Manhattan Jewish Sentinel

December 6, 2002

2001: A Utah Skiing Odyssey


High in the mountains of northern Utah there is a great secret the world is about to discover. Hidden among the jagged peaks and towering pines of the Wasatch mountain range, which towers over the land Brigham Young and his band of Mormon pioneers called home in the mid-nineteenth century, is some of the best skiing on earth.

When tens of thousands of people gather in Salt Lake City next year for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, they will find themselves among not only some of world's best skiers, but among some of the world's best skiing. Just a short ride away from Utah's state capital, miles upon miles of seemingly endless trails descend from snow-covered peaks that reach as high as 11,500 feet in the air. These hills that once were filled with the rumblings of prospectors toiling away in tunnels mining the land of its silver, ore, and copper are now filled with the quiet swishing of aerodynamic skis gliding across fresh powder that renews itself every year in a routine as familiar to Utahans as the rising of the sun. Here, where the air is thin, the scenery is breathtaking, and the snow falls in feet, not inches, the world's greatest skiers come to be humbled and first-timers find niches amid the canyons tame enough to manage their first cautious slides in the snow.

There's something for everyone in Utah, this land that suggests that God himself is a skiing enthusiast and skiing a Divine service. Here, snowfall does not translate into the tangled roadways, back-breaking shoveling, and slushy sidewalks that turn New York winters into cold, wet nightmarish affairs. Here, snow means cozy alpine villages, horse-drawn sleigh rides, snowshoe hiking, and-best of all-miles and miles and miles of skiing.

Skiing in Utah is not just about going down the mountain. It's about boarding a chairlift that rises thousands of feet into the air above the foothills of the western Rockies to expose miles upon miles of breathtaking scenery you thought existed only in dreams. It's about making fresh tracks through chest-deep powder amid the cottonwood trees and forgetting all the distractions of the outside world. It's about finding runs so smooth and steep and perfect that your ears pop and your eyes tear as you zip down the perfectly-groomed snow to the base. It's about negotiating your way down the crevices of canyons filled with sharp drops, hidden boulders, and obstructive trees that force you to pause and plan every move as you jump, ski, and slide your way to the next plateau. It's about moving through the dizzyingly white powder on the faces of foreboding peaks in the backcountry where yours are the first tracks in the snow and where the possibility of an avalanche is never far behind.

Utah skiing is not about covering distance, but about exploration and adventure. I had grown up coming down the tame terrain of New England Appalachia, where straying beyond the well-marked trails is generally forbidden and where the thrills have more to do with man-made jumps than with the wonders of a divinely crafted landscape. In Utah, however, trails are a mere afterthought; there are endless opportunities to meander off the beaten path and a seemingly infinite number of ways to get down the mountain. The contrast is as great as the difference between negotiating traffic on the Long Island Expressway and zipping along a Montana highway with no daytime speed limit. Utah takes skiing to a whole different level, which, after all, is what skiing is all about.

Because the dozen or so ski areas within an hour's drive of Salt Lake City will play host next year to the 2002 Olympic Games, I figured this season would be a good opportunity to sample that terrain before the experts got to it-just to make sure it's up to par. It is.

I spent most of my tour in Park City, an old-mining-town-turned-upscale-resort-community about 45 minutes from Salt Lake City that today is home to three of Utah's biggest ski resorts. First on my itinerary was the mountain that bears the city's name.

Park City Mountain Resort

Covering 3,300 acres of snowy terrain, spanning seven different peaks, and encompassing 100 trails, Park City Mountain Resort has enough variety to keep every kind of skier happy. Located at the heart of the chic vacation town that every year plays host to the Sundance Film Festival, Park City Mountain Resort is so much a part of this skiing-oriented town that the resort even has a lift that runs directly from Park City's main street to one of the mountain's lower peaks.

Once you get up there, you'll understand why Park City was chosen to be one of the main venues for next year's Winter Olympics and why every year for the last 16 the resort has hosted the America's Opening men's and women's alpine giant slalom ski races, the domestic season opener of the World Cup ski circuit. With peaks that rise more than 10,000 feet in the air and a 3,100-foot vertical drop, it's no wonder Park City has become the kind of place skiers like famed Olympic gold medallist Picabo Street call home.

There are so many different folds in the mountains at Park City that the resort's trail map needs arrows and insets that depict the mountain from a variety of different angles just to show all of the trails. There's a healthy mix of greens, blues, and blacks, but the mountain is best suited to advanced intermediate and expert skiers, who will find plenty of challenges in the mountain's upper reaches.

My companion on the trip and I spent much of our time in the Jupiter Bowl area, which is so remote that it takes four different lifts and more than a bit of skiing to get there. Situated at the far right side of the mountains, the Jupiter area is filled with enough double-diamond terrain and intimidating runs to keep even the most experienced skiers on their toes (and occasionally on their rear ends). Still getting oriented to the thin air and dizzying elevations of Utah's Wasatch Mountains after our flight from New York, we found ourselves skiing across bowls and through clusters of trees to take things slowly, which usually was very helpful but occasionally precipitated problems. At one point, our meandering brought my cohort to a cliff where the snow was so powdery he had to take off his skis and crawl uphill on his stomach before finding a ridge to come down on his behind.

Elsewhere on the mountain we found plenty of blues and less-difficult blacks that were more negotiable-and a lot of fun. In some places the powder was so deep that our skis disappeared as they quietly pushed through the snow like the hulls of ships moving through ocean water. With 14 lifts and plenty of trails, there's plenty at Park City to make everybody happy. For the more ambitious, the resort has a few double-diamond areas that are accessible only by hiking. For those just starting out, there are a few novice trails near the lower parts of the mountain.

Many of Park City's trails are marked by historical sites-old mining structures originally built in the nineteenth and early twentieth century that have been left on the mountain with markers explaining the sites' history. These remnants of the era before the town's booming mining industry gave way to its now-thriving tourism industry at times can make coming down the slopes feel like skiing through a museum.

While most skiers call it quits when the sun gets low in the sky, die-hard skiers can stay on the slopes until 9 PM, when the lights go off and the mountain's two nighttime lifts close. But the snow at night tends to get a bit slick, the air turns very cold, and the mountain gets kind of lonely, so you might want to head indoors once the sun goes down. And there's no more convenient place to go at the end of a strenuous day than to a lodge right at the base of the mountain.

The Lodge at the Mountain Village

The Lodge at the Mountain Village is one of several lodging facilities near the base of the resort that bears Park City's name, but The Lodge is the only one open to the public that is right at the foot of the slopes-so close you can park your skis right outside at lunchtime and run up to your room for a quick bite. The Lodge, which is part of a cluster of buildings at the foot of the slopes that includes dining facilities, timeshare condominiums, a small ice-skating rink, and a variety of small shops, is a quiet, fashionable hotel complete with all the amenities you need for a relaxing night after a demanding day.

Aside from dining facilities, in-room movie rentals, and a bar, the Lodge has a fully equipped fitness center that is a wonderful place to head right after some post-ski stretching. After seven or eight full hours of skiing, I had not intention of lifting weights or making use of any of the exercise equipment at the hotel, but I did have a splendid time doing some laps in a swimming pool that is half indoors and half outdoors, and then relaxing with a cold drink under the bright Utah stars in the outdoor jacuzzi. If you don't like sitting in a hot bubbling tub under the cold sky, the Lodge also has an indoor jacuzzi. You may want to supplement the jacuzzi treatment with a dose of sauna and steam room, which the hotel keeps open until 10 pm.

After an hour of swimming and shvitzing you'll probably feel like going straight to bed. The Lodge has rooms of varying sizes, studio apartments complete with kitchenettes, gas fireplaces, and balconies, and deluxe one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. If you want to venture into town, Park City's free busses stop by the resort every few minutes, and the Lodge is within a five-minute ride of grocery stores, restaurants, bars, shops, and historical sites along Park City's main street.

Deer Valley

Set apart from the rest of Park City, the resort at Deer Valley offers some of the most stunning views in northern Utah and some of the very best alpine skiing on this side of the Atlantic. Stared 20 years ago as a luxury ski mountain, the resort knows how to pamper skiers-both on the slopes and off.

Deer Valley is a real skier's mountain, with well-groomed trails and alpine slopes so perfect you'll find yourself going down the same trails again and again. While the resort has terrain of every variety, the mountain is particularly well suited to advanced intermediate skiers. Deer Valley even has specially marked trails for such alpinists: A few trails are marked as double-blues, with terrain that will both delight and challenge intermediate skiers just beginning to get a handle on moguls and the steep drops that typify expert trails. Deer Valley also has plenty of long alpine runs that let you test the limits of your speed and ponder the meaning of life as you zip your way down a slope so steep and so fast that your ears pop and your eyes begin to shed tears as you race your way down to the lift. And you never have to worry about running into slow snowboarders carving their way down the mountain; snowboards are not permitted at Deer Valley.

Of course, you may have to slow down if you look up for a moment, because the views on this remote mountain are so stunning that you'll find yourself reaching again and again for your camera, cursing fate when the contraption stops working in the freezing weather. Deer Valley actually spans four different mountains, and the view from Bald Mountain, on the mountain's east side, is the most spectacular. The 9,400-foot peak overlooks the Jordanelle Reservoir and Heber City, a small town in an elevated basin about 50 miles from Salt Lake City. Across the way, you can gaze upon miles and miles of snow-capped mountains that seem more suited to the Swiss Alps than to the western United States. Unlike many mountains in the East, there are also plenty of beginner trails near the summits of Deer Valley, so you don't have to be a great skier to see some great views.

The resort itself is so big that I spent nearly two days there before realizing that I had overlooked entirely one of Deer Valley's peaks, complete with a gondola I hadn't even noticed. There are 19 lifts in all at the resort, 88 trails, and six bowls. Deer Valley's longest trail runs two miles, and the mountain has a vertical drop of 3,000 feet. Though the mountain is quite large, the lifts close in waves toward the end of the day so you don't have to worry about getting stuck on some remote part of the mountain.

Elsewhere on the mountain, new homes have sprung up at the base of the resort that resemble an Alpine village, complete with wooden cabins, picture windows, and oddly shaped roofs that blend in with the contours of the mountain. Clustered in the foothills of the Deer Valley ski resort, you can actually peer into some of these architecturally wondrous houses when riding the chairlifts close to the base of the mountain. Deer Valley is at once a place to marvel at the handiwork of both God and man. Perhaps not surprisingly, a Jewish group holds a 20-minute trans-denominational prayer service every Saturday right on the mountain.

Deer Valley is a little more pricey than some of the other area resorts, but the difference in service is quite noticeable. From the very first moment visitors arrive at Deer Valley, set slightly to the southeast of Park City, members of the resort staff cater to skiers' need. Resort employees converge upon incoming cars to help skiers unload their equipment; those renting equipment experience the same kind of luxury service, with staff doing everything from strapping you into your boots to pointing you in the right direction once you head out for the slopes. Ubiquitous complimentary boot and glove warmers fill the lodges, and at the end of the day Deer Valley staff will store your skis, boots, and poles free of charge.

You can't board a chairlift at the resort without a friendly exchange with the lift operators, who seem to have a perpetual but genuine smile plastered across their face, and every lift line is equipped with tissue dispensers so you don't even have to reach into your pocket (or use your glove) to blow your nose. The luxury amenities are no less pronounced when you break for lunch. Aside from mineral-water dispensers everywhere you turn, each lodge keeps on hand several complimentary copies of the day's New York Times, among other papers-a welcome indulgence after a few days in the remote mountains of Utah. Even the restrooms, which are kept meticulously clean, are notable at Deer Valley. There are omnipresent glove bins in every booth so you don't have to trouble with loose articles of clothing at inconvenient moments, and sinks are outfitted with sweet-smelling flowers, tissues, and skin-cream dispensers to add to your comfort.

Complimentary mountain tours for intermediate and expert skiers depart every morning from the base of the resort, and Deer Valley staff can be found all over the mountain in case of need or emergency. When you're not skiing, the lodges at Deer Valley are a great place to kick back and relax. Aside from food aplenty, the wood and stone lodges have quiet rooms outfitted with fireplaces and comfortable chairs where you can take a quick nap or cuddle up with a good book and a hot cup of tea.

At the end of the day, you can hop on one of the quick shuttles that run to the condos and homes that line the roads leading to Deer Valley, or, if you're staying in Park City or beyond, you can board the free bus that makes its way every 20 minutes in and out of the resort.

The Canyons

As the fifth largest ski resort in the country and growing fast, The Canyons is in the midst of a major expansion effort its owners hope will turn the resort into the West's next Aspen. Bought four years ago by the American Skiing Company, with also runs such resorts as Lake Tahoe's Heavenly and Vermont's Killington, Wolf Mountain was renamed The Canyons in 1997 and immediately embarked on a $500 million expansion plan. Today The Canyons does big business, with 15 lifts that can move more than 25,000 people per hour, 134 trails, eight peaks, and 3,625 skiable acres. Additional lifts and lodging facilities are under construction.

Despite its size, the mountain has quite a lot of terrain that's perfect for beginners; even many of its blues would be considered novice slopes on most other mountains. On the mountain's far left side, its newest addition, the 325-acre Dreamscape area serviced by a lift of the same name, consists almost entirely of blues and greens. This part of the mountain is also the site of residential construction, and some of the slopes run right alongside new roads or under roadway tunnels, going flat on occasion and offering vistas better suited to the drive home than to mid-mountain scenery.

Other parts of the mountain are intensely beautiful however, and skiers can take long windy trails-some of which require walking-or wooded canyons down to the bottom. The far right side of the mountain, which is set somewhat apart from the rest of the resort, has the best advanced intermediate trails on the mountain, and if you're willing to do some walking you can take a single run all the way down from a 9,000-foot peak to the base of the mountain, at 6,800 feet.

The Canyons' highest peak, serviced by the aptly named Ninety-Nine 90 chairlift, is a cornucopia of black diamonds and double-diamonds. Moguls on the trails are mixed with boulders, trees, and shrubs to add challenge upon challenge, and some may find it easier to try their hand (or skis) in the mountain's backcountry areas when venturing down. Unlike at some other Utah resorts, many of the backcountry areas at The Canyons are specially designated ungroomed zones within the resort's premises, so it's easy to get back on marked trails once you've negotiated your way through the woods.

While skiers may have a lot of fun on The Canyons' slopes, snowboarders will find themselves in boarders' paradise. The resort has at least half a dozen "natural" halfpipes scattered across its mountains, as well as a specially constructed snowboard park that rivals the best in the country. The park is filled with all sorts of strange-looking apparatuses I had never seen before, including multiple jumps of varying sizes, arches, steel pipes called spines and table-tops, and a variety of other gizmos probably more familiar to urban skateboarders than to mountain alpinists.

The snowboarders at The Canyons have quickly learned to master them, however, and it is a lunch hour well spent to find a comfortable place in the waist-deep snow to sit back and watch them perform. They fly over jumps, skid across pipes, slide up and down arches, and do a variety of other tricks that are standard fare in snowboard videos. A couple of the jumping areas tend to be dominated by skiers who perform aerial somersaults and flips as a fellow skier cruises alongside them, camcorder in hand, filming the whole performance.

Snowboarders elsewhere on the mountain may face other, less aerial challenges. Many of The Canyons trails involve quite a bit of pushing and walking, which is tiring enough for skiers who must duck-walk or use their poles to move but even worse for boarders who'll find they must unbind and walk to reach the end of the mountain's many plateaus.

For those who find skiing a bit taxing, the base of the mountain is outfitted with a mini-skating rink, a cluster of four-star hotels, and a special open-air gondola that ferries skiers directly from the base of the lifts to the parking lot a quarter of a mile away.

Of course, if you find skiing laborious there are plenty of other things to do in northern Utah, but there's nothing else that even comes close to the exhilarating and wonderful experience that comes with skiing.

Staying in Park City

If you're looking for a nice play to stay in Park City itself, you can't do much better than the Park City Marriott in Prospector's Square. About a five-minute drive away from each of Park City's three ski resorts and a hop, skip, and a jump from the center of town, the Park City Marriott has all the special amenities you'd want in a ski lodge along with the style and level of quality service you'd expect from a Marriott. And for those used to nondescript hotels indistinguishable from one another in a blur of business trips, you won't forget you're on vacation when you walk into the Marriott at Park City.

They'll have hot cider waiting for you in the lobby from the moment you stumble in after a long day on the slopes, and the team of staff members that always seem to be in abundance around the hotel's entrance will help relieve you of the burden of your ski equipment so you can collapse into a nearby chair and kick your feet up in front of the lobby's roaring fire. Those in perpetual need of a cup of java will be pleased to find a coffee stand nearby.

If you've come to the Marriott directly from the airport and want to get a head start on getting your equipment in order for the next day's skiing, the hotel even has its own ski shop. For those who've been around for a few days and need to tend to the demands of their other life, the hotel has a comprehensive business center. You can also order in-room high-speed Internet access or use the free data port in your room. If you somehow manage land yourself in Park City on business, the Marriott has meeting rooms, conference facilities, and other necessary business accoutrements, some of which were part of the hotel's recently completed $8.5 million renovation effort.

After staying in Park City for a few days, skiing and swimming will be forever paired in your mind. The Marriott has a full fitness center and spa, including an exercise room, swimming pool, jacuzzi, and steam room, or you can unwind after a day on the slopes at the restaurant and bar on the main floor. The guest rooms at the Marriott range from the intimate to the grand (including several suites), and each has cable television, internet access, a coffeemaker, and a small refrigerator. Some rooms have doors that open up directly into the pool area. Though room service offers plenty of culinary options, there are a variety of eateries nearby, most accessible within five minutes on the Park City bus.

If you don't have a car, the ride on the free bus to Park City Mountain Resort is under 10 minutes; the ride to Deer Valley is about 30 minutes, and the ride to the Canyons is less than 15 minutes.