On a recent sunny Saturday morning, my family and I picked up our lift tickets on the Snowbird tram plaza, walked down the breezeway on the left, through the one glass door, and up through the turnstile onto the sun-splashed deck where we waited for the big red tram to pick us up. It was a walk-on, and our family ski reunion had officially begun.
So we did what most skiers do on vacation: We totally gaped out.
Phones and cameras were fished out of pockets for tram selfies. We made sure my brother's 7-year-old daughter, her first time to Snowbird, had a spot next to the window. The people around us probably thought we'd never ridden a tram before. That we were from, gasp, California (a place that is permanently and disdainfully italicized in the minds of anyone who has never lived in California). Which is what I would've thought had I witnessed such an excitable group back when I was a punk in high school and rode the Snowbird tram every chance I got.
But, this was old hat for us. We were from Utah, born and bred, except for the in-laws and kids we've added over the years and brought along. Twenty years ago, we’d all moved away, fleeing the crowds of Salt Lake City for more hospitable locales in Montana, Wyoming, and southern Colorado. For my dad, brother, sister, and me, it was our first time skiing Snowbird and Alta together after all those years—a pretty special thing seeing as we used to spend all of our spare time there in the winter. Growing up in Utah, skiing became a huge part of our identity, and Little Cottonwood Canyon became our church. Despite the years that had gone by, that Saturday morning riding the tram, it became immediately clear that our love for skiing in Little Cottonwood Canyon never went away.
We learned that while Snowbird had changed a lot over the years, there are still some time-tested elements that remain. Whereas there's a tunnel burrowing through the top of the mountain, we saw the same jumps we used to hit in Little Cloud Bowl and Black Jack. This time around, we got way less air, but had just as much fun. Better yet, these same jumps are getting sent by today's kids. Whereas all the lifts at Snowbird have been upgraded to high-speed quads and there's a giant restaurant at the top of the tram, there are still bump lines carpeting Silver Fox, my dad still loves to start the day off with a cruiser down Chip's, and you can still park for free at a certain place where you can ski right to your car at the end of the day. How do people still not know about that?
At Alta, where we skied the second day of Gape-cation, we saw not much had changed either. My siblings and I had some of our very first experiences on skis on the rope tows that are still slowly churning beginners to and fro. My niece found that she could do the rope-tow tour: going from one end of the base area to the next, via three different rope tows. When I asked her to settle the age-old debate of which was better, Alta or Snowbird, she was indecisive: "Snowbird has the tunnel," she said, "but Alta has the rope tows."
What we did decide is that family ski vacations are awesome. One of the beautiful things about skiing, of course, is that, through chairlifts and terrain choice, people can generally be in the same area despite having different abilities. Meaning three different generations could spend time together, have fun, get some exercise, and maybe even hit a jump. It’s even better if this takes place away from your home hill, which was a first for us. We definitely ski together every year, but it's always over the holidays and always at someone’s home hill. It seemed difficult to plan at first, with everyone non-committal about dates. Finally, my dad picked a weekend and booked a condo near the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. My sister had everyone schedule a meal to take turns cooking, and the kids fell in love with the hot tub.
While skiing Alta, I learned that picking dates is the key. Riding up the Sugarloaf lift, I chatted up the guy next to me. Like me, he was wearing a helmet with sunglasses, and he had sunscreen caked all over his face. He said he was from D.C., and that he was on a family ski trip that spanned two generations. He'd been coming to ski Alta once a year, with the same group of people, every year for nearly 40 years. The people he started it with all those years ago are now bringing their kids. He told me they just find a date, everyone books their own travel and stays at the Peruvian Lodge. That way, he said, they don't have to worry about anything but skiing.
How beautiful is that?
I've been skiing my whole life, half of it in Little Cottonwood Canyon. But his words were revelatory. I'm not sure if my family can keep up an annual ski trip for 40 years, but it's certainly something to shoot for.