Reaching for the Sky in Utah
by Tim Neville
THE NEW YORK TIMES, DECEMBER 9, 2011
A FEW years ago, I packed my skis and did something every winter sports enthusiast should do at least once in a lifetime: take a trip to Utah, a place known for its powder. I met a friend in Salt Lake City and spent a week bouncing between four resorts. We flew around aspens at Deer Valley and nailed jump turns off a ridge at Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort. At Snowbird I sailed weightlessly through three feet of the airiest, steepest, untracked powder I’d ever skied.
Then we went to the Canyons, the neglected cousin of two nearby skier favorites, Deer Valley and Park City Mountain Resort. The bounty of glades was impressive, but as soon as we got hungry, the mountain’s faults really became apparent. The fact that it was next to impossible to find a place to grab a bite on the mountain meant returning to base, which was the last place we wanted to be. The main lift out was 45 years old, a slow relic with crowds of impatient skiers fanned out around it. Soulless buildings in desperate need of updating were arranged so poorly that a well-used run actually ended below them. Here, at the biggest resort in Utah, surrounded by some of the best ski country in the nation, I felt no need to linger.
But that was in 2006. Two years later, I’d heard the resort had begun to wake up when Jack Bistricer, a private investor, bought the Canyons from the American Skiing Company with the apparent goal of staking out a niche somewhere between Deer Valley’s white-gloved pampering (where, as one local put it, “you fall over and they’ll pick you up”) and Park City Mountain Resort (where rowdy teenagers scarf down hot dogs before jumping back into the halfpipe).
In 2010, virtually the entire resort village was razed and rebuilt as workers rerouted a gondola and added restaurants and a sunbathing area where you can listen to music and have a beer. That old, slow lift from the 1960s was replaced with North America’s first heated chairlift, a high-speed quad. There are new places to eat, including midmountain stops, food carts (one with nine types of hot chocolate) and fancier fare at sit-down spots like the Farm or the Bistro, said to be the only kosher-certified restaurant at a United States ski area. Workers built more snowshoe trails, gladed more trees, and added a winter zip line.
All of this appears to be paying off. Last season the resort became the nation’s third largest ski area when it added 300 acres of north-facing intermediate terrain to the 3,700 acres it already had. Now some 4,500 people an hour — a 47 percent increase from when I was first there — can get up the mountain from the base.
The resort even has a new name, sort of: the Canyons is now simply Canyons.
“It’s been totally transformed, that’s for sure,” said the United States Ski Team member Ted Ligety, an Olympic gold medalist and three-time World Cup champion who grew up in Park City and is now sponsored by one of Canyons’ neighboring rivals, Park City Mountain Resort. “It was something of a stepchild for a long time.”
Maybe so, but part of me was still skeptical when I decided to go back to see it for myself last March. I already knew that skiing in Utah could be spectacular, but I had to wonder if Canyons — with its new fancy menus and sunbathing strip — could really be worth it this time.
WINTER was in full force when I arrived in Park City. Yet another storm had walloped the Wasatch Range with some 20 inches of new snow. That made for nearly 25 feet so far that season; huge piles of the stuff lined sidewalks.
And it would only get better: More snow, then bluebird skies for the next three days of my visit — a snow-sun combination rare enough that I can count on one mitten how often I’ve timed a ski trip so well. I was so excited I hardly slept my first night, eventually kicking off the covers in the pastel dawn and wandering down to the fireplace in the Chateau Après, my budget hotel in downtown Park City for the first few nights. The hotel dated back to the old days, and is something of a classic among diehard skiers. Faded posters of the Swiss Alps adorned the chalet’s white walls, and a breakfast of cereal and mushy bread was little better than what you might find at an exit-ramp motel. But whatever the chateau lacked in elegance was gained in convenience. It is just a short walk from the pubs downtown and a free bus stops in the back. It whisked me to Canyons in about 15 minutes, just as the first chairs began to roll.
The changes at Canyons quickly became noticeable as I strolled through the base area, an inviting town square of sorts, strewn with cushy chairs, tables and a new bar with a collapsible roof. Though the lift lines were still long — it was a powder day, after all — they seemed to move quickly.
Dick Bench, a longtime Canyons ski patroller, had driven over from Salt Lake City to show me around, though I suspect he would have come anyway with conditions like those. I met him in the new Alpine House restaurant for coffee, and together we hopped on the Red Pine Gondola, the bottom portion of which had recently been diverted several hundred feet to serve the busy, central area near the ticket offices.
Our plan was to warm up on some groomed runs, which weren’t always a given. “Back when the resort first opened it was called Park City West but it was really ‘bump city,’ with not a lot of grooming,” Mr. Bench said. “It was mostly Utahans who came. Now it’s East, West, South, New York, even foreigners. I think it still has a local vibe, though, because even after a few days you’ll start seeing people you know.”
The resort seems too big for that — it spans nine mountains, after all — but Mr. Bench is no newcomer either. Deeply tanned with a neatly trimmed mustache, he started skiing here during the resort’s inaugural season in 1968 and has seen the resort go through several names and owners.
With 182 trails, Canyons now offers no shortage of runs smoothed by an armada of machines, including the country’s largest fleet of the largest kind of groomer. Truth be told, these manicured runs, known as cruisers because they offer such a smooth ride, aren’t my thing; I much prefer the steep, free-riding terrain of places like Alta and Snowbird. But if you’re going to ski on groomed slopes, Canyons is a fine place to do it.
We clicked into our skis at the top of an intermediate run called Chicane and pushed off. The storm had left the groomed slopes buried under five inches of fluff, with a hint of firmness below, like a memory-foam mattress. I skied it fast and hard, arriving at the bottom with my legs on fire.
Mr. Bench nodded approvingly. “O.K.,” he said. “Let’s see if we can find something a little more challenging.”
We scooted up the Tombstone Express chairlift, which had been upgraded from a four- to a six-person lift, and Mr. Bench pointed me down what is perhaps Canyons’ greatest asset: gorgeous tree runs that readers of Skiing magazine once rated fifth best in the country. The run, called Paradise, had been “limbed up,” as Mr. Bench said, referring to the removal of low branches to create openings perfect for popping through without having to remove whole trees. He shoved off and disappeared into the firs with the grace of a young athlete. Though he is 70, he skis about 100 days a year.
He was also losing me fast, so I pointed my tips down an untracked line and felt the snow well up around my thighs. It was classic “hero snow,” the kind that’s so forgiving you feel like a better skier than you really are. This is what I remembered liking about Canyons so many years ago. I came back to mortal reality when I hooked a ski tip on a small tree, performing a pirouette that left me with a purple shin.
Despite the blunder, I wanted more. Mr. Bench and I skied six more long runs. One called Showcase took us through a residential area, where sprawling slopeside homes resembled private ski lodges.
By noon the sun grew warm, too warm, and the snow turned from Utah dust into a heavy Cascade-like concrete: a good time to rest.
I grabbed a bowl of couscous at Cloud Dine, a new on-mountain cafeteria, while Mr. Bench annotated my trail map, pointing out places I shouldn’t miss: some gullies carved into natural halfpipes, a 1.1-mile-long terrain park and high, off-piste areas where I was sure to find fresh snow days after the storm.
By the time the day was done I’d skied nearly seven full hours before finally collapsing in a lounge chair at the Beach, the sunbathing area at the base. I didn’t really need a tan or the Grateful Dead that blared from outdoor speakers, but a local Squatters ale and the festive vibe was a fine way to call it a day.
At 6:30 the next morning I checked into the new Grand Summit, a decidedly more expensive slopeside hotel with a heated outdoor pool. Inside my room I’d later find a modest kitchenette with a granite countertop, a gas fireplace and a flat-screen TV. There was no time for inspections, though, not when there were more first tracks to be had.
Canyons has devised all sorts of ways to allow guests to customize their stays. You can heli-ski deep into the Wasatch from a landing pad near the newly expanded Red Pine Lodge for about $1,100 a day. For $750 for two people, you can get a weeklong Canyons Club membership that allows you to cut to the front of the lift lines, have dinner in a private yurt on the mountain and gain access to valet parking and a ski concierge. It also gives you two passes to ski the slopes a full 90 minutes before Canyons opens to the masses — a “First Tracks” program that otherwise costs $79 a person à la carte. I signed up for the latter and met the group around 7 a.m.
I buddied up with Chris Waddell, a Paralympics skier who broke his back ski racing in college, and Burney Jennings, head of the Biscuitville fast-food franchise who was here with his two sons from North Carolina. We grabbed the Orange Bubble Express — yes, the heated one — where a jolt of electricity warmed the seat to a cozy 57 degrees (it automatically gets to about 30 degrees warmer than the air outside).
I’d ridden a heated chairlift before in Europe, where my initial skepticism at such a luxury quickly changed. Sitting down on one is indeed a wonderful perk. The burst of heat could bring joy to even the most grizzled of hard-core skiers by taking the edge off a gelid day. That means more energy for skiing and less time replacing it with overpriced hot drinks.
For the next hour we rocketed down Doc’s Run, Main Line and a shot that was not on the map called Dead Tree. Catching this on a powder day would be sublime but the groomers had been busy and I did my best to ruin their wide wale work with high-G carves.
AFTER stopping for breakfast burritos at Red Pine Lodge, a bright, airy building perched midmountain, I took the Timberline Lift to the Iron Mountain Express, two new lifts since my last visit, to reach Iron Mountain, where a batch of new tree runs had just opened that year. The resort is so big that it took me close to an hour to work my way back north, slowly, to another lift, the Saddleback Express. From there I could play in natural gullies and the Transitions terrain park, riding over the smaller jumps with all the caution of someone who knew better. Next to me, rubber-boned teenagers soared backward into orbit while snowboarders slid over boxes and rails. Steve Duke, who created the giant 1.1-mile-long park out of a series of smaller ones in 2010, had added features like a gong hanging from a tree that one rider whacked midflight, adding a brassy flourish to a trick.
Eventually, I decided to head back to the base, still exhausted from my marathon day before. But first I visited one of the new food carts near the bottom of the Red Pine Gondola, where I got a spicy cup of hot chocolate flavored with cardamom and chipotle. A long stretching session in the hotel pool did wonders for my sore legs but nothing for my energy. After a dinner of oxtail soup at the Farm, a new upscale restaurant at the base, I headed back to my room.
My luck seemed to run out on my last day as temperatures soared to a sloppy 40 degrees at the base. My plan: go as high as I could, up to 9,990 feet above sea level on the Ninety-Nine 90 express chair, a high-speed quad, where Mr. Bench said good snow tends to linger if you’re willing to work a little.
The air was indeed much cooler up at the top. I took off my skis, threw them over my shoulder and hiked past Park City’s only backcountry gate for sweeping views of Big Cottonwood Canyon to the west. Before me lay a good dozen turns through fluffy untracked snow three days — three! — after the storm.
After a few hours, I was just about to call it a day when I remembered another powder-hunting tip Mr. Bench had given me: stick to the firs, not the aspens, because firs grow on shaded north faces. I began searching for a good line in what’s known as the Old Area to the north when I heard a shrill scream followed by giggly squeaks.
Three girls, no older than 12, had found even more untracked snow here, right next to the lift on a pleasing ridgeline with firs on one side and aspens on the other. I mustered some energy, fought my way through thick brush and discovered a series of lines with as many as 15 turns that the girls hadn’t touched. Hands forward. Knees bent. I transformed the alabaster ribbon into a tracked-up mess, racing back up after each run to lay more squiggles next to my own.
Before my last run down, I paused and looked around. I was alone in the woods, far from the new restaurants and spas. The music from the village base had been drowned in the silence of a pale Utah sky. It struck me that even a heated chairlift was just a faster, more comfortable means to this: the chance to discover and claim my own powder kingdom where I could hoot and holler and ski as I please. There were probably hundreds of these pockets tucked among the firs that I had missed. Oh well. I shoved off and settled into my turns, happy to save them for another time.
IF YOU GO
Lift tickets at Canyons are $96 a day, but you can sometimes get discounts by combing local fliers. Buying multiday tickets through the resort’s central reservation office 72 hours in advance can net you a 10 percent discount off the ticket window price (888-226-9667). And if you’re staying at the resort for several days, Canyons offers lodging packages that include discounts on ski passes.
WHERE TO STAY
The Chateau Après (800-357-3556; chateauapres.com), with 32 rooms and a central location, might be Park City’s best value for those seeking to spend more on skiing and less on sleeping. It is 150 yards from the lifts at Park City Mountain Resort and a 15-minute walk from downtown Park City. A free bus runs between Deer Valley, downtown Park City, Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort. Doubles are $110.
For slopeside accommodations, the Grand Summit at Canyons (866-604-4171; canyonsresort.com) has cushy rooms, a spa, concierge service, a heated pool, fitness areas, restaurants and 358 “lodging options” ranging from rooms to luxury penthouses. Doubles are $375 to $450.
The Waldorf Astoria Park City (435-647-5500; parkcitywaldorfastoria.com), served by a separate gondola that whisks visitors up to the main base area, has 175 rooms, most of which have decks and fireplaces. Doubles, $399 to $599.
RESTAURANTS AND APRèS SKI
The Farm (435-615-8060; canyonsresort.com/dining.html), near the Grand Summit hotel along the resort’s “Beach,” serves new American fare like bourbon-braised pork rib-eye and stuffed flank steak, created by John Murcko, one of Utah’s most respected chefs.
The No Name Saloon (447 Historic Main Street; 435-649-6667; nonamesaloon.net) is a classic Western ski town bar with moose heads on the wall and fat burgers like the Saloon Burger, a “nine napkin monster.”
TIM NEVILLE, who lives in Oregon, writes frequently about the outdoors.
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