Alta at Night

It was well after midnight, snow cold and dark blue and glittering as though under sun, and Kim and I and 8 other skiers and boarders were dropping off the 10,400-foot summit of Patsy Marly into 16 inches of fresh snow, linking beautiful turns and hollering into the empty night sky.

Kim skied third, linking her telemark turns, 30 in all, down the southwest-facing open slope. I went fourth, making a small jump of a wind-built cornice and carving 40 turns 'til we met on a slight saddle. Nine of us noodled the slope keeping our turns close together -- 'It's all about conservation,' said one of the snowboarders, speaking of skiers' tendency to group turns together and save the slope's pristine snow for the next batch of tourers -- and stood, shivering, on the saddle waiting for the last guy to cascade down. He was relatively new to the sport, and took his time. We then headed off in groups of two and three down from the saddle into two chutes that joined into a beautiful apron, which afforded us another 40 turns until we hit a meadow towards the bottom.

Kim slid into the chute first, took a jump turn and fell, losing a ski. 'Oh Jeff, I think I really lost it this time,' she said of her ski. Telemarkers, with our heels free, often get into strange contorted positions when we fall, especially in deep powder. She untangled herself, not without swearing sweetly, and less boldly cut her turns down the hill. I sidestepped down the top arc of the chute and jumped in from the side, missing the patch of wind-blown scree that was Kim's demise, and met up with her at the bottom.

It was the brightest full moon in years, and like fools we decided to experience the full moon here out of bounds at Alta. Kim called at 7: meet at 9 p.m. at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. We met at 9:25, to be precise, in the park and ride lot there and car-pooled up the canyon. Parked at the upper Alta lot, got introduced to everyone -- almost all of the guys were either EMTs, medical helicopter nurses, or fire fighters -- and walked or skied up what locals call Alta's 'summer road': in the summer, this is a dirt road that takes you up to Albion Basin at just below 10,000 feet where there is a lake and a Forest Service campground. In the winter, the road is, closer to the bottom, a run at Alta Ski Area or, farther towards the top, a cross-country ski track and snowmobile route. The snowboarders walked with snowshoes, carrying their boards in their packs, while the skiers walk up the mountain with their skis on, using the telemark's free heel binding to walk as though in shoes and mohair adhesive skins to gain traction on the snow.

The road meanders in and out of Alta bounds, but it is gentle and tonight was well packed and we could walk three abreast, chatting. Kim just today graduated from the Salt Lake County firefighter's school; her first day at work is a 24-hour shift beginning Christmas Eve. Today had been a day of celebration for her, and she had no specific bedtime. The rest of us had to be at work in the morning -- one guy at 7 a.m. -- so we knew beforehand tonight was not going to be too involved. We had thought about climbing Sunset Peak, which divides Alta from Brighton at Catherine's Pass, but figured it would take too long and anyway feared winds which had accompanied this last storm may have abused the snow on Sunset's exposed summit. We also thought about skiing up to the top of Supreme, the uppermost lift at Alta, but decided against it because we wanted to ski untracked powder, and anything in bounds at Alta these days gets sliced up pretty fast, even Catherine's Pass, which required a huff to get to.

So we settled on the slope -- someone had a name for it but I forgot -- and broke into a single line away from the Sunnyside lift at Alta, zigzagging our way through shadow-casting Douglas fir and, later, subalpine fir. Hours melted, it was cold. A lot of us had insulated beverage containers of coffee, and most were spiked, and a few guys -- your narrator not included -- had cute stainless steel flasks, so there were quite a few breaks.

Under the full close moon, skiing at Alta was like living in a black and white movie. Trees and skiers cast short morning-like shadows. I didn't need Indiglo to see what time it was (11:45, 12:37, 1:14, 1:44). It may have been night, but we could clearly pick out the summits of the Oquirrh Mountains on the far side of the Salt Lake Valley, about 30 miles distant; we could see the long flat summits of the Uinta Mountains 40 miles east; closer, there were the summits of Superior, fierce, Sunset, rocky, Devil's Castle, slumbering under the new blanket of snow, and Wolverine, the highest point on the Patsy Marly ridge.

Enough has been said, I suppose, about Alta and its fabled snow. But if you could just humor me with one story: Back when I was a senior at the University of Utah I took a course called Snow and Avalanche Dynamics. Basically what we did was troop around in the mountains, dig holes in the snow, and look at how the layers of snow stacked up, what their various strengths and temperatures were and how large and of what type the different snow crystals were, then we ventured a guess as to what the chance for an avalanche was. Well, most of the time we rode the lifts at Alta and hiked into the backcountry from there, and being in the class we always got free passes and got to cut to the front of the lift lines. Well, the instructor for the course was this old kick-ass guy named Bill who had been skiing at Alta for like three decades. The first day of class was a Friday in January, and the Thursday before Alta had set the state 24-hour snowfall record -- 45 inches of snow fell in 24 hours, and in the 24 hours before that, another 30 inches had fallen. A few hours into the storm, when things looked serious, Alta closed the avalanche-prone Supreme lift and it stayed closed until Friday mid-afternoon. Well, we were all getting in line at the Cecret lift when some liftie says, 'Hey, Bill, they're opening Supreme at 2:30.' Our class was first in line up the Supreme lift, and ski patrol were still shooting the chutes beneath and to the left of the lift, unsuccessfully trying to spark an avalanche. We got off the chair at the top and Bill just basically said something like, 'See you cats at the bottom' and we were off and -- I think everyone face planted right away. Make a turn in 75 inches of snow? Ya right! You can't do nothin' in snow that deep. So we face planted our way straight down the mountain, and that is where I learned what fresh cold snow smells like: blue electricity.

'Oh my God,' Kim said, her face long halfway up. 'I've been drinking too much today.'

As the slope steepened, the group became more serrated. The snowboarders, in their crampon-equipped snowshoes, walked straight up Patsy Marly. The skiers had to cut a switchbacking trail into the snow, a trail which became more methodical on the open, geometric upper slope. The final steps came slowly. It was after one in the morning. On the other side of Alta, the Sugarloaf side, a whole crew of snowcats were working a run about to be opened for the first time this season; their headlights danced on the nuances of the slope. Someone was in one of the summer cabins in Albion Basin below us; porch lights lit up 100 yards of snowy bowl. A lone pair of headlights wove past Snowbird and down Little Cottonwood. Greg sniffed and proclaimed to us that all the snot in his nose was frozen.

Stripped skins from our skis. Clicked into bindings, buckled boots, snapped down boot stops, shortened poles, pulled on jackets and zipped them up to our necks, checked the backpack thermometer (12 degrees!). Took a last swig of Irish cream-lathed coffee, and took one more for good measure. There are few things more beautiful than dropping your knee down into over a foot of fresh snow, leaving a trail of spindrift and cold fluff billowing up against your chest. Snow is cold, even colder on a long night when absent of sunlight any warmth it has is radiated back out into space. It sworls and cavorts around your waist, spills around jackets and into your neck. Behind, it swirls in back like a rooster tail on a speedboat and floats above and behind you like air itself.

All Utah skiing slogans aside, skiing this season so far really has been miserable. Measly storms followed by weeks of bright sunshine -- gloomy weather for skiers. But the 16 inches that fell Monday, that gave the backcountry along the Little Cottonwood-Big Cottonwood divide a solid four-foot base, and for most of the ten of us this was the first real day -- natch, night -- of skiing. What a great portent, what a great prodigy for the future.

A special thanks to Alta Ski Area

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