Across the Divide
|Two different tours run on alternate days. Monday-Wednesday-Friday is the five-area tour, which starts at Park City, and goes across the Ridge to Brighton, Solitude, Alta, and through the Keyhole to Snowbird. Then the company shuttle brings the skiers back to Park City.|
That the Wasatch Front Range is a skier's utopia is a given; there is something to please every serious winter enthusiast. The depths of Alta, the terrain of Snowbird, the solitude of Solitude, the unbridled speed attainable at Deer Valley. Not to mention the thousands of acres of backcountry betwixt and between the established resorts.
Deciding where to ski on a given day is often a puzzle, especially if your friends ski different areas. The Ski Utah Interconnect Adventure Tour happily answers this dilemma: it links five of the Rockies' finest resorts with some equally fine backcountry routes. Two experienced guides accompany every tour, assigned to locate the best snow and keep the party avalanche-free.
After politely enduring endless boasts about the untracked snow and sweet terrain these trips offer from my friend Deb Lovke, who is one of seven guides for the tour, I finally caved in last winter. With nothing to do but ski on a Tuesday in March , I called Ski Utah, the marketing arm for the Interconnect Tour, and booked a solo slot.
I arrived Tuesday morning, habitually late, to the SportStalker equpiment store at Snowbird, the meeting place for the four-area tour. Fallaciously citing traffic as the excuse for my tardiness, I introduced myself to the group. Two of the clients were veterans of the tour-- they and their companions had met through Alcoholics Anonymous. The array of equipment sported by my new partners did not immediately conjure visions of elite skiing: Jeff's Carter-administration Salomon SX-90 boots, Sharon's Cheesy K2 USA's and antiquated Geze bindings were especially scary. But I said nothing, not wanting to harsh the collective excitement, and knowing from experience that ridiculous equipment it often a mainstay of phenomenal skiers, and vice versa. After quick introductions our two guides huddled us together to go over safety and protocol for the tour.
The guides were extremely competent, as you would hope and imagine. Rodd Keller's previous winter job, thirteen years ago, was ski patrol director at Park West (which became Wolf Mountain, and is now The Canyons). Johnny Hughes, also a twelve-year veteran of the Interconnect Tour, learned about snow safety and avalanche control in his spare time while managing the Mid-Gad Restaurant at Snowbird. He is one of the strongest telemark skiers you are likely to see this side of Scandinavia. Similarly bedecked in subdued company uniforms, they also toted thirty-pound backpacks containing all the essentials for backcountry comfort and survival: food, ropes, avalanche probes, shovels, binoculars, radios, skins, and extra binding cables."And by far the most important items," laughed Hughes, "coffee mugs and plenty of chocolate."
The Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday tour goes from Snowbird to Alta to Brighton to Solitude, and back to Alta. This four-area tour, though skipping Park City, caters to more experienced skiers with and offers steeper backcountry terrain.
Ski Utah holds a use permit allowing them to guide commercially in this inter-area terrain. The only other tour company with a similar permit is Exum, a mountaineering company from the Tetons specializing in overnight tours. The five participating ski areas don't take a cut of Ski Utah's revenue in exchange for use of their lifts,"but they do get great marketing exposure," says Keller. The Interconnect guides often work in conjunction with the area ski patrols, helping with avalanche control work and exchanging information about snow conditions. Many Interconnect clients actually cite the multi-area experience as motivation for skiing the tour, overshadowing even the draw of unmolested powder. The package price of a day's tour is $110, which covers the use of a Pieps (avalanche locators), two guides, lunch, lift tickets at each resort, and, most importantly, the ability to avoid crowds on the lifts by using the Ski School lines.
My biggest moment of the day happened early: Utilizing our executive privilege and boarding the Snowbird Tram from the Ski School door, I actually beat all the hard core skiers up the mountain. Our route to neighboring Alta, the Baldy Chutes, was still closed due to control work, so our guides decided to ski a run in-area to evaluate our ability. I followed Hughes' perfect three-pin arcs down a steepish powder shot with slightly less-perfect turns on my stiff morning legs. Halfway down, we stopped to watch the group's progress. There was no mistaking these folks for the PSIA demo team. Several disjointed traverses, numerous flapping arms, and, by the end, a few all-out yard sales. Their confidence obviously shaken, the two guides huddled briefly and delivered their verdict -- none of the clients was skilled enough for the day's intended terrain or the expected avalanche conditions. Like doctors reporting terminal cancer to a longtime friend, it was plain that they weren't happy bearing these tidings.
Surprisingly the clients took the news without a whimper, heartened by Keller's encouraging them to try again later in the week."They're probably more relieved than embarrassed at this point," Keller whispered to me. "When they [the two repeat clients] skied with us last year, it was the [easier] Park City route in spring corn snow." It is not uncommon for one or two skiers in a tour to be excused with a full refund. Safety is the guides' first concern, and fragile egos notwithstanding, they are forced to tell it like it is. Although the office at Ski Utah attempts to inform potential clients ahead of time about requisite skiing skills and fitness levels, skiers notoriously overrate their abilities.
Unfortunately, the collective demotion left me without a tour or an article to write, as the rest of the week was fully booked with paying customers."Stick around," Hughes said while collecting the last of the Pieps, "we're doing a recon trip to check out the snowpack, and you can come along." Barely containing my elation with being included, I followed the guides down the mountain and jumped gleefully into the company van for the short trip to Alta.
After filling the all-important coffee tankards, we headed up the Supreme lift, and hiked out Catherine's pass to the "Toboggan Chutes." Although the snow on the traverse seemed pretty windpacked and safe to me, Hughes crept along the ridge with an ear-to-the-ground, Obi-Wan style of mystic deliberation. When he finally found the intimation he was looking for, he dropped over the edge and disappeared in a series of effortless face shots. I followed suit, euphorically mirroring Hughes' tracks with a mouthful of cold smoke down the entire pitch. Keller's sinuous lines completed the picture.
The rest of the day was a carbon copy of this first run. We hiked and traversed only a modest amount, maybe slightly more than on an adventurous day at Alta. The reward was several waist-deep sustained sections on routes such as the Highway to Heaven, Grizzly Gulch, Sunset Peak, the Dogleg Chutes, and Patsy Marley. We dined in style at Solitude around midday, and before heading back toward Alta paused at each ski area to exchange gossip with the local ski patrol.
By day's end I was longing for the comfort of my telemark boots. Though most clients ski in alpine gear, all the guides do it Scandinavian-style for the ease of hiking and breaking trail, digging hasty pits, and performing potential rescues. Though a helicopter rescue has never been required in fourteen years on the Interconnect Tour, the guides have strategically stashed toboggans for warmth and protection should the need ever arise. To date snowboards and monoskis are not welcome on the tours; the flat traverses make snowboarders prohibitively slow, and Alta's snowboard ban seals the deal. Look for the new split snowboards, like Voile's Split Decision, to change this policy in coming seasons.
This tour is not to be missed, for locals and tourists alike. Certainly backcountry skiers have spent years touring many of these routes on their own, but to do the whole circuit you'll need either an Interconnect ticket, a driver who owes you a favor, or a taste for hitchhiking. If you're in favor with the financial gods, you can and should pony up three to five hundred a day for a Cat or Heliskiing. But don't ignore this affordable opportunity to ski these same lines, get a great workout, and commune with nature in the process.
David Peck is a freelance writer and ski aficionado living in Salt Lake City.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication