It took two tries to find its hidden entrance, but I stood for the third time in my life atop High Rustler, the iconic powder run at Alta, Utah.
Skiing solo, I first dropped off the High Traverse too soon, ending up on Gunsight and the immense High Greeley Bowl. That wasn’t the worst outcome, as its shady northeast exposure kept the snowfall from the previous week fairly light and carveable. But the misfire meant circling around the sprawling mountain back to the base and riding up to the summit on the Collins chair again.
It was approaching 4 p.m. and my legs were tired. But there at my tips it lay, at last — the run of Alta. But rather than a silky carpet of powder, the previous week’s 85-inch snowfall instead carved the run into massive, hard-packed moguls on the 40-degree-plus slope, and the first dozen drops into the troughs threatened to send me into the back seat and down the pitch. I made it intact, however, putting a final exclamation point on another amazing day at Alta and a four-day tour of Utah ski areas — Snowbird, Solitude, Brighton and Alta.
Established in 1938, Alta is one of North America’s premier ski destinations, averaging more than 500 inches of snow yearly (and a record 748 inches in 1981-82) spread across 2,614 acres of vast, above-treeline bowls, gnarly ridges and arêtes, cirques, couloirs and mellow groomers. Much like Taos Ski Valley in terrain and its cast of diehard skiers, Alta is more than twice TSV’s size. Combined with its limitless out-of-bounds side-country, where thousands of tracks could be spotted last week, it truly is a mecca of American skiing.
While always blessed with excellent snow and terrain, Alta’s aged lift system used to require many slow ascents. But in the past few years, almost all of the lifts were replaced with high-speed quads, including the Collins with its unusual double-angled alignment and the Supreme with its unique curved alignment.
For nostalgia lovers, there’s still the old Wildcat two-seater, which accesses some of the best tree and glade skiing on the mountain.
Alta is a ski area that inspires you to try harder, to go bigger, to explore your limits. It starts with the nature of the skiers there, many of whom give up “normal” lives for a chance to ski daily or to be able to fly in at the drop of a snowflake to catch the latest storm. One local with whom I shared a lift boasted that he didn’t have a wife, kids or a regular job. Even his girlfriend was on a standby basis — all so that he could pursue his passion unfettered.
Then there’s the prodigious snow that softens one’s falls if you are pushing it. As of Wednesday, Alta had a base of 126 inches with flurries falling. And there’s all kinds of skiing here, from ballroom-spacious groomers where early birds can “rip the roy,” as one new friend informed me, to bumped-up slots through rocky chokes, to acres of dark forests and a dedicated beginner’s area with its own lifts.
If you’re willing to do a little hiking and/or traverses (the area’s name is jokingly referred to as “Another Long Traverse Ahead”), many other sectors open up, such as the huge Devil’s Castle underneath Sugarloaf Peak at 11,051 feet, Baldy Shoulder below 11,068-foot Baldy Peak or the Catherine area atop the Supreme chair. As if this wasn’t enough, you can also purchase the Altabird pass that allows you to ski into and out of adjoining Snowbird.
One could truly spend a life exploring all of Alta’s nooks and crannies. With 55 percent of its runs classified as expert, you might get in over your head. But isn’t that how we learn?
Over the next few weeks, I will continue our Utah tour, with looks at Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude.
If You Go
The industry group Ski Utah and Salt Lake City, which adopted the slogan “Ski City,” have teamed up with four local resorts — Alta, Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton — to offer a Super Pass. It allows one day of ticketless access to all four lift systems, plus free use of the region’s terrific public bus and light rail system. Buses run every 15 to 30 minutes between multiple city stops and each of the ski areas, with runs averaging 30 to 45 minutes. The basic adult Super Pass with no blackout dates costs $300, and can be extended for longer stays. Get it at www.skicity.com.
Alta has a fairly limited number of on-slope accommodations, ranging from condos and houses to hotels and inns, including the area’s first luxury property, the Snowpine Lodge, which opened last season. A terrific variety of places to sleep and dine await in nearby Salt Lake City. If you are flying, consider use of Ski Butlers, who bring rental gear right to your room. Go to skibutlers.com for details.
Alta day lift tickets for adults run $110. Another option at Alta is the Grizzly Gulch Snowcat Skiing, with guided backcountry outings. Call 801-799-2271 for details. Alta will close April 21 and reopen April 26-29. For a ton of interesting stories about Alta, visitalta.com/blog. For general info on the area, go to www.alta.com, or call 801-359-1078.
UNM Lobos ski team
House Bill 320, which calls for the reinstatement of the ski team and the other sports cut by the University of New Mexico, faces an important hearing before the Legislative Finance Committee at 8:30 a.m. Saturday in Room 307 of the Roundhouse. Anyone supportive of the first UNM program to win a national championship — and one with an academically excellent roster — is urged to come and show support. If you cannot be there, you can send the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Patti Lundstrom, an email at email@example.com.
The latest storm didn’t deliver the punch we hoped for, but as of Thursday morning, Red River picked up the most powder with 15 inches, taking its base to 42. Ski Santa Fe only received 4 inches but is 100 percent open on a 59-inch base. Pajarito also picked up 4, and has a 34-inch base. Taos got 7 inches, for a 62-inch base. Angel Fire saw 9 inches arrive for a 34-inch base. This weekend marks its annual World Championship Shovel Races. Wolf Creek was blessed with 37 inches over the week, pushing its base to a region-best of 90 inches.