ALTA, Utah — I came. I skied. I was conquered.
Blasting down an intermediate trail of packed powder at Snowbird in Utah last winter, I quickly rediscovered good form after several years off the slopes — until excess speed reminded my childlike mind that my body was 59 years old. Slamming into the snow, I bounced back up with searing pain in my right thumb, and after skiing a bit more, hit the medical clinic.
Dr. Ken Libre diagnosed a classic “skier’s thumb,” a ligament rupture, a sign of which is the inability to grip a sheet of paper with thumb and forefinger. He fit me with a removable cast, plus one over my glove, so I could keep skiing. This was, after all, a doctor who gets it: He works in ski pants, coming off the slopes as needed.
And that sums up the obsession Westerners have with their skiing. Until this trip, my skiing had been confined to rocky and icy New England. I wanted to see what the powdery buzz was about on the other side of the country, so I headed to Utah to try some of the best of the West at Alta, Snowbird, and Snowbasin.
I liked what I found at all three, thumb injury notwithstanding.
Alta in particular is good for old-time skiers like me. For one thing, they don’t allow snowboarding, eliminating the chance of steaming around a corner to find young boarders lounging mid-trail. For another, the resort is packed to the 10,000-foot peaks with enough terrain variety to keep everyone happy.
Driving there I was reminded of the stark topographical difference of East and West as the view of the Wasatch Range filled my windshield. I realized anything we Easterners think of as mountains back home are mere pups against these massive geological dogs.
I realized anything we Easterners think of as mountains back home are mere pups againstthese massive geological dogs.
Another big difference: tons of snow. They make snow as early as November and then rely on nature’s prodigious dumps, creating bases that average some 500 inches a year.
One cool tech touch at Alta: no paper ticket flapping from your jacket. New is a hands-free system by means of the Alta Card, with a radio-frequency chip. Leave the card in your pocket for easy passage through lift-entry gates.
Many of Alta’s 100-plus trails are relatively easy, even for beginners. And forget the ads you see for Western skiing, with hot-shot skiers in bright gear blasting neck deep through powder. Sure, they have that here; once avalanche guns clear dangerous runs, you can ski powdery tongues between jagged outcrops. But there is also far easier terrain to keep us mere mortals satisfied; about 40 percent is deemed intermediate.
Another difference: Trails we Easterners think of as intermediate are marked easy out West, a higher standard you had better pay attention to if you’re not confident of your ability.
The next day I hit Snowbird and took the 125-passenger tram that bolts to an oxygen-skimpy 11,000 feet in eight minutes. The views are immense. So is the sense of claustrophobia. You’re packed shoulder-to-shoulder with skiers and boarders, the tram bobbing between stanchions and turning you into a human gyroscope as you try keeping on your boot-clad feet. It was my first and last tram trip, as I later opted for the ample chairlift system instead.
Fun Snowbird fact: It has the first ski tunnel in the country, created seven years ago, that shuttles skiers via a moving walkway 600 feet from Peruvian Gulch in Little Cottonwood Canyon to Mineral Basin, a four-minute ride with Caribbean music piped in to make you think warm.
Throughout Snowbird, there are long, meandering trails for easy traversing, in spots going above deep, mogul-riddled bowls you can divert to if so inclined. I did a few times, taking a head-first tumble once and skidding a good 50 yards to a stop, coming up uninjured, my bad thumb protected by casts.
I skied last at Snowbasin near Ogden, a sprawling resort with 9,000-foot peaks and 3,300 skiable acres, high-speed gondolas, chairlifts, and a tram, all depositing you on high for the best skiing and views. Snowbird was a long-hidden gem that found the public spotlight hosting some 2002 Olympic Winter Games, notably the men’s and women’s downhill; the runs are still here, modified a bit for regular-human use. I took on the thigh-burning Grizzly and Wildflower downhills, expert trails that were steep but forgiving.
Best view was at the top of the Wildcat lift, where on clear days you can see nearly 100 miles, and gawk at, and maybe try, the Seven Sisters, so named for seven cuts into a craggy peak that expert skiers flock to. From just about anywhere at Snowbasin, you can take easy or hard trails down.
Snowbasin is the most opulent resort I’ve ever seen, with massive lodges featuring huge beams carved from bark beetle-killed trees from Montana and Canada, English wool carpets, two-story fireplaces, and Murano glass chandeliers. They have a five-star hotel ambience, right down to bathrooms of granite, marble, and gold- and brass-plated fixtures.
Mostly, I learned one valuable lesson about skiing the West: Trust the mountain. Whether attempting waist-deep fluff or hard-pack snow, it’s best to ignore your Eastern expectation that somewhere underfoot, rock and boilerplate await to trip you up. They don’t, so focus on your technique and enjoy the downhill ride.