The Soul of Skiing: A Powder Day at Alta
Boom! Crash! The sound of the morning’s avalanche control sends my head flying off the pillow nearly colliding with the bottom of the bunk above me. There’s brown glass all over the floor from the Sessions Lager bottle I left precariously sitting on the sill of my window overnight. Boom! Another bomb goes off. It has been snowing all night and Alta and Snowbird’s ski patrol are busy ski cutting and throwing hand charges into the areas’ inbounds avalanche terrain. I slip on my flip-flops and step out into the hall of the Buckhorn, Alta’s on-hill employee housing.
My sandals squeak as I walk, adhering with every step to the beer-soaked carpet. Last night we partied while Little Cottonwood Canyon’s (LCC) unique geography and topography channeled the storm’s northwesterly flow straight into the canyon’s open arms and upwards over 6,000 feet from Salt Lake City’s valley floor. This process is called orographic lifting and is known for creating anomalous weather patterns in mountainous zones around the world. The weather phenomenon’s rapid lifting causes air masses to quickly cool and create precipitation events out of comparably “weak” storms. In LCC that precipitation usually comes in the form of low-water content dendrite snowflakes. In our case, it was 14” of fresh.
This is the magic of LCC and the reason Alta and Snowbird consistently post higher storm totals than other Northern Wasatch ski areas like Park City, Snowbasin, Powder Mountain, and even its neighbors in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Brighton, and Solitude. It’s also the reason millions of people make the pilgrimage to visit, work, and live in LCC every winter. And for those of us who have tasted the joy of skiing or riding low-density powder in LCC, days like today are what we dream about: Interlodge.
The sign posted on the door says it all, “Do not go outside. Disregarding this notice is hazardous and will result in a fine.” At this moment, the Utah Department of Transportation, alongside Alta’s ski patrol, are taking aim across the canyon at Mt. Superior, Cardiff, and the other slide-prone zones along the canyon’s northern ridge with a WWII-era 105mm Howitzer. While they are shooting artillery shells over the town of Alta we are stuck inside until further notice. This also means that traffic on Highway 210 has been halted and that the line of cars at the mouth of the canyon is beginning to grow longer.
At nine o’clock the Interlodge is lifted and I run outside to claim a spot in line alongside my coworkers from the lift company as well as the employees and guests from the Alta Lodge, the Peruvian, the Rustler, the Goldminer’s Daughter, and the Snowpine Lodge. There’s about 45 of us at the Collins lift while another 15 are hustling towards the Wildcat chair. The vibe is light, fun, and buzzing with excitement. First-timers pour over maps in the final minutes before this magical 30 minutes of country club skiing commences.
In an orchestrated canyon opening, the same moment that the first skiers board the lift, the line of cars at the bottom of the canyon will start up the steep winding road to Alta and Snowbird. Depending on the traffic, this gives us just enough time for three or four runs of untouched powder skiing before the throngs of valley folk show up.
At 9:15, Alti, Alta’s 25-year lifty veteran, steps out in front of the frothing mob and with a gatekeeper’s smile calls “first row!” The first in line slide out; the powder day has begun.
On the lift ride up, we whoop and holler at our friends and coworkers who are dropping into their first turns. We can tell from the speed and ease of their descent that the snow is deep and dry and we rubberneck to watch their trails of coldsmoke billowing out under the lift. Moments later, it’s our turn.
Like powder monkeys released from their cages we attack the High T in route to our favorite runs down Stonecrusher, High Rustler, and more nuanced lines through the trees. There’s no stopping. We have four runs until the crowds show up; it’s time to rip.
Legs burning, mustaches frozen, and three runs of country club skiing ahead of us, we board the lift for round two with those from the original group who have managed to keep up. The saying is “no friends on a powder day,” but at Alta it’s more like no friends for the first four runs of a powder day.
That’s the thing about this place: it is world renowned, but has the feel of a mom-and-pop ski area. Sure, there’s powder panic, but once you get those first few runs out of your system, it’s more about riding with your friends and enjoying a beer on the sun deck of the Goldminer’s Daughter than fiendishly hoarding powder turns. With incredible accessibility from Salt Lake City and the regularity of good snow, there’s just no need for this crazy, selfish behavior.
After a long day of skiing, we pull off our sweaty boots and head to the P-Dog (Peruvian Lodge bar) for some world-famous jalapeno poppers and beers. Tall tales of deep turns and big air evolve into razzing banter between friends. The sun sets, the caucus grows, and the band begins to play. Dancing to the plucking string of a upright bass, we are surrounded by jovial smiles and the cackle of laughter.
This is the night of a powder day in LCC and it’s still snowing…