Hut Trips are For Babies

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Two toddlers, 85 pounds of gear and 1,200 vertical feet add up to the perfect escape for one Colorado Family.

As we peer down the toe of a 3,000-foot, 45-degree avalanche chute in the rugged Elk Mountains, Quinn’s eyes grow as wide as hubcaps. “I want to go down there,” he says and pushes off into the pristine swath of snow. A reckless, inexperienced backcountry skier? To be sure. But cut him a little slack: Quinn’s only 4 years old. So why is a preschooler crossing an avvy path in the first place? We’re on a family hut trip near Aspen, Colo. Some might contend that the idea of a family hut trip itself is oxymoronic, if not simply moronic. “Hut trips are brutal on kids…honestly, we wouldn’t take you,” one guiding outfit told me. But facing a future of bouncy castles and story time at the library, my husband, Jeff, and I wanted to make a stand to keep true outdoor adventures a part of our life. We knew it was possible. When Quinn was 18 months old, we’d skied with another couple and their toddler to Walter’s Hut near Vail. And despite the logistical issues (we were so smug about polishing off those heavy cans of Guinness we’d schlepped in until we realized we needed to carry back an equal weight in dirty diapers), it was an entirely doable adventure. We had the little people outnumbered, four to two. But with both couples having since procreated, the odds were now stacked against us. I phoned the other couple about the Aspen trip. “You’re insane, my girlfriend said. “We’ll be on the couch watching Teletubbies. The plan this time: Ski two and a half miles to the Markley Hut, a rustic log A-frame perched at 10,400 feet, just north of Aspen. Jeff will carry Aidan, our 25-pound 18-month-old, in a backpack carrier and haul the family’s gear in a sled. I’ll pull 38-pound Quinn in a kiddie sled. And, oh, did I mention I’m four months pregnant? We’re not sure this is even physically possible, but we hire guides from Aspen Expeditions to get us to the hut without getting caught in an avalanche, help ferry our gear, lead us to the best skiing and keep the entire brood fed for three days and two nights. We wanted an adventure. This should fit the bill. Having postholed up to his chest on snowshoes during our Vail trip, Jeff, a snowboarder, has decided to rent a split-board backcountry setup this time (a snowboard that unhinges in the middle to form two skis). Unaccustomed to the free-heel sensation and two independently operating sliding devices, he loses his balance on the first slight incline and does the kind of pirouette only a six-foot-two, 215-pound snowboarder carrying a toddler can do, auguring them both into the snow. And we haven’t even gotten out of sight of the parking lot. With Aidan screaming and Jeff stuck like an overturned turtle, Amos Whiting, our lead guide, extricates them, pulls out his bag of tools and performs the first of his numerous gear repairs in the field. I wonder how Amos, who is one of the nation’s most renowned and highly credentialed mountain guides, would feel about backcountry diaper changes. After an hour slogging uphill, Quinn wants out of the sled. Amos dabs zinc oxide on our son’s nose and gives him his poles. The grips tower a foot over his head. “You’re a real mountain man now, says Amos. He likes kids. For now. The sled is delightfully lighter. In my delicate condition, I have to keep my heart rate low, which has been impossible on the uphills with Quinn in the sled. Amos stops to fix the waist belt on my sled so it doesn’t dig into my hips, helps me buckle my boots to avoid blisters, then puts duct tape on the blisters I get anyway. It’s good to have a guide. But what ultimately makes the difference between a good time in the woods and utter disaster is a dedicated intern named Greg Walters. Amos enlisted Greg to carry virtually all our gear—and his—plus enough food to keep the Donner party fat and happy all winter. We just have to tow the kids. The 1,200-vertical-foot trip takes five hours, including a trailside lunch of summer sausage, bagels and lox, one dunk in thriver (Quinn), one diaper change (Aidan) and a modicum of whining (everybody). It would have taken Amos roughly an hour to make the trip solo. Unpacking at the Markley hut, we discover we’ve left behind one of my slippers and Jeff’s bottle of scotch. However, these oversights are an improvement from last time: On the Vail trip, we’d forgotten wipes—a monumental strategic snafu when you’ve got a non-potty-trained toddler. Inside the hut, we survey potential hazards: a steep set of stairs without guardrails. Bad. A sizzling-hot potbellied stove. Very bad. We create a barrier of benches around the stove and vigilantly patrol the stairs. For dinner, Greg and Amos whip up a chicken stir-fry—and then clean it up afterwards. This is easier than being at home. Later, Jeff and Quinn sit on the deck stargazing, the snow painted silver in the moonlight and the smell of wood smoke in the air. “I need to poop, announces Quinn. But not in the outhouse. “It’s stinky, Dad. So with a shovel slung over his shoulder, Jeff leads Quinn down the trail to dig a hole. It’s important to keep expectations low. That’s what I’d learned on the Vail trip, which lasted three days and during which I logged one measly 500-foot run. “It’s not so much about the skiing as the getting there and being there, Jeff had rationalized. Still, this time we spent the weekend before the trip in Aspen, in part to acclimatize to the altitude, but more to exorcise our downhill ya-yas with the help of two days of chairlift-assisted skiing and the resort’s childcare program. Once in the backcountry, Jeff and I had been planning to trade off watching the kids and ski touring with Amos. But then Greg volunteers to babysit so we can ski together. Possessed of an extensive knowledge of snow crystals, hoar depths and other elements of avalanche safety, Greg seems qualified to watch our children. So, fueled by Frisbee-sized blueberry pancakes, we skin over Express Creek, past a beaver dam and up Green Mountain, following Amos’s tracks and trying to emulate his practiced kick turns. At the top, some three and a half hours later, I click into my alpine touring setup and Jeff reassembles his split board. We set off down a north-facing ridge and into a broad basin speckled with fir trees. As we get used to the wonky feel of our rented alpine touring gear, Jeff and I both make unplanned pitstops in treewells. But before long, we’ve found a rhythm through the spongy untracked snow. As we ski back to the hut, the door opens, and Aidan, his face beaming, cries “Mama, Mama! It’s the highlight of the day. Inside, Quinn is strutting around in Amos’s size 10 slippers, banging on pots and pans with wooden spoons. Greg’s our new hero. But things go south from there. Putting the kids to bed is like playing Whack-a-Mole. As soon as one retires, the other jumps up and races madly around the hut. I retrieve the loose child, soothe, sing, rub his back, then pop!—up goes the other one. The kids are wired and my head is pounding from the altitude. Perhaps this whole adventure was ill-conceived after all. I give up and let the wild things have their rumpus. (Later, on the drive home, we would make an illuminating discovery. Greg had employed the unorthodox technique of Babysitting by Dextrose—plying the kids with Starburst candies all day. His hero status dips slightly.) Bleary-eyed on our final day, we tuck into a breakfast of omelettes, bacon and oatmeal. Coming down from his sugar high, Quinn sobs because I won’t let him eat brown sugar by the spoonful. We debate whether to attempt a short tour before heading home. The ski out might easily turn into another five-hour marathon. The kids are melting down like Chernobyl. But it’s Jeff’s birthday and, more important, it snowed overnight. The pine-dotted slopes of Green Mountain beckon through the hut’s giant picture windows. We decide to go for it. Leaving our pint-sized junkies with their sugar-pushing babysitter, we head out. The sound of Aidan’s crying is muffled by the veil of fat flakes swirling in the air and last night’s accumulation, which hangs heavy on the surrounding branches. We move quickly uphill, our kick turns looking slightly less pathetic than those of the day before. After an hour of hiking, we peel off our climbing skins and head down a north-facing glade covered in a carpet of soft new snow. We porpoise through the fresh cream and dart through the pines, forgetting, momentarily, that we even have kids at all. The gamble pays off. We pack up and take off down the logging road. To our surprise, Quinn skis the whole way—a positive effect of the Starburst? I can tow Aidan in the sled and Jeff can snowboard down with a backpack. We reach the trailhead in a remarkable hour and a half. As we cross the last bridge, the clouds part, as if on cue. The gurgling creek twinkles in the sunlight. I’m feeling proud of our family’s backcountry adventure. Then, as I round the final bend in the trail, Aidan starts howling from the sled. The sun is in his eyes. Details These outfitters will help you forge your own hut expedition. Aspen Expeditions White River National Forest, Colo. Lowdown With two of the nation’s 27 International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) guides on hand, Aspen Expeditions is a much safer bet than dragging junior into the wild on your own. The Markley Hut, part of the Alfred A. Braun system, requires a moderate 2.5-mile ski in, with a 1,200-vertical-foot rise. The hut’s 10,400-foot elevation is lower than most huts, but it’s wise to acclimatize in Aspen first. The terrain The Braun huts are located in known avalanche terrain, but the skiing can be spectacular, with chutes, bowls and steep glades. Family-friendly touch Having recently adopted a 2-year-old Nepalese girl, owner Dick Jackson knows the ropes. Cost A family of four is $650 per person for three days and two nights. Includes guide, meals, hut fees and avy gear. Contact 970-925-7625; aspenexpeditions.com High Lonesome Hut Winter Park, Colo. Lowdown Ideal for first-time hut trippers, the High Lonesome Hut near Winter Park has flush toilets and hot showers. The hut sits at a manageable 9,600 feet and the ski in is a doable 2.5 miles with a 300-foot elevation gain. Owner Andy Miller will haul your stuff in for $80 each way. The terrain Miller has cut a 300-foot glade above the hut for a mellow, easy-access run. Or skin two hours to the ridgetop and ski 1,000 vertical feet of steeps through a lodgepole pine forest. Family-friendly touch Miller is a former childcare-center director and, for a price, he’ll babysit while you ski. Cost $30 per adult, per night; $10 for kids; $250 for entire hut Contact 970-726-4099; lonesomehut.com Sun Valley Trekking Sun Valley, Idaho Lowdown Let Sun Valley Trekking ferry you in, lead you to the best skiing and keep you fed at one of their Boulder Yurts, at 7,120 feet in Idaho’s Sawtooth and Smokey mountains. (It’s only 1.3 miles and 500 vertical feet in.) The company also arranges gourmet dinners such as honey citrus salmon or pork tenderloin brochettes with peanut sauce. After dinner, simmer in the wood-fired sauna. Terrain Plunge down the 25-degree open faces off Ice Cream Cone peak. Family-friendly touch For the little ones, the yurts are stocked with games and crayons as well as sleds for schussing on mild slopes just outside the door. Cost A family of four is $150 per person, per day, with guides and basic meals. The gourmet dinner costs $80 a person. Contact 208-788-1966; svtrek.com This article first appeared in Ski Magazine in January 2006

Underground Utah

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Beneath the Glamour and the grooming, the Park City triumvirate—Park City, Deer Valley, and The Canyons—harbors a hairball side.

I admit it. I was an Alta snob. Back in ’91, I spent a winter ski bumming there and developed an uppity attitude toward that trio of pathetic little ski hills around Park City. Or Park Shitty. In my vague memory, Park City ski area was mostly wide-open, funnel-like expressways littered with snowplowing Texans. Sure, there was some interesting terrain buried in the back, but it took so long to get to, you’d turn gray on the lift. Word was that Deer Valley, known also as Bambi Basin, was buffed flat as a pancake so the furs wouldn’t fly off the rich folks. The third area, now called The Canyons, was a nonentity. But in the years since, I’d heard that there was some really gnarly terrain on the other side of the Cottonwood canyons-even a stash of hairy chutes at Deer Valley. I figured I’d give the areas a try. And even if the skiing was lame, I expected that the town of Park City-this I’m not afraid to admit-would offer up a more scintillating après-ski scene than, say, a pitcher of beer at Goldminer’s Daughter in Alta. Conveniently, the Park City areas are all located within three miles of Park City’s main street. My hubbie, Jeff, and I found it was easy to pinball between the three. And our timing was perfect: The heavens opened up and heaped great gobs of snow everywhere. Sixty inches in six days! All three areas are mostly below tree line and situated at relatively low elevations for Utah (you sleep at 6,900 feet in Park City, as high as 8,950 at Alta), but otherwise each one has its own distinct character. At The Canyons, with more skiable acres than Snowbird, we discovered a huge playground of ridges and bowls and gullies and trees and, yes, canyons. It was a gargantuan natural terrain park ripe for exploration. Behind Park City’s mostly mellow frontside, we found a three-mile ridge with four powder-choked bowls stacked next to one another, crowned by the rocky, chute-filled Jupiter Peak. And at Deer Valley, when we weren’t skiing untracked in deserted glades of aspen, we skied chutes and bowls in the area’s new Empire Canyon. At night we trolled the town’s eateries and watering holes. We met friends of friends and ended up with a posse of ripping skiers who skied us into a pulp. By the end of the week, I was sorry I ever called those hills pathetic. Jeff and I watched bad skiers windshield-wipering down groomed runs, scrubbing the surface slick below the Sterling Lift. We were en route to Deer Valley’s highest summit, Bald mountain, one of two peaks stacked above and behind the area’s front peak. Jeff surveyed the scene and announced that if he, a solid advanced skier, could ski everything we set out to ski this week, it couldn’t be too gnarly. It all looked pretty tame from the lift, but Deer Valley is like a mink coat with a leopard-skin lining. And the key to the wilder side is a special experts-only trail map. We followed it to steep shots hidden in the trees of Ontario Bowl, Sunset Glade, and The Black Forest. And to the tree-lined Mayflower chutes, which required a cornice hop and 12 careful turns down a 38-degree pitch. But even that was over before we could feel that butterfly stomach of truly scary skiing. Jeff was keeping up just fine. We’d made plans with Heidi Voelker, a former U.S. Ski Teamer and the area’s ambassador, to take a snowcat tour of the 500-acre Empire Canyon. The area, which butts up to Park City’s McConkey’s Bowl, adds an off-piste dimension to a mountain known for manicured slopes. (This year, two new chairs replace the cats.) As the cat rumbled up the ridge, Jeff Brown, Deer Valley’s director of snow safety, said, “Feel like huckin’? Have I got a cornice for you.” It was massive. The 25-foot lip oozed layers of snow like peanut butter and jelly squished between two hunks of Wonder bread. The only taker: Chris Samuels, a Mammoth local who was touring Utah in search of photo ops. He pushed back, hauled off in a tight ball, and landed in the wide chute below, making GS rns to rein in his speed. With her blond hair, green eyes, bright orange Völkls, and fluorescent green one-piece, Voelker dropped in like a neon explosion. She made powerful arcs down Chute 2, which Brown had named Chandelier Chute for a cold mid-thigh day when the snow had shattered like broken crystal. Where Jeff and I skied under the overhanging maw, the slope was littered with death cookies underneath a heavy blanket of snow steep enough to avalanche. I made a dozen sweet turns and one tremendous neck-straining somersault. We traversed over to Chute 4. Looking up, all I could see was a nearly vertical cliff band, but Brown assured us it had been skied. Its unofficial name: W2, for Wheaton’s Woody. Had I skied it, it would be called H2, for Helen’s Heart Attack. We skied its 30-degree apron, the thick snow turning to heavy gunk in the trees 650 feet below. A sweaty, disheveled mess, Jeff opted out of a second cat tour. The challenge had been met: Deer Valley had indeed upped its hairball quotient. It occurred to me then that the Deer Valley logo-a stoic- looking, forest green deer head- looks a lot like the label on a Jägermeister bottle. And that there are a few shots of throat-burning Jägey at this otherwise Chardonnay resort. After chicken curry in a clay pot at Taste of Saigon, we headed to O’Shucks for a beer. Peanut shells crunched underfoot as we walked into the long, narrow one-time police shooting gallery. Decorating the brick wall were rusty license plates, old skis, and O’Shucks T-shirts promising Big Nuts, Good Head. It was a Sunday night but the place was humming. A girl with lips the color of blood walked by and gave Jeff’s inner thigh a squeeze. Behind the bar, wearing a little black Armonk, N.Y. name tag, Chris Paulding moved quickly. He was pulling 32-ounce schooners-like wine glasses on steroids-from the rack made from old skis above the bar. He went to Green Mountain Valley School at Sugarbush with Brant Moles and Jeremy Nobis but gave up ski racing in favor of freeskiing. We made plans to ski with Chris and friends the next day at The Canyons. Maybe it was the name, but I did not want to go down the Plumber’s Crack. Paulding, Chris Bremmer (another P.C. local we met at O’Shucks), Jeff, and I had traversed along the tree-covered face off Tombstone and were peeking down a 40-degree funnel that narrowed to the width of a ski. Instead we took 37 Degrees North, etching half moons in the soft snow until the clearing dumped us into the trees below, then spit us into a gully runout. It was gloriously steep, like Alta, but lacked the sustained vertical that leaves your quads screaming for mercy. Even now, at 3,860 acres, The Canyons is Utah’s biggest little-known resort. Not for long, though. “There’s small, medium, and large,” American Skiing Company CEO Les Otten later told me. “The Canyons will be freaking huge.” It’s already on the way: For ’98-’99, ASC will string a new chair up to Ninety Nine-90 peak, accessing even more ridge and bowl skiing. We had plenty to explore as it was. We rode Condor, a cold and windy double that creaks up a long ridgetop (thankfully, ASC has since replaced it with a high-speed quad). We jumped into one of the never-ending glades that spill off the ridge. The trees were tighter than an A-cup on Dolly Parton; the snow, belly-button deep. Paulding’s pale blue jacket with Eager Beaver Tree Service on the back disappeared into the forest. I was sure I’d lost Jeff until he emerged, his neck scratched and bloody. “I hit two trees back there,” he said with a strange grin, “not one, but two.” It was more adventure than skiing, but it left us feeling like we’d been somewhere, done something. Aside from three inches overnight, it hadn’t dumped in days, but few skiers had ventured into the trees. The gladed ridge of The Pines was virtually untracked, and white surf boiled around our thighs as we darted through aspen and fir. We had the place to ourselves. Though it was a weekend, the lodge was quiet at 8:30 a.m.; the shiny new, brightly painted gondolas were mostly empty. “Look around,” said Bremmer. “No one knows about this place.” Not a bad reason for choosing The Canyons with a capital “T.” Jeff and I were sitting in a booth in the Morning Ray when our nose-ringed waitress squealed, “Oooooh, gnarly… fur coat!!!” The woman who’d just walked in pretended not to hear her. We pretended not to laugh. We had coffee, sourdough pancakes, and big plates of eggs. Overhead, a system of fans, belts, and pulleys twirled neckties in lazy circles. We were gearing up for Park City and nearly a foot of fresh. I was also gearing up for long chair rides. But since I’d last skied Park City, they’d put in two new high-speed chairs. In no time, we were whisked to the Jupiter lift, which accesses a three-mile ridge with four heaping bowls of trees, chutes, cornices, and steeps. The terrain looks more like Alta than anywhere else in Park City. I rode up with Eric Zerrenner, 28, a fireman and ex-P.C. ski patroller; Paulding; and his roommate Christina Nicholas, 26, a waitress, shop rat, and freeskier. From the top, it was a 15-minute hump along the ridgeline to Scott’s Bowl. Paulding got a running start, launched the eight-foot cornice, landed in the thick snow, and cut powder 11’s the length of two football fields. The rest of us huffed our way to the bottom through the thick, soft steep-and-deep. At the bottom Jeff looked at me, a bead of sweat running down his temple, and said, “Nice warm up run. I’ll see you at lunch.” In the afternoon, we headed for Jupiter Bowl’s tree-lined chutes. I picked Dirt Chute, named by the patrol because, at 48 degrees, snow has difficulty sticking to it. Great. It was a narrow, vertical minefield: Little stumps and logs and sharp rocks were hidden just beneath the surface. Paulding aired over the most problematic section. I delicately hop-turned down, snow sloughing down around my boot tops, my heart wonderfully stuck in my throat, adrenaline tingling all the way to my fingertips. Next we hiked through the Pearly Gates, around the back of Jupiter Peak to Flagstaff Ridge, and over a cornice into pillow-soft McConkey’s Bowl. The 25-minute trek was worth it. Few had preceded us, and there were enough first tracks and face shots to feed a kennel of hungry powderhounds. At the bottom, there were knowing grins all around: It was midday, and by now Alta’s faces were surely cut to shreds. I’d seen enough to realize there was plenty of adrenaline-inducing terrain at Park City. But if that’s your raison d’ski, I thought, then Park City is a 1,000-acre, one-lift ski area with two high-speed access chairs, and one hell of an end-of-the-day runout. Make that was a one-lift area: The addition of a high-speed six-pack in McConkey’s dramatically changes things for this season. What was once the exclusive playground of those willing to traverse and hike will now be accessed by a five-minute ride. Powder that once stayed fresh for days will be gobbled up more quickly. If you don’t like loud music, you should leave now!” the band leader bellowed into the mike. Set on a tiny stage in the corner above the dance floor, Sturgeon General exploded in a saxophone-and-trombone symphony of ska. We were at The Alamo on Main Street swilling Sam Adams longnecks and watching a big guy with a shaved head dance in rapid circles, arms and shoes flying. In the bathroom, big-haired women from Salt Lake slathered on lipstick and traded gossip. As we left The Alamo and headed for O’Shucks–“You either start there or you’ll end up there. It’s inevitable,” Christina told us–snowflakes the size of golf balls floated from the midnight sky.   “I came here because it’s supposed to be groomed,” whined a woman in a nasaly Fran Drescher voice in the bathroom of Deer Valley’s Snow Park Lodge. “I can’t ski this stuff.” I smiled from my stall. It was Fat Tuesday, and there were 15 inches of fresh outside. The snow was more Elmer’s Glue than Utah fluff, so we had to go nearly straight to maintain momentum. On Champion, the 2002 Olympic mogul run, we could barely feel the massive bumps, only the copious amounts of slo-mo chest and face shots. It was exhausting, but exhilarating. After two runs, Jeff said, “I’ll see you at lunch.” In the afternoon, we found slightly lighter stuff in the Triangle Trees. “Skiing rules,” Paulding said like he’d just figured it out. “I can’t believe it; I didn’t cross a track up there, and it’s two o’clock.” That, we discovered, is the beauty of skiing Deer Valley on a powder day.   Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. I hadn’t decided what to give up yet, but I knew it wasn’t powder. Two feet had fallen overnight and the storm continued to rage, huge flakes swirling in the air. Under The Canyons’ Saddleback lift, featherlight snow washed over our heads, blinding us at every turn. It was like flying through clouds. If I could have seen anything, I’d have seen God. I was on Fischer Alltrax Expedition midfats I borrowed from Bremmer, and Jeff had rented Rossi Cut 11.5 fatties. The big boards let us rip big turns, catching small airs and landing on gigantic goose-feather pillows on The Drain’s bumpy, powder-covered face. I rode up Condor with a Canyons die-hard whose snow-crusted beard cracked when he smiled. “The only difference between here and Alta today,” he said, “is the difference between two and three feet.” And two was plenty. Below us, a series of chutes through the trees spilled off one side of the ridge. Clumps of snow were stuck in gnarled branches like giant cotton balls. Hip-deep snow in Chute 2 enveloped us in a cozy white blanket as we played on wind lips and ridge spines and in gullies. Lower down, we ducked into one of the half dozen natural halfpipes that add to The Canyons’ terrain-park feel. “It’s just as steep here as anywhere else, but there are no huge rock bands for launching,” Christina explained. “I’d rather have 50 turns go over my head than huck any day.” Nonetheless, Paulding and Bremmer found a 10-foot rock and hucked it. The Pearly Gates were closed when Dave “Dick Dogger” Weiss, Eric Z, and I hiked up to them. “Do you want me to open the gates?” asked Dogger, a ski patroller buddy of Eric’s. Sure, we said; it had snowed half a foot overnight. His call was followed by a long pause, then “okay, sure” crackled over the radio. The three of us hiked alone, with no feeling of Snowbirdesque tram-unloading powder panic, to the top of Jupiter peak. Dogger disappeared down the ridge. I jumped into Machetes, a 45-degree swath torn through the rocks. In the narrow section up top, I caught an edge on a rock and lost a ski, landing butt first. Heart pounding, I somehow caught my ski as it rocketed down the fall line. I did not want to ski Machetes on one ski. The run widened into a pristine apron, and I bounded down, snow billowing up around my hips, splashing into my face. Eric took the even gnarlier 51-50 entrance. At the bottom, we looked back at the longg ribbons we’d left in the snow. There were maybe 10 tracks on the whole peak. The place was a powder-covered ghost town. After three areas, six days, and 60 inches of fresh, my legs were like warmed-over Silly Putty. I had skied steep and deep and hairy. I had skied trees so tight you needed to butter your hips to get through. I had scared myself half a dozen times. But I had two days left, and it was far too good to stop. Destination: Park City, Utah Features By Helen Olsson Vital Stats: DEER VALLEY Top Elevation: 9,570 feet Vertical Drop: 3,000 feet Annual Snowfall: 300 inches Skiable Acreage: 1,750 acres Terrain: 15% beginner, 50% intermediate, 35% expert Lifts: 1 gondola, 4 high-speed quads, 2 fixed-grip quads, 9 triples, 2 doubles Information: 800-424-DEER Reservations: 800-558-DEER Website: www.deervalley.com PARK CITY Top Elevation: 10,000 feet Vertical Drop: 3,100 feet Annual Snowfall: 350 inches Skiable Acreage: 2,800 acres (lift served); 3,000 (includes hike-to) Terrain: 17% beginner, 45% intermediate, 38% expert Lifts: 4 high-speed six-packs; 2 fixed-grip quads, 5 triples, 4 doubles Information And Reservations: 800-222-PARK Website: www.parkcitymountain.com THE CANYONS Top Elevation: 9,900 feet Vertical Drop: 3,100 feet Annual Snowfall: 325 inches Skiable Acreage: 2,860 acres (lift served); 3,000 (includes hike-to) Terrain: 20% beginner, 40% intermediate, 40% expert Lifts: 1 gondola, 5 high-speed quads, 3 fixed-grip quads, 1 triple, 1 double, 2 surface lifts Information And Reservations: 888-CANYONS Website: www.thecanyons.com Getting There: Park City is just 37 miles east of Salt Lake City International Airport via I-80. You can rent a car at the airport or take a shuttle to Park City (Canyon Transportation, 800-255-1841; Lewis Bros. Stages, 800-826-5844) and then take the free bus to get around town. Prices: Beat Park City’s $53 one-day lift price with a six-day pass before December 18 ($31 a day) and after April 6 ($32). Deer Valley’s $57 one-day ticket drops to $49 when you buy a six-of-seven-day ticket. Ski The Canyons prior to December 18 and after March 29 for $36 a day when you buy a seven-day pass. (The one-day ticket costs $52.) Lodging: Park City has 15,000 pillows, ranging from $27 to $2,400 a night. Take your pick. The Old Miner’s Lodge (800-648-8068), an 1800s bunkhouse for miners, is a charming bed-and-breakfast two blocks off Main Street. A sign out front reads: On this site, in 1897, nothing happened. Prices range from $100 to $250, including a home-cooked breakfast. For groups of up to eight, one option is to rent a renovated historic house in town from Thistle Springs (800-803-9589). We stayed in an 1892 house at the top of Main Street ($850 nightly) with full kitchen, hot tub, satellite TV, and late-19th-century Utah furnishings. The cheapest digs in town: a $27 dorm room with continental breakfast at Chateau Apres (800-357-3556), across from Park City Mountain Resort. Food & Drink: Main Street is chock-a-block with places for grub and grog, with cuisine from Vietnamese to Italian to cowboy to Cajun. Make a rezzy for Chimayo, the hot place for Southwestern fare. For carbo loading in a cozy atmosphere, there’s Cisero’s. Après-dinner, head downstairs for beer, pool, and music. With the new Town Lift Brew Pub at one end, the venerable Wasatch Brew Pub at the other, and countless watering holes in between, Main Street is perfect for a pub crawl. Treat your taste buds to gastronomic nirvana at Deer Valley’s Mariposa, in Silver Lake Lodge, with the sumptuous seven-course $65 tasting menu. It’s worth every penny. Inside Tracks: Take a walk through history: This 1880s silver-boom town has 112 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. • When sitting on a barstool at the Poison Creek Bar under Cisero’s, you’re at 7,000 feet. With such a low elevation (for a ski town), Park City is an ideal destination for altitude-sickness sufferers. • For the 2002 Olympics, Deer Valley will host the slalom and freestyle events; Park City will host GS races and snowboarding. • Feel five g’s of centrifugal force as you rocket 80 miles per hour in a bobsled down the Utah Winter Sports Park’s Olympic track, five miles from town. (You don’t get to drive, though; a professional driver and brakeeman control the sled.) Call 435-658-4200. This story first appeared in Skiing Magazine in  November 1998.  

Cat Skiing at Ski Cooper, CO

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The Untracked Line: Chicago Ridge, Ski Cooper, CO

Chicago Ridge downsides: The guides wear grubby, mango-colored one-piece-suits they call ball-biters; the avalanche beacons resemble museum pieces (some don’t actually search); and the only snack in the cat will be the food you stuffed in your pocket. Chicago Ridge upsides:The avalanche danger is low for Colorado; the cat is a new Bombardier topped with a custom-built cabin featuring skylights, carpeting, and piped-in music; and the Ridge gets the same fluffy Colorado powder as nearby Copper-but nobody knows it. Chicago Ridge sits at 12,600 feet, above the mellow cruisers of tiny Ski Cooper. And while the ski area might not be on your life list, the Ridge should be. It has 2,500 acres of bowls, trees, and chutes spanning the Continental Divide. Many of the runs are fields of stumps, a legacy of railroad crews that logged the area a century ago. Which means that while the masses are jackhammering bumps at I-70 resorts you’ll be threading through an army of white mushrooms formed by the truncated trees. Though the clientele can include lipstick-wearing day-trippers from Vail, you’re more likely to share the cat with Front Range skiers who crack cans of Coors at day’s end. The skiing is equally low-key. As the cat trundles out of the ski area and into the backcountry, guides lecture about conserving powder. It’s really a free-for-all. With only 12 skiers a day on such a big chunk of real estate, spooning turns seems stingy. Snowpack The lack of skier compaction, coupled with Colorado’s pronounced temperature gradient, means the Ridge can be prone to pockets of trap-door snow in low-snow years. Wait till later in the season, when the weight of the snowpack settles things. Avalanche danger isn’t a big threat, but the guides are careful anyway, tossing 1,000 pounds of bombs a year. Terrain Highlights It’s neither sick nor scary, but seven bowls filled with 1,400-vertical-foot lines approaching 30 degrees makes for quality powder skiing. If you want more gravity, ask your guide to take you to 38-degree Leaning Tree Bowl, the steepest pitch on the ridge. Treeskiers, don’t miss Bash Alley, a 29-degree gladed shot flanked by creek beds. Weather The ridge gets 275 inches a year of seven percent-water-content snow (as reference, Alpine Meadows in California averages 14.5 percent), with the biggest precipitation falling February through April. Skies are often clear, but they don’t call it Chicago Ridge for nothing. Like the Windy City, it can blow but good. The Guides In addition to EMTs, firefighters, and ski patrollers, the Ridge’s crew includes former Army explosives specialists. All of them get their avalanche training at nearby Colorado Mountain College, under the tutelage of Pat Chant, who runs the Chicago Ridge operation. The place hasn’t had an avy accident in 15 years. The Lodge There’s nothing at the base of Ski Cooper, but the Twin Lakes Nordic Inn is only 30 miles down the road. A one-time brothel, it’s now a B&B ($58-$88, twinlakesnordicinn.com). The Chow Pull up a plastic chair in Ski Cooper’s base lodge for a basic cafeteria breakfast (that’s on you). But save room for lunch (included): Cornish game hens or seared tuna served in the woods. Bang for the Buck Don’t come looking for Bella Coola steeps-most of the terrain is moderately angled. But the Ridge is the second oldest cat-skiing outfit in the state; as such, they know how to manage their terrain. The guides will most likely find you powderr. Must Know The day the reservation book is cracked, the cat is virtually booked for the season.If you want all 12 seats, call first thing on November 14. Essential Gear Show up with a digital avy transceiver like the Tracker DTS from Backcountry Access, so you won’t be dead weight in a rescue. ($300, bcaccess.com) Max Elevation: 12,600 feet Max Vertical Drop: 1,400 feet Average Vertical Logged Per Day: 12,100 feet (11 runs) Prices: $234 per day; includes lunch. Fat-ski rental (Rossi Bandit XXX), $20. Getting There: Drive 129 miles from Denver via I-70, Colorado Highway 91, and US Highway 24. Info: 719-486-2277; skicooper.com This article appeared in Skiing Magazine in October 2003

Flights of Fantasy

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Skiing the Glades at Mont Sutton, Quebec

Everyone in the lift lines was chatting away in French and kissing each other on both cheeks. Smack, smack.The lift mazes, fashioned from wooden fences, wound up to ticket-checker booths that were little log cabins trimmed in red. Sixties-vintage chairlifts with wonky metal safety bars came barrel-assing out of old barns, scooped up unwitting skiers, and swung them madly uphill. In the lodge, skiers unloaded picnic lunches from wicker baskets onto red-and-white checked tablecloths. Hotels were auberges, and restaurants served Petits Patés de Saumon and Crèpes au Poulet. I had either been transported back in time or somehow ended up in Europe. Maybe both. I certainly wasn’t in Colorado anymore. Actually, I was in Mont Sutton, Quebec, just 10 minutes over the Canadian border, due north of Jay Peak, Vermont. But as I discovered, it’s a world apart from your ordinary North American ski experience. Sutton is not a huge place, and the vertical drop is modest. It does not have Alta steeps or Vail bowls or Taos chutes. What Sutton has are glades. Sous-bois,to use the local parlance. There are 30-year-old glades of birch and maple covering nearly half the mountain’s 174 acres. And here’s a funky twist: Sutton grooms its glades. They use little circa-1963 Tucker Sno-Cats that can maneuver around the trees and smooth out the snow (sort of). Some of the trees even have rubber around their trunks, because grooming glades is not an exact science. Still, grooming is a little-practiced art at Sutton. Only 13 or so runs are groomed each night. Fewer on a powder day. The glades and the grooming policy are part of the overall gestalt of the place–which is au naturel.When the area was laid out, boulders and trees were left in place. Trails always follow the mountain’s true fall line, even if it twists and turns away from the base lodge. At Sutton, you’re not so much skiing downhill as constantly turning a corner. The trail map looks like a spider’s web. At day’s end, with the trees and rocks and serpentine routes and laissez-faire grooming policy, you’re just as tired as if you’d skied Alta or Vail or Taos. On my first day, I hooked up with Sutton diehard Pierre LeBlanc, a 55-year-old ex-ski instructor, father of an extreme freeskier, and insurance salesman from Montreal who proceeded to make me very tired. There’s a certain strategy to skiing Sutton: “I don’t ski straight down a hill,” Pierre explained, “I go from place to place. I might ski four trails on the way down.” On one run, we took Sous-bois IVa to Sous-bois IVb to Surprise to Sous-bois V, a windy, snow-covered riverbed. That’s how our day went–dashing from sous-bois to trail, nipping into another glade, popping out somewhere else. We never took fewer than four trails in a run, and even with the trail map, I couldn’t retrace our route. “You can ski here 10 years and not come down the same way,” said Pierre. There’s also a special Sutton ski technique. The natural terrain demands quick, short, controlled turns. “In a sous-bois, you have to turn,” Pierre told me. And he was right. A few times I resorted to big, high-speed, Western-style arcs, only to come face to face with bark. I started to ski like Pierre. It was safer. And harder. “If you can ski here, you can ski anywhere,” he said. Sutton’s unruly disposition is the legacy of Harold Boulanger, who opened the area in 1960. His son Réal was the visionary who insisted that raw mountain determine the ski area’s personality. The glade concept was about 25 years ahead of its time. Other Eastern areas have just recently opened new glades to roughen up images smoothed out by a superabundance of groomed boulevards. Réal had three brothers and two sisters, who in turn had 18 kids. Today, Sutton is still run by the Boulanger brood. Christine is the marketing manager, Marguerite works in the ticket office, Luke is in charge of mountain operations, Benoit is the general mager, and so on. I met up with Harold’s 23-year-old great granddaughter, Marie-Claude Dandenault, child of Sutton and a Montreal cop. Tall and lanky with a gruff voice and a bobbing ponytail, she skis the Sutton way: short, quick turns down the fall line, always in control. We took a run down Sous-bois Poma, a steep, narrow bumpy path through the woods. Of course, on the way down, we hit three other trails I can’t remember. In the lift lines below, there were lots of hellos and two-cheeked busses. Marie-Claude knows everybody. And everybody was decked out. They had on the very latest skiwear and cutting-edge ski gear. Lots of Phenix, Descent, and Helly Hansen outfits in flashy colors. Last year’s Rossi’s and Atomics and Volants. And all these skiers, dressed to the nines, were loading onto a chairlift installed around the time The Andy Griffith Showfirst aired. Against the backdrop of such a retro family mountain, the high-tech factor seemed oddly out of place. Stranger yet, one powder morning I ended up skiing with the one skier who bucked the all-things-slick-and-new trend–Marlene Kaplan. She had on rear-entry boots and turquoise Rossi 4S’s–garage sale material. Her outfit: wool sweater, several layers of cotton underneath, a brown jacket with the stuffing poking out, and duct-taped navy ski pants. “I’ve never bought new ski equipment in my life,” said Marlene. Despite the antique gear, she ripped. She’d been skiing Sutton her whole life, and it showed. We skied run after run through the sous-bois, darting through the trees and over big bumps covered in cream, powder billowing up around our knees. After lunch in one of Sutton’s cozy on-mountain log-cabin like lodges, we headed for Fantaisie, Sutton’s backcountry option. We passed through a gate warning that the area has no patrol, no snowmaking, no grooming, and that a rescue will cost C$150. The run would take us about 750 feet through the woods, and at the bottom we’d pay with a good 15-minute slog out. The trees were tighter than in the Sous-bois, but still well spaced. I snuck over to the edge and found five untracked turns, then another 10 and 10 more. Marlene was plunging her way to the bottom, thick brown braids flying behind her. I stopped halfway down to catch my breath and look around. I had to remind myself I was skiing the East. Small snow-covered birch branches reached like tiny white fingers toward the blue sky. The run was a flight of fantasy. In fact, the whole Sutton experience was, too. Destination: Mont Sutton, Quebec Vertical Drop: 1,500 feet Skiable Acreage: 174 acres Lifts: 1 detachable quad, 2 fixed-grip quads, 6 doubles Reservations: 800-663-0214; 450-538-2646 Tickets: An adult lift pass will set you back C$40, roughly US$27. Better yet, buy a full-day midweek ticket in the afternoon and you get a voucher for a full-day midweek ticket later in the season. Basically a day and a half for the price of one. There are also price breaks for skiers 65 and over and 17 and under. Going Downtown: The town of Sutton is four kilometers down the road from the ski area. There are lots of little shops selling maple syrup, chocolate, ski clothes, books, and just about anything else you can think of. Lodging: There are dozens of slopeside condos, small hotels, and quaint B&Bs from which to choose. I stayed at the Gite Vert Le Mont B&B (450-538-3227) on Maple street, a five-minute drive from the mountain. The room was cozy and the breakfast tasty. Dining: You won’t go hungry at Sutton. There are more than a dozen eateries in town, including the Auberge Les Alleghanys, a small bistro where the menu is handwritten every night. Bring your appetite and a translator. If you have a sweet tooth, try a cloying sugar pie for dessert. Very Quebecois. Drinking: Since Camile’s burned down, pretty much the only game in town for après is The Defrost. Located in the hotel Auberge La Paimpolaise near the base, it’s a basement bar where you can get amber-colored Canadian nectar served in a mason jar. In the base lodge itself, you won’t find a bar. It’s part of the elder Boulanger legacy: Harold and his three sons were teetotalers and figured skiing and drinking just didn’t go together. As of 1983, you could buy beer or wine at the cafeteria, but the only thing you can belly up to is still a picnic table. “When I went to another ski area and saw a bar, says Christine Boulanger, “I was shocked.” Festivities: Mont Sutton is celebrating its 40th anniversary this season (it’s actually the ski area’s 41st season), and to kick things off lift tickets will be $5 December 15-17. They’re free on the 17th if you were born in 1960.près is The Defrost. Located in the hotel Auberge La Paimpolaise near the base, it’s a basement bar where you can get amber-colored Canadian nectar served in a mason jar. In the base lodge itself, you won’t find a bar. It’s part of the elder Boulanger legacy: Harold and his three sons were teetotalers and figured skiing and drinking just didn’t go together. As of 1983, you could buy beer or wine at the cafeteria, but the only thing you can belly up to is still a picnic table. “When I went to another ski area and saw a bar, says Christine Boulanger, “I was shocked.” Festivities: Mont Sutton is celebrating its 40th anniversary this season (it’s actually the ski area’s 41st season), and to kick things off lift tickets will be $5 December 15-17. They’re free on the 17th if you were born in 1960. This article first appeared in Skiing Magazine in October 2000.