It all started when the liftline at the base of the Sunnyside lift turned into a grandstand. Rich, Ryan and I had arrived a few minutes early and had secured a great spot in line to be on the 7th or 8th lift of the morning, and were patiently waiting for the lift to open. My creepy cell phone ring starts chiming. Kendall’s calling me. “Where is that kid?” I wondered. His voice came breaking over the bad connection.
“Leave my *icket at the wind*w. I’ll pi*k it up. I’m *n Flagstaff. Ab*ut two-*hirds of *** way up, and it’s dee*p!”
I turned around to look behind me across the canyon. Sure enough – Kendall had arrived early for a little dawn patrol, recruited a touring partner, and started up Flagstaff for a little pow appetizer before the lifts opened. Everyone in the lift line gawked. It looked tasty.
If you ever spend a winter in Utah, one of the things you learn after a season or two is that the ski resorts around here rarely close because of a lack of snow. They close because of a lack of demand. It seems the best storms and powder days of the year are always at the end of March and early April. But with the skies turning blue and the valley warming up a little, everyone starts pulling out the golf clubs and the bikes and the wakeboards. Waist-deep powder goes stale and eventually turns crusty and melts, waiting for lucky riders. Just a little tip for planning your next Utah ski trip – consider making it later in the season to take advantage of great storms, fewer crowds, and discounted ski & golf packages (1-888-356-2582, http://www.altavacations.net ).
Today, however, it is still technically mid-March and the spring breakers are clogging the parking lot and the lift lines. A few minutes after Kendall’s call I take another look across the canyon just in time to see him laying turns down the whole face. I’m not the only one who notices. Pretty soon the entire mass of people in line is craning their necks to gaze in envy. It just serves to stoke the anticipation for a beautiful “Chamber of Commerce Day,” as we would call it. Fresh light snow and bright blue skies – just what Utah is famous for. And nothing says “quintessential Utah” like skiing the Greatest Snow on Earth at Alta on a sunny spring day like today. Especially when over 90 inches have fallen in the past week.
Waiting for Supreme
They were still doing control work on the Supreme lift, our ultimate destination. So our first run was a race from the top of the Sugarloaf lift to the high traverse on East Greeley – a massive, east-facing ramp that is wide and all in the fall-line. It starts with a nice, steep pitch and then mellows as it reaches the valley floor. “Now is when I switch to jerk mode,” Rich said. Then he quipped the all-too-familiar phrase, “No friends on a powder day.” But thanks to his wrangling on the traverse we were one of the first tracks down it, and it was one of those runs where every turn just sank with the right consistency – like you are pressing deep creases in a down comforter with your finger. The deeper you press, the more the comforter wraps around your finger. Or you can tread lightly and rise to the top, gliding across the surface. Well, enough imagery – we all know what powder feels like as it slips around your pant legs. Pretty awesome, especially when your face is sunny and warm.
Next we headed back to the bottom to meet up with Kendall, only to spot him climbing up Flagstaff for another lap. His voice crackled again, “It was t*o da*n good, Brig! I had *o do it ag*in. It’s so ni*iice…I l*ke to do the sam* t*ing twice!” Before long Flagstaff bears a second set of tracks. We’ve all scratched the morning powder itch, so it’s time to go exploring. Supreme’s open so we dash up that direction to find what other deepness awaits. Supreme never disappoints.
Directly under the Supreme lift are some chutes and fingers that are a little bony for the first couple weeks of the season. I have sacrificed many a pair of rock skis there in the early-Novembers of years gone by. Directly under the Supreme lift, near the top, is a rocky outcropping that is about a 15-foot high diving board. Today it is less than 3 feet high – which tells the tale that it is completely safe to take the good skis into the chutes.
We play around in those chutes for several runs. There are endless options in them and in the glades to skier’s right of the lift. Before you can say Bob’s-your-uncle, it’s mid-day and we’re still finding fresh pow everywhere. Out of curiosity’s sake we keep our eyes on West Devil’s Castle. The patrol is doing control work and rumor has it that a line is already forming at the gate. As we ride Supreme we look across the valley just as they drop the rope, and the traverse fills with dozens and dozens of skiers all traversing in perfect formation like ants. Rich then says, “You know what’s crazy? Devil’s Castle is so expansive that every one of those dozens and dozens of skiers will get completely fresh tracks. Alta is truly unique.” We decide that with everyone distracted by Devil’s Castle, we can traverse out to Catherine’s and have it to ourselves. That gamble paid off in spades.
The traverse towards Catherine’s is everybody’s friend. It’s mellow enough that backcountry newbies can get their first taste of exploration while not getting in over their heads. If a skier with more chops decides to push the traverse out farther then he’ll find himself in a breathtaking amphitheater of glades, cliffs, and bowls that are extremely accessible. All it takes is a quick bootpack to return to the resort boundaries in safety.
Today the entire Catherine’s area is virtually untracked, thanks to West Devil’s Castle distracting the pow-seeking crowds. Kendall drops first, with a little hop off of the top cornice and a few feet of air off of a rocky outcrop, followed by some of the best turns of the day. We all follow in suit, laying down about a dozen turns each. We all gather at the bootpack at the base of Catherine’s to look back up and admire the lines we took, and the lines that will have to wait for other days. We have a goal to lap Greeley once more, and then it’s time to pack it in. With all the spring breakers it will be bumper-to-bumper down the canyon after 4pm, so we want to blaze a little early.
At the top of Sugarloaf we snap some group photos looking towards Snowbird’s Mineral Basin (a combined Alta/Snowbird day pass is now available for skiers — no snowboarding allowed at Alta). Then it’s off to Greeley. The sun is disappearing, and most of the pow is tracked out, but that doesn’t stop Kendall. He drops a cliff at the entrance to the bowl. Then Rich skis down and drops one a little lower. Jason and I snap photos and then just enjoy the sloppy seconds, leftovers from a truly fulfilling “Chamber of Commerce Day,” just as we expected. Alta is what Utah skiing is all about – no pretense, no attitude, and lots of powder and blue skies. At the end of the day one thing is certain – few lifts in the skiing world make an expert skier feel so much at home like Alta’s Supreme lift on a sunny powder day. Whether it’s for the endlessly-explorable terrain or for the access to Catherine’s amphitheater of backcountry pow, this area of Alta is, well, supreme. Don’t die while skiing it, and don’t die without EVER skiing it…several times. As Kendall would say, “It’s so*oo nii*ce…I l*ke to do the s*me t*ing twice!”