A single lift strung out over a sprawl of mostly treeless terrain, bordered by walls of serrated rock. Two dozen skiers at most, roaming around in small groups like tribal packs. A steaming snowpack coated with the alabaster sheen that comes from constant sun baking. A siroccolike wind charging over the ridgetop from the west.
Strawberry Bowl at Snowbasin, late March. It was like an eerie, lost continent, some abandoned moonscape on the edge of Utah skiing's final frontier. It was a scene of spooky solitude¿so much skiing, so few people, so much open space. Why this unpopulated netherworld? I wondered. Snowbasin isn't some dinky, ignoble, and ignorable place, after all. You can't just blithely write off a ski area with roughly 3,200 acres of rock-lined chutes, sick-steep tree shots you can literally lose yourself in, sprawling bowls of incalculable dimension, and continuous fall-line runs of almost 3,000 vertical feet. In a state filled with massive ski areas, it is one of the biggest. Yet here, on this warm spring day, Snowbasin was getting less respect than some homely wallflower at the junior prom.
I felt an amazed helplessness watching thousands of acres of untracked wilting under the powerful solar energy of late March. The remnants of a recent storm that had hurled more than a foot of new snow at Snowbasin were now decaying into spring mush. At Alta and Snowbird, the crazed masses would have devoured the powder before lunchtime. I checked later at the Snowbasin office; the grand total for the day was 385 skiers. Imagine that: 385 skiers on 3,200 acres.
Until 1998, there were understandable reasons for the absence of humanity. Located 73 miles north of Park City, Snowbasin was a longer and sometimes more iffy drive than to other Salt Lake¿accessible areas. Old chairlifts provided access to what is, by and large, the area's least inspiring terrain. The runs were mostly flat, and what steeps there were flattened out much too quickly. If you wanted the good stuff¿uninterrupted steeps and wide-open bowls¿you had to hike for it.
Snowbasin's owner, Earl Holding, had grand ideas for Snowbasin when he acquired the ski area in 1984. He envisioned a resort with the potential to rival Sun Valley, which he happens to own.
When Holding first saw the ski area, walking the terrain in summer with previous owner and Vail founder Pete Seibert, what impressed him most was the unspoiled beauty. "Everything was intact as God put it there," he says. Although he insisted to Seibert that he had no interest in buying the place¿"owning one ski area was enough"¿he couldn't resist what he recognized to be a "first-rate, first-class mountain." So he made the plunge.
But then, as soon as he made moves toward developing the resort, he found himself mired in a Sisyphean attempt to acquire 1,300 acres of land at the base of the ski area from the U.S. Forest Service. Resistance from environmentalist and no-growth factions prevented the deal from going through for more than a decade.
In the mid '90s, pre-Olympic politics finally helped to break the stalemate. With Snowbasin designated as the site of the downhill and super G races for Salt Lake's 2002 Olympic bid, Congress passed the Snowbasin Land Exchange Act in 1996, allowing the land swap and base-area development to proceed. With that, Snowbasin's potential as a ski area was finally given wings to fly.
Four major new lifts¿two gondolas, a tram, and a high-speed quad¿were added in 1998 as the first phase of Snowbasin's makeover. Three of those lifts have a vertical rise of at least 2,300 feet, and their installment nearly doubled Snowbasin's lift-serviced acreage. The plan also included a base-area village, on-mountain restaurants, snowmaking, more lifts, and a new road that will bypass the scary, old winding access road. Slated for fall '00, the new road will shorten the trip from the airport to a quick 40 minutes, making Snowbasin nno less accessible than Park City.
The new lifts alone immediately turned Snowbasin from a bit player in Utah skiing to a big-time rising star. Take 3,200 skiable acres, throw in 400 inches of snow a year, and add breathtaking, high-alpine beauty and ridgetop views of the Great Salt Lake¿you'd think Snowbasin would be turning some heads. Instead, almost nobody seems to have noticed, yet. For the '98¿'99 ski season, Snowbasin registered just 89,000 paying customers, and largely due to warm weather, the figure for the '99¿'00 season was even lower. In other words, your average winter at Snowbasin still produces fewer skiers than a busy couple of weeks at Park City.
I am drawn to lonely places. I am fidgety in crowds and dislike waiting in any kind of line. Squirming in among strangers to find cramped space at a lunch table is utterly disagreeable to me. I like skiing by myself or with a few friends. That might sound like I've got the soul of a backcountry monk, but I'll also confess: I'm a little lazy. I like lifts.
To me, Snowbasin is a tonic. In a world of such vacant, white loneliness, you can literally get lost, as my snowboarding friend Scott and I discovered. The entire mosaic of Strawberry Bowl is a compilation of ridges and whalebacks draped over a set of huge, earthen waves rolling across the mountain. The high, rocky ridge leading to 9,265-foot Strawberry Peak forms the last, cresting wave in the series. Where the ski area begins and ends is ambiguous; an arbitrary boundary line is marked by small, very missable signs.
Searching for the last vestiges of cold, dry snow, Scott and I had been working the north-facing chutes that form descending stripes of white from the Strawberry Peak ridge. We hiked out, dropped in for a few turns through surprisingly crisp, fresh snow, traversed farther down the ridge, skied a few turns, traversed a bit more, and so on.
We kept on like this until the flank of the ridge began to bend southward, the exposure began to change, and the snow texture started to turn to sludge under the influence of the morning sun. Our orienteering instincts told us it was time to work our way back toward the ski area proper and to the Strawberry Bowl gondola. As we did so, we passed by small, octagonal boundary signs. We had strayed perhaps a half mile out of bounds without even knowing it. With so few tracks, fewer skiers, and almost no signs, it's hard to distinguish out-of-bounds from inbounds at Snowbasin.
So what if the base area was not much more than a muddy pit with raw foundations and temporary trailer homes when I was there? I 'd come for the skiing. At 8:30 on a beautiful, sunny weekday morning, I counted 14 cars in the parking lot. If the price of solitude on the mountain is a little mud on my boots, I'll gladly pay it.
The only thing I couldn't help wondering, of course, was: How long could it last? When I did manage to find skiers to talk to¿people from near (Ogden, Utah) and far (California) whom I shared lift rides with¿the consensus of opinion was resounding. From a skier's perspective, Snowbasin was the best ski area in Utah: longer fall-line runs than Park City, more variety than Snowbird, fewer crowds and less attitude than Alta.
Something that good can't remain undiscovered for long. As the entire ski area continues to become more refined, developed, and polished¿and as Olympic acclamation builds¿Snowbasin will be found, and changed forever.