Clouds forming over the Pacific Ocean grow fat and fluffy with moist warm air. Blown by easterly winds they float over the great western deserts where most of the moisture is baked out. What's left they save for the Rockies, dropping it gently as light powdery snow.
Below the clouds sits Utah, waiting with open arms for its annual quota of 500 inches of the stuff that makes skiers all over the world quiver with anticipation. If there's a heaven for skiers, Utah is it.
There are 14 alpine ski resorts in Utah, 11 within an hour's drive from the Salt Lake City airport. ost are considerably closer to each other. So it isn't impossible to ski all of them in one extended visit. For the sake of sanity, I settled on four.
"Right now Snowbasin's a small local area," said local area skier Karen Marriott. "But there are plans to make it a major resort." As we switched back and forth up the approach road to Snowbasin
it looked like anything but a small area. Ahead of us loomed a huge mountain blotting out a great chunk of sky. Soon we could see a network of broad runs and wide open bowls. In Utah small is relative.
When we drove into the parking lot we saw what Karen meant. A tiny shed bore the sign, "ticket office." The base lodge was a modest chalet. "I love it," someone said. "It's like skiing used to be before
everything became gigantic. Too bad it's being developed."
But developed it will be. In the year 2002 Salt Lake City will host the winter Olympics and Snowbasin will be the site of the men's and women's downhill races and the Super G. "The downhill run is one of the top 3 courses in the world," Karen said.
We hopped on the new John Paul Express ski lift and rose and rose and rose. Finally skiing off we looked up at knife-like blades of rock, bare except for narrow bands of snow that fell straight down.
One was marked by freshly etched tracks. "Snow boarders," said a ski patroller. "Doing the 'fingers chutes.'"
Somewhere in the distance was Snowbasin's far boundary. "Maybe two miles away," the patroller said. "I know it's 3200 acres." Stitching the acres together, faroff lifts and gondolas looked like
tiny filaments of black thread. But where were the riders? Though skiers should have been flocking to a mountain like this, the runs were almost deserted. As for lift lines, non-existent. "Snowbasin is Utah's best kept secret," he said.
Not for long. Since last season two 8 person gondolas, one high speed quad chair lift and the 15 passenger tram have been added. Next year a 38,000 square foot base lodge and a 25,000 square foot skiers service building will be in place. So we may have been among the last to ski practically alone on the long winding trails. Or to catch an edge and tumble head first down an expert mogul run. For 3 or 4 hours we skied the mostly intermediate bowls and runs of Snowbasin. With lifts speeding us, up most of that time was spent skiing and when we were through we knew we'd had a workout. The kind of workout we'd come for.
"Good grief," I thought. "We're being attacked by little green men!" As our van pulled to the curb at Deer Valley's Snow Park Lodge, its doors were opened and our skis taken by the resort's famous
Mountain Hosts. It was a harbinger of things to come.
Deer Valley is emphatically and proudly "up scale." It doesn't cater to skiers, it pampers them. Benches lining Snow Park's wood panelled walls are thickly padded. Couches and arm chairs face massive
stone fireplaces. Where other resorts have a chaotic feel about rentals and ticketing, Deer Valley is relaxed and unhurried.
"It's the 'Deer Valley Difference,'" said Karen as we slid into the Carpenter's Express lift. Like all detachable lifts it came almost to a halt as it sneaked up behind us, but when we lowered our pampered
posteriors it was onto perfectly dry, extra thick cushions. Gently deposited on the top of Bald Eagle ountain, we had a choice of skiing down mostly beginner and intermediate runs or lifting higher to three more peaks, each with its own network of trails. We decided to start at the top. From Empire Canyon at 9570 feet Utah spread out beneath us. Lakes and rivers, valleys and plains and great
mountain ranges went on forever.
Again most of the runs were designated intermediate though that was somewhat misleading. In act the pitch was quite steep, but the trails had been so immaculately groomed that skiers with the ability
to traverse for speed control and to carve turns had no trouble at all. But if they wished they could fly down at speeds more suitable to experts.
After a morning of the kind of skiing that makes you feel better than you are, we stopped for lunch at the Silver Lake Lodge. Outside were rows of what seemed to be lounge chairs. "It's the beach," said
Karen. "On a spring day we'll have a run, then we'll lay out on the Beach. It's great people watching."
In the Silver Lake Restaurant the Carvery was serving thick slabs of marinated New York strip steak and roasted turkey. For stews there were curried beef with cous cous and turkey chili. The salad bar
included brie, roquefort and buffalo mozarella and the deserts, well never mind.
After lunch we picked up our skies from another group of Hosts who had checked them for us and ascended once more into skier's heaven. Experts bombed down the moguls while intermediates took the
alternative routes, as smooth as the others were bumpy. "We want people to leave without a thing to criticize," an employee said. Great skiing and great service. It's easy to like Deer Valley.
PARK CITY MOUNTAIN RESORT
To say that Park City Mountain Resort is only inches from Deer Valley is an exaggeration but a all small one. In fact they share a common boundary, but the similarity ends there. Deer Valley is unabashed
elegance. At Park City Mountain Resort you can almost hear the cowboy yells. In the plaza, the base from which 4 lifts take off, an large brick building with a tall tower evokes visions of a bygone era. Around it the western theme continues, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so, but the overall feeling is laid back casual, kick off your shoes and come on in.
While the ambiance may not be serious, the skiing is. "It's really impressive when you get over the first hill," said a Park City Mountain Resort devotee. "A little bigger than Deer Valley, and that's
Skiing the two back to back is great fun. Park City Mountain Resort has open bowls and broad groomed runs but also a fascinating network of connecting trails that run through evergreen woods and
gorgeous stands of thin silvery aspens. Even more interesting are the remains of old silver mines. Mountain Host Trevor Helm leads free two hour ski tours and likes to describe the early days of Park City.
"We're skiing on top of 1200 miles of tunnels that run under all these ski areas," he said. "The old mining office is now the Mid Mountain Lodge. It serves great food. I had a beef brisket the other day," Trevor said. "When I got on the lift I fell asleep. The operator had to wake me up."
On the high speed Bonanza lift the attendant didn't shout, "Move 'em out," but that was what happened. The result beiing that lines didn't have time to form. From the top of Bonanza a long ridge
sprouted dozens of short side trails, so many that we never repeated ourselves. The only regret was the weather. A light snow was falling and only rarely could we see the surrounding countryside. The trail
map showed snowcapped mountains receding into the distance. If the drawing wasn't inspiring, I knew the reality was.
An "informed source" claims that Robert Redford vehemently denied naming his Sundance Resort for the character he played in the film, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Redford related how he had seen the sun dancing on Mount Timpanogos and that was his inspiration. I don't endorse this story. I merely report it.
When we entered Sundance the difference from the other resorts was striking. Multi-million dollar vacation homes did not flank the road. The main parking lot was tiny. The weathered wood base lodge was
surrounded by pristine forest. Sundance was a beautiful rejection of everything glitzy.
The night before, the skies had dropped 12 inches of snow on Sundance. Great for skiing but the view of Mount Timpanogos, one of the most glorious in the state, was lost in mist. At 10:15 exactly we were gloomily communing with shots of hot chocolate in the mountaintop Bear Claw's Cabin when the clouds ripped open and raw crags stealthily emerged. Faroff lakes spread like blue gray platters. On all sides smaller mountains rolled away like folded cardboard.
From then on we skied in and out of sun splashed snowfields. Those who skied powder revelled in their fresh bowls of new-soft expert runs. One of us took a tumble and spent the 15 minutes before lunch searching for a buried ski. Jodi, my ski host heroine and savior, found it with moments to spare.
We gathered in the Foundry Grill for grilled flatbread and calamari, Sundance sandwiches, goat's cheese pizza and blackened salmon salad. The Grill was constructed of seasoned planks and beams so that it seemed to have been there forever. Also in the building, a gallery where faces as familiar as family were displayed. Famous actors and actresses from the Sundance Film Festival.
The gallery lead to the Tree Room. "There was a big pine tree in this slot," said Jerry Warren, Sundance's director of skiing. "Bob didn't want to move it so they built the restaurant around it. The
tree promptly died."
"Bob's vision hasn't changed since 1969," Jerry said. "I wrote it down:" "We're not interested in huge profits. What we need is not just a resort but a community for the arts." "Sometimes it's a struggle to
work within that vision and still make enough money to survive," said Jerry, "but they can work together."
I don't know what I expected when I came to Sundance but it isn't what I found. I thought, "Sundance equals Redford, Redford equals Hollywood, therefore Sundance equals Hollywood." Wrong. At Sundance nature is the star, not the works of man. Sundance is small and very beautiful.
At the end of my visit I'd only skied 4 of Utah's 14 resorts, yet each was a completely different experience. If the rest are equally individualistic, the variety offered skiers in a relatively small area is truly remarkable. A little more research will tell.
HOW TO GET THERE: Salt Lake City International Airport services 700 flights daily from 11 American airlines. Delta, 800 221-1212, offers more service to Salt Lake City than any other airline. Salt Lake is also a hub for Amtrak trains. For transportation to the resort, rental cars are available from Hertz, National, Avis and Dollar. For bus, van and limosine service, call All Resort Express, 800 457-9457 ext. 2, Lewis Bros. Stages, 800 826-5844, Park City Transportation, 800 637-3803 and Canyon Transportation, 800 255-1841.
RESERVATIONS: Numerous reservation companies can book some or all of the following: lodging, transportation, tours, lift tickets, dining and activities. Among them are Deer Valley Central Reservations, 800 558-3337, Boomerang Ski Tours, 800 364-6010, Condo Destinations, 800 444-9104, EB Ski Tours, 800 313-2754 and Park City Reservations, 800 222-7275.
WHERE TO STAY AND WHERE TO EAT: There are hundreds of possibilities in all price ranges. A few of the best are, in Deer Valley, the Stein Eriksen Lodge, 800 453-1302 with a renowned restaurant as well. Don't miss the Sunday brunch. The Goldener Hirsch Inn, 800 252-3373, 20 charming deluxe rooms, excellent restaurant. The Chateaux, 800 453-3833, luxurious condominiums. Sundance: on site lodging in elegant
rustic rooms and suites, 800 892-1600. Fine dining in the Tree Room, Great lunches in the Foundry Grill. Booze in the authentic Owl Bar. In Deer Valley, the fabulous Seafood buffet at the Snow Park Lodge.
OTHER THINGS TO DO: Women's ski programs. Shopping and gallery hopping in Park City. Sleigh rides, 800 820-2223. Snowmobiling, 800 404-7669, 800 303-7256. The Utah Winter Sports Park in Park City, 435 658-4200, is the place to watch young ski jumpers practice and, if you have the nerve, to ride the bobsled at 75 miles per hour on their Olympic track.
WEB SITES: Www.skiutah.com (also 801 534-1779) is an excellent resource for all of Utah's ski resorts.
Ask for the "Winter Vacation Planner." Www.snowbasin.com. Www.deervalley.com.parkcitymountain.com. Www.sundance-utah.com.