Suckerholes - Powder Mountain Ski Area
Suckerhole is what we call a spinning, fleeting patch of blue sky that travels across an otherwise gloomy horizon. What they do is suck you into thinking that the storm is clearing, that blue sky is just an hour away, that it's OK to go ahead and wear sunglasses instead of goggles, fleece vests instead of Gore-Tex.
All morning long, while riding the lifts at Powder Mountain, Laura and I had been canvassing the sky, spying the holes to blue sky, sure that the storm was poised to break.
Keep Your Eyes on the Terrain
I would want to visit Powder Mountain on a clear day, because otherwise you won't ever get to appreciate how huge the place is. Earlier this morning, seated comfortably in the Powder Keg restaurant at the area's base, Marc Paulsen, a marketing director for the mountain, told me that Powder Mountain was the largest ski area in the Northern Hemisphere. Bigger than Whistler, he said, speaking in terms of acres, not vertical or lifts. Bigger than Vail, bigger than Heavenly, bigger, even, than Big Sky. Biggest in the nation is something I seem to hear about once a week from resorts around the West, and I left the Powder Keg somewhat suspicious of Marc's claim.
Maybe I thought that because Powder Mountain just seems small. The area is full of these quirks that most areas masterplanned out years ago. For starters, there are two base areas, which sit about a half-mile from each other, with a trail running from the upper base to the lower and a shuttle running from the lower up to the upper. The lower base has rentals, bathrooms, a restaurant, a ski school meeting place, and a double chair and poma lift. Most of the action is at the upper base, which sits at 8,250 feet above sea level. Here, you get a handful of restaurants, a condo or two, and rentals and lift ticket sales. But there are no lifts here. The upper-mountain base is actually mid-mountain, and at the base you strap in and ski a few hundred vertical feet to the three-seater.
Most of the mountain's lifts and facilities were built in the early 70s — also when Snowbird was being constructed. The first chair was the Sundown; later the Timberline and Hidden Lake chairs were added. The three lifts, plus a poma and a pony, served a variety of terrain and accessed the best of Powder Mountain's powder (the resort gets upwards of 500 inches a year, almost as much as Alta) but it seemed like something was missing. Both the Hidden Lake and Timberline chairs ended mid-canyon, with plenty of skiing below and to the east inaccessible. Then in the mid-90s, the resort put in the Sunrise poma lift, which opened up a wide swath of thoroughly enjoyable loosely-gladed cruising terrain.
These days, the resort is thinking big, as Paulsen said. A few years ago the resort put in the Paradise quad chair, which opened up a dozen very steep runs but, perhaps as importantly, allowed the resort to expand to both the east and west. The lift extends several hundred vertical feet below the Timberline lift, which means it serves as a collector for runs below Timberline and to the east of the Sunrise poma. Furthermore, the resort began offering snowcat skiing to Lightning Ridge, which opened up another 700 acres of powder skiing. Finally, the resort put a few shuttle busses in to operation, and began collecting skiers who ventured off either the backside of the Timberline or Sundown lifts. In all, the area's size is barely suggested by its four chairlifts and three surface tows. It's a huge area.
The Joys (Dangers) of Pomas
There was simply more to ski than Laura and I had time for. With time running late, we decided to head over to Sunrise Ridge.
I have always had sort of a fascination with odd ski lifts. It's nice to ride padded high-speed quad chairs all day, but sometimes it's nice to spice things up with something different. When I was younger I always headed towards antiquated lifts like single chairs and t-bars. My first real experience with weird lifts was at Steamboat ski area in Colorado, when I would spent entire afternoons, sans the parents, riding the Storm Peak poma. Later, it was the odd Peak 6 t-bar, the one that takes a 60-degree turn in the middle, over at Breckenridge.
To hit Sunrise, we had to take a short poma. A poma, if you can believe it, is long tube with a sort of plastic dish at the end of it. To get up the mountain, you simply stick the dish between your legs and let it tug you uphill. I did not have a problem with it, but Laura, who rides a snowboard, was not sure what to do. Keep the back boot buckled in or not? The other snowboarders taking the poma stayed buckled in, but she did not. Unscathed, we made it to the top and pushed off on to Dr. 'C'.
An inch of snow had fallen throughout the day, giving a thin coat to the base. But the day's low clouds and fog had left a coat of rime ice on tree branches. I skied behind Laura, and swirls of powder lifted behind her board as she ducked in and out of the glades. We schussed into the Hidden Lake lift and again, and scooted back over to the poma, but it had closed, and the day was practically over. We sat in the snow and looked out over the mountains once more.
The suckerhole had held. The sky had cleared.
Lifts: one quad, one triple, two doubles, three surface tows
Vertical drop: 2,100 feet
Size: over 5,500 acres accessed by lifts, snowcats, hiking and shuttle busses
Night skiing: On the Sundown side of the mountain
Prices: $37 for an all-day adult ticket, $20 for kids, $17 for an adult night pass
Location: 19 miles, up a very steep road, from Ogden; 55 miles from Salt Lake's airport
Sledding, tubing, and dogs: not allowed
For more information, go to www.powdermountain.com
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