UTAH: S NOW WAY OUT

Nic Hop­kins

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - NIC HOP­KINS

My friend is draw­ing a blank. “Never heard of it,” he shrugs. We’re in a midtown Man­hat­tan cafe in the depths of north­ern win­ter. The topic of con­ver­sa­tion is a trip I’m about to take to Utah and, more pre­cisely, the moun­tain my trav­el­ling com­pan­ions and I are plan­ning to as­cend.

My friend’s opin­ion mat­ters. Here is a guy who once rode on a Siko­rsky up the side of a Hi­malayan peak and jumped out at the top, skis and poles in hand. He’s done Europe, the Cana­dian Rock­ies, Ja­pan.

So I’m hop­ing my des­ti­na­tion will at least draw a nod of quiet ap­proval. Not so.

I’ve latched on to a group who make an an­nual pil­grim­age to a pre­cise point about an hour’s drive out of Salt Lake City; a place they speak of in hushed tones, with far­away eyes. That place is Pow­der Moun­tain.

My pre­lim­i­nary re­search sug­gests it’s un­re­mark­able. With a sum­mit of 2872m, it’s not par­tic­u­larly high for a US ski area, but then I read that it has 2833ha of ski­able ter­rain, the big­gest ski re­sort by acreage in the US.

Pow­der Moun­tain thus has about the same ski­able area as all Aus­tralian ski re­sorts com­bined.

Af­ter a five-hour flight, I’m look­ing out the frosted win­dow of a hire car, driv­ing north­east from Salt Lake City. It’s a bit­terly cold, dry day, with clouds block­ing the wan­ing sun. We’re driv­ing in con­voy, 12 peo­ple in three SUVs laden with skis, boards and boots. The first stop is a state-run liquor store, and I’m re­minded that Utah is one of a dozen or so states with a re­stricted trade in al­co­hol, which doesn’t bode well for the apres ski scene.

“Oh, you don’t come to Pow­der Moun­tain for the scene,” says one of my new friends in the car. “There’s nowhere to go at night. You bring the scene with you.”

We ar­rive at the house we’ve rented for a week. It’s a stone-and-wood chalet in a vil­lage de­vel­op­ment boast­ing ex­pan­sive views along the Og­den Val­ley, over­look­ing a frozen reser­voir speck­led with the oc­ca­sional, lonely, ice-fish­ing tent. We set­tle in for the night as the tem­per­a­ture drops sharply be­low freez­ing and the clouds clear to re­veal a spec­tac­u­lar starry sky.

We wake to bril­liant sun­shine; light glints from ev­ery sur­face, sparkles off the fine crys­tals of snow all around. I step out­side and try to make a snow­ball, but the snow is so fine and dry that it re­fuses to bond, fall­ing through my fin­gers like sand. So this is cham­pagne pow­der.

Pow­der Moun­tain is a short drive up a neigh­bour­ing val­ley. Ar­riv­ing at the main vil­lage is like step­ping back to the 1980s: there are no shop­ping mall carparks and swank ho­tels like those at nearby Snow­basin, one of the venues for the 2002 Win­ter Olympics.

This is a rudi­men­tary park­ing lot with a few build­ings and a sin­gle, hum­ble quad chair run­ning skiers and snow- board­ers up to the top of the Sun­down run at 2621m. A few tests down the groomed, soft and gen­tle blue runs to the vil­lage and I feel I have the mea­sure of my skis and mus­cle mem­ory is slowly re­turn­ing to my thighs and calves.

The wide skis carve grace­ful arcs into the cor­duroy rip­ples be­neath me, and I’m al­ready struck by how even the groomed run is so un­like any­thing I have skied. Utah is renowned for its pow­der snow. In this part of the US, warm air from the north and south­west gath­ers mois­ture from the Great Salt Lake and rises sharply at the Wasatch Moun­tains, where it freezes and dumps me­tre upon me­tre of snow ev­ery year. The low hu­mid­ity at al­ti­tude, and the lack of wind to blow it into banks, leaves the moun­tains cov­ered with a fluffy base of very fine, dry snow.

Pow­der Moun­tain re­ceives more than 10m of snow each year and by Jan­uary its runs have a deep base upon which the few groom­ing ma­chines drive each morn­ing. It’s not icy be­cause the tem­per­a­ture never rises high enough through the day to turn it into slush, only to freeze again overnight. The groomed snow is like whipped cream, soft and for­giv­ing; there’s no ice, no con­stant bat­tle be­tween the sharp edge of the ski and the side of the moun­tain. Half an hour later, it’s a dif­fer­ent story al­to­gether. I’m not sure any­thing pre­pares the unini­ti­ated for that first taste of very deep pow­der, and there are things no one thinks to warn you about, such as how hard it is to move af­ter a fall.

I’m waist-deep in snow, my skis just out of reach be­hind me, my poles dis­carded in frus­tra­tion. We’ve tra­versed the moun­tain in search of un­tracked fields of pow­der, mov­ing through birch groves in sin­gle file, skirt­ing small, steep chutes down which ex­pert skiers and board­ers have peeled off. Fi­nally, we find what we have come for — a wide ex­panse of moun­tain­side with sev­eral hun­dred me­tres of open snow and only a few tracks.

We turn to face down the fall line; the first of our group takes off, blast­ing through the pow­der, snow ex­plod­ing all around.

Now it’s my turn. I re­mind my­self to sit back, let the skis do the work, bend my knees, use my poles. The first sec­onds are like fly­ing, the only sound the noise from the tips of my skis as they cut through fresh snow.

I man­age a turn, then another, and another, feel­ing giddy with ex­cite­ment. Then I lean slightly for­ward, my skis veer in uni­son too sharply, I over-cor­rect, and cat­a­pult for­ward, land­ing face first. The im­pact is very soft, but both skis are de­tached. Now I get why peo­ple who are caught in avalanches find them­selves in such trou­ble. You can’t pull your­self out be­cause there’s noth­ing to grab hold of. My skis are barely out of reach, but it is an ex­haust­ing 10 min­utes of full-body ex­er­tion be­fore I clutch on to them, another few min­utes be­fore I’m up­right and able to push my­self for­ward again.

To reach the bot­tom of the run, I take a trail back to the lift, where there’s no wait to hop back on, and to get my­self back to the top of the moun­tain takes another half-hour. The fi­nal leg re­quires a short wait to be picked up by a huge snow­cat that car­ries skiers and board­ers, about 20 at a time, a few hun­dred me­tres fur­ther up and around to open up a whole side of the moun­tain; if you don’t want to wait you can al­ways unclick and walk.

It may not be ev­ery­one’s ver­sion of a per­fect ski hol­i­day, but this rugged ap­proach, along with that awe­some acreage and per­fect snow, is what makes Pow­der Moun­tain so unique. The round-trip is about 45 min­utes and we do it again, and again, and again, each time find­ing a slightly dif­fer­ent route that en­ables us to carve fresh lines into the moun­tain; it has been six days since the last snow­fall and there are still end­less hectares of vir­gin pow­der. In the end I’m forced to pause on each run out of pure ex­haus­tion. By night­fall, the pain ar­rives and my mus­cles and joints are start­ing to protest at any move­ment. Ev­ery­one in our group is asleep be­fore mid­night.

This be­comes the pat­tern for the next few days, af­ter which I think I’ve got the hang of pow­der skiing. Our last day in Utah gives us the heavy dump of snow we’ve been wait­ing for, but the forecast is ter­ri­ble — freez­ing, windy and with very low vis­i­bil­ity. Half of our party opts to stay in­doors, hav­ing skied them­selves into the ground.

But I’m de­ter­mined to make the most of ev­ery sec­ond. Although vis­i­bil­ity is poor and snow con­tin­ues to fall in heavy flakes, the moun­tain is now cov­ered in fresh pow­der, and there is al­most no one in sight.

I set off down a run that ear­lier that week had been a groomed boule­vard, but is now a pris­tine field. As I gather speed and make some turns, the pow­der ex­plodes around me. I veer into a sparsely wooded hill­side, turn­ing be­tween the trunks as snowflakes fall through branches above. This is per­fec­tion; I’m no longer able to con­tain my­self and un­self­con­sciously I start gig­gling and whoop­ing, al­most alone in these fields of joy.

A day later, I’m back in New York. “So how was it?” my scep­ti­cal friend from the cafe asks. I shake my head and shrug, lost for words. “Ha,” he says. “I knew it. Next time, take my ad­vice, go to Vail or Aspen.”

I start to cor­rect him but, ac­tu­ally, the less he knows the bet­ter. Quiet, rus­tic Pow­der Moun­tain may just be the best place on Earth to ski. Just don’t tell too many pow­der­hounds .

• pow­der­moun­tain.com

This is per­fec­tion; I’m no longer able to con­tain my­self and I start gig­gling and whoop­ing

A skier carves the slope at Utah’s Pow­der Moun­tain, left; slopes be­ing groomed, be­low; and skiers exit the gon­dola at Snow­basin, be­low left

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