SUNDANCE - THE ALTERNATIVE SKIING GUIDE

It was one of those gags that reporters like to pull on one another. "You mean, you didn't see him? No, really, he was there. Why shouldn't he have been? He owns the place." So may be that was Robert Redford coming into the restaurant. But I don't think so.

Hidden deep in the Rocky Mountains of northern Utah, this is Sundance and whether or not Redford is actually here hardly matters. The entire place is, after all, a virtual shrine to the actor and to his 1969 role with Paul Newman in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

If you are an avid skier with only a few mountain-hours at your disposal, you would probably approach a weekend at Sundance with suspicion. Built by Redford primarily as a retreat for film-types to explore their creative urges, it is not somewhere that puts skiing first. Sundance, moreover, seems like a less-than-obvious choice in a region blessed with some of the best skiing in the world. Resorts like Alta, a closely-kept secret among powder fiends, Snowbird, and Park City are all within 40 minutes drive of Salt Lake City.

But perhaps it is the socked-in weather of this weekend that gives Sundance an almost Tardis-like quality of seeming much more extensive than the simple trail map with its three lifts and unspectacular 2,100-foot vertical drop suggests. Perhaps it is the complexity of the terrain, crammed with hidden bowls, ravines, and glades that are a reminder of some of the lower- altitude resorts in Europe.

Soon, also, you begin to realise that there is a rare intimacy about Sundance - and I mean on the hill as well as in the village below. Of the 6,500 acres owned by Redford, only 650 are developed. And avowed environmentalist, he has clearly opted to keep his resort small. Small and also simple. And so to the snow. In truth, it would have been hard not to have enjoyed this weekend at any resort in spite of the ferocious cold. But at Sundance we were especially lucky. Our schedule called for us to leave straight after waking on Sunday, but the risk of avalanches meant that both routes out were closed for the day. Equally, no one could get into the resort. There were no more than 30 people on the hill that Sunday and some of the best snow I have ever encountered. Even on the busiest weekends, however, Sundance strictly limits the number of skiers to 1,200. Snowboarders are banned altogether.

Though none of its black runs are quite as teeth-chattering as some at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or at Montana's Big Sky, there are enough to give all-comers a rush.

With little time left, we determined to explore some of the other less famous Utah resorts. One that still qualifies, though only just, is Solitude. It is the spot to head when at breakfast in your hotel you hear everyone else laying plans for Alta and Snowbird. The latter two are high in the Little Cottonwood Canyon that leads almost directly up for the eastern suburbs of Salt Lake City. Solitude, meanwhile, hides deep inside the parallel Big Cottonwood canyon - it is just as close to the city and usually less crowded.

Snow Basin, by contrast, was one Utah resort I had never heard of. If you have not either, rest assured, you soon will. A bit more of a stretch away from Salt Lake City towards the north, it has been chosen as the site for the men's and women's Downhill and Super-G races when Salt Lake hosts the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Variety of choice is the special joy of skiing in Utah. Feeling laid- back and romantic? Head for Sundance. Want the best Utah can offer but the traffic to Alta seems too terrible? Go for Solitude. Or, on the hand, go to Alta anyway. I haven't, but I mean to.

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