Skiing Begins, The America's Opening Kicks It Off

White Pine Atop the mountain I rest for a moment, have a sip of coffee, pull out the camera and snap a few pictures, then pause for contemplation, looking all around. Once again, in the marvelous march of seasons, the Wasatch Range and much of the rest of northern Utah is white with fluffy snow.

There are few things more exciting to winter-loving Utahns than anticipating the day-by-day approach of winter. It usually starts in late August or early September when one morning after a rainy night we wake up to see the mountain tiptops, yellow and red with autumny leaves, dusted with snow. That snow melts pretty quickly, but within a few weeks another storm has whitened the mountain tops. Each time, a little melts but as the weeks go by the snow inches lower and lower until it whitens the valley bottoms, the lake shores, the freeways and city parks and school yards.

This is Day One. This is the first day to get out in the snow, the first day of the ski season. Some intrepid skiers could have had their own Day One about two weeks ago, but my experience is that such an early start is usually more painful than fun. Owing to the rocky nature of the mountains we need a good three feet of snow in the ground to go skiing around here. We've got it.

The coffee is good, so I have another cup. Out to the immediate south the incredible mountains of the Big Cottonwood-Little Cottonwood divide stand sparkling in the cold morning air. Twin Peaks, Dromedary, Superior, Honeycomb Cliffs and Montreal Hill all pierce the sparkly sky. My breath floats away. Over to the side of the hill, two skiers approach my summit.

Back to the north, past The Canyons ski area, down the mountains and into Park City, another Day One is going on - an even bigger day one. It was the 15th annual domestic season opener of the FIS World Cup ski circuit - the America's Opening.

A Celebration of Winter

Raced on King Con Ridge, C.B.'s Run, Picabo's and Commitment on the lower mountain of Park City, the America's Opening encompasses the five core World Cup disciplines in a five-day extravaganza of egos, skiing and partying. Last year, due to a Satanic curse and an embarrassing lack of snow, the race had to be moved to Colorado. This year, there has been tons of snow and lots of anticipation - this will be the final ski race test event before the 2002 Olympics.

God's Country America's Opening has grown in size and stature over the years. Back in 1985, when the race was first announced, things happened on a much smaller scale. Now, the races are witnessed by thousands of locals who pay the $5 general admission price, and about 30 million television viewers around the world who get to sit at home and see what Utah looks like in an early mantle of white. America's Opening these days is a standard for international competition. It put Park City, already home to the U.S. Ski Team, on the world's map, helped shape the careers of world renowned skiers like Tamara McKinney, Alberto Tomba and Hermann Maier and is thought of locally as the real clincher for Salt Lake City's securing of the 2002 games.

The World Cup is a combination slalom, giant slalom, downhill, super G and combined ski meet. The different races correspond to the type of route a skier takes. The downhill race is pretty much a free-for-all down the mountain. On the slalom, skiers must negotiate closely-placed poles. Somewhere in between are the other races. Preparation of the race course begins as soon as autumn nights get cold enough for snowmaking and, oddly, in this business of snowmaking actual snowfall tends to get in the way - snowmaking scientists prefer the predictable nature of snowmaking to sculpt a course. After getting adequate coverage along the runs, workers create a big steep hill to serve as the starting area, massage in dips and rolls, and sculpt a finish area big enough for the racers' signature swooping turn and a few thousand onlookers. Racers in the giant slalom begin at 8,200 feet on King Con and end up in the area's base at 6,960 feet. Before the race begins any loose snow on the course is packed into a hard, icy, fast surface.

Racers compete season-long around the world in a big points game. In each race, the top 30 racers advance to final round after prelims and race in reverse order to how they finished first run - a move that preserves excitement and anticipation. If conditions are deteriorating, officials switch the line up and run the fastest 15 in reverse order, then the second 15 in numerical order, a move that lets the fastest races ski the course when it is in the best condition. Points are given to the top 30 finishers: 100 points go to first place, 80 to second, 60 to first and so on in decreasing amounts until 1 point is awarded to 30th.

This year, the race opened in time to show off the brand new 54,000-square foot Legacy Lodge, which is packed with restaurants, retail shops and concierge services. The base was spruced up to accommodate large viewing crowds, and a World Cup-standard snowboarding half-pipe was built at the base. The half-pipe is partially below ground level, affording good views for spectators, and boasts high decks and longer transition zones. Park City's first World Cup snowboarding event will be March, 2001.

Europeans were slow to catch on to the Park City races. Back in the early days - though the town has been around since before the turn of the century the first serious ski lifts were not installed until 1975 - Park City was a low-brow alternate for skiers headed to Alta and Brighton. Today, it is a major world-class destination resort with two other major ski areas close by - rebuilt The Canyons and super-posh Deer Valley, plus the snow tubing hill Gorgoza - not to mention thousands of hotel rooms and some swanky restaurants where all the waiters wear black. Eventually, however, the Europeans (who make up the bulk of the ski racing circuit) learned about Park City's dependable early season snow.

By the time the races begin locals have usually shoveled their driveways a few times, and the race typically stands for a celebration of winter, the official beginning of the ski season and a gateway to the holiday season. To finish things off in style, the race ends with a huge free street party downtown in Park City. This year, Credence Clearwater Revisited played for thousands of warmly-dressed revelers.

Ice Cream on a Cold Day

First Tracks But like I said, all that was on the other side of the mountain. I had this run, which locals call the Ice Cream Cone, to myself. The two men who had climbed up stayed on the far side of the summit, then skied down in the opposite direction.

People had been saying for a few days now how good the skiing was. My friend Steve went up three times last week and came back raving about the conditions - something worth noting, since he is usually an unforgiving snow critic. But in my estimation, Day Ones typically gets over-rated. I mean, after a hot summer how bad could it be to be back on snow? Like, any snow is pretty good, and any skiing is pretty good skiing. So the first day up is usually called a good one ... even if, you know, it's not so good. So when people say they have been up in primo conditions the second week in November, I usually take that with a grain of (snow-melting) salt.

Bruce Tremper, the lead forecaster in the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center, once told me that for him, a snow scientist, the beginning of each winter is like the birth of a child. As an avalanche forecaster, Tremper spends most of the winter waist deep in the snow, seeing how layers of snow bond to each other and postulating if they might break loose and cause a snow slide. His territory, the Park City-Millcreek Canyon-Big Cottonwood Canyon-Little Cottonwood Canyon area, becomes an intimate subject that he coddles, cares for, and spends many sleepless nights worrying over. The snowpack grows, matures and then - wipe a tear away - melts. When the snow melts, he said, he feels a tinge of sadness. But come September, October and November the baby is born again, and life starts over.

I put my coffee away, threw my jacket on and took off into the snow, and I had the best Day One run ever.

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