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The Promised Land

Features
posted: 02/19/2003

The Canyons ski resort vowed to deliver on the potential that two previous incarnations did not.

On a sunny Sunday in March, I stand on the highest point at The Canyons resort outside Park City, Utah, atop the lift called Ninety Nine 90, on a peak brushing 9,990 feet. Only from here, gazing east toward the tweed expanse of sage, can you truly appreciate the impressive constellation of hill and dale comprising this resort. And like the first meltwater trickles of the Andes that collect eventually into the critical mass of the Amazon, I can see how the Canyons' terrain begins its flow here, underfoot, on the crest of the fabled Wasatch Mountains.

Arranged like so much fabric stretched over tent poles, the peaks relax into the ridges slung between them, branching in every direction. Likewise, tight bowls flush through serpentine valley-bottoms, collecting tributaries from every passing ravine. Scanning the topographic mayhem, your eyes literally don't know where to settle. One thing, however, is apparent: The Canyons may claim more intermediate terrain than other Utah resorts, but this view also reveals plenty of traditional expert fare-precipitous north-facing trees and an abundance of prime OB powder fields.

The weather has conspired to leave more than 20 inches in the upper parts of the ski area. Eyeing the inbounds possibilities and out-of-bounds gates, I settle on a short walk through the latter. The ride is cold, deep, vintage Wasatch. Plunging first down a face averaging over 30 degrees, the slope moderates to staircase benches at the bottom. It's that fun, fast, hoot-and-holler headspace that makes you wonder why people would ski anything else, and there's plenty of it both inside and outside the resort. In the next few hours I cycle steep freshies in a wide scattering of hidden pockets, places like Charlie Brown, Fantasy Ridge, and Mystic Pines.

For those plying the upper reaches of The Canyons on this day, it's been worth every dollar, drop of sweat, or second on the clock it took to get here. A manifest that, given the 35-year, yin-yang struggles of this resort, probably goes for its current developers as well.

If you pulled into the parking lot of Park West in the winter of 1992-93, the mountain looked like it had little to offer save the bump-infested vestiges of its '70s freestyle glory (Park West was opened in 1968 by longtime Park City ski instructor Dick Reynolds). And when you finally got high enough to see the good stuff, you realized there was no way to get to it but hike-a powder-day secret Park City denizens kept to themselves, guaranteeing the emptiness of what amounted to, on any day but Saturday, a private area for locals.

Things changed somewhat in 1994, with new owners and a new vision. They called the place Wolf Mountain, renamed the Western-themed piste catalogue after endangered species, and embarked on a program of repairs, upgrades, replacements, snowmaking, catskiing, and a night-lit halfpipe and terrain park, while promoting the mountain as the only Park City-area resort to offer snowboarding. While the improvements benefited customers, they also made Wolf Mountain an attractive buy for the American Skiing Company juggernaut that was snapping up funkified resorts across the continent in an Intrawest-style push. And so, on December 24, 1997, after a campaign of promotion hitherto unseen in the Intermountain West, The Canyons opened under ASC's banner. The relentless promotion peaked during the 2002 Olympics, when NBC's Today show broadcast its entire Olympic coverage from The Canyons-and the second Sat-urday post-Olympics, the resort saw its biggest skier day ever.

Despite this exposure, The Canyons parent ASC is struggling; it was de-listed last March from the NYSE. However, those visiting its flagship resort won't see acute effects of the company's economic plight. On the ground, it's business as usual-and that business is skiing. As one employee put it, "When I'm getting face shots on Ninety Nine 90, I'm not thinking about the financial status oASC."

One quick lesson you learn here is that the amount and quality of snow vary hugely around The Canyons because of the many different exposures and weather scenarios. I never would have guessed at the bounty awaiting me given the dusty base conditions. My first clue that things had recently improved came in the gondola ride.

"You should have seen the east side here a couple days ago-it was all dirt," brayed one woman whose face had clearly seen more uplift than anything you could buy a ticket for. "And look what it did to my suit!"

Lack of snow is a consequence of exposure and latitude that perennially plagues the lower part of The Canyons. Which is why it's great to be on top of Ninety Nine 90 surrounded by deep, fresh snow, 3,190 feet above, a mile distant, and half-hour from the base.Ninety Nine 90 is both a lift and a semaphore to quality snow-meaning it's all good wherever you go. You can follow ridges to steep conifer and cliff pockets or stroll through a myriad of gates to the wilder stuff.

As befitted conditions, I'd first aimed for Square Top, a 20-minute boot to looker's right that sports the longest, steepest powder slope visible from the resort, one on which I'd watched innumerable cold-smoke sine waves erupt during the long ride up. It had been easy enough to get to: Fifty yards from the top of the lift, on the other side of a rope, I simply joined a long line of pilgrims shouldering boards along the ridge. The only catch was that I hadn't been able to walk directly over to join them; instead, I'd had to exit in the opposite direction, then climb around the other side of Ninety Nine 90 to prove my will to make the trek.

Such circuitous routing may seem strange, but when you're maintaining a backcountry-friendly policy that attempts to balance public access to Forest Service land and serious terrain with the need to "filter" out the uninformed and unprepared, a little hoop-jumping is a good thing.

After our group shuffled laterally to an unoccupied cornice and dropped in one at a time beside the shadowed depths of a bordering forest, I'd quickly forgotten about the punters. And with another 100 lines or so left on this massive face, it was a while before I'd even had time to consider them. Of course, by then there was another walk, this time out to the massive bowl looker's left of Ninety Nine 90, with its mix of open slopes, glades, and cliff bands. Then sweet tree-skiing off the new Day Break lift and mellow cruising in the resort's far-flung Dreamscape sector. I'd finished up the day on the high lines above Saddleback Express, dropping down to the natural halfpipes below. All powder, all steep, and all gloriously open immediately after a storm.

These available powder routes contradicted leftover perceptions from its first year of operation that The Canyons was slow to open due to low numbers of patrollers or inexperience. The reality is that it's a huge challenge for patrol to control something this large and convoluted-with many places that require monitoring. Regardless of whatever shortfalls may have existed in the past, these days they seem to have a handle on it.

In the end, when considering The Canyons, consider this: There are two ways to sample the prime backcountry stashes of the Wasatch crest. First, you can spend half a day touring into the variegated folds of the crumpled skirt of mountains from points west or north. Or, you can plunk down some coin, wait in a few lines, reach the top in under an hour, and walk for a few minutes. Either way-be it money or time-you pay to play. In the latter case, however, you also gain lift access to 3,500 acres of everything Utah has to offer: countless peaks, diverse terrain, and an embarrassment of quality snow.

The bottom line? If you hit The Canyons on even a halfway decent day-there are legions in this part of Utah-you may find it confusing or time-consuming to get up the mountain, but you'll undoubtedly be pleased with what you find.

The Inside Line: The Canyons, Utah

Vertical Drop: 3,190 feet Acres: 3,500 (soon to be 5,400) Snowfall: 360 inches Snowmaking: 160 acres Lifts: 16 Terrain: 8 peaks; 14% beginner 44% intermediate 42%advanced On-Mountain Restaurants: 7 Info: 435-649-5400, thecanyons.com

Powder Day
If the line at the gondola is long, head to the Golden Eagle chair and ski steep, tight, tree-lined Super Fury. Also, check out Chutes 5 and 6, as well as Aplande, before hitting Peak 5 for leftover tree stashes.

3 days later
Slalom north-facing fluff under Golden Eagle, then head for the Condor Woods. Also, hit Fantasy Ridge on the north side of Ninety Nine 90.

Drinking and Dancing
For beer, hit Doc's at the bottom of the gondola. Or drive five minutes to Park City and experience Main Street with BYU expats. The newest club is Plan B, where on Friday nights, girls get in free, guys pay $5, and drafts are a buck.

Fuel
High-end: The Cabin in the Grand Summit Resort Hotel. Low-end: the 7-Eleven parking lot at the base of the access road. In PC Lakota is good for drinks and apps.

Digs
The best deals are ski-for-free packages, which start at $217 for the Sundial Lodge and $289 for the Grand Summit (both are on-mountain).

Must know
Eat lunch at Look Out cabin for crowd-free Wasatch views and table service in the sun.

'll undoubtedly be pleased with what you find.

The Inside Line: The Canyons, Utah

Vertical Drop: 3,190 feet Acres: 3,500 (soon to be 5,400) Snowfall: 360 inches Snowmaking: 160 acres Lifts: 16 Terrain: 8 peaks; 14% beginner 44% intermediate 42%advanced On-Mountain Restaurants: 7 Info: 435-649-5400, thecanyons.com

Powder Day
If the line at the gondola is long, head to the Golden Eagle chair and ski steep, tight, tree-lined Super Fury. Also, check out Chutes 5 and 6, as well as Aplande, before hitting Peak 5 for leftover tree stashes.

3 days later
Slalom north-facing fluff under Golden Eagle, then head for the Condor Woods. Also, hit Fantasy Ridge on the north side of Ninety Nine 90.

Drinking and Dancing
For beer, hit Doc's at the bottom of the gondola. Or drive five minutes to Park City and experience Main Street with BYU expats. The newest club is Plan B, where on Friday nights, girls get in free, guys pay $5, and drafts are a buck.

Fuel
High-end: The Cabin in the Grand Summit Resort Hotel. Low-end: the 7-Eleven parking lot at the base of the access road. In PC Lakota is good for drinks and apps.

Digs
The best deals are ski-for-free packages, which start at $217 for the Sundial Lodge and $289 for the Grand Summit (both are on-mountain).

Must know
Eat lunch at Look Out cabin for crowd-free Wasatch views and table service in the sun.

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