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Ski Guide: Utah

April 20, 2015

At first blush it seems insane, or at the very least indulgent, to eschew the now calm and beautiful drive up the Sea-to-Sky to the World’s Greatest Ski Resort in favour of a traffic jam on Granville leading to YVR, endless security lines, and a two-and-a-half-hour flight to ski at another, invariably lesser resort. We have Whistler in our backyard-what else do we need?

And yet. Like Bruce Springsteen married to the supermodel but sneaking glances at the Jersey-born backup singer, there was something gnawing at me. Something birthed on a socked-in, zero-visibility February day in Whistler, the hill packed to a standstill. Maybe there’s something more out there. I had become used while travelling to meeting people who gushed over my luck at having Whistler on my doorstep, but there were always a few outliers-Alta, they’d whisper in hushed tones, Snowbasin, Snowbird, Solitude-who defied the convention of Whistler supremacy. And so it was that I headed to the promised land of Salt Lake City, Utah.

It’s perhaps the most perfect Western city. Clean and unencumbered by history. Laid down on a perfect grid with just enough hills to keep monotony at bay. The sprawling Great Salt Lake guarding one side, warning of the evils and indulgences that lie should you head too far west. The airport, the car rental counter, the baggage claim-all models of pleasant efficiency. And the people! Friendly, open, comfortable, and free from the hold of constant irony.

The mountains surround the city, and the perfect valleys splay out like thin fingers. By the time you’ve properly adjusted the seat of your rental car you’ve arrived.

At Snowbasin, 40 minutes north. Or Park City, Deer Valley, and the Canyons, 40 minutes to the northeast. Or Alta and Snowbird, 45 minutes east-northeast. All are accessed by wide, cleared, beautifully engineered freeways, as if the city had only been built to bask in the ski hills’ greatness.

The trip was a revelation. Was it better than Whistler? Not necessarily, but different. New. Occasionally deeply unusual. Like eating a marbled rib-eye after a month of tuna sashimi.

Go where the snow is the best in the world

The snow is so crisp and light in Utah that the French don’t dare try to enforce their trademark when locals call it Champagne powder. Even when they’ve been skied hard, the hills retain patches of greatness just a traverse or a short hike away. Whistler’s average quantity is higher than at most of these resorts, so, yes, you’ll occasionally see an exposed root on a Utah slope, but it’s a small price to pay for greatness.

There’s a world-class hill cheaper than Whistler

Whenever deer valley knocks Whistler from Ski magazine’s No. 1 Resort perch, Whistlerites gripe that it’s because DV ranks so high in all the “service” categories-and there’s some truth to that. The hill’s non-traditional layout-it sprawls over several mountains, all of which you can almost drive to the top of-means that basically everything is ski-in, ski-out. The Stein Eriksen Lodge still routinely tops best-in-the-world lists, and it barely makes the podium in Deer Valley. The St. Regis, accessed by its own funicular, and the fantastically over-the-top Montage are simply two of the nicest hotels anywhere. What does it say that a wealthy person’s hill is cheaper to ski than Whistler? Nearby Snowbasin doesn’t have any on-hill accommodation yet, but its facilities are insanely plush-as in mid-mountain bathrooms that rival the Hotel Vancouver’s.

Crowds? There are none

Deer Valley famously stops selling tickets when the crowds get too large, a great marketing ploy seeing how it only happens a few times a season. The truth is that given the number of options skiers have, the hills rarely see the sort of crushing lineups that Whistler gets on busy weekends.

If you like to snowboard you’re out of luck at both Alta and Deer Valley, where they’re banned. (Tiny Mad River Glen in Vermont is the only other resort in North America to follow this practice.) Snowboarders have responded by perennially sneaking onto both mountains and filming their nose thumbing turns.

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