You, too, can ski like an Olympian

John Samuel follows the Rocky Mountain trail to sample runs that will challenge the world's best skiers in 2002

DISTANCE IS nothing. It is only the first step that is intimidating. Thoughts like these helped put me up to it - a 1,400-mile Rocky Mountain tour to prove that you can enjoyably ski across three Rocky Mountain states in 14 days with never more than a morning's drive between venues.

Impossible? Far from it. Taking Salt Lake City as a base, and a Hertz rental Jeep Grand Cherokee as wheels, I tested pretty seriously not only the 2002 Olympic city's claims of 14 ski venues within 40 miles, but Jackson Hole (Wyoming) and Sun Valley (Idaho) into the bargain. At Jackson and Deer Valley respectively, there was the bonus of the wit and wisdom of two former Olympic champions - Pepi Stiegler and Stein Eriksen - and the comforting knowledge that anyone capable of a scratchy parallel turn could share it.

Salt Lake is a city of a million-plus, proud that more students are in higher education, with greater language skills, than any other American city. The Mormons have tempered their zeal somewhat, and anti-drink codes, certainly for beer and wine, are no longer a threat to the tourist trade. "If you can't get a drink, you can't be thirsty," the local tourist officers say without embarrassment. At Park City, 39 miles out of town, where the US ski and snowboarding teams have their headquarters, you can even sit at one of the sparky Main Street bars and watch your beer being brewed much as the old silver- miners might have done.

The immoderate part of Utah is the snow. Up to 500 inches a year at resorts like Snowbird, Alta, Park City and Deer Valley, and even boring old El Nino cannot much change a weather pattern of prevailing westerlies, curling above the rugged escarpment of the 11,000ft Wasatch mountains and coating the slopes in a dry, silvery snow, due to become the place's Olympic fortune.

Many Americans are content to stay close to the city centre in places such as the Embassy Suites. Your car is no further than the basement, your rooms are king-sized. Your easy-and-over eggs and hash browns are cooked as you wait, and could easily last you to the homecoming cookies, hot wine and Jacuzzi. Between is a short safari to the ski area of your choice. The companionship of strangers is a bonus of an easygoing lifestyle. Stop for plasters on your way to the slopes and you wait patiently as an avuncular pharmacist talks a customer through alternative remedies. The Alps it ain't.

America is made for drivers. Petrol is so cheap it is an embarrassment. Snowbird, my first stop, up Little Cottonwood Canyon to the south-east of Salt Lake, at first sight is unprepossessing concrete and glass. But its virtue is its skiing. It has vertiginous steeps and a testing off- piste to complement the long cruisers which the majority of Americans (and many British) prefer. Alta, next door, is a kind of Cairngorm with powder snow: simple, no glitz, no condo rash and prices half those at resorts like Vail and Aspen.

Neither Snowbird nor Alta is an Olympic venue, because of the narrow approach road. Forty-five minutes east of Salt Lake City by four-lane highway, Park City will host giant slalom and boarding, and Deer Valley is to stage slalom, moguls and aerials. Deer Valley is noted for its sumptuous grooming, Cindy Crawford salopettes, concern for detail, and "No Boarding" signs. My condo has a Jacuzzi in its two bedrooms. Deer's joint owner, Edgar Stern, vets every new dish served at the Mariposa restaurant, a mid-mountain, log-and-crystal showpiece. Stein Eriksen, who brought Viking glory to the 1952 Oslo Olympics with gold and silver for Norway, is the ski director and at 70 he skis every day with visitors. I join him with a group of San Diego Rotarians and he explains the ethos: "Skiing is very expensive. Here we try to offer the best of everything in return. It's the best snow in the world and we're very accessible. You can ski the day you arrive and the day you leave."

Parabolic, or hour-glass, skis are the US rage. Most rental shops are heavily equipped with them. At Jackson Hole, Pepi Stiegler, Austria's 1964 Olympic slalom champion, hosts a free daily mountain tour, and among helpful hints there are strong plugs for helmets ("I've been grateful a couple of times") and shaped skis ("more turn, less effort"). Wyoming is a big state, but Salt Lake is four hours closer to Jackson than the capital, Cheyenne. US Interstate 15 rolls north (even numbers are east- west) before I cut off east, then north again on quiet secondary roads to reach the Wyoming border at Freedom, so-called because old-style Mormons set up there when Utah banned polygamy.

But for its relative isolation, Jackson Hole would get many votes as the USA's No 1 resort. Heavy investment by new owners is making that relative. Fifty miles south of Yellowstone Park, and 12 miles from the cowboy buzz of Jackson town, its Teton Village ski satellite offers three linked mountains. At their heart, the new Bridger Gondola lifts you up to Headwall's challenging terrain without ado. Nothing so irks Americans as lengthy lift queues, but faced with one they are as disciplined and polite as they are with their driving. As for Jackson Hole's famous jump, Corbet's Couloir, high above a web of expert chutes - do it, if you're a hotshot, but only if your guide says that there is enough snow.

Jackson Hole to Ketchum-Sun Valley, Idaho, is 270 miles due east via the Teton Pass and sections of the Oregon Trail. Tasteful signs record Jim Bridger's wagon-train defence against (ahem...) Native American attack. If Colorado lays claim to the first frontiers of the Rocky Mountains, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho deliver the Wasatch, Teton and Sawgrass sub-ranges in heavy reinforcement. I cross a high plain, where lava fields in writhing mists are aptly named Craters of the Moon, and have even been designated historical sites.

After a five-hour drive, the snow-clad Sawgrass peaks rise on the north- west horizon. Ketchum is a clean, well-lit place at which to arrive. Sun Valley is Averell Harriman's Disneyish pioneer resort just a couple of miles to the north. In its cinema there are nightly replays of Glenn Miller's Sun Valley Serenade, and nothing is exactly what it seems. Wood beams are cast concrete. Austrian instructors in blond wigs stand in for the Norwegian skating heroine, Sonja Henie, and her celluloid adventures on skis. Hemingway's No 206 suite in the Lodge, birthplace of For Whom The Bell Tolls, is faithfully preserved, despite the fact that the author was more hunter than skier.

Sun Valley has Dollar Mountain, a beginner hill, but for true skiers, Bald Mountain, hard by Ketchum, is the place. Seven high-speed chairs whizz you up a vertical of 3,400 feet, and runs flow down, with little lateral interference, to two prime base areas cut and carved from glass, golden timber and washed stone. Dining is more Manhattan than mountain, and Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger, each with homes here, might just be at the next table. The stardust has genuinely stuck.

Worth a diversion, on the long morning's drive back to Salt Lake, is Snowbasin, the Olympic downhill host resort being developed by Sun Valley's owner, Earl Holding. It is in the mountain back-country of the town of Ogden, but major development is promised to back up course-designer Bernhard Russi's claim of creating the most challenging test since Lillehammer. Roll on 2002.

FACT FILE

ski the rockies

Getting there

John Samuel's travel was arranged by American Airlines (tel: 0345 789 789) and Hertz (tel: 0990 996 699). He stayed at the Embassy Suites, Salt Lake City (tel: 001 801 359 7800); The Quality Inn 49-er, Jackson (tel: 001 307 733 7550); Tyrolean Lodge, Ketchum (tel: 001 208 726 5336); Deer Valley Condominiums (tel: 645 649 1000); Yarrow Hotel, Park City (tel: 001 435 649 7000). Further information: Ski the American Dream (tel: 0181- 548 2421).

Getting around

British fly-drive operators usually offer the best rates. Four-wheel- drive is favourite, precluding the need for chains. Order racks and snow tyres in advance if you cannot run to 4WD.

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