Tuesday, January 28, 2014

field trip: deer valley resort

By Saturday afternoon, we were pretty bored with skiing the same runs over and over again; the snow had aged and toughened enough that even venturing into the off-piste areas that had held up the best was no longer fun.  Then I had an idea.  This year season passholders at Alta, Snowbird, Deer Valley and Park City Mountain Resort got three day passes at each of the other three resorts: since all we were doing was skiing groomers at Alta, why not use a reciprocal ticket at Deer Valley where they're known for their groomers?  Sunday morning rolled around and we were out the door by 8 a.m., heading up Parley's Canyon towards Deer Valley.  We drove to the Snow Park lodge, flashed our Alta passes and were promptly handed day tickets - easy-peasy!

My word - those mittens are huge!

Deer Valley Resort is consistently ranked one of the - if not the - top ski resorts in the country because of their excellent guest services: carefully groomed trails, ski valets, top notch lodging and hotel restaurants.  The swankiness is evident in the ticket prices ($108/day) and the hordes of green-uniformed employees just waiting to help guests (I was a little concerned I'd get attitude for the duct tape on my ski pants but no one seemed to notice).  The resort is spread out over 2,026 skiable acres across six lift-served mountains; the highest, Empire, tops out at 9,750 feet (almost 1,000 feet shorter than Alta's Sugarloaf lift).  Speaking of lifts: Deer Valley has twenty of them, most high speed detachable quads.  (Alta has seven.)  Since finding good snow wasn't really going to be an attainable goal for the day, we decided to try to ride as many lifts as we could.

Obligatory DV selfie

We took the Silver Lake Express out of Snow Park to the main mid-mountain area, Silver Lake Lodge.  From there, you can get to Bald Mountain and Flagstaff Mountain, with Empire Peak and Lady Morgan accessible from Flagstaff.  We rode the Sterling Express (to Bald) with a local who gave us some suggestions on where we might like to go.  We did a couple of blue groomers, then switched to Flagstaff where no less than four (!) lifts (Quincy, Silver Strike, Northside and Ruby) deposit skiers at the peak.  After several more blue groomers - where we got lost a couple of times and ended up on lifts we didn't intend to ride but which took us back to the top - I was getting chilled from just cruising in the shade.  We saw that Empire was completely in the sun and didn't seem to have many people on it yet, so we made our way over there.  (In actuality, we never once waited in a lift line as it was not at all crowded, and we ended up doing quite a lot of runs by day's end.)  

Taking a break on Conviction

There were a couple of groomed options coming off the top of Empire but the off-piste stuff was starting to soften a little.  We tried the top of Lady Morgan Bowl, which was okay, and then figured we'd give the bumps a try.  Empire Peak was pretty much covered in huge moguls, scoured smooth but slowly softening.  We did several bumps runs under the lift on Domingo and Conviction which were okay, although the moguls were really bigger than I can comfortably handle.  Magnet, off the Lady Morgan lift, was less fun: hard and skied-off, it would have been doable with sharp edges but with the edges I had, I didn't enjoy it much.

Heading back out after lunch

For lunch we ventured into the Empire Canyon Lodge, situated next to the gigantic Montage Hotel.  Lots of folks were sitting out on the deck but we were able to find an empty table in one of the many dining rooms, right next to a crackling fire.  The Grill had a nice variety of lunchables: gorgeous salads, burgers and sausages, chili, paninis, soups and pastas, steak wraps and fish tacos.  We splurged on a plate of chili cheese fries: the chili was flavorful, if a little too watery to be served over fries; the fries were not up to Alta's Alf's standards.  The ubiquitous Deer Valley employees were everywhere - a bus-person even cleared tables for skiers.  However, if I'm being completely honest, I think that Snowbasin's lodges and lodge dining are better.


After lunch, we took another lift out of Empire Canyon, back to the top of Flagstaff.  We did a bumps run where the moguls were slightly more manageable and I was able to make some decent turns in there.  After some runs on Flagstaff, we made our way back to Bald Mountain, where we tried some steeper blue groomers in order to hit a couple more lifts (Sultan Express and Wasatch Express).  At this point in the afternoon, however, the runs were pretty well skied off, which made me nervous to be sliding across the hard pack with no edge to dig in, and the bumps we found were huge and really hard.  From the Silver Lake Lodge we took our final lift ride (the extremely slow Homestake, bringing our total lift tally to thirteen), and then skied down the front face of the resort, pausing by the Olympic moguls run to marvel at how steep it was.

Apres ski at the EBS Lounge, Snow Park Lodge

It was nearly 3:00 p.m. when we got back to the car to take our boots off, but the sun was still hitting the apres ski deck so we had a pitcher of Full Suspension ($18.00) and pored over the trail map.  Despite the hard conditions, it was a good day: exploring unfamiliar territory under bright blue skies. We liked Deer Valley and would definitely like to ski it again when there's new snow; Lady Morgan Bowl, the Daly Chutes and Daly Bowl looked like good, challenging terrain, and we never even made over to the Mayflower lift, which has chutes, a little bowl and expert runs.  We've got two more reciprocal tickets left - maybe we'll make it back to Deer Valley again this winter.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

same snow, different day

Still no new snow.  We got up to Alta just after they started loading the lifts; the parking lots was just a quarter full and no one pulled in beside us before we headed to the lift.  We rode up Collins and skied over the ridge to the Sugarloaf side.  We took three groomer runs on Sugarloaf, and then moved on to Supreme, hoping to stay ahead of the crowds.  It was surprisingly busy, moreso than it was over the holiday weekend.  Part of this was due to the fact that almost no one was skiing off-piste, so the trails seemed busy and everyone was getting down quickly and standing in line.

We stayed at Supreme for a number of runs, riding the singles line and talking to tourists.  Alf's was not crowded at lunch because people were sitting outside on the deck, enjoying the sunshine.  After lunch, we went into Devil's Castle for a couple of runs.  The snow, which was so good last weekend, had toughened up a bit during the week, making it harder to turn.  When we moved back to the groomers, they were pretty well skied off: I hit a scratchy patch right under the Sugarloaf chair, spinning myself around and somehow managing to keep upright and scoring a "nice save!" shout-out from someone on the lift.

Back in the Castle again

We went around the EBT to do some runs off of the Collins lift.  The conditions were about the same there and by 2:45 p.m. we called it quits.  We really need snow.  It's amazing to think that we have not yet done any runs in the Wildcat trees or Yellow Trail or the Supreme Bowl or in the trees beneath the Castle Apron.  There just hasn't been enough snow.  Fingers crossed that the weather pattern changes soon - I'm getting bored with groomers.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

carbon copies

Sunday and Monday were pretty much carbon copies of Saturday: not a single cloud in the sky, fairly warm temperatures, not too crowded.  Both days we got great parking spots and did 2-3 runs on Sugarloaf before abandoning that lift for Supreme.  We skied the groomers several times while waiting for the sun to hit the run-out at the bottom of Catherine's Area, then hiked up and into there 2-3 times, enjoying the snow all the way in there.  On Sunday I fell once, my short skis caught by a big clump of snow in Catherine's, and then somersaulting with the momentum.  On Monday, I fell once in the exact same spot ... and then fell again, on the run-out in a flat spot, as my left ski slithered off the beaten track and got caught in the deeper, stickier snow.  Since it was flat, I flailed around awkwardly for a while before struggling to my feet.  Luckily, no one was around to see me, although I 'fessed up to H back at the lift.  (He could tell from the snow stuck in my helmet anyway.)

In Catherine's Area, pre-fall

After lunch, both days, we headed into Devil's Castle.  It was still great, a little chunky on Sunday but beaten into soft, manageable bumps by Monday.  I skied it really well on Monday; while other skiers were bemoaning the fact that it was "all bumped to hell," the conditions suited me and my short, turnable Volkl skis.

Despite the lack of snow, Alta has managed to get almost all of its terrain open.  Baldy's Main Chute was open Saturday and Sunday (closed Monday); the first third of Devil's Castle was open, as was the periphery of Supreme Bowl (Ski Patrol posted signs recommending that people stay out of the main bowl, but kept it open-); the only thing that remained fully closed was East Castle, per usual.

H in Catherine's Area

Still trying to expand our scope, on Sunday I suggested that we take the mid-traverse on the front side and give Sunspot a try.  It was pretty bad, beaten down and scoured smooth and hard, not even softening in the afternoon sun.  Our last run Sunday was down Stimulation/Johnson's Warm-Up off the Wildcat lift (our first time on Wildcat all season - yikes!).  The snow was holding up okay there, despite the heavy traffic, but since it was the last run of the day, my legs were toast and I didn't enjoy it much.  Monday ended much stronger, calling it quits after three Devil's Castle runs in a row and then a celebratory pitcher of Full Suspension at the Porcupine.

Last time through Devil's Castle

We desperately need snow, both for the skiing as well as for the water supply, but it's tough to be cranky about gorgeous days like we got this long weekend.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

more open terrain

After last weekend's treat of a storm, we're settling into another dry spell, with the inversion building up in the valley and the mountains warming up in the bright sunshine.  We took our time getting up to Alta Saturday morning, hoping to give the snow - which would have frozen up hard overnight - some time to soften.  Temperatures were due to be in the high 30s-low 40s through the day but it was 22 when we got on the Collins chair.  I was wearing my soft shell with a light fleece and base layer and my mid-weight long johns in anticipation of the warmer temperatures; as a result, I got pretty cold on that first chair ride.

If you can't have a snow storm, you might as well have a nice day

We did a couple of runs off the Sugarloaf chair to get our legs moving.  The groomers were in decent shape, fast but not too hard.  It got busy quickly, however, and we then moved over to the Supreme chair.  The crowds were hit-or-miss there: we took the singles line several times but also got to ride together quite a bit when the corral was sparsely populated.  After a couple of groomers there, we hiked into Catherine's Area, heading to our favorite spot way, way in there - it's a long hike in but the trees protect it from the sun.  We paused for a bit on the ridge, looking down towards the Brighton side, observing a number of backcountry skiers skinning their way up and gliding down the untracked snow.  We dropped into our favorite spot and it was great: deep, soft and chunky.  We skied out and did it again.  It was great again the second time.

On Catherine's Ridge, Brighton side in the background

During lunch we overheard someone saying that Devil's Castle was open for the first time all season.  Since we've been basically skiing the same trails over and over all season, we thought we should give it a try, riding up the Sugarloaf lift and side-stepping up to the Devil's Castle traverse.  Ski Patrol had only opened the first third or so, due to potential avalanche danger and exposed rocks further in.  The traverse went quickly - the snow was sugary which was good for gliding - and we dropped in above Cecret Lake (Sugar Mountain area).  Although it had been tracked out, the snow was fantastic: deep, soft and chunky.  Devil's Castle never gets any sun (which is why you can usually find a teensy patch of snow holding on for dear life on the Apron in August) and so never ices up.  We skied out across the outflow of the lake, cut across to Devil's Elbow and went back to the lift to do it again and then again.  It was that good, plus it was great fun to ski something we haven't had access to yet.

Finally back in the Castle

We also scooted around the EBT and did a run in East Greely.  There had been a couple of slides leaving big debris fields so we skied down between the slides, taking Glitch or Glatch back around to the lift.  The snow was not quite as good here, a little more beaten down, but it was still surprisingly good.  We next switched to the front side for a couple of runs - the Ballroom is well-skied but holding its own, although the traverse is a little exciting - and then my legs called it quits.

Obligatory selfie

We were quite pleased with our ski day.  The conditions were so much better than we expected and it was less crowded than we thought it would be, given the long weekend.  And the day was simply gorgeous: even though we desperately want it to snow (and snow and snow and snow and snow), it's hard to complain about spectacular bluebird skies.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

storm skiing

Sunday was about as different from Saturday as you could get.  The storm moved in Saturday night, putting five inches of snow on the ground by morning.  The temperatures dropped to about 17 at the base and 8 at mid-mountain; the winds were strong, gusting well over 40 m.p.h. and keeping the wind chill in negative numbers.  It would snow all day, which was fantastic, but the visibility was bad at best and the gusting winds created sporadic whiteout conditions.  As we stood in the singles line, waiting for Collins to open, snow peppering our faces in the wind and avalanche charges going off all around us, we thought, "Why are we doing this?"  Even though lots of other skiers thought the same thing and stayed home (we never ever waited in line after that first chair lift ride), the day would prove itself to us.

There was a Fitz-sighting as we waited in line at Collins!
(Photo credit: Joe Johnson, Alta)

When we got to the top of Collins, the wind was so strong that it almost pushed me over.  We plunged back off the ridge, coasting our way back down to Wildcat base.  Amazingly, the snow on boring old Mambo was very, very good.  It was blown off in a couple places, and several drifts, invisible in the flat light, nearly sent me ass over teakettle, but for the most part it was very good.  As we moved through the Collins line again, we saw our favorite Skier Services person, Martha.  She said hello and then told us that Sugarloaf just opened.  We thanked her and headed straight there as soon as we got off the lift.

Canyon road, approaching Alta

It took a long time for people to realize that Sugarloaf was open - in large part because you couldn't see the lift from the top of Collins - and we had some fantastic runs, first tracks down Devil's Elbow and Extrovert.  The top of Extrovert was tricky and I fell twice: once after hitting a huge puff of snow that I couldn't see (and then flailing around on my back like an overturned turtle) and then a little further down after skidding over an icy bump that the winds had uncovered.  We shifted to skier's left and the snow was deep and fantastic.  Much of the mountain never opened - they never even started Supreme up - but we had a fantastic day.  Yes, it was really cold (it wouldn't have been, except for that godawful wind) and the visibility was probably the worst I've ever skied (those whiteouts are scary because you can't see if you're about to hit someone or go off the edge of the trail into a ditch).  But it never got crowded and we kept finding good snow.  We did a bunch of runs down Chartreuse Nose/Chartreuse Slot and pretty much had the place to ourselves.

Pre-lunch ice beard

After lunch, I suggested that we check out the snow around the cabins off the Supreme Access trail.  We were the first ones in there (although interlopers followed soon afterwards) and it was so fun.  It isn't particularly difficult skiing, but you're following a creek bed through the evergreens in untracked, knee-deep powder, so it's awesome.  Also awesome: H got stuck at the bottom of the creek bed and had to drag himself out.  He'd been chilled when we started the run; by the time he had clawed his way out of the gully, he'd warmed right back up.  Despite my fatiguing legs, I felt like I was skiing better as the day went on.  The fact that we couldn't see anything had a lot to do with that: I am a visual skier and like to know what's coming so I can prepare for it; since the visibility was so bad today, I just had to relax my knees and go for it, trusting that my skis could handle what was underfoot.

Heading into the cabin trees

By 2:15 p.m., my little legs had had it.  The EBT was closed for avalanche danger so we had to ski out through the bunny slopes, which was just grueling with the flat pitch and strong wind coming up the hill.  We dragged ourselves out along the tow rope and I was really cold by the time we got to the truck.  The wind was slightly less at the base area, however, and it was hardly snowing; as we descended the canyon, it got brighter and brighter and the road was clear and nearly dry.  It seemed like the end of the world up there at the top of Sugarloaf lift but down in the valley, the sun was peeking through the clouds.  We almost didn't ski today because of the forecasted wind and low temperatures - since it was one of the best days of the season, I'm awfully glad we did.

Monday, January 13, 2014

managing expectations

Because of the very welcome storms that rolled into greater Salt Lake this week, Alta was reporting 24" of new snow by Saturday morning.  We figured that the resort would be way crowded with folks jonesing for the new snow, so we were on the road by 8:15 a.m. in the event there was a big line of cars snaking its way up Little Cottonwood Canyon.  We may have overestimated our fellow skiers' get-up-and-go-ness, however, as there was some steady traffic - but nothing like we expected and we pulled into an excellent parking place with 45 minutes until the lifts opened.  We went into the Goldminer's Daughter lodge to put on our stuff and wait until closer to opening.  There was a lull in the weather: partly sunny skies and mid 20s at the base at 8:45 a.m. and the parking lot did fill up, just not as early as we thought it would.

After some confusion getting through the gates at Collins, we rode the singles line up the mountain.  The sign on the ridge said that Supreme lift was closed, which wasn't surprising because Patrol would need to clear it for avalanches given the recent new snow.  Sugarloaf lift was turning so we skied down the backside of the ridge, cruising down to the base of Sugarloaf.  Unfortunately, even though the lift was turning it was not open - rime ice on the cables or some other mechanical issue.  This meant we had to ski all the way down the bunny slope and drag ourselves back across to Collins via the rope tow.  Ugh.

We did a run at Collins, H venturing into the off-piste stuff.  He came back out quickly, reporting, with some surprise, that it was kind of crusty on top.  We surmised that it was because of the gusty winds on Friday and hoped that wouldn't be the case across the mountain.  At the next Collins ride, we saw that the Supreme lift was open and we hightailed it over there.  Unfortunately, because the Sugarloaf lift was still closed, everyone who wasn't skiing Alta's front side was over there too; the singles line was possibly the longest we've seen, although still moving faster than the packed corral.  We stayed on Supreme, trying to find some soft snow.  A huge group of skiers clustered around the gate to Catherine's Area, waiting for Patrol to open it.  We decided not to wait with them, thinking that the stampede once the gate dropped would be awful.

After several runs (No. 9 Express, the Erosion Gullies, the trees by 3 Bears), the Catherine's gate was opened and the initial crush of skiers passed through.  We then ventured in.  Usually, when you go into Catherine's Area, you take your skis off for the first little steep hike.  Most people were sidestepping up that hill, which is exhausting.  We took our skis off ... and immediately learned why people were sidestepping with their skis on as we postholed up past our knees.  I walked in someone else's foot-holes and finally made it up to the traverse where we could put our skis back on, already panting and exhausted.  We followed the traverse across Snowshoe Hill to the Last Chance area and dropped into some untracked snow.  It was ... not great.  It was crusty on top - and on the really wind-packed areas I was able to stay on top of the crust - but when you broke through, it was very, very difficult to turn in.  We made our way across to one of our favorite areas and I picked my way down in someone else's tracks.  By the time we skied out and back to the lift, my legs were shaking.  H went back into Catherine's Area but I declined, doing a slow bumps run and yelling at my legs.

In Catherine's Area

They got the Sugarloaf lift running again around noon, taking the pressure off of Supreme.   After lunch we kept skiing at Supreme, then did a couple of runs off Sugarloaf, then moved to Collins for a couple runs there.  Here's the thing: our expectations for the day were way out of whack.  We thought we were going to find over two feet of fluffy powder.  What we got was wind-driven, wind-buffed snow, enough to cover lots of rocks and skied-off patches.  It wasn't bad, really, but it wasn't what we expected (and hoped for).  No big deal: another storm was moving in.

Friday, January 10, 2014

trying another new place

As cold as it was last Saturday, Sunday was even colder - with no new snow - so we didn't bother to ski: I just don't find it that fun when I have to go into the lodge for a warm-up every other run.  The weather started to change with the start of the week, however, bringing the best storm of the season which was actually a series of storms that should continue through this coming weekend (24" and counting).

The new week also brought my birthday and we headed out to a new (to us) restaurant to celebrate: Epic Casual Dining (707 E. Ft. Union Boulevard in Midvale).  Epic had been recommended to me by a coworker and is (or was) the more casual sister restaurant to Tiburon, also recommended to us; we weren't in the mood to pay Tiburon prices so Epic it was.

There was a decent crowd for a midweek evening, with a live singer/guitarist playing in the corner.  We noted that most of the tables did not have alcohol although there was a bottle of white wine here, some beer there.  Our waiter was pleasant if a little poky.  We got a bottle of Castle Rock pinot noir and an order of flatbread with house-made hummus to start and perused the menu more closely.  The hummus was very good, dense and flavorful, and the flatbread, sliced like a pizza into six pieces, was fresh and light.  We split a Caesar salad - which was enormous - that came as whole Romaine leaves, lightly dressed and draped with pale anchovies. 

For entrees, H had the grilled beef tenderloin, served with mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables, while I went with the flat iron steak (medium rare) which came with roasted red potatoes and "creamed spinach."  For the price, H's meal was a little on the small side so I shared some of my steak, which was delicious, with him.  My spinach happily turned out to be less creamed and more sauteed and then drizzled with a cream sauce, and it was good.  We were tempted by the New York-style cheesecake but ultimately decided against it.

As far as our track record goes for my birthday dinners, this one was in the plus column (2010: Citrus Grill, meh; 2011: Pat's BBQ, bleh; 2012: Aristo's, yum; 2013: Cafe Trio, okay).  I'm not sure the restaurant lives up to its Epic billing exactly, but the food was good and we had a nice evening.  It's hard to complain about that.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

a little bit of snow, a lot bit of cold

Having holidays in the middle of the week has really messed me up: work a couple of days, have a day off, work a couple of days, have a weekend, repeat.  I skied with H on New Year's Day and it was more of the same: no new snow, lots of people, clear skies.  By the end of the day, I was pretty tired of skiing with clueless people and was ready to have my mountain back.

After a couple of days back at work, the weekend rolled around again.  A weak storm system moved in late Friday night, scouring the inversion out of the valley and dropping about three inches of snow in the mountains.  Three inches!  Woohoo!  Three inches is really not anything to get excited about but after skiing on the same old, beaten-down snow for over a week, even three inches was going to be better (or at least different).

What was less good was how cold it was: 13 F at the base and 3 F at the summit.  That's cold for me.  We both wore our down accoutrements, and I had my hand warmers, down mittens and boot gloves as always, but my hands and feet still suffered.  The winds were light but persistent, driving the light, new snow into our faces, and the little storm stuck around and left another couple of inches during the day - which was great snow-wise but which kept things from warming up.

Although we were able to find some nice pockets of powder on the sides of the trails and in the trees (particularly in between 3 Bears and lower Big Dipper), in general the new snow didn't do much except cover up the rocks and skied-off patches so that you didn't see them until it was too late.  H got into Catherine's Area right as they opened it, figuring that getting in before it got all tracked out would be for the best; he came out shaking his head, reporting that it was just too hard underneath to really be any good.

After lunch we moved to the front side to see if it was any better there.  It wasn't, and it was slightly windier too, with very flat light.  We called it quits around 1:30 p.m.  It certainly wasn't the worst day we've had but it wasn't any great shakes either.