Taking Flight at Snowbird Ski Resort

Mix crowd-free runs with a backcountry traverse and you've got a recipe for on- and off-piste perfection.
The Big Push: Going up before you go down into the Snowbird backcountry (courtesy, Nathan Rafferty/Ski Utah)

The morning starts in epic fashion: Standing shoulder to elbow with Snowbird's ski patrol in the Aerial Tram an hour before the resort officially opens. With a shudder you're zipping up the mountain, gliding eye-level with the pine trees as the early morning sun starts to illuminate carpets of freshly groomed slopes in an inviting white glow. A harsh wind may shatter the serenity when you disembark atop 11,000-foot Hidden Peak, but it's a welcome wake-up call before you clip into your skis or strap on your snowboard and then drop off the summit and charge down the mountain. The only other people on the mountain? The few skiers you were kind enough to let lead the way...

Welcome to First Tracks, Snowbird Resort's dreamland early-bird program, which gives you and a small collection of equally informed alpinists two heavenly runs down the mountain—top to bottom—before the resort opens to the general public. Even without fresh pow on the mountain, these runs make for a remarkable first hour on the slopes—which should sufficiently whet your desire to extend that low-crowd gravitational buzz by taking a guided expedition into the expansive backcountry of the surrounding Wasatch wilderness. It's time to sign on for one of Snowbird's three Alpine Tour programs.

Safety and snow conditions will dictate where and when you'll head, but tours typically start in the morning at the first-aid station at the top of the Gad two-seater lift. Hook up with your guide, sign out with the ski patrol, learn the basics of avalanche rescue and how the transceivers work, and then strap your skis or 'board to your back and start walking.

A typical outing may include a 45-minute hike up an austere ridgeline that'll make your lungs ache in the thin-air high altitudes just before you reach the summit high above the resort. At the top, under a brilliant bluebird sky, muster your courage, clip or strap in, and then traverse along a narrow path to the east-facing slopes, where untracked snow awaits—even if fresh snow hasn't fallen in days. Once you reach that oh-so-sweet bowl or glade, the guides will calculate the risk of avalanches and, if all is well, one at a time, you'll slide into some of the freshest powder and most forgiving corn you've ever encountered.

After carving down the first slope, you'll traverse to another region of virgin snow, and then another, and another, stopping to gorge on lunch or just to inhale the cool mountain air. At the end of your first descent, you're funneled into a narrow cross-country trail that gently zig-zags down the mountain before reaching the parking lot, the shuttle van, and the inviting impulse to get back to the mountain and do it all over again...

Access and Resources:
Snowbird Resort (www.snowbird.com) lies 29 miles west of Salt Lake City, adjacent to Alta Mountain Resort (skiers can purchase a joint lift ticket, accessing both mountains).

Snowbird's First Tracks program allows up to two runs before the mountain opens to the general public. Sign up the evening before with Snowbird Mountain School at the Snowbird Activity Center, Level Three; 801.933.2435 x4135. The cost is $50 and is subject to weather and conditions.

The backcountry Alpine Tour has three programs: an introductory course to backcountry skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing; lift-assisted backcountry tours; and mountaineering and couloir skiing—all with avalanche-safety tutorials. A full-day expedition runs $230, and $120 per additional person. Half-day expeditions cost $180 for singles, and $105 for additional participants. Rental expedition gear costs $30 per person, and includes transceivers, shovels, probes, and skins (when needed).

Arrangements can be made at the Snowbird Activity Center (801.933.2147 x4147; www.snowbird.com) at the Snowbird Center, Level Three, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Published: 28 Dec 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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