High Country Tour

The forecast said eight inches could come in a day or two and that was enough to get us out the door. We are snow-starved here in the State of Jefferson and my ski buddy and I could not take another day of hoping for a big storm. “If it snows, we goes” is our motto and it was time to put up or shut up. Between pal Miller and myself, that’s a tall order. We left Yreka Monday, a week ago today, about eleven in the morning and got to Elko in Nevada over eight hours later. It never fails to amaze me how vast the arid West is. We took CA 89 through the Cascade volcanic plains with their rich timberlands and US 395 to Reno in the dry country on the east slope of the Sierras. Then it was the seemingly endless trek across the basin-and-range topography that defines the Silver State. From Elko to Salt Lake City the next day was a more leisurely three-plus hour jaunt and we found cheap lodging in Midvale. Our motel was minutes away from Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons which are home to Brighton, Solitude, Alta, and Snowbird ski resorts. That night we ate and drank at the excellent Bohemian Brewery walking both ways in the surprisingly balmy weather. SLC had record highs the days we were there. Utah has goofy alcohol laws and you can only get “3.2 beer” on tap. For some reason Utah measures alcohol by weight, not volume, and thus you have 4% abv. In the end that was OK as I like quaffing multiple pints.

Alta was our primary destination and our over-anxiousness had us there an hour before opening the next morning. About six inches had fallen and we were ready for some fun. Explosions from the dynamiting of cornices and other avalanche hazards is pretty common at ski areas but the thundering booms coming down from above unnerved me anyway. The lifts loaded about 9:15 and we were off. I noticed the altitude right away as the top is over 10,000 feet. I had a hard time catching my breath and I also got a little vertigo from the steep pitches the lifts raced up. I’m just a small-town boy these days—I haven’t been to a big-time resort in decades. The size and scale at Alta were dazzling and I got a bit overwhelmed. It was tough going as the runs are challenging and my partner on the slopes is aggressive and adventurous. I only fell twice and one was in a narrow off-piste chute that I should have avoided. Falling was the safe thing to do! The other was just a little slip on some hardpack. In neither case was I hurt and my skis stayed on both times. It was warmer than I expected and I was over-dressed and sweated quite a bit. I was soon dehydrated from the exertion and took a long break but managed to get it back together and catch a few more runs. The snow was a little wet and heavy much like we are used to in California and Oregon but there were plenty of fun patches and the ever-elusive “freshies.” Much of my first day in the Cottonwoods is a blur, though. I worked hard and got worn out but it was all good as I was ready as ever the next morning.

We decided on Brighton as the climbing temperatures and lack of new snow in the forecasts meant we should avoid the steep stuff. I can only do the advanced/expert runs when there is a soft layer on top. Rather, they are easier then and thus I have more fun. On groomed slopes I stick to mostly intermediate and look for spots in the trees where there’s exploring to do. I don’t like the tight places and look for openings. I struggled with vertigo again and even a bit of acrophobia on the fast chairs and once again amazingly steep climbs but taught myself to overcome it by slow breathing and looking straight ahead. Eventually I could ride up and down without gripping the bar in fear! By the end of the trip it was a piece of cake and I had fully adapted. The third day we took a break and drove over to Park City for some sightseeing. The Wasatch Brewery was an obvious goal and we checked out the fancy and expensive galleries and shops. The snow cover is far lower than normal and locals told us over and over what a lousy ski season it was. We of course had nothing back home so it was great to be able to ski at all. It was obvious all over the mountains that the coverage was poor and the depths nowhere near where they should be. The Wasatch Range is amazing, especially from the west side as the relief is spectacular. From the flats of SLC it looks like the mountains jump straight up. Unfortunately the dun-colored hillsides are ugly and the city itself suffers, as do the other towns, looking drab and forlorn in the wide-open shrubby landscape. I’m biased, I know, but the barren highlands of California have prettier shades and more greens!

We skied Brighton again on the fourth day and found lots of fun spots in among the aspen groves. The groomed runs were smooth and fast and I got in lots of relaxed turns. Both days there were sunny and visibility was great. That first day at Alta was overcast and we struggled with the flat light which made it hard to read the slope and pick out a line. I worked on trying to ski the lines the mountain gave me rather than making my own way down. My goal was to use the terrain to control my speed and not just my turns. That worked well on the gentler slopes but was harder on the steeper stuff. Nonetheless I had a lot of fun and got to play around with different things. My new skis are more maneuverable and forgiving than my old ones but tend to chatter and run off-line on the straightaways so I had to stay upright and balanced all the time which is good practice for powder days. Another storm was brewing for Monday but it looked to be less of an event than the one that brought us out so we decided to pack it in and head home. Heavy rain pelted us on the second day as we returned to California and high winds earlier had littered 89 with shattered trees. Fortunately the crews had been out working hard and the road was clear but it was a long haul in the at times blinding downpour. My buddy did all the driving which made it easy on me but it is still hard to sit in a metal box for hours at a stretch. The journey was not completely satisfying as we got no taste of the famous Utah powder but it certainly was enjoyable to get in some real skiing. I expect we’ll give it another shot next month as the locals told us that March often has big storms. We scouted more lodging options and feel confident we can find a comfortable spot whenever we go. Of course while we were gone our local park got nearly two feet and re-opened! I hope to take a trip there as well real soon. Perhaps the snow gods are finally answering our prayers.

Here’s photo of part of the Wasatch from the top of Preston Peak at Brighton:

the view from the top

Not bad, eh?

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