Close out the Season at Alta
Photo: Alta Ski Area
For a spring ski or snowboard experience that's both challenging and fun for those with a variety of skill levels, few areas (other than what we explored in Part 1) beat Utah's Cottonwood Canyons.

The canyons' four resorts -- Alta Ski Area and Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort in the Little Cottonwood Canyon, and Brighton Resort and Solitude Mountain Resort in the Big Cottonwood Canyon -- are among the closest ski areas to a major airport in North America; the drive from the Salt Lake City International Airport takes less than 40 minutes.

The four resorts all have areas for beginners, those seeking to improve with some instruction and experts in search of chutes and moguls.

All also heavily promote their family-friendly atmosphere and services. In a broad sense, though, the Big Cottonwood resorts appeal more to families with young children. The Little Cottonwood resorts tend to draw more hard-core skiers and snowboarders, for their world-famous steep bowls. The two resorts also sell a joint-lift pass, the AltaBird, which together makes the area one of North America's largest and most challenging ski areas.

All About Alta

Following decades of mining and timber harvesting, skiing began in the Cottonwoods in the late 1930s after Joe Quinney, a Salt Lake City attorney, was angered that the Union Pacific Railroad chose to develop Sun Valley in Idaho instead of Utah areas.

A group of investors, led by Quinney, bought land, built the Alta Lodge and erected a chairlift using salvaged timber and mining equipment. The company is now controlled by the descendents of Quinney and James Laughlin, and several others with smaller stakes.

Alta's 2,200 acres are divided into two drainage areas: Collins Gulch and Albion Basin. Its beginner areas are served by three chairlifts near the Albion Lodge and ski school. Adventurous intermediates and daredevils can find extreme skiing off the 11,068-foot Mount Baldy, Devil's Castle and Catherine's Area. On powder days, Alta also offers snow cat skiing in Grizzly Gulch, beyond the resort boundaries.

Alta inspires incredible devotion among skiers (it's always been a ski-only resort; snowboarding is not permitted).

After traversing deep into Alta's expert Catherine's Area, I met Tom Persons, 48, a real estate investor from San Francisco who spends about 50 days each year at California's Squaw Valley. Yet Alta remains his all-time favorite destination, he said, using the word "love" to describe his feelings for the resort no less than four times in a minute. While Persons came to the nearby resort town of Park City on business, he said, "I'm not coming to Utah and not skiing Alta; that would be sacrilegious."

My Alta guide, Tyler Jackson, who was still able to locate powder stashes at the end of March, explained that the mountain's reputation -- or notoriety -- for difficult terrain has been hard to shake. The same is true for Snowbird.

But fully one-quarter of Alta's terrain is for beginners. I can attest to the quality of the grooming, since I ski those slopes with my wife (and likely will continue to into the foreseeable future). Alta's ski school often ranks among the top programs in the country.

Alta operates three mountain day lodges. The newest, Watson Shelter, also has a sit-down restaurant. The five overnight lodges have restaurants, where guests eat their European-style meal plans of breakfast and dinner ($100 to $370 a night; none are operated by the resort). Nearby condominiums are also available to rent. In part because of the lodges' meal plans, the town of Alta has just one stand-alone restaurant, the outstanding Shallow Shaft.

The Lure of Snowbird

A mile down the hill from Alta is Snowbird and its 2,500 acres of terrain in three areas: Peruvian Gulch, Gad Valley and Mineral Basin.

Snowbird is famed for its 125-passenger aerial tram, which whisks snowboarders, skiers and sightseers up 2,900 vertical feet to the mountaintop in less than eight minutes.

Beneath the tram's 11,000-foot summit is North America's first ski tunnel, a 600-foot-long "magic carpet" ride for skiers and boarders from the new Peruvian Quad lift to the 500 acres of Mineral Basin's open-bowl terrain. The tunnel and high-speed lift have alleviated crowding in Gad Valley by increasing the use of Mineral Basin, says Snowbird spokeswoman Laura Schaffer.

Just about everything at Snowbird reflects the flamboyant personality of its founder and owner, Texas billionaire Richard "Dick" Bass, the "large-mouth bass from Dall-as," as he calls himself. (At the ski tunnel's ribbon-cutting ceremony in December, the 77-year-old Bass belted out a Gilbert and Sullivan tune.)

"He's a character," Schaffer says, "a one-of-a-kind, a dreamer, a passionate, funny guy and a talker."

That's putting it mildly. A longtime mountain climber, Bass was the first person to ascend the tallest peaks on all seven continents, finishing at Mt. Everest in 1985. At one time, he held the world record as the oldest person to have climbed Everest.

Bass opened Snowbird in 1971 with the tram, three lifts and some lodging. In 1986, he opened Snowbird's flagship 10-story Cliff Lodge and Spa, a 511-room hotel and convention facility. Built to withstand earthquakes and avalanches, from the outside the tower actually looks like a concrete bunker, but its interior walls and floors are adorned in an amazing array of authentic Oriental rugs. The Snowbird village, including three nearby condominium complexes, has seven restaurants, three day lodges with cafeterias and numerous stores.

Because just about everything at Snowbird is owned by Bass, the resort promises one-stop shopping for lodging, lift tickets and dining, along with discount packages during low season. Check online for details.

Inside the Snowbird Center beneath the tram, I met a visibly exhausted family on the final day of an annual spring ski trip. Bob Feldman and his wife, Lani, both skiers, and their 18-year-old son, Zak, a snowboarder, had sampled Brighton, Solitude and Snowbird.

Snowbird was the favorite: Its sheer size impressed Zak's father, a social work professor at the University of Chicago. "It takes forever to get the lay of the land," he said.

Snowbird, like Alta, contends with an image of extreme terrain and steep tree skiing, which it truly has, including a trail named "STH," which stands for somatotropin hormone but is known among locals as steeper than hell. Snowbird also hosts the annual Subaru U.S. Freeskiing National championship, in which contestants cut lines down Mount Baldy's impossibly steep slopes, jump from cliffs and often finish with the flourish of an aerial stunt.

Snowbird's Stunning Peaks
Photo: John Collins/Snowbird

On the Mineral Basin lift, I met Courtney Anderson, 30, a freestyle ski bum who at night tends the bars at Snowbird's Steak Pit to support his ski addiction. He was frustrated on his 110th-consecutive day of skiing, he explained, because he had been attempting all morning without success to get the speed needed to jump over a Mineral Basin rock formation.

With this gonzo attitude, why only ski Snowbird, I asked.

"The terrain, the snow and the people," he said.

Alta is scheduled to close on April 16, 2007, though backcountry tours will continue. Snowbird usually remains open through May or June.



Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Martin Stolz is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter in New York and California.

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