What is a Mormon? How can I get a drink in this place? And where is Robert Redford? These are not questions that skiers commonly ask in ski resorts – although the second might spring to mind on a Saturday night in Dick's Tea Bar at Val d'Isère. But anyone skiing in the resorts around Salt Lake City is liable to want answers to them.
Happily, the answers are provided in Lee Benson's entertaining Inside Guide to the Games, a slim primer to the 2002 Winter Olympics, which open in Salt Lake City on 8 February. Benson explains that the Mormons are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Christian sect based in Utah since 1847. Their practices – including abstinence from alcohol and, originally, polygamy – are based on the writings of a fourth-century prophet named Mormon.
Utah's population is 69 per cent Mormon, but the state is hardly dry, even if alcohol consumption is the lowest in the US. The legal etiquette of liquor sales is complex. While beer is so readily available that you can buy it in petrol stations, those in search of something stronger are best advised to head to a restaurant, or to "join" a bar for a fee of about $5 for two weeks.
Finally, Robert Redford, Utah's most celebrated resident (and the owner of the Sundance ski resort), is apparently most likely to be spotted at his own Zoom restaurant in Park City.
These are marginal notes in a book largely devoted to the Olympics, a $700m investment designed to draw the world's attention to Salt Lake City and its winter-sports facilities. Any recreational skier tuning in to television coverage of the alpine events will, however, get a rather restricted view of the three resorts – Park City, Deer Valley and Snowbasin – which are hosting them: the cameras will focus on the slalom, giant slalom and downhill courses. So a couple of weeks ago I flew to Salt Lake to get a bigger picture of the resorts, and to discover whether Utah's skiing and its fabled "Greatest Snow on Earth" (a slogan carried on the state's car-registration plates) live up to their reputation. Despite frantic, last-minute preparations for the games, the only pistes that I couldn't ski were those that the world will see next month: being carefully tended to look their best on television, the race courses were all closed.
First stop, Park City. Its name – which conjures up something between a landscaped office development and Milton Keynes – sounds unpromising; but despite a couple of disappointments (the largely brick-built ski-base was grim, and Robert Redford had obviously dined at home), Park City's ski area proved to be excellent. From the 6,900ft valley base it climbs up a ridge from which most of the fast, cruising runs drop into the narrow Thaynes Canyon. On the other side of the ridge, and above it, there is some wonderful skiing in steep bowls and on heavily wooded faces.
The lowest bowl – two steps down from the area's 10,026ft peak – is called McConkey's, named (so I was told on a chair-lift) after a skier from nearby Alta who rode an avalanche down it while performing jumps for a photographer. This is an exquisite place, tucked into a corner of the ski area and therefore very quiet. Heavily wooded, with a mixture of delicate Aspens and rugged fir trees, it has steep, double-black-diamond ("most difficult") skiing off the top of the bowl and through dense woodland, plus a piste alongside the high-speed, six-seater lift which, although rated "intermediate", proved so tricky that no more than a quarter of the skiers I saw looking at it from the top actually skied down.
To complete this perfect skiing environment, the resort moved an old wooden building to a site near the bottom of McConkey's lift, where it serves – with a large terrace – as the Mid-mountain Restaurant. Sadly, none of this will be visible to television viewers of the Olympics: the course for the giant slalom race is on the other side of the ridge.
Park City is big enough to provide 100 pistes, and despite spending so much time at McConkey's I managed to cover most of the area, including the long run along Thaynes Canyon. Halfway down, the piste narrows alongside a smooth hillock. Like many western US ski resorts, Park City was originally a mining town, whose richest seam produced silver worth $50m; but unlike most of the others (such as Breckenridge in Colorado, whose mining-town ambience exists almost exclusively in the mind of its marketing department), it has retained some of its heritage. The hillock is a slag-heap, and beyond is the conveyor, winding tower and rusting, corrugated-iron structures of an old mine. Not pretty, but highly atmospheric.
The weather at Park City was mainly overcast, ideal for making a sound assessment of a resort (everything seems better in sunlight). My judgement may, however, have been slightly clouded by the fact the slopes were so empty, even on a Sunday: it is a blessing to non-believers that Mormons do not ski on the Sabbath. But the following day, at nearby Deer Valley, the sun was shining and skiers were even thinner on the ground. Thanks to the normal early January lull, plus the fear of disruption from pre-Olympic works, there were only 800 people skiing on an area of 1,750 acres.
Deer Valley is a very up-market, no-snowboarders place. Ski Magazine rates it as the current no. 1 US resort, based primarily on the quality of its mountain restaurants, service and piste-grooming. All of them are impeccable (even the snow beneath the ski racks is groomed); and the ski area offers superb views of the Wasatch mountains from the 9,400ft Mt Baldy. But it is only half the size of Park City, and less interesting, although there is again one delightful corner, the bowls and glades of the Empire Canyon – which is only a boundary rope away from Park City's slopes. By this time, too, unseasonable weather was compromising the conditions: instead of Utah's famous fluffy stuff – which arrives from the west, dried over the Nevada desert – I was skiing on a warm and wet surface. The area may have had 100 inches of snow in 100 hours in November, but it had none during my trip.
Finally, I travelled north to the site of the Olympic downhill races. Under the same ownership as Sun Valley, Snowbasin now has the same sort of extravagant day lodges as the Idaho resort. Beautifully detailed, these wood-and-glass temples of leisure make even Deer Valley's facilities seem rather ordinary. The one at the ski base has carpets thick enough to make you forget that you are wearing ski boots, and an entrance lobby with sofas and leather armchairs grouped around the fireplace – it only needs a Labrador to complete the sensation of entering a multi-millionaire's private lodge. Unfortunately, the quality of Snowbasin's skiing was hard to judge, since that day the surface had the consistency of a crème brûlée – sludgy stuff beneath a hard crust – with ice cubes scattered on top. Not the greatest snow on earth.
Stephen Wood travelled with Ski Independence (0870 555 0555; www.ski-independence.co.uk), which offers packages to Park City (from £672) and Deer Valley (from £922). Lee Benson's 'Inside Guide to the Games' costs $12.95 from www.2002guide.comReuse content