Ski Guide: Utah

November 23, 2013

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. Continue reading…

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. (See YouTube.) Continue reading…

But don't forget just how good you've got it…

 

This season whistler has two new lifts-the High Speed Quad Crystal Ridge Express and the six-seater Harmony Express-and the general reaction seems to run the gamut from meh to complaints that it just means they'll load more skiers onto the mountain. Seriously? Jackson Hole only has 12 lifts on its entire mountain. Aspen only has eight-do you think it'd pooh-pooh two new ones? The lift that the Harmony 6 is replacing is as nice as anything at Fernie, Big White, or Silver Star.

When you live in the embarrassment of riches that is Whistler/Blackcomb, perspective is as tough a commodity to come by as a table for eight at Creekbread on a Saturday-but really, gang, let's take a moment to thank the ski gods for our blessings. 

P.S. Red Mountain is going to kill it this year

 

For the average vancouverite it would be quicker to fly to Reno, gamble a bit, and drive to Tahoe than it would be to drive to Red. You can fly, of course: direct to Spokane and then (then!) drive for two-and-a-half hours; or direct to Castlegar which, due to the mountainous terrain, allows no possibility of a straight-on approach, can only be used during daylight, and is closed if the ceiling isn't at least 3,400 feet. And trust me, the ceiling is often not at 3,400 feet. Say hello to an eight-hour drive.

Why bother? Because Red Mountain offers insane snow and crazy terrain, of course. And there are no crowds, ever. And if that weren't enough, the resort has doubled the size of its terrain this year by opening Grey Mountain, an entirely new peak that features long blue-square bombers off one side and some of the most extreme double blacks off the other. One of them is called Helter Smelter, which is in the running for run name of the year.

Thanks to a deep-pocketed American owner, the slopeside accommodation is way nicer than it needs to be and the restaurants are likewise imagined for a resort twice the size-they even have an izakaya spot in Rossland. Continue reading…

Utah Lowdown

There are 14 resorts in the state, but focus on these five:

Deer Valley

The crowd Those who snicker at the quaintness of the one-percent
Come for the best cruising and corduroy around
Skip if you drive a VW Westphalia. And you snowboard.

 

Alta

The crowd Burnouts, powder hounds, ponytailers
Come for the best hiking and steeps in the U.S.
Skip if you've ever spent more than $150 on a hotel or $7 on a pint of beer. And you snowboard.

 

Snowbird

The crowd Alta's slightly more upscale brethren. And snowboarders
Come for Alta terrain
Skip if you need a Four Seasons.

 

Park City

The crowd Servers and chefs squeezing in a half-day before their shift (lifts go right into Main Street)
Come for the most challenging terrain in the area
Skip if you're only in town for Sundance.

 

Snowbasin

The crowd Wealthy people from Ogden
Come for insane steeps… and beautiful bathrooms
Skip if you need ski-in, ski-out-there is no hillside accommodation

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.