Friday, February 13, 2009

A Ski Trip to Alta & Snowbird by John Nicolich

Interlodge. It’s a word unfamiliar to most but to those who know, it holds a special, mythic meaning. It could mean the best powder day ever, with access limited to those few souls lucky enough to be holed up on the hill while all others are strayed in the valley below. I arrived in Utah to snow flakes the size of saucers falling in a density that blotted out the sky. Ross and I shuttled up Little Cottonwood Canyon together with the anticipation of a huge day, maybe a huge week. We also learned that interlodge would be in effect at midnight. The road would be closed for the night and the snow would continue to fall. The ride up seemed to take forever. In a neurotic sort of way, I felt that everything would be all right, if we could just make it up this hill. Car wrecks to the left and right, snow inches thick on the roadway, a slightly deranged driver – any of these things could harsh on my dream. Finally, we pulled into the Peruvian parking lot. Not breath of breeze, just a steady unyielding stream of fluff. Utah snow – the greatest snow on earth.

We woke to a morning like no other. The snow was deep everywhere, the sky was starting to clear, and the parking lot was empty. The road was open, but the going was slow. There was no line as we skated across the parking lot to the lift. Ross, Tony, Steve and I made our way up the Collins lift brimming with anticipation. In seconds the game was on. Knee deep blower POW greeted us as we made our way to the Sugarloaf lift. In an instant we had lost Ross and it was clear that the powder rule was in full effect. After a few glorious laps we made our way over to the Supreme Lift. Truth be told we have never had much luck at this lift for one reason or another. Today, we knew it would be different. Our mouths watered as we scoped lines that were as yet untouched. We could have some serious fun back here! We raced off the lift only to find the entire zone closed off. Stymied yet again by this cursed lift. (To make things worse, the ropes dropped shortly after we left and the reports on the skiing were remarkable.)

We made our way to the front side and to Wildcat – our Old Faithful stash. Unbelievably, we were able to track line after line in the deep, with virtually no company. We went in for lunch and met an upbeat and forgiving Ross. We also witnessed the arrival of Stan. In true Stanley fashion he told of an all night work session, last minute changing of flights, frenzied packing, and a blackberry full of emails. He would join us later. We went back out and furthered an epic day that none of us would soon forget. Day One was done.

Our number was growing. Paul and Theone would join us on the shuttle to Snowbird to meet Dale. The day was cold and clear. We could see the spindrift at the tops of the peaks and the day was absolutely gorgeous. We loaded the Tram and at the top found conditions reminiscent of a deadly Mt Everest expedition. The cruel wind howled and seemed to swirl everywhere. The surface was beaten to a sheet of hardpacked ice that made navigation tricky. The sound of the shrieking wind disoriented me as we tried to escape the wrath of the bitter cold. I dove over the side to Mineral Basin to try to escape the insane conditions on top, but found an unforgiving blow coming straight up the hill. The snow was slabbed over but soft. Tony plunged ahead skiing with perfect grace in the tricky snow. Stan also went ahead, and Steve was right behind me. Suddenly, I fell through the crust and tumbled headfirst into the freezing snow. I dropped a ski, and Steve stopped and retrieved it for me. It’s a good thing too because the snow was so deep, I was making no progress on my own as the wind continued to howl. I found that I wasn’t the only one in difficulty – there was carnage everywhere on this side of the hill.

At the Mineral Basin chair, someone pointed to Tony and said "Dude, you have frost bite." Sure enough his nose was bright white and we got a harsh reminder of the extreme conditions. We headed back up to the top and tried the (skiers) left side of the basin instead of the right and found the snow much better. Now it was safe to rip. Not wanting to spend any time in the fierce wind at the top we each picked our own lines and met at the bottom. At least some of us did. The powder rule was especially cruel on this day as our large group splintered to bits. Nonetheless there were cases of true heroism, as Stan (the Man) Pennington waited at the top, in the sub zero bluster, for Steve to tinkle. The US Marines have nothing on Stan Penn who would leave no man behind.

In all the excitement we realized that we had not heard from Dale. We went in for lunch and found him there, stoic but not angry. After a quick lunch, we went out for some more fun. We ripped through the Cirque and late in the day, went all the way across the back side to a glorious stash. This area is at the far end of a rocky, undulating traverse and has no name. The entry was tricky – steep, tight, and rock strewn. Dale and Steve had to catch some mandatory air before dropping into the knee deep powder. From there, we ripped a circuitous route through the trees, around the rocks and over the rollers. It was like an amusement ride. Hearing Dale behind me laughing and hooting the whole way was inspiring. I caught myself laughing like a little kid. We kept going until last chair, finally making our way to Dale’s car for a ride back to the hotel. Day Two in the books. That night we dined with Ann and Bob, fresh off the Power 90 program. They both looked great, fit and trim. Tony helped Ann out by eating most of her berries at dessert! We also met a new friend, pro skier Kasha Rigby.

It snowed again overnight but with a huge wind that threatened to shut down the lifts. That morning the mood was subdued, mostly from sheer exhaustion. Two killer days of skiing bell to bell had sapped our strength. No one was in a hurry to brave the elements yet again. After a slightly late start, we found that the snow was soft, if not deep. Better yet, no one was on the hill; we had the place to ourselves. We racked numerous runs on Wildcat and in spots found the snow had blown in knee deep. Better still, the wind seemed to fill in our own tracks, making each run as excellent as the previous one. We met with Kasha and decided to brave the high traverse to get to our favorite goods – Rustler trees.

The traverse was sketchy to be sure; it was a near complete white out on the exposed hillside. To make matters more interesting, the surface was rife with icy sections and hard protuberances that threatened our health and well being. Yet the reward at the end of the road was simply glorious. We picked our way through untouched lines as if we owned the place. Run after run we found untracked blown in snow on steep terrain, with lines that seemed to last forever. Lap after lap, we braved the dangerous traverse for the right to wallow in the pure heaven we found in those trees. This day was certainly the diamond in the rough; we had no right to have this much fun. Life lesson: Don’t ever judge a day by first light, and good things come to those willing to pursue.

The smiles at dinner were wide. Our large group had a ball, recounting the day, telling old stories, remembering days gone by. This group is special and the company is superb. I think we all truly value these sessions, maybe more than the skiing.

Day Four opened with a beautiful glorious morning. The previous day’s wind had kept Snowbird pristine; the tram and Mineral Basin had both been closed while we shredded Alta. We had a good size group with Dale, Paul and Theone and kept it together pretty well. The powder rule was overruled. A few runs in the sunshine on the front side made for a lot of happiness. Then we went through the tunnel and found Mineral Basin had just opened.

The sight was one to behold. The bright morning light illuminated an enormous untouched canvas of snow, as far as the eye could see. The vision was inspiring and grand. I sat there pondering a moment and recognized something out of the corner of my eye. It was Horton, poaching my line! The powder rule was re-sustained. Game on.

The snow was a gorgeous light powder that flew off my skis effortlessly like dust in a windstorm. I ripped huge, wide turns at mach speed. There was no thought of conserving the canvas with tighter turns. There was no thought of anything but the freedom of movement, gracefully arcing from one side to the other. Near the bottom, I picked a tight chute and shredded it with no effort as the soft snow yielded to my will. My line was truly artistic, with some huge high speed turns, some air, and some tight no nonsense skiing. However, our once unified group was now splintered, as we rushed to load the chair before the oncoming hordes. Unfortunately, someone had let the word out and every unclean shredder and his brother showed up to despoil our nirvana. Within an hour the goods had been pilfered by these pagan infidels. Ultimately, we waited on horrendous lines until we realized that everyone was now leaving the area. We took a few more runs without the crowds before moving on. I’ll not soon forget the bounty in that back basin; it was truly outstanding.

We moved on to the Cirque, then to the back side. We met up with Sweet Jane; always fun times with her. Late in the day, Dale and I blazed another trail through the steep and treed section from the previous Snowbird day, and we hooted and hollered the whole way. I couldn’t stop laughing as we picked our way through crazy tight spaces with crazy deep snow. How much money is a moment like this worth?

Again we rode until last chair and by now I was exhausted. Unfortunately, we were stuck in Snowbird with no way back to the Peruvian. After watching bus after bus leave us behind, we bribed a Snowbird driver to take us back home.

Our group would be splitting up soon and heading back into the real world. One last day of spring skiing awaited us. However, there would be one more surprise before that. Those pants. Those fancy white pants. I had been envious of Tony’s new pants since I first saw them. I had shopped for them but was unwilling to treat myself. The bright white color perfectly matched my showy red jacket (contrasting horribly with my green envy). On this last night together, my buddy treated me to something I would not get for myself. He gave me those pants; I put them on and felt the groove. I felt complete. Big thanks to Tony.

Day Five was another beauty. Paul and Dale were gone now. I missed our big group. This bright sunny day would have been great for the whole group with no powder rule pressure. We went back to our Rustler haunts and found some good snow to play in. Theone, suffering from tuberculosis and insomnia all week, was a Shred Betty, killing every line. After lunch Steve had to leave. My shuttle was at 245. I was on the Sugarloaf lift at 215. We raced to the front side, and grabbed one last line down Baldy face. But now it was time to go, and I blasted. I pulled into the Peruvian just before 230 and began a frenzied packing session. I wound up stripping to my skives in the lobby, much to the amusement of the few witnessing guests. I zipped up my last bag at 245, and loaded up with a huge smile still on my face.

The transition to reality is always difficult after a fanciful journey like this. The complicated troubles of the world seem so distant when I’m ripping with my friends in a foreign land. It always takes a few days to decompress, and in this case to rest. It was a long, terrific trip that seemed to pass all too quickly. Good luck picking your favorite day or favorite memory on this one. The sum experience is the true treasure. I can’t wait to do it again.

See You in Jackson!


Anonymous said...

Great storey bringing back many fond memories. I spent one glorious season living and skiing at Alta, while working at the Alta Peruvian!

Thanks for sharing, reminds me I have to get back there for a trip soon!

Nick C. said...


Dude, you are most definitely the "Dean of Extreme"! Sounds like a wonderful time in the snow--well, except for the frostbite on the nose part, I guess-;) Anyway, bought "The Magic Lamp" book, learning about what I want in life, thank you very much. Oh, those plyo, forward/backward planks in your latest video... Man, they are all that! I could never imagine myself doing those in the bonus round at 8,000 feet of elevation... You de man!

CT Olson said...

Sweet story - I love Alta! (was just there a couple weeks ago)

Demi Eliese said...

i said it on facebook and I'll say it again, that Marine comment pisses me off. I am a prior Marine myself, and have had friends die in combat-that whole "the US Marines have nothing" on some guy watching another pee??? whatever.

You're still cool in my book but that comment got me.

Have a great night :)

Marye Jane Kiser said...

I can't believe you were in my backyard and I didn't even know it. Would have loved the chance to meet you. We just started doing P90X, meeting you is def on my bucket list. You are awesome. One of these days I'll be able to check that off, I just know it. Marye Jane in Utah

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Our mouths watered as we scoped lines that were as yet untouched. We could have some serious fun back here! We raced off the lift only to find the entire zone closed off. Stymied yet again by this cursed lift. (To make things worse, the ropes dropped shortly after we left and the reports on the skiing were remarkable.)

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