Little Areas That Rock

Steep, deep, and cheap turns at 5 unspoiled hills

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in the October 1994 issue (Volume 23, Issue 2).

Bridger Bowl, Montana

by Rob Story

According to Snow Country magazine, Bridger Bowl near Bozeman, Montana, isn’t in the top 50 of North America’s best ski mountains.

According to the book Skiing America, it’s not even in the top 85.

According to a Ridge Hippie, one of those powder-hounding, bump-meistering, air-hogging, most-funking-and-grooving-white-folks-to-hit-Montana-since-those-cats-Lewis-and-Clark Ridge Hippie, “Bridger rules! It rules like…like Bruce Lee with numchucks, man. It rules hard.”

Now there’s a ranking for you! An opinionated, passionate, eloquent ranking that…I totally made up. And why’d I make it up? Hey, you ever try to track down a Ridge Hippie? Ridge Hippies don’t sit inside by the phone. Ridge Hippies hike breathlessly up sheer white walls to Bridger’s ridge before plunging down 45-degree chutes no wider than the coffins they’ll wind up in if they miss a few turns. Ridge Hippies have avalanche transceivers, Montana Powder Guides sprint packs, and skis scratched to hell by the limestone walls of the chutes. If they do have permanent residences, they don’t have answering machines.

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Bridger is a funny-looking mountain. The ridge suddenly erupts 500 feet straight out of what had been a long, even slope of only moderate pitch. While most mountains resemble pyramids, Bridger looks like a 3-D geologic representation of the letter “L.” Perhaps because of the vast disparity between its upper and lower parts, Bridger doesn’t draw much of a crowd. On weekdays the mountain is populated only by a few macho oldsters like Lonnie Ball (the first person to ski Corbet’s Couloir), some college students on the seven-year plan, corduroy-clad parents and their Michelin-man puffy kids, and the Ridge Hippies, most of them with scruffy facial hair (why do so many ski bums want to look like George Michael, anyway?).

In the past, apparently, members have voted to bestow Bridger’s Pickle Barrel bar with the best collection of cheesy ski posters in the land. Lange girls are alive and well in the Bridger Range.

Bridger is a non-profit organization (like a church for snow worshippers) run more or less by members of the community—the community being Bozeman, the university town located 16 miles down valley. If you’re a resident of Montana, you can join the Bridger Bowl Association by paying $25. Pay a dollar a year after that and you get to vote on important resort matters. In the past, apparently, members have voted to bestow Bridger’s Pickle Barrel bar with the best collection of cheesy ski posters in the land. Lange girls are alive and well in the Bridger Range.

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The members sure haven’t felt a mandate to gussy up the mountain with all kinds of technical tomfoolery. Indeed, a lot of the facilities look much like they must have when the resort opened in 1955. The Deer Park chow station, for instance, remains nothing more than a cement cave. You half expect to see dripping stalactites and blind albino crawfish. Depending on your mood, the lift system is either retro or primitive. There are no high-speed quads, not even a triple. Bridger skiers would like to see some chair improvements, but according to local Mary Ball, “At this point, we’d be happy if they just put padding on the seats.”

Nonprofit ski areas tend to change slower than privately owned ones, but that doesn’t mean Bridger will stay rustic forever. Thanks to a great year financially in 1993-94, Bridger is debt-free. There’s talk of reconfiguring some lifts and even of putting in a quad at the bottom. Bigger yet is a plan to put up a host of condos and other developments just north of Bridger’s uncluttered base. The land was bought a couple of years ago by a developer, who has since secured all the permits needed to build big. The developer wants to sell the rights to other developers until some 650 units—condos, motel rooms, and houses—surround the area. So far, however, nothing has been sold and no ground has been broken. The only visible sign of slope-side construction last summer was kicking the walls of the ski school office out another 10 feet, which would normally qualify as a major expansion for Bridger.

Bridgerites look on the proposed changes with mixed feelings but are comforted by the resort’s three constants: low prices (lift tickets cost $25), a lot of snow (300 annual inches, according to a Bridger brochure, 400 according to a Travel Montana ad!) and the ridge. Any discussion of Bridger always comes back to the ridge, and every hardcore skier in North America should see and ski it.

 

It’s imposing: a series of chutes, cliffs, and powder bowls stretching a razorbacked, whoop-de-dooed, windswept mile at 8,600 feet.

The Deer Park Chow Station, for instance, is nothing more than a cement cave. You half expect to see dripping stalactites and blind albino crawfish.

It’s tough: Many compare it to a shorter Jackson Hole, and Gordon Wiltsie, POWDER contributor and a mountaineer with experience in the Himalayas and Antarctica, once wrote that some of the routes are so hairy “I would try [them] only with crampons, a rope, and an ice ax.”

It’s vivid: Runs are named Never Never Land, Angel Dust, Bombs Away, Stupor Couloir, Psychopath, and Deviated Septum, along with the elegant Hidden Gully, which reaches 50 degrees.

It demands devotion and preparation: There are no lifts ascending the ridge and ski patrol won’t even let you hike up it until you first prove you’re carrying an avie transceiver. The hike is so steep, they should also require proof of working quadriceps and enviable lung capacity. (Just to rub it in, Ridge Hippies make as many as seven laps a day on the ridge.)

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It has history. The popularity—or at least the exposure—of American extreme skiing got a big boost when, in 1985, Rolling Stone did a substantial article on the wild exploits and sick terrain of the Ridge Hippies, particularly Tom Jüngst, who’s appeared often in the pages of POWDER and in a number of Greg Stump films.

No doubt about it, the steep runs off the narrow ridge offer some of the most challenging skiing in the country. So why does it stay small? “Because the lifts don’t go up far enough!” says Mike Hattrup. “When I’m at a hill, I want it to be an option to hike to great skiing, not a necessity. The shitty thing is you hike up right alongside the ropetow that the ski patrol gets to go up! Hell, they could put that thing out of sight so it doesn’t jam you.”

“It’s nice to see an area keep tough stuff open to skiers who can handle it,” says Mike Hattrup.

Hattrup skied Bridger while filming the Stump film License to Thrill a few years ago, and—once he gets done venting—he’ll tell you he came away tired but impressed. “Bridger is littered with rocks and trees and all sorts of obstacles, and the chutes are really tight. It’s a great place to learn steeps cause you really gotta learn to stay in control. But what I really like about it is the avalanche beacon tester. It’s nice to see an area take that kind of care and keep tough stuff open to skiers who can handle it. So many areas go the easy way and say, ‘It’s tough to control, there are obstacles and hazards. Screw it, we’ll just close it.’ Bridger obviously cares about the advanced skier.”

And advanced skiers should care more about Bridger than they do some bogus ranking of mountains in a book or magazine.

Smugglers’ Notch, VT

by David Goodman

It was April Fool’s Day, an appropriate time to peek behind the warm and fuzzy image of Smugglers’ Notch ski area in northern Vermont and find out the gnarly, woody truth that locals have long raved about.

Smugs, as locals call it, has lately been recast as America’s Family Ski Resort. The reason for the PR makeover is simple: Gnarly scares ’em away, Mickey Mouse brings ’em in droves. So trail maps are illustrated with pictures of smiling kids, smiling parents, and smiling ski instructors. What they don’t show you is Junior waving goodbye to Mom and then ripping huge air off one of Smugglers’ numerous steep twisty test pieces.

To find the dark side of Smugs, a buddy and I met up with a friendly patroller and hopped on the chairlift at Spruce Peak, Stowe’s beginner mountain. Taking a shortcut over the top of Spruce Peak, in just 10 minutes we were standing on top of Sterling Mountain, one of Sumugglers’ three peaks. The area is perched among some of Vermont’s biggest mountains, and its 2,610-foot vertical rise is second in Vermont only to Killington. And one look at the wild, craggy landscape of the northern Green Mountains left no doubt that there was more excitement hidden in this place than Mickey Mouse and Barney were letting on.

After a couple of runs, though, we still hadn’t found the real terrain. But on the chairlift up Madonna Mountain, things changed. Acre after acre of inviting-looking glades fell away beneath the chair, most of them lining Upper Lifeline, a double black diamond trail.

Little Areas That Rock - Smugglers Notch

“Anybody ski in there?” I asked, pointing to the birch trees with tell-tale tracks coming out of them.

“Nope. People don’t really do that around here,” came the terse reply from the zip-lipped patroller. I was surprised, and studied the ground below more closely. Funny, the woods were laced with ski tracks. Maybe this working stiff just didn’t know where people cut loose.

“We’re trying to give skiing back to skiers and take it away from the lawyers and insurance companies.” — Mountain Manager Steve Wry

At the top of Madonna Mountain was Freefall, one of Smugglers’ three double black diamond trails. A bevy of warning signs shouted greetings. “WARNING—EXPERTS ONLY—SNOW AND TRAIL CONDITIONS MAY BE MARGINAL AND INCONSISTENT—UNMARKED OBSTACLES MAY EXIST—EQUIPMENT DAMAGE AND/OR PHYSICAL HARM MAY OCCUR.” This was starting to sound promising. Beyond the signs, a 10-foot wide ribbon of icy bumps plunged down the hill. Off to the right side of the steep main channel was an untracked swath. It was crunchy powder but powder nonetheless. Jumping over rocks and sailing off a small waterfall, the soft landings were a pleasant surprise for early April.

At the bottom, patrol veteran Jim Mayo, who grew up skiing the mountain, beamed proudly. “This terrain can’t be beat anywhere, even if sometimes we do get marginal snow conditions,” he said. His partner Bob Oser added with a knowing smile, “We don’t get too bored here.”

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Riding back up Madonna, chairlift passengers are treated to 2,000-vertical-feet of gawking at Liftline. The view is sobering. Rocky ledges cut across the face, and snow periodically gives way to earth, ice, wood, and stone. Only one person—a ski patroller—dared test himself on this obstacle course during our long ride up. We watched as he gingerly picked his way down.

“Liftline on Madonna is the single nastiest, meanest piece of skiing in the East,” asserted my partner Kim Brown, a Stowe ski bum who grew up skiing at Smugs. “The test of a great run is not just whether it’s steep, it’s what it takes to ski it well.”

Smugglers’ looks like a rugged, unpolished mountain—a look most ski areas have forsaken in favor of homogeneous glitz. “We’re trying to give skiing back to skiers and take it away from the lawyers and insurance companies,” mountain manager Steve Wry told me as I admired the view. “Our feeling is that you can’t have a double black diamond trail without obstacles. That’s what makes it a double black diamond. A trail that has snowmaking and is groomed with a winch cat in my estimation is not a double black diamond.”

Wry went on to explain that the ski area was started in 1956 by locals who just wanted a place to ski. It was bought in 1963 by IBM tycoon Thomas Watson, who envisioned building a “Vail East” with its own self-contained mountain village. Watson even brought in racing coach Bob Beattie to design some of the trails. Although Smugglers’ Notch now markets heavily to families, it has always maintained a strong following of expert local skiers.

As Wry talked, my eyes wandered to obvious ski lines in the woods next to the trails. “Hey,” I interrupted, pointing to a particularly appealing birch glade, “how’s the skiing over there?”

“Oh, you wouldn’t like it,” he said dismissively. “It just flattens right out.”

By this time I was beginning to wonder whether my guides were dumb, blind, or just stonewalling me. Kim finally pulled me aside at the top to update on what he learned from another patroller.

“They’re under orders, Dave,” he informed me glumly. “They’ve been told that under no circumstances are they to show you anything that’s not on the trail map.”

“I know damn well they’re ripping these woods,” I said in exasperation, “but where?”

“Everywhere,” he confirmed.

If I was being skunked, I at least wanted the last laugh. But the patrollers had a few more official lines to show me before loosening their grip. I chased them down Doc Dempsey’s Glades, a comically steep trail that snakes in and out of a stand of birch trees and is decorated with quirky road signs and big bumps. Legend has it that Doc Dempsey was a local physician who would cancel his appointments to ski here on powder days. The doctor has passed on, but his prescription for fun will never expire.

It’s heartwarming how Smugglers’ expert runs bring families together—in a pile at the bottom.

Next was Robin’s Run, a classic New England narrow trail—an endangered species in these days of ski highways. The run began as a local OB skiing secret until it became so popular that the ski area gave up and put a trail sign on it. I was passed at the top by a four-foot-high kid who was locked in a snowplow. He screamed with laughter as he darted back and forth across the 15-foot-wide trail, launching fearlessly over the stumps and waterfalls that lay around every blind turn.

“That was easy!” declared the tyke to his parents, who were at that moment staining their pants trying to negotiate the last ice bulge. Dad finally biffed and rocketed on his butt to where Junior was having a good laugh at his expense. It was a heartwarming demonstration of the special way that Smugglers’ expert runs bring families together—in a pile at the bottom.

It was getting late and I was growing impatient. The trails did not lack for excitement, but they weren’t untracked and unknown. I made my move at the top.

“Where do you wanna ski now?” asked our amiable guide.

“I’ll be in the woods over there,” I announced, pointing to a beautiful steep birch glad between two trails.

“Oh, you don’t want to go there—there’s no trail,” he replied.

“I’ll meet you at the bottom,” I said.

“But…” he stammered, “You can’t… I mean, I’m not supposed to let you…”

I beelined for the trees; Kim fell behind me. A minute later, our guide blew past us. “Follow me,” he barked over his shoulder.

He was finally starting to understand.

We pounced on his tracks in a 10-foot-wide corridor that wound magically through the trees. Suddenly he disappeared. An instant later, my skis were sailing off a horizon line. I landed at the bottom of a snow-covered waterfall. Our guide was humming with satisfaction.

“I never showed you this, right?” he stopped to confirm.

“Wouldn’t know you if you woke up in my bed,” I assured him.

He bolted again. This time the trail was wider and the pitch more relaxed. I sailed back and forth between trees, the grabby snow underfoot adding an extra challenge to each turn. Finally, we rocketed out of the woods onto a wide cruising trail.

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I slammed to a stop, my chest heaving from cranking so many quick turns. It was late, and the last lift ride back to Stowe was leaving shortly. I caught up to our guide at the bottom of the mountain.

“Are there any other tree runs like that?” I asked excitedly.

“They’re all over the mountain,” he said proudly.

I shook my head in disbelief. “So how come you guys kept telling me…”

“Happy April Fools,” he said with a prankish smile, and skied off.

Snow King, WY

by Wade McKoy

Take out a sketch pad to draw the perfect little ski area. Give it about 1,500 vertical feet, and make it steep. Cover the whole page with trees, then go hog wild with your eraser. Add three chairlifts and a herd of lights for night skiing, and don’t forget the snowmaking. Now turn the page so that it faces north, set it down right next to a cowboy town, and arrest anyone with short skis.

You’ve just drawn Snow King in Jackson, Wyoming. The perfect town hill, Snow King is steep, cheap, shaded, and right on the edge of town. Throw in one of the country’s premier ski resorts 10 miles away (Jackson Hole, of course) to keep the tourists off the lifts, and you have a combination that can’t be touched for quick, inexpensive, hard-core skiing.

Townies have skied Snow King since the ’30s. In 1939, a farmer converted a tractor into the first lift, a rope tow. The price was 10 cents a ride, and everybody in town skied: cattle ranchers, dude ranchers, blackjack dealers (gambling was legal then)—everyone. It was the social event of the day. These days the lifts are still cheap: $25 daily, under $300 for a season pass ($220 if bought in August). But, if you want to ski with someone, better take them with you. Used to be everyone in Jackson was a skier, but not anymore—it seems like half the visitors are just in town for the outlet shopping or to get their picture taken under the antler arches. The other half, of course, is out skiing at Jackson Hole.

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All of which makes Snow King one of the loneliest little areas in the States. It’s so quiet and empty, the vacant chairs turning silently around the bull wheel, that it feels ghostly. I’ve never been there on a day when you couldn’t keep your speed right through the lift corral and carry your momentum onto the chair. This, of course, is not a problem if all you want to do is ski. No lift lines and untracked powder all day suits me just fine.

Town hills, especially hills as steep and purely north-facing as the King, are rare in America. In Europe, you’ll find T-bars, Pomas, and other lift contrivances in every little town and village in the Alps. Andy Chambers, who grew up on Snow King and traveled through Europe as a member of the U.S. Ski Team, never realized just how special the King was until he returned from Europe and saw so many ski towns deprived of town hills.

Used to be everyone in Jackson was a skier, but not anymore—it seems like half the visitors are just in town for the outlet shopping or to get their picture taken under the antler arches. The other half, of course, is out skiing at Jackson Hole. All of which makes Snow King one of the loneliest little areas in the States.

“When I was in kindergarten I skied every day,” says Chambers, now executive director of the Jackson Hole Ski Club. “I lived two blocks away and could skate down the road on my skis to the lift, and ski home.”

Cisco Oldani grew up skiing Snow King, and became a snowboarder. He’s a race coach with the ski club and co-owner of a local snowboard shop, the Boardroom. “The King is a great place to train,” he says. “It’s north-facing and cold, so if the kids show up someplace that’s frozen and hard on race day, they’re prepared for it. And I think that it’s one of the top five ski areas in the steepness per vertical category.”

Ski school director Bill Briggs says it is the steepest area from top to bottom—and Bill should know: He was the first person to ski from the top of the Grand Teton and is a pioneer of North American ski-mountaineering.

Snow King’s addition last summer of more snowmaking, more lights, and a third chairlift coincidentally falls directly in the path of current plans by the U.S. Ski Team. World Cup night slaloms are being considered in an attempt to grab more viewers and television interest, and Snow King is on the list, with a downhill at Jackson Hole.

If that comes together, the TV guys could have a heyday with the western Americana of Snow King. They could zoom in on the crew from Jackson Lumber having their ritual Saturday afternoon tailgate party: après ski shish kebab in the parking lot. They could get up close and personal with Briggs, who plays his banjo with the Wilson Marching Band at the Stagecoach Bar on Sunday nights. They could hook up John Mecklem, another kid who grew up skiing the King, raced on the pro circuit a few years, bought a local ski shop (Hoback Sports), and keeps beating all the locals in the Town Downhill, Snow King’s annual rite of spring. They could trip out on the visuals of night skiing during a powder storm.

I just hope they don’t mind skiing alone.

Homewood, CA

by Steve Casimiro

The hip cat was moving slow, and who could blame him? A baking hot morning, the low energy of spring…days like that were made for moving slow. And when you’re a white hipster with shoulder-length dreads and ‘burns that come to a point in the middle of your cheek, well, you’re required by law not to hurry.

So, as he placed his home-made signs up around the tiny, roughhewn base facility at Homewood Ski Area, California, on the western shore of Lake Tahoe, he moved with the measured grace of the cool. Tape a sign, check its placement, move on. Tape a sign, check its placement, move on. What, wondered an observer, was the purpose of these signs that he placed so deliberately? An announcement for a ska-metal concert or a grunge-reggae show? A snowboard for sale? A nipple-piercing service?

We took a closer look.

“HOMEWOOD SKI AREA’s 1994 Easter Egg Hunt! Kids of all ages are welcome this Sunday! Prizes for all!”

So the Easter Bunny wears dreads. Well, they said Homewood was different.

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It was the kind of day where just skiing wasn’t enough, where the sky was so blue and the air so warm that you wanted to throw yourself to the ground and roll in the slushy troughs of bumps, or practice worm turns until you were sore and soaked, or ski and snowboard and telemark all in one day. Or just crash, really hard, because that was the only way you could really feel it, the springy kind of feeling in the mountains by the edge of the lake.

The lake defines Homewood. No other area is closer to the water, and no other Tahoe resort has more spectacular aqueous views. Yes, from Heavenly you see the whole body of water stretched out to the north, but from Homewood you feel like if you blow a turn you’re going to end up in the water. And that water looks cold, even on a sunny spring day.

The lake defines Homewood. No other area is closer to the water, and no other Tahoe resort has more spectacular aqueous views. Yes, from Heavenly you can see the whole body of water stretched out to the north, but from Homewood you feel like if you blow a turn you’re going to end up in the water.

Owner Steve Wyler showed up for a tour of the mountain wearing hugely baggy overalls and carrying a trick, swallow-tail, wood-grain snowboard. He was upbeat and ready to show off the hill, but underneath his enthusiasm there seemed to be a weariness from seasons of struggling to make ends meet. As his story unfolded, it was clear that Homewood was a labor of love, with the emphasis on labor.

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Wyler, 38, had bought Homewood in October 1991, when it was in bankruptcy. The previous owner had racked up big bills since 1987, when she joined the really little area of Homewood with its even smaller southern neighbor, Tahoe Ski Bowl. The new area, called Homewood, had a lot more terrain (1,260 acres and 1,650 vertical feet), but it also had a lot of debt and not a lot of skiers. Marketing was zilch, and with a series of bad snow years, the mountain filed Chapter 11. Wyler, whose family had made its money in commercial property management in Los Angeles, stepped in knowing next to nothing about running a ski resort.

“The biggest mistake I made my first year was not knowing when the Dead concert was,” he said riding up the area’s only quad chair, known officially as The Quad Chair. “The next morning, hardly anyone showed up for work—they all called in sick. It took a couple days before I made the connection, and then I said, ‘Hey, it’s OK if you go to the show, just let me know so I can adjust the scheduling.’”

A quick glance at the lift attendants confirmed that if anyplace harbored a contingent of Dead Heads, it was Homewood. Long hair abounded, a few tattoos were evident, the scent of tolerance filled the air. This wasn’t Squaw, with its strict grooming code—the most restrictive it got was when marketing director Becky Moore joked that her main public relations job was to keep the lifties’ mohawks under hats.

A fast, zippering run in primo corn brought us right back down to the quad, where the lifties stopped everyone to check their passes, even Wyler. Wyler got a special treatment—they double- and triple-checked to make sure his pass was valid. The lifties smirked as Wyler grumbled good-naturedly. “Hey, it was your memo,” one of them called out.

On the lift, the conversation turned to the challenges of running a ski area, of drug testing, of personal freedom, of the need to attract customers while balancing the rights of employees to dress and wear their hair as they pleased.

“We really struggle with being a corporation,” said Wyler. “The problem is how much to manage people. When you give them some freedom, they always want to take it to the next level.”

Live and let live within the limits of responsibility seems to be the path Wyler has chosen for Homewood. Not just for Homewood the corporation, but for Homewood the place to ski. For example, the area above Homewood’s top lift is out of bounds, but with another 900 feet of elevation available for hiking, Wyler knows the hard-core are juicing up to go OB, so whenever it’s safe the exit is open—as long as you check in with patrol.

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But enough yapping, you say. What about the skiing? Well, Homewood doesn’t so much rock as roll. There are a few short, steep sections, like Quail Face, which involves a lengthy traverse and a short hike out, but mostly Homewood is medium pitched with a terrific mix of terrain—bunches of tree skiing, plenty of open cruisers, moderate bump runs into the lake, and a small bowl or two. You wouldn’t ski Homewood to scare yourself, but if your goal is fun skiing—you know…fast, hard, make laps all day skiing—Homewood fits the bill nicely.

Early morning runs—either powder or corn—should start on the south-facing side of Rainbow Ridge, the main curving spine of Homewood, before the sun hits the slopes too hard. Then move to Hobbit Land, which is more east-facing, but is sheltered by trees. Finally, head to the north-facing runs off the quad. If you still want more variety, head to the summit, check in with patrol, and start hiking to 8,740-foot Ellis Peak.

A quick glance at the lift attendants confirmed that if anyplace harbored a contingent of Dead Heads, it was Homewood. Long hair abounded, a few tattoos were evident, the scent of tolerance filled the air.

Wyler considers it his destiny to put a lift up Ellis Peak, the rocky ridge that rises above the ski area, and you can see from both a capitalist’s and a skier’s perspective. One lift to the top would double Homewood’s terrain, to 2,400 acres. Not only that, but it’s choice terrain—lots of trees, a couple of small chutes, a handful of jumpable cliff bands. Ellis is a lot like those mohawks Becky Moore was trying to hide—just a little gnarly, and just a little hidden.

The day toodled along in the sun. We skied hard, got a little sun-burned, and ate shish-kebabs at an outdoor barbecue. A nice spring day. Later, I left Homewood. (It was nothing personal, I just had to go home.) As I crunched through the muddy gravel parking lot at the base area, I spotted a car with “Red Dog Forever” stickers and the personalized license plate, “SKI KT.” It referred, of course, to the jewel of Squaw Valley, KT-22. The irony was inescapable. I knew that the dred-locked Easter Bunny, wherever he was, would really appreciate it.

Solitude, UT

by Scott Markewitz

By seven the line had started forming. By eight the cars on Wasatch Boulevard were backed up five miles from the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon. By nine the line snaked all the way onto I-215, another three or four miles back.

It was a crisp, clear Saturday morning in February. The first major storm in weeks had dropped three feet of fresh snow in the mountains overnight, closing the roads into Big and Little Cottonwood canyons and bringing out practically every powderhound in the Salt Lake Valley.

Little Areas That Rock - Solitude

When the roads finally opened, Snowbird and Alta would be overrun with frantic skiers stuck in 40-minute lift lines. Rather than deal with this madness, we decided to ski Solitude. It’s not Snowbird or Alta, but it has some great powder skiing and it’s always less crowded than its Little Cottonwood neighbors. After waiting almost two hours in line, the road into Big Cottonwood Canyon opened, and we began the slow crawl up to the area.

There were a handful of cars in the parking lot when we arrived. We quickly put on our gear and headed up the Powderhorn lift, expecting to get in one or two good powder runs before the hordes of skiers arrived. But the crowds never materialized. All day long we skied fresh powder with five-minute lift lines while cars streamed past on the main road, heading farther up the canyon to Brighton, the jib-bonk capital of Utah.

Big Cottonwood Canyon is blessed with the same natural snowmaking system that makes Little Cottonwood legendary.

If Solitude has five-minute lines on one of the busiest days of the season, imagine what it’s like on a quiet midweek day. Snowbird and Alta have awesome terrain and great snow, but the powder gets cut up faster than a sushi chef can whip out a California roll, and the lift lines regularly reach 30-45 minutes. Why bother? Big Cottonwood Canyon is blessed with the same natural snowmaking system that makes Little Cottonwood legendary. Solitude averages 410 inches of dry Utah snow annually, a ton even if it’s not the 500 inches Snowbird and Alta get. Plus, the ridges in Honeycomb and Silver Fork canyons to the west of Solitude block the prevailing wind and let the snow fall light and consistent.

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With a vertical drop of 2,030 feet, more than 1,100 skiable acres, 60 named trails, four bowls and a summit elevation of 10,030 feet, Solitude is big for small. Honeycomb Canyon is probably its best known asset, with some of the best tree skiing in Utah. Its 400-plus acres don’t get skied out quickly, and if you know where to go or have a good nose for snooping around in the trees, you can find untracked shots two or three days after a storm. The only drawback to skiing Honeycomb is the long traverse out to the base and multiple lift rides back to the top. On a good powder day you can usually get more fall-line powder skiing in by skiing the front side of the mountain in the bowls and trees off of Powderhorn (Paradise, Vertigo, Rhapsody, and the Cirque), the runs down to Inspiration from the Eagle Ridge Quad, and the chutes and trees in Evergreen off the summit lift.

After the powder is skied out, Solitude becomes a landscape of long bump runs (Diamond Lane, Vertigo, Inspiration), tight steeps and chutes (Milk Run, Middle Slope, and Corner Chute), and great cruising. (Challenger off of Eagle Ridge and Diamond Lane off of Powderhorn are two of the fastest and most exciting cruising runs in the state.)

Solitude has always had a reputation as a laid-back, casual place to ski, so laid-back that, according to one local skier, at one time anyone could ski there for free because the lifties never bothered to check passes. Which gives new meaning to its slogan “Ski the Freedom.” Well, it’s not freedom for everyone: Snowboards have never been allowed at Solitude. Personally, I love to get out on a board once in a while but, as a skier, it’s nice to have the option to go somewhere without snowboards. There’s more room on the hill and the powder lasts longer. Until now, Solitude has resisted the pressure to allow snowboarding. But, as the snowboard market continues to skyrocket and the ski market stagnates like stale fish, Solitude has just changed its policy. Snowboards are now allowed Monday through Wednesday (Editor’s Note: Today, snowboards have no restrictions at Solitude).

Little Areas That Rock - Solitude 3

Whatever the makeup of the crowds, skiers will still escape them thanks to the addition of the Summit lift in 1982, which opened huge amounts of backcountry terrain behind Solitude. The appropriately named Highway to Heaven traverse starts from the top of the Summit lift across the middle of a well-controlled, but very large and somewhat tenuous avalanche slope to access Grizzly Gulch, Patsy Marley, and the Wolverine Cirque, and other backcountry areas between Alta and Big Cottonwood Canyon. From the Summit lift you can also traverse high under the Honeycomb cliffs to the ridge above Silver Fork and then ski 2,500 vertical feet of powder and steep trees back to the road in Big Cottonwood. According to Chris Allaire, Solitude’s PR Director, Solitude’s goal is to open 100 percent of the mountain every day and as much backcountry access as possible.

Solitude is so laid-back that, according to one local skier, at one time anyone could ski there for free because the lifties never bothered to check passes. Which gives new meaning to its slogan “Ski the Freedom of Solitude.”

Most of Solitude’s expert terrain stays fresh for the hard-cores and hot shots because the majority of Solitude skiers are families from the Salt Lake Valley (kids 10 and under ski for free) and tourists (beginners and intermediates who generally stick to the groomed runs).

There are a lot more visitors to Solitude these days, an inevitable result of Salt Lake City’s continued growth and overflow from Snowbird to Alta. In response, Solitude has plans for a $65 million expansion in the next five years, which includes new lodges, restaurants, and condos. Will it all make Solitude too big? I don’t know. I do know that on that perfect day in February, while I was catching my breath on lift after lift, skiers were scrambling and pushing across the plaza at Snowbird like commuters at Grand Central Station. And I know that Solitude has a few great years before anything like that happens.