Kim by 10, Alta by 10:30

Birds, bagels, Sunday paper, skiing

Alta's Mt. Baldy

Up to sunlight and birds. Clouds over the mountains, some thick and low, and sprinkles by the Great Salt Lake. In Salt Lake City, wet streets, new buds. An hour with a mocha, a half-dozen bagels and the Sunday Tribune. Kim at 10. Alta by 10:30.

Salt Lake is in full-swing into spring. Thick green grass abounds, trees are blooming, gardens are being readied for post-Easter planting. Up Little Cottonwood Canyon, it's bright but then it gets cloudy. Halfway up it sprinkles then the sprinkles turn to regular old rain. It's raining at the bottom of Snowbird. A mile up the canyon, at Alta, fat blizzardy flakes cover the road. It's Easter weekend: the end, practically, of the ski season. There's nine feet of snow midway, one inch new today and 498 total since November 1.

Spring is such a schizophrenic, bipolar season. The snow goes, the mud comes on. The skiing, bit by bit, dribbles into nothingness. What does the melted snow reveal? Trash and dead shrubs. The weather, a panacea of sunlight punctuated by occasional blizzards and deluges. The future: summer.

Spring's arrival this year is both good and regrettable. Regrettable, because the ski season was so overwhelmingly miserable yet we all kept hanging on, hoping a few more good storms would come. Good, of course, because the best thing to do with such a lousy season is just move on*. Let's get this snow out of here and do some biking! Or whatever!

{* Interesting story: Once I interviewed Bruce Tremper, who heads the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center. In talking about spring, he likened it to a baby that grows up and moves away. As an avalanche forecaster, he said, he spends all fall and winter watching the snowpack form and take shape and grow, then come about May 1 it all runs down the hill.}

It is inherently disheartening, when you spend a lot of time thinking about snow (something I occasionally do), to see less and less of it every day. And the absence of snow is so funny. The chairlifts stop, weeds and tangled brush beneath them. The ski area restaurants, for a month, are empty. The trailhead parking lots are a mess of muck. There are big piles of dirt and gravel where snowbanks were. Everyone goes out of town for a week or two. The snow report hotline isn't updated. The avalanche hotline starts with that awful this-is-the-last-update phrase: 'Well, it's that time of year again ...'

Ah. I need to get a hold of myself.

Ugh.

Meta-weather

AltaMost resorts have skiers. Alta has a dedicated band of hard-core locals and even out-of-towners who ski like locals. Many of them ski 40, 60, 80, even 100 days a year (that's where the season pass comes in handy). This morning the place was vacant. But by 1 p.m., when the half-day ticket sales kick in, the Wildcat parking lot is brimming and Germania has a seven-minute line (Wow!) full of telemarkers, many of them dressed like nuts, as last days seem to require. C.K. Williams, a great American poet, would call a day like today the 'meta-weather of April' - weather that is about itself. It snows like rain for a while, then there is a burst of sunlight, then thick fog which breaks to reveal mountain peaks draped like cotton, then all clouds again and an inch of snow in 15 minutes.

Kim and I, while riding the lift, argue about whether or not this is standard last-day fare at Alta. I tell her every time I ski here on the last day it snows to bring the band home. She says that's baloney - last year it was so warm she skied in a jog bra.

Most of the action today is on the Wildcat or Mt. Baldy side of the mountain. Here, three lifts take you to a few dozen marked* runs, some of which are cruisers and some that are pretty steep, with this notable point: there are no beginner runs. The majority of the skiers are riding the Germania lift, a sort of highway-to-heaven people mover that accesses the expanse of Ballroom and all the expert slopes like Alf's High Rustler and Stone Crusher.

{*The best runs, of course, are either not on the map or take ambiguous names like 'West Rustler' and 'Catherine's Area.'}

Over on 'the other side,' the Albion side, the best lift has been shut down already - that's the Supreme chair. The Sugarloaf lift is open and we ski that a few times but there is not a whole lot going on here, and there seems to be more sun which is baking the snow. Down below, on the Albion and Sunnyside and Cecret lifts, are where all the beginner slopes are.

Good stories, but by no means suggestions

AltaIf you spend much time at Alta you end up looking at Baldy a lot. Not just because it is the highest mountain (11,068 feet) , but because it is so dominating, and I mean that even in a psychological way. In-bounds at Alta and accessible by about a half-hour hike (an hour for you flatlanders) from the Wildcat lift, skiers can choose from the Baldy Shoulder (nice, but not too great) or Baldy's Main Chute, which is one of the most classic and beautiful lines in the Wasatch, a range itself of classic and beautiful lines.

Alta really never opens the chutes - maybe a few days each season. And when it is open, it gets packed immediately. I skied them twice, once with a work buddy named Jeff and once on my own, both in June after a very good ski season. I skied them without incident, barring the 10-foot cornice at the top you had to jump. But a guy I once worked for - Steve Howe, who went on to edit for Backpacker magazine - missed a jump turn in it one day and slid into the rocks that line the chute's sides. I still remember him recounting the event: 'I thought I was going to die,' he said. Head wounds at 11,000 feet. Nasty. (Mom: It's OK, Steve moved away and I haven't talked to him in years.)

Baldy's Main Chute kicks ass, for sure, as do its two little sisters, Little Chute and Dogleg. But the most outrageous in-bounds lines at Alta (and maybe the sickest in-bounds lines in the entire country) are over on the other side of the resort on Devil's Castle. Castle is a good nomer for this hulk of rock 10,920 feet high, though I have always thought it also looked like a capsizing pirate's ship. If not as skiable, Devil's Castle is probably more striking than Baldy if not for its steep rise then for the challenge it presents to the skier. There is East Devil's Castle, a beautiful east face of hike-accessible terrain to the skier's left of the Supreme lift. And there is the heart-melting apron below Devil's Castle, which is open after most storms. To the skier's right from the Sugarloaf lift is Sugarloaf itself, 11,051 feet, a rounded peak looking over towards Snowbird. The northeast face of Sugarloaf - they call it Devil's Castle on the trail map - is a delectable open rolling face which, of course, is accessible only by hiking.*

{*Memorable ski day: With my friend Steve Barbee one June. We got to the summit by 9, waited for the snow to corn up, and had an easy and carefree run back to the Albion base.}

But the serious lines here are the Devil's Castle Couloir and Ciochetti's Ribbon. Now, even mentioning these to a national audience amounts to perjury at Alta, and skiing these definitely entails self-destructive R-rated behavior (Warning to Parents: These Chutes Contain Violence, Profanity, and Adult Situations), so I won't get into a whole lot of detail. Neither, of course, are on the trail map. The Devil's Castle Couloir is 750 vertical feet of 53 degrees. You'd be lucky to live through a fall. Though not as steep, Ciochetti's - named for an Alta patroller who locals say not only was the first to ski it but 'allegedly did so with his girlfriend,' according to the great book, Chuting Gallery - is more outrageous. There are some who argue this is not even skiing, however. Most go into the chute roped up, and most years it takes a rappel to even get out of the thing.

Sun, blizzard, fog, more snow, lifts close, drive home

Alta Lift TicketsThere will be no chuting today, Kim informs me. In fact, she says well before lunch, she is not going to ski anything that requires taking her skis off to get to. That's all fine with me, really. I need sunshine to get into the chute skiing mood. Instead, we stick most of the day to Germania, occasionally seeing people we know, taking note of the change in snow conditions between the summit and the base, and talking aloud about what we are going to do this summer. Kim says she might go to Alaska. I try to talk her into coming with me to Honduras (listen, even travel writers need to take vacations every once in a while) which she does not seem to give much thought to. We ski through lunch, and she leaves at 2 to have Easter supper with her folks.

I ski a few more runs, but the storm is coming on strong now, and today is not much fun to ski alone. I head out an hour later, take my time down the canyon checking out the new leaves and the high water in Little Cottonwood Creek. In Salt Lake I stop by a few friends' homes, get a Zuka juice and drink it while stretched out on some green grass, then take note of the time and drive home.

Alta's Devil's Castle We've got 90-something inches of snow on the ground mid-way at Alta. In a month, spring willing, most of it will be gone. In two months, there will just be small piles of it beneath cliffs or in couloirs. Cecret Lake will melt off and the hikers will venture forth into the howling wilderness. Wildflowers will carpet Albion Basin. Aspens will regain their green leaves. Waterfalls will tumble down the cliffs. Bikes and hiking gear and jogging shoes and rock climbing ropes and swim trunks and river rafts will come out of gear rooms and musty garages.

The lifts may shut down, but skiing is by no means over. You can easily ski all through May, even in bad years, by hiking*. Mid-May is the time to hike Devil's Castle. Late May is good for Sugarloaf. Early June the Baldy Chutes come into their prime. I've taken the high traverse from Alta to Brighton and back as late as the third week of June. Once I skied in the Uinta Mountains on July 24**.

{*I actually skied this morning, April 30, in the Oquirrh Mountains. Nice.}

{**Not really all that fun, but it was better than the annual 24th of July parade in Salt Lake City, which marks when the Latter-day Saints arrived here in 1847.}

The Collins lift was already shut down when I skied past it. I don't think it has been open in weeks, actually. Snow blew across the Germania ridge, stinging and pelting skiers. There was, I knew, a nude final ski run going on over on, well, I'll keep that run a secret. I couldn't imagine skiing nude today - not with snow blowing at 10,700 feet. Instead, I skied back down Ballroom and Spring Valley and over to Wildcat then down and out to the car. That's it. End of season.

Alta Stats:

Jeff at AltaAnnual snowfall: 550 inches
Lift-serviced vertical drop: 2,020 feet
Base elevation: 8,530 feet
Lifts: 2 triple, 1 high-speed double, five regular-speed doubles, and a bunch of rope tows
Skiable acres: 2,200
Percent beginner-intermediate-expert: 25-40-35
All-day all area pass: $33 (no children's discount)
Free pass: If you are 80 or older
Snowboarding: Not allowed!!!!!!!!!
Road to the resort: Can be very snowy, and covered by avalanche debris

A special thanks to Alta Ski Area

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