple, and said, "Nice warm up run. I'll see you at lunch."

In the afternoon, we headed for Jupiter Bowl's tree-lined chutes. I picked Dirt Chute, named by the patrol because, at 48 degrees, snow has difficulty sticking to it. Great. It was a narrow, vertical minefield: Little stumps and logs and sharp rocks were hidden just beneath the surface. Paulding aired over the most problematic section. I delicately hop-turned down, snow sloughing down around my boot tops, my heart wonderfully stuck in my throat, adrenaline tingling all the way to my fingertips.

Next we hiked through the Pearly Gates, around the back of Jupiter Peak to Flagstaff Ridge, and over a cornice into pillow-soft McConkey's Bowl. The 25-minute trek was worth it. Few had preceded us, and there were enough first tracks and face shots to feed a kennel of hungry powderhounds. At the bottom, there were knowing grins all around: It was midday, and by now Alta's faces were surely cut to shreds.

I'd seen enough to realize there was plenty of adrenaline-inducing terrain at Park City. But if that's your raison d'ski, I thought, then Park City is a 1,000-acre, one-lift ski area with two high-speed access chairs, and one hell of an end-of-the-day runout. Make that was a one-lift area: The addition of a high-speed six-pack in McConkey's dramatically changes things for this season. What was once the exclusive playground of those willing to traverse and hike will now be accessed by a five-minute ride. Powder that once stayed fresh for days will be gobbled up more quickly.


Go to Part 2 of Underground Utah.

Go to Destination: Park City, Utah.the place to ourselves. Though it was a weekend, the lodge was quiet at 8:30 a.m.; the shiny new, brightly painted gondolas were mostly empty. "Look around," said Bremmer. "No one knows about this place." Not a bad reason for choosing The Canyons with a capital "T."

Jeff and I were sitting in a booth in the Morning Ray when our nose-ringed waitress squealed, "Oooooh, gnarly... fur coat!!!" The woman who'd just walked in pretended not to hear her. We pretended not to laugh. We had coffee, sourdough pancakes, and big plates of eggs. Overhead, a system of fans, belts, and pulleys twirled neckties in lazy circles. We were gearing up for Park City and nearly a foot of fresh. I was also gearing up for long chair rides.

But since I'd last skied Park City, they'd put in two new high-speed chairs. In no time, we were whisked to the Jupiter lift, which accesses a three-mile ridge with four heaping bowls of trees, chutes, cornices, and steeps. The terrain looks more like Alta than anywhere else in Park City. I rode up with Eric Zerrenner, 28, a fireman and ex-P.C. ski patroller; Paulding; and his roommate Christina Nicholas, 26, a waitress, shop rat, and freeskier.

From the top, it was a 15-minute hump along the ridgeline to Scott's Bowl. Paulding got a running start, launched the eight-foot cornice, landed in the thick snow, and cut powder 11's the length of two football fields. The rest of us huffed our way to the bottom through the thick, soft steep-and-deep. At the bottom Jeff looked at me, a bead of sweat running down his temple, and said, "Nice warm up run. I'll see you at lunch."

In the afternoon, we headed for Jupiter Bowl's tree-lined chutes. I picked Dirt Chute, named by the patrol because, at 48 degrees, snow has difficulty sticking to it. Great. It was a narrow, vertical minefield: Little stumps and logs and sharp rocks were hidden just beneath the surface. Paulding aired over the most problematic section. I delicately hop-turned down, snow sloughing down around my boot tops, my heart wonderfully stuck in my throat, adrenaline tingling all the way to my fingertips.

Next we hiked through the Pearly Gates, around the back of Jupiter Peak to Flagstaff Ridge, and over a cornice into pillow-soft McConkey's Bowl. The 25-minute trek was worth it. Few had preceded us, and there were enough first tracks and face shots to feed a kennel of hungry powderhounds. At the bottom, there were knowing grins all around: It was midday, and by now Alta's faces were surely cut to shreds.

I'd seen enough to realize there was plenty of adrenaline-inducing terrain at Park City. But if that's your raison d'ski, I thought, then Park City is a 1,000-acre, one-lift ski area with two high-speed access chairs, and one hell of an end-of-the-day runout. Make that was a one-lift area: The addition of a high-speed six-pack in McConkey's dramatically changes things for this season. What was once the exclusive playground of those willing to traverse and hike will now be accessed by a five-minute ride. Powder that once stayed fresh for days will be gobbled up more quickly.


Go to Part 2 of Underground Utah.

Go to Destination: Park City, Utah.

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