Stretch your boundaries
Lisa Young takes a broad sweep across Utah's backcountry
Friday 02 November 2012
High above Utah's Salt Lake City in the Wasatch Mountains, warning signs reminded me of the potential dangers ahead. They were backed up by our lead mountain guide: "Don't stop, stay on the track and keep moving, and remember to keep some distance from the person in front."
I checked my avalanche transceiver was on, then began traversing the infamous Highway to Heaven – a 1,500ft avalanche-prone backcountry route connecting Solitude to Alta ski resorts. Shuffling, we followed a ski-width path across the ridge. A slight incline made the going harder. Keeping 60ft between skiers – an avalanche safety measure – our group completed the traverse in 20 minutes. Friendlier conditions awaited and we took off, skiing through trees and powder snow.
It was early February and I was on the Ski Utah Interconnect Adventure Tour, a unique and remote off-piste day trip allowing skiers to go under the ropes and out of bounds to enjoy six of Utah's top groomed ski areas. The route cuts through the backcountry linking Deer Valley to Park City Mountain Resort, dropping in to the Big Cottonwood Canyon, Brighton and Solitude resorts. Then there's a traverse to the Alta ski area before finishing at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort. Skiers clock up around 30 miles overall, covering 15,000 vertical feet, through fresh powder and groomed runs.
This is no tour for the timid. Walking, traversing, and the ability to ski in diverse conditions is required. And only skiers can participate, since the route passes through two ski-only resorts: Deer Valley and Alta. Spring is the best time for the tour, when the snow is more stable and the days are warmer.
We were in good hands. Our guide Bob Merrill, or "Backcountry Bob" as he is known locally, is a ski machine and an authority on snow safety. Merrill sports longish grey hair, a handlebar moustache and a bushy beard. Replace his skis with a horse and he'd resemble Colonel Custer. He was keen for us to take care off-piste. "Backcountry skiing is different. We tell people to tone it down a notch; it's not a race. Skiers need to be careful, as they'll encounter many different kinds of snow and potential hazards like tree wells and stumps that you can't see under the snow," explained Merrill. An avalanche is unlikely, but not out of the question, so we were all wearing avalanche transceivers.
Our day started at 8.30am at the Deer Valley resort: first on our list of six. After a safety talk, we headed to the top of the resort, and were kept happy warming up on beautifully groomed gentle runs. Then we moved to the western side of Deer Valley for a jaunt through the woods, skiing as a group of 11 with a guide in front and another at the back. When we reached the top of Deer Valley's Empire Canyon, we ducked under the border rope and, a few sidesteps later, we were in Park City. It was here that we experienced our first proper dose of sprawling backcountry skiing. With big smiles, we picked our line and lunged forward, gliding through the snow and sending it flying in all directions.
We skied some of the resort's 107 runs, taking the lift to McConkey's bowl, with its challenging double black diamond runs covered with big moguls. A narrow track with lots of bumps led to Solitude Mountain Resort. Unintentionally, I flew off the crest of one bump, gaining plenty of air, then landed near a tree, which I managed to arc around at the last second.
At Solitude, the third resort on our route, we swept through empty bowls before traversing to Brighton for steep backcountry descents. We crossed back into Solitude, stopping to refuel at The Last Chance Mining Camp with a lunch of soup and sandwiches (which were included in the tour price).
The bulk of the work was after lunch. Solitude's summit lift carried us to the top of the resort and to the entrance of the Highway to Heaven. It called on all of our hard-won experience to tackle the traverse along the highway over to Grizzly Gulch and down to Albion Basin in Alta. We slowly slipped along the narrow section, which was time-consuming and a bit of a workout, but it wasn't difficult.
The Alta skiing-only area is found in Little Cottonwood Canyon, just 53km from Salt Lake City. The runs were uncrowded, there were no lift queues and the terrain was steep.
Our sixth and final resort was Snowbird, also in Little Cottonwood Canyon. For our finale, we took the tram to Hidden Peak (11,000ft) at the top of the resort and a gateway to Snowbird's 85 runs. From the top of the resort to the bottom, we covered a drop of 3,240 vertical feet.
By 4pm, my legs were tired from all the steep and deep. It was time to celebrate the end of our skiing odyssey: cold beers around an outdoor fire roasting marshmallows would do the trick.
The writer travelled with United Airlines (0845 844 4777; united.com) which flies from Heathrow to Salt Lake City via Chicago or Washington DC.
For more information on travel to the US, see page 5.
A 10-night ski-only package from Ski Safari (01273 224060; skisafari.com) costs from £1,100 per person, which includes B&B accommodation at the Park City Peaks Hotel.
Seven nights at the four-star Sundial ski-in ski-out hotel in Canyons costs £1,285 per person.
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