The V-Tree Gang

A 3 on the 10-scale

Brighton Wolverine Cirque The storm was trying to move into the Wasatch. Thick blue clouds capped Mt. Raymond and Tuscarora and Sunset Peak. Gusts of wind brought snow off the south side of the Honeycomb Cliffs and Wolverine Peak and sent it hundreds of feet into the leeward air, making the mountain tops look as if they were steaming into the morning. Down in Wolverine Cirque, loose snow blew around our feet and ankles and gusts of wind, likely into the 50-miles per hour range, made us hold on extra tight to our hats and our poles. At the top of a run that Steve and Jerrard call Figure 8, the four of us took off our climbing skins and buckled our boots tight. Jerrard put in a ski cut across the top of the open slope - trying to start a slide; standard avalanche country protocol - and it held. Steve B. went first, breaking the dense snow with his wide telemark turns. Steve E. went after him, falling face first twice, then Jerrard, with his beautiful tight low turns, then me.

With all this wind, we shouldn't have been surprised that it wasn't much of a run. Steve E. called it a 3 on the 10-scale.

We grouped at the bottom and Jerrard, who knows the area best, led us down through a fir forest and almost to the bottom of Twin Lakes, now sunken under ten feet of snow. We skirted the edge of the lake, huffed up a short hill, held the boundary rope up for one another, and skied back into Brighton Ski Area. Down at the lodge, it was a completely different world. There was no wind. A DJ was spinning tunes. Vendors were giving away bottles of water and cups of yogurt and GM was showing off a new Pontiac. After having been up in the bowl, this was a bit surreal. Then, the DJ plays this old song, I think it was by The Mammas And The Poppas. And this kid, not wearing a hat and holding his snowboard jauntily under one arm, comes up to Steve B. and says, Man, what's with this music?

It Began With a Rope Tow

Brighton Crest ExpressBrighton is one of the oldest ski areas in America. Back in 1936 members of the Alpine Ski Club fashioned a rope tow out of half-inch wire and an old elevator drum and ran the thing on the weekends. The selection for Brighton was a natural. At the very end of Big Cottonwood Canyon, the lift was only 12 miles from the Salt Lake Valley yet at a base elevation of 8,755 feet, the bowl saw 500 inches of snow in an average season. Gentle meadows and valleys gave way to steeper peaks and vales, and the entire area is surrounded by a chorus of rocky mountains, hanging valleys and granite spires. Nice stuff to look at.

In many ways Brighton's history is interwoven with the riches of America. No, not the skiing exactly, but rather the gold. High-altitude hamlets like Brighton, Solitude, Alta, Michigan City and Park City found their original riches back before the turn of the last century when hard rock miners dug into the hills to extract silver and gold. The minerals added to the riches of the area, but also to early tensions. Miners mixed uneasily with the Mormons down in Salt Lake City, and both tended to live in separate worlds. But the Mormons stayed, of course; when the metals played out the miners moved on to Colorado and Montana, or integrated into city life. Brighton Bowl sat empty for a while. Today, mountain cabins sit atop many of the mineral claims, and evidence of mining still abounds in slag piles and shuttered mine shafts.

That first rope tow was a success, and by 1938 the club had installed a T-bar. A second came in 1949. In 1946 the area installed a single-seat chairlift. Built by the American Steel and Wire Company, the single-seat design was one which was in popular use over in Sun Valley.

By the 1950s the Doyle family owned much of the area, and in 1954 Zane Doyle and father-in-law Willard Jensen purchased and installed one of the fist double chairlifts in the Intermountain West, a Riblet two-seater, the kind the bar in the middle. That lift proved to be a big draw for the area - riding the lift with a friend is always funner than by yourself - and was credited with securing the success of the area. In 1963 the area was consolidated into one ski area, operating on one pass and under one Forest Service permit. Sons of the founders began to take over in the early 60s, and Randy Doyle, youngest son of Zane, began working at the resort in 1973. Boyne USA, who runs two resorts by that name over in Michigan as well as Big Sky up in Montana, bought the area in 1986, though brothers Mike and Randy continue to operate the facility on a day-to-day basis. In recent years the mountain has seen two new high-speed four-seat chairlifts, including one which reaches up to the 10,500-foto level of Clayton Peak, and a new big-log base lodge. Attempts to expand into the back of the mountain and into Wasatch County down a canyon called Snake Creek have been unsuccessful, however.

Brighton: Everything, and Without Trying

BrightonBack at the base, the four of us grabbed a bite to eat out of our cars then met at the bottom of the Crest Express, which was a-swarm with snowboarders wearing their bizarre ski suits and families with tiny kids in tow and extreme skiers in the latest gear and old wool-and-leather pinheads in ancient telemark and downhill equipment. Over below the Majestic lift snowboarders were catching air from a large half-pipe, one of two on the mountain. The DJ would cut the music as the snowboarders came through the finish line. Up on the Crest lift, in the trees and away from the base, things were immediately different. It was quiet, and schools of children snowplowing without poles followed their instructor, and pairs of skiers darted between trees, calling after one another. From the top, Steve, Steve Jerrard and I ducked under the boundary rope and began the long high traverse to the V Tree.

More so than perhaps any other ski mountain in Utah, and maybe even in America, Brighton is everything to everybody. When most locals think of Brighton these days they think of the snowboarders, who ride fast, sit in the middle of trails, jump off everything they can find and who have been known to cause an altercation or two with the more sedate skiers. And yet, it is not their area, exactly. The resort has a solid and long-running foundation with families. Adult all-day tickets are $35 and kids under ten and adults over 70 ski free, making this large mountain one of the best deals in the world. (Bestest deal: the 'Super Pass,' which guarantees skiing from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., is only $39. Good luck.) And it is not simply that families can afford to ski here. Rather, almost every lift serves almost every ability level, meaning families with different-ability skiers can ride the lift together and meet at the bottom, none worse for the wear.

Besides them, Brighton has generations of devotion from skiers like Steve and Steve and Jerrard and I, who liberally use the mountain's open boundary policy to ride the lifts up, then access killer backcountry terrain, pool back down the bottom, and do it all over again. With the cliffs and rocks and chutes that abut the area Brighton often shows up in photos of popular ski and snowboard magazines. The gentle Brighton Bowl always draws a horde of first-timers, and finally the area's history means you see your fair share of throwbacks in stocking caps and leather ski boots.

But perhaps most remarkable of all, though, is that looking at this encompassing cross-section of on-snow society, you never get the impression that Brighton ever said, Hey, uh, let's see what we can do to attract some of those snowboarders. Or, What can we do to pull in a lot of cliff-jumping skiers to advertise the place in magazine photos? No, Brighton has succeeded in catering to everyone by catering to no one, really. Snow lovers found Brighton, not the other way around.

And that's what makes it all the more special.

7 on the 10-scale

Brighton Vapor TrailsSteve E. and Jerrard are two of those skiers for whom the mountain has meant many things. Early converts to Utah skiing, they began riding the lifts here back in the 1970s, buying the single ride ticket (now $8) and using that as a ticket to the backcountry. Now they ski like addicts, always making it up on the weekends and occasionally during the week. Jerrard works quality-control for the Interstate 15 reconstruction project, where in what I think is the largest or the second-largest public works project in America, something like 20 miles of I-15, the main artery through the Salt Lake Valley, is being torn up and completely rebuilt, all in just four years. He said he has a lot of time off during the winter. Steve E. (that is, Erickson) first learned non-violent civil disobedience as a student at Columbia. Now he is the head local spokesman for Downwinders, an activist group that fights for the rights of those who have been exposed or who could be exposed to radiation or nuclear by-products, and he heads a local organization that seeks solutions to low-income housing disputes. Even among those who strongly disagree with his opinions, Steve E. is very well respected. Steve B. is an old landlord of mine. Perhaps one of the best carpenters in the Salt Lake Valley, Steve B. is the one who was with me on the ski tour up Bear Lake Summit back in January.

The V Tree is not unlike the 'W' from that movie 'It's a Wild, Wild, Wild World,' where those guys drive across the county looking for the treasure under the W and don't see the W even as they stand beneath it. The V Tree is two trees, actually, both very dead, which grow apart at a 60-degree angle high on the slope to the far skier's left of the Crest Express. There is not quite enough snow today (the base was only 110 inches) but with a few more feet you can actually ski up to the V trees then launch from between them.

It's not quite as stormy over here as it was in the Wolverine Cirque, though we can feel the fury in the mountains above us. There are a few snowboarders below us who are building mammoth jumps. One skier launches off one of jumps and makes full rotation-and-a-half before landing in the powder. We choose our lines carefully, skiing one at a time down the slope. Steve B. hikes up all the way to the top for an extra 15 turns. Jerrard gets plenty of face shots on the way down. Steve E. declares the run a 7 on the 10-scale. At the bottom, having a drink and looking back up at our lines, Steve and Jerrard say they have to go back to the valley. Steve B. and I arrange to meet for dinner at a Mexican seafood place down in Salt Lake. I make a few more runs on the lifts and calling it a day, relishing another day in Utah's mountains.

Brighton stats:

Annual snowfall: 500 inches
Base elevation: 8,755 feet
Vertical drop: 1,745 feet
Size: 850 acres
Runs: 64 including 21% beginner, 40% intermediate, 39% advanced
Lifts: two high speed four-seaters, two three-seaters, two two-seaters, one rope tow
Adult pass: $35
Child pass: free with adult
Over 70 pass: free
Skis, boots, poles adult rentals: $20
Night skiing: 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Miles from Salt Lake's airport: 35
Best apres ski: With hot chocolate, around the fire at the Brighton Lodge
Public bus service from Salt Lake's airport: Call (801) 287-4636

A special thanks to Brighton Resort.

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