UTAH: S NOW WAY OUT
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 .
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