Deer Valley, They'll Carry Your Skis For You

All things considered, pretty good

Look, let's not play silly poet here. Let us leave the adjectives for better times. This is a lousy ski year. I think it's worse than last year, even, and last year was so bad I swear to God it took about ten years off my expected life span. If you're skiing, there is nothing more agonizing, depressing or infuriating than a bad snow year. And it's not just Utah this year: Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona are all in dire straits. Just when you think things could not get worse, we have a week of warm temperatures, it rains in Park City, and newspaper headlines scream something like 'Utah ski resorts feeling the heat.'

That having been said, Deer Valley is a pretty good place to be.

From almost the day they opened, back in the 1980s, Deer Valley made a name for itself by being the place where luxury came first. The first thing you say when you sit down on a chairlift at Deer Valley is 'ahhh.' That's because there is about three inches of padding on 'em. And if you get to the bottom of the run and your nose is running, there are some tissues there for you. There is the overabundance of high speed four-seater lifts, the limited lift ticket sales, the attendants who help unload skis from your car, and the world-renowned grooming, meticulous grooming. You've got four-star on-mountain dining, endless nights of gala and star-studded events, lift attendants and service personnel whose only goal it seems is to make you feel beautiful, and an entire mini-mountain range of lifts, trails and skiable terrain.

I'm kind of a no-nonsense guy, but Deer Valley is really a place I like.

From rather inauspicious beginings, a luxe resort

I skied Deer Valley on a tumultuous weather day last week when the surrounding mountains were alternating dappled in sun then dark blue storm clouds. Over at Snowbasin World Cup officials were wondering what to do about a downhill run scheduled for races in two weeks that was still almost bereft of snow. Down in the Heber Valley, a same fate was awaiting biathlon and cross country ski officials at Soldier Hollow who were planning for races to begin in just days but wondering what to do about the quagmire of mud that covered most of the ski trails. Up at Deer Valley they were blowing snow on Saturday but the run slated for World Cup slalom races had good coverage, and the entire mountain was open for skiing.

Overnight, as happens almost every night here, a fleet of groomers turned the day's hardpack and moguls into a velvety corduroy of nuanced slope. For skiers, Deer Valley's grooming has always been a particularly strong draw. Many of the slopes are so smooth and beautiful after grooming that beginner skiers can tackle relatively steep slopes without worrying about ice, deep ruts or towering moguls. And for myself, the groomers are the perfect place to practice technique. Telemarking - the type of skiing I do - is a style and evolution which requires frequent practicing.

Deer Valley is a big place. I got good use out of my ski pass ($60!), working from one side of the mountain to the other, top to bottom, skiing the newest areas of the resort as well as the original ski hill - Deer Valley in its first incarnation was a tiny two or three lift hill which went by the name Snow Park. Today, the Snow Park Lodge and the Burns and Snowflake beginner lifts mark where the old area used to stand. Area owners Bob Burns and Otto Carpenter used discarded mining equipment and aspen trees to string the lifts and build the warming hut. Snow Park, which opened in 1947, operated until 1965. Deer Valley opened for business in 1981.

Lots of up and down

With as large as it is, it should come as little surprise that Deer Valley has sort of a strange layout. There is 3,000-feet of vertical drop, but the up and down nature of the valleys means you can't ski more than about 2,000 feet of it at once. There are lots of short chairlifts to get you out of dead end gullies. Most day skiers park at the Snow Park Lodge at 7,200 feet - and some choose to let the well-dressed concierge service unload their skis for them; still others find their skis waiting for them after they were send by Federal Express to the resort ahead of their arrival - and take one of two high-speed four seaters up to the top of Bald Eagle Mountain. But wait - it's not just the top of the mountain. Bald Eagle is also a large village home to scores of upper-end lodges, condominiums and private homes, some lurking behind sentry gates with astounding views and architecture. When President Bill Clinton goes skiing he comes to Deer Valley, and he stays in a private slopeside home.

From Bald Eagle, many of the trails wind over or underneath roadways leading to more private homes and the Silver Lake Lodge, which is a separate base area geared towards those who stay at the resort. From Silver Lake, lifts lead up to the top of Bald Mountain, at 9,400 feet, which sports commanding views of Jordanelle Reservoir at the head of the Heber Valley, far below, and of the back of the Wasatch Mountains - the side you can't see from the Salt Lake Valley. Bald Mountain sports mostly intermediate and expert slopes along with steep bowls and glade skiing. Facing the other way from Silver Lake is Flagstaff Mountain, my favorite. Flagstaff has two faces, the mostly steep and mogul-laden slopes under the slow Quincy and Red Cloud triple chairs and the gladed, evenly-pitched, wide-open runs under the fast Northside four-seater. But that's not the end of the resort. Headed even further east is Empire Canyon, home to a fast four-seater and, off to the side a bit, a slow three-seater in its own area which Deer Valley calls a 'family ski area.' Empire Canyon, which used to be such a great backcountry area, home to classic lines such as Daly Chutes and Daly Bowl, is for good skiers only. Few snow groomers make it over here - the ski area boundary here is shared with Park City, actually - and the terrain is rough and uninhibited.

Don't put your skis away just yet, though. There is one more mountain to ski - Little Baldy, at an elevation of 7,950 feet. Little Baldy is home to a four-seater and a beautiful, fast gondola, but speaking honestly, I'd have to say it is one of the stranger skiing hills I've ever been on. The raison d''tre for skiing here is not skiing, really, but homes. Deer Crest, a gated subdivision, is a residential development whose homes tend redefine the word monster. Roads snake across the mountain - again, runs duck under and stretch over them - leading to building sites with extraordinary vistas. Some of the runs, in fact, like the intermediate Jordanelle, which leads down to a third though largely undeveloped base area at the bottom of the gondola, appear to have been an afterthought for ski area planners. Plainly, it seems, placement of home sites and roads took precedence over placement of ski runs. But the ride back to the top of Little Baldy in the gondola with padded seats and prop open windows made it all worth it. Those who like the homes will find a friend in the real estate office, slopeside at the gondola terminus.

That is your painting, these are your brushstrokes

At the top of the gondola it was snowing hard, though across the resort in Empire Canyon the sun was shining. Between the two spots, snow fell through the sunshine. The slopes below the Carpenter Express were crowded, but the rest of the resort, most of which I could see from here, was wide open for the taking. I wrapped my new scarf around my neck - my friend Rebecca gave it to me after she lost mine in thick crowds on Salt Lake's new trolley the other week - and headed towards Silver Lake and over to Empire Canyon. It was getting late.

From the top of Empire, looking south, the Wasatch rumples into a broad valley now being scavenged by snowmobiles. Park City has plans for this area, lifts and homes and a golf course (if you can believe it, one at 9,000 feet above sea level) but there will be a big fight with preservationists and those who don't want more lifts intruding in the backcountry. Beyond the valley, there is Peak 10,420 and Clayton Peak, and Brighton, Solitude and points south. Some peaks were cast in the shadow of storms and falling snow. From here, at Deer Valley, trails runs along the tops of mountains. Just off the top of the lift, a private guide and his student were surveying the scene. 'That is your painting,' the guide said. 'These are your brushstrokes.'

Deer Valley essentials:

No snow boarding!
Average annual snowfall: 300 inches
Lifts: one gondola, 5 high speed four-seaters, 3 regular-speed four-seaters, 8 triple chairs and 2 double chairs
Skiable acres: 1,750
Acres with snowmaking: 500
Vertical drop: 3,000 feet
Total trails: 87
Beginner terrain: 15 percent
Intermediate terrain: 50 percent
Expert terrain: 35 percent
Adult all-area all-day pass: $60
Same thing, but on a holiday: $62
Half-day all-area pass: $42
Miles to Salt Lake City's airport: 39

A special thanks to Deer Valley Resort and East West Resorts.

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