Will You Teach Me How to Smell Snow?

At Snowbird, the Storm of the Year

Laura and I skied at Solitude and Snowbird this weekend, and the whole time no one from the resorts said anything to us. You know, usually when you get onto the chair the lift op will ask you how your run was, or how you are doing, or how your day has been. But this weekend, no one said anything. And now that I think about why, it all makes sense. You have a long, cold, snowy winter and look forward to spring, and then your first week in April is like this one: wet, cold, sunless and very snowy. I can imagine that if I worked at a ski area, spring would be the gravy time, the payback, the meteorological pat on the shoulder for making it through a season. You think that, and then you get this.

Every year we have a week in April - or May - like this, this seven days of storminess. But that snow up in the mountains, of course, means rain in the valleys, a sort of cleansing rain sometimes warm, sometimes cold, that washes away the last of winter's wretched misery, washes away the grime and gravel and gray lumps of snow and trash in the grass and slime on the roads and leaves in the garden. You don't notice when it happens, but at some magical point during this week of rain, the grass greens and grows, the flowers rise out of the ground, and thousands of trees break into mesmerizing bloom. And the rain continues. You go to bed with the rain, wake up to the rain, and go back to bed with it. Then, late one night, you wake and notice that you no longer hear rain pattering against the windows and dripping from the eaves. The rain has stopped, you say, and tomorrow will be sunny. Then, in the morning you wake up, look out the window, and realize that the reason you stopped hearing the rain during the night was because it had changed to snow, and now the clean gardens and scrubbed streets and green grass are a half-foot deep in April's finest. No, winter will not end quite so easily.

The snow has really been piling up in the mountains this week. What was it? - 9 inches Monday, 2 inches Tuesday, 5 on Wednesday, 4 Thursday, 8 Friday, and then the real snow set in. Twenty-six inches Saturday, sixteen inches Sunday, an as-yet-untold amount Monday. It has been a snowy winter, but not as snowy as last. Three weeks of warm weather in March, and people stopped talking about skiing. Then this April snow, and everyone is skiing again, wondering if the season will stretch into May, wondering how much more will fall. But even in the Wasatch, this much snow comes close to being too much snow. Plowing the roads becomes a 24-hour job, and when it does stop snowing, however briefly, that means the plows take to the parking lots, or the trailheads, or the shoulders, and so the work never does stop. Then it snows more, and one by one lots cease to be plowed, cars cease to be dug out, walks cease to be shoveled. On the mountain, with spring fever in check, lifts close one by one, then the avalanche danger becomes extreme, and then trails are closed. The Wasatch Mountains are under siege, with no sign of surrender.

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

Of all the resorts in Utah, Snowbird is probably the steepest and the most European. Plugged away near the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon and adjacent to Alta Ski Area, Snowbird is 9 miles from the edge of Salt Lake City's suburbs, and you can literally look down the canyon and see homes and roads. Yet while spring is in full riot down there, Snowbird is strictly alpine, with 10 feet of snow on the ground and no flowers in sight.

The mountain is a steep and imposing one, and though there are beginner and expert trails here, what you see when you look at the mountain, or take the tram to the top, is a breathtaking outlay of steep, steep runs carved from the rocky mountain tops. The tramwayrises 2,900 vertical feet in 8 minutes and covers just 8,395 linearfeet. That makes the average grade - average! - about 30 degrees. There are few flat spots on the way to Hidden Peak and to be honest the beginner and intermediate runs here are not so much gentle slopes as they are roads cut into the side of the mountain that are used in the summer to haul supplies and work crews around. Snowbird's steepness rivals that of, say, Jackson Hole or Stowe.

It is that tram, incidentally, which may be Snowbird's most recognizable faceplate. The tram was the first and for three decades only one of its kind (used for skiing, anyway) in Utah, and as a mode of skier transportation is most closely related to the ski resorts of Europe, where it is trams that cover huge distances in the Alps and rise above villages to rocky heights. Indeed, Snowbird's sister city is the famous Zermatt, in Switzerland.

Though the tram is long on good looks, it is short, in my mind, on usefulness. Only a small percentage of skiers can actually 'ski the tram' as they say - top to bottom. Most take the tram - and buy its $54 pass, as opposed to $45 pass for chairlifts only - ride it to the top, and spend the rest of the day on chairlifts. Still, no chairlift can match the beauty of the tram take off from the base lodge to ascend the mountain.

Laura and I showed up to Sunday at the zenith of this storm, when the snow came down so heavily it seemed as though we might not even be able to make it to the resort* (*see addendum). When we pulled in to the resort parking lot, in fact, many cars seemed to have been simply engulfed in snow, barely recognizable. On the mountain, it was much the same, though instead of buried cars it was buried trees, signs and lift shacks, each topped with a thick mantle of snow and set apart where winds had scurried around their bases.

There was so much snow, in fact, that at times one might even say there was toomuch snow. Five feet of new snow and if you venture off the trail you don't really ski, you sink, and if you fall, woe be unto you. If you fall, you get to smell snow, and I guess that is what I wanted to say when I started writing this story: that in truth there is a smell to snow, and it is blue static electricity that hums and buzzes and pops and smells pure like all the sky condensed into moisture that has fallen from who knows what height to pile up who can gauge how deep on this mountainside where you have fallen and can't seem to get up. You have to. All there is to do is right yourself, blow your nose, dust yourself off, and start out down again, hoping to stay on top this time.

Snowbird stats:

10 lifts: including the tram and two high-speed quads
Snowfall: About 500 inches a year
Restaurants: like 15
Slopeside accommodations: spectacular
Lift tickets: $54 for adult tram, $45 for adult chairs only
For more information: Snowbird.com

Addendum: A Word About, and To, the Utah Transit Authority

A few weeks ago Park City Television interviewed me and one of the things Sacha, the reporter, asked was what I do with this column when I have a bad time. The answer was, I don't write about it. Our philosophy here is, if something is lousy (and I have more than once had a lousy time in Utah, make no mistake about it) just ignore it, and don't publicize it. But with the mass transit system along the Wasatch Front, that's a hard thing to ignore. I'll make this short.

I nearly didn't make it up the mountain on Sunday. We called the road report, and the road was bad, so instead of driving, Laura and I took the Utah Transit Authority bus. Or tried to take the bus. Actually, with a crowd that at times topped two dozen, we waited along Wasatch Blvd. in a blinding blizzard hoping that the bus would come, but it never did.

Here in Salt Lake City, we have a unique situation. The local ski areas are so close to the city that taking a bus to the slopes is a simple transfer away. They run frequently, are geared for the steep mountains' snowy roads, and have nice places to put your skis. Laura and I drove up to the park and ride lot on Wasatch Blvd. and waited. and waited and waited and waited. No bus came. A crowd gathered. Where was the bus? It does not run on Sundays, someone surmised. It does not run in the snow, someone else said. It does not pass this stop, a third offered. Someone with a phone called the bus info line, only to get a recording. A ski bus passed headed down the canyon, and though we waved to it, it did not stop. People became discouraged, and most eventually left. Who knows what they did.

Here is my point: listen up you goofballs at UTA, this is supposed to be an Olympic city, and you are supposed to be a public transportation method. We pay tax dollars to have the busses and our economy depends to a large degree on keeping tourists happy. If UTA has the wherewithal to tear up all the streets downtown to install light rail trains, then they ought to have the technology to be able to tell a wet, cold crowd of would-be skiers that their bus is not going to arrive - even if that means having the downhill bus driver open his window and shout to us as he drives by that we are wasting our time.

What did we do? We got back in the truck, shifted into four wheel drive, picked up two of our bus-less brethren, and drove up the mountain. We had a great time, and we saved the $1.75 bus fare.

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