That's the Sound of Freedom

It's 8 a.m. in Big Cottonwood Canyon, and again the sound of cannon fire is reverberating from mountain to mountain.

Solitude Base Village It's not a war, exactly. At least not man versus man. Rather, it is man against the onslaught of snow. It is Saturday morning at Solitude Mountain Resort and it snowed again last night - 7 inches - and the resort's avalanche crews have been up since before dawn trying to bring the avalanches down under controlled circumstances before a skier brings one down upon himself.

Here, in the steep, snowy Wasatch Mountains of northern Utah, the ring of avalanche guns is a sort of morning mountain music. Though the avalanche-prone terrain is way high up on the mountain and secured, the avalanche guns' report reaches far down the mountain, even to the bunny slope, even to the parking lot, where some of the tenser skiers jump when one goes off. The avalanche guns, in a way, remind us how big and real these mountains are.

When Things Get Good ...

Closed RunJanell and I start up the mountain, warming up on easier runs and gradually working into tougher terrain higher up the mountain until we exit the Summit lift and look down Honeycomb Canyon - still roped off - where all the shooting has been going on. We can see tufts of gray snow where salvos were fired into the slope, but from where we stand it appears as though the snow has held - until the next storm.

The last two weeks have been very good to northern Utah. In the space of about 14 days we went from a downer of a ski season to a very good one indeed. Regularly-spaced storms dumping a foot or two each have hit the Wasatch, and now the snow along the road as we drive up the canyon is piled higher than my truck.

Big Cottonwood Canyon has been getting a lot of snow for a long time - make that a very long time. We know this because of the smooth U-shaped valley bottoms that dominate the canyon. The creator? Glaciers, millions of years ago, which started as snow high in the peaks above Solitude and over the centuries compacted into ice and flowed down the canyon towards Salt Lake City, just 10 miles from here. But the age of glaciers was long ago. Today, there is only one left in the Wasatch - perched precariously on Mt. Timpanogos - and all that remains of the glacial age today at Solitude are the smooth valley bottoms, the occasional huge out-of-place boulder, and tufts of snow high in the cliffs of Honeycomb Canyon that survive even the warmest summers.

Local Hill Gone Big Time

Skiing has been a way of life in Big Cottonwood Canyon for nearly a century. The area's first inhabitants were miners who scoured the hills for gold and silver. Skiing then was more a necessity than a recreational pastime, but by the 1930s some adventurous skiers were hiking over the Wasatch Crest from Brighton to Park City. In 1956 an eccentric uranium miner named Robert Barrett bought a chunk of this mountain and created chairlifts using old mining equipment. He called the area 'Solitude,' which was the name miners first gave the area because of its reputation for having favorable winds and mild temperatures - at least when compared with Brighton, which is just up the road. Barrett operated the area until 1965 when it was sold and renamed Mountain Empire. Thankfully, the area was sold again in 1968 to some locals who changed the name back to Solitude. In 1974 Solitude closed down for four years but was then bought by a group of 15 shareholders. Gary DeSeelhorst was one of those shareholders and he slowly bought everyone out. By 1987 he was the sole owner, and has been ever since.

These days, Solitude is no longer just a 'ski area,' it is a 'mountain resort.' The major change taking place here is the creation of a base village. For the longest time the base lodge was this cavernous, oddly-planned dark A-frame which, unfortunately, was no where near the lifts - you had to huff it from the lodge to get there. And at the end of the day? It was down the canyon to eat and sleep, unless you were staying at the tiny Silver Fork Lodge or in one of cabins nearby. Now, Solitude is building a Euro-style village - pretty, too - which will be pedestrian and vibrant. Plus, now skiers will be able to sleep and eat on the mountain.


Unfortunate Opportunities

Janell might be the perfect ski companion. (She'd be even more of one if she didn't have a boyfriend.) An intermediate skier who usually gets in a half-dozen days a year, she still does a little snowplow between some of her turns, yet thinks nothing of trying a steep run or a deep-powder glade. 'Hey Janell, do you want to ski this double black diamond slope?' 'Sure, if you want to.' We started on the Apex lift, flowed over to the Eagle Express and cruised some of the groomers there, went to the other side of the mountain and skied some of the little-known runs off the Sunrise lift, and eventually were up at the top of the Summit lift, gawking with everyone else into Honeycomb. A line was forming already of skiers wanting to be first into the canyon. The run was straight down from here; I inched close to the edge and tested the snow with my pole. Fluffy.

And no one was saying when the shooting would be done and the canyon opened.

I have had the unfortunate opportunity to be in a few avalanches. I say unfortunate, of course, because they can be dangerous things. But I also say opportunity because they are so rare and beautiful. Last year, skiing in the Oquirrh Mountains west of here I set off three in one very scary day. A few years ago I rode in one from the top of a 100-turn run named Bonkers, which is lower down in Big Cottonwood. And back in 1992, I think it was, I was in an avalanche in a place called Peyto Lake, in Alberta.

Though avalanches may seem like random things, they actually usually only happen after a long chain of obvious and almost unmissable events. Avalanches are caused when a new load of snow lands on top of a layer of weak snow that can not support the new weight. Weak snow can form: during long periods of cold, clear weather when the snow metamorphoses into sugary crystals; during rain; or during prolonged periods of above-freezing temperatures. Think of the weak snow as a pile of potato chips, and new snow like an iron skillet. If a snowstorm lays down snow faster than the underlying layer can adjust to the weight, then the weight of the new snow sort of crushes the snow underneath, and it all runs down the mountain. (Envision: slamming the skillet down on the chips.) Sometimes, though, the new snow overloads the weak snow yet the snow stays in place. In this case, all it may take is the weight of a skier or snowmobiler - or a bomb or blast of shot air - to set the snow in motion.

Storm's A-comin'

Solitude LiftLike I said, it had been a snowy couple of weeks, and it snowed again this morning, fat flakes that drifted down on our laps as we rode up the chairlift. The dark blue clouds of winter swirled around the peaks to the south. North, sun mixed with clouds creating a patchwork across thousands of square miles of snow-covered mountain wilderness. We skied until 3:30, working the moguls a bit, then quit a half-hour early and headed into the lodge, hungry, tired and waiting for the next storm.

Solitude Stats:

Annual snowfall: 450 inches
Vertical drop: 2,047 feet
Top elevation: 10,035 feet
Lifts: 1 four-seater, 2 triple chairs, 4 double chairs, 1 rope tow
Trails: 63 - 20 % beginner, 50 % intermediate, 30 % expert
Skiable terrain: 1,200 acres
Adult lift pass: $39
Ten and under lift pass: free with a paying adult
Distance from Salt Lake's airport: like 33 miles
Honeycomb Canyon: hundreds of acres of expert and really expert terrain
Most annoying thing about Solitude: credit card-style lift pass - no pass punching but automatic ticket reader creates havoc in the lift line
Cross country skiing: 20 km groomed at Solitude Nordic Center; also, trails for snowshoers

A special thanks to Solitude Mountain Resort.

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