Alta is for skiers.
This has been a record year for snowfall all across the Rockies. If you are into snow sports, God is smiling at you this month. With massive snow packs, some areas are predicted to be open into July. Even though we are well into February, there is still plenty of time to plan a wintery mountain getaway.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Our go-to ski destination is Alta, Utah. The place already has 398 inches of snow, with a base of 10 feet. But as gargantuan as that may seem, it is not a rarity. The sky regularly dumps tremendous quantities of snow here, so much so that they have an occasional procedure known as “interlodging.”
This is when it is unsafe not only to ski but to be anywhere outside, including the parking lots, due to extreme avalanche danger. It doesn’t happen often, but that it happens at all is saying something about the combination here of steep mountains and huge snowfalls.
It’s not just the quantity of snow here, it is the quality of it. Light fluffy dry powder, the sort of snow that envelopes a skier in giant puffy clouds of down-like crystals as they bounce through waist-deep powder — nirvana for those who can do it.
An Expert’s Dream
Alta is a wild place, which begrudgingly makes some allowances for those with less-than-Admiral-Byrd-level winter adventure skills. It was not that long ago that the trail map had no trails marked on it, just general areas. Whereas most ski maps are covered with organized colored lines and names of each run, Alta assumed you just knew your way around. Or more likely, it was the way the local habitués kept their secret powder stashes secret.
The trail map today does include a few lines with more or less normal looking trail signs. But this is just to give a sense of conformity to the newly arrived. The real action is in vast unmarked terrain, most of which requires a hike, traverse or a bit of bushwhacking.
Our own Robert Neubecker, age 65 and regular at Alta says “The other day I took a long, difficult traverse followed by a serious hike- at 10,000’- to get some untracked powder. When I got back to the lift they’d opened Devil’s Castle- a vast, untracked mountainside accessible by a long, single file, sidestep hike. The first lap was slow. Some 40- something guys from Boston in front doing their best. Great conversation, though, and as a reward at the top I let them follow me. The second lap I had a 19year old kid on my tail, so we moved fast. He kept me going- like a good trainer. The powder skiing from up high was magnificent. I did have 46 years on him, so afterward I broke for a nice lunch.”
If one chooses, this can be a full-on winter mountain experience, something of an entirely different intensity to most other in-bounds resort-style skiing. The best, and safest way to ski Alta if you have never been here is with someone in the know. Book a lesson, or hire a guide. You will experience places you could never find on your own, and you won’t be in danger of going blind over a cliff.
Quality, not Quantity
Six runs at Alta can be more like twenty at another mountain. Here it is not the quantity of vertical feet skied, but the quality. The element of adventure and exploration possible here rarely exists in other North American in-bounds resort skiing. On a snowy day, think of it as full-on backcountry skiing, but with the partial aid of a lift and excellent avalanche control.
Note there are plenty of greens and blues for everyone. Most people ski these trails, not the steeps that require a heart-pounding hike along a knife-edge ridge top. If you are into skiing without serious consequences, you won’t be disappointed. That powdery fluff gets rolled into civilized corduroy every night on the majority of intermediate runs.
Assuming it’s not snowing a foot an hour, getting here is easy. After flying into SLC, it’s a quick jaunt on an expressway up to dreamy Little Cottonwood Canyon, then straight on to Alta. Best have a 4×4 with snow tires or chains if there’s a whiff of snow in the air, or the sheriff won’t let you up the canyon. All in, it’s a snappy 45 minutes from airport to parking lot. One could leave New York in the morning and be skiing here in the afternoon.
A Skier’s Mountain
No description of Alta is complete without a few words about who comes here. There is a certain sort of person, verging on fanatical, who skis here year after year. They tend to be a bit older, often times weathered Germans or Swiss. They may not be all that fashionable with their ski wear, and the occasional duct-taped pant leg can still be found. And then there’s the kids, working lifts, waiting tables, tuning skis for a season in heaven. If Aspen is about the social aspect of mountain life, and Vail is for family holidays, Alta is single-mindedly about a classic mountain ski experience. This is where ski people come to commune with their mountain.
Alta is a skiers’ mountain, meaning if you are a boarder, head next door to Snowbird, a fine mountain in itself. The accommodations there are a bit more upmarket, and the day spa facilities are world class — good to know if your travel partners prefer a more restive day. Editors note: Alta’s venerable Snowpine Lodge has been completely transformed into a posh luxury hotel with a world-class spa. Reopened January 2019.
Alta can be addicting, or at least habit forming for a certain sort of outdoor enthusiast. As Robert Neubecker says “My friend Emily and I ski Alta at least twice a week. When we were 55 we discussed how long we’d keep doing the high hairy stuff. Decision: “We’ll keep going ‘till 70 and then reassess.” As we often say at AGEIST, why stop doing something you love to do?
One can stay quite economically in Salt Lake City, but we recommend staying on the mountain. There are a number of options, from condos to hotels, but our year-after-year favorite is The Rustler Lodge. Wake up in the crisp mountain air and be the first on the morning chair without having to worry about packing up a car. And most deliciously, when your legs have gone wobbly from skiing, you have a room, good food and fireplace right there.