Thursday, April 30, 2015

closing day, 2014/2015 version

What a weird season we've had!  Record low snowfall, super warm temperatures in February, big ski crowds for no reason in early March, a couple of fantastic snow storms and nothing for weeks and weeks.  And then, for Alta's closing day, a storm brought a foot of new snow by Sunday morning, accompanied by cold (low 20s) temperatures, flurries, flat light and thick, low clouds.  It's difficult to believe that it will be May in just a few days - and that we'll probably be hiking and MTBing next weekend - when we woke up to snow on the lawn at our house in the valley.

Because of the lingering storm, and because it was pouring rain at our house when we got up, we decided to delay our trip up to Alta for closing day.  (And if it had been any other day, we probably wouldn't have gone at all.)  While the first couple of runs were likely pretty good with seven new inches of snow on top of the five inches from Friday night, we knew there was no way it was going to be great.  We ended up leaving the house around 10:30 a.m., driving up and into the clouds gathered at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon.  Because of our late start, we had to park at the Albion base lodge instead of Wildcat base; the Wildcat base parking lot was completely full - there haven't been that many cars at Alta all winter.

We stepped into our skis and took the rope tow across to the Collins lift.  There were enough people standing in the corral that the lifties had to call out the front row, but the line moved quickly and it wasn't really crowded, just more crowded than it has been.  The cold weather put a damper on the closing day festivities somewhat: there were hardly any costumes (certainly no bikinis or naked skiers) and the live music at Watson's Shelter was indoors, not out on the patio.  Still, everyone seemed to be in good spirits, donating plenty of adult beverages to the Collins lifties, and generally being glad to see a little more snow.

The cloud we were in: not that bright in real life

The light was flat to start, making it difficult to see the bumps and scraped-off sections, of which there were many, given our late start.  As the afternoon wore on, however, the cloud deck descended, limiting visibility considerably.  When we were on the chairlift, the furthest ahead we could see was the chair directly ahead of us.  When we were skiing, at times we couldn't see much further than ten feet ahead.  It was extremely disconcerting, not knowing where you were or what you were skiing on or even where you were situated on the trail.  I kept blinking, trying to clear my vision; I stopped next to a tree at one point, thinking that my goggles had iced over, but up close the tree was perfectly clear - it was just the clouds.

There's actually a ski mountain behind me

After a couple of hours we called it quits (which, if it hadn't been closing day, we would have done much earlier given the conditions and the complete lack of visibility).  Since we were parked at Albion, we did an "around the world" as our last run: skiing out through Sugarloaf, Supreme and Sunnyside.  Sugarloaf was pretty well tracked out but hardly anyone had schlepped over to Supreme and the snow was quite nice, smooth and dense.  Despite it not really being outdoors beer-drinking weather, we paused to toast the season as we de-booted; the clouds had dropped so far at that point that we couldn't see Alta's mountains at all.  But we knew they were there and we'll be back again to ski them in just about seven months.

Season stats:  324" of snowfall at Alta (far below the historical average of 500 inches); H: 45 ski days and 1,030,336 vertical feet skied; A: 41 ski days and 968,016 vertical feet.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

next to last, 2014/2015

Our penultimate day of this ski season could not have been more different than last year's.  The first wave of a two-part spring storm had rolled through Friday night, leaving Alta and Snowbird (the only two Utah ski resorts still open) with about seven inches of heavy, wet, new snow.  When we got up to Alta, the leavings were wet dust on crust: good enough if you were the first person to ski on it but thereafter quickly clumped up and scraped off down to the old stuff below.  There didn't seem to be many people in attendance; the parking lot only ever got two-thirds full at the most, and although the Collins and Sunnyside chairs were running the only ones running, it never felt crowded - unless you were trying to make your way down through Corkscrew, which quickly devolved into a slushy, clumpy mess.

We saw ski patrol hiking up to Baldy Shoulder, where they set off a couple of bombs, but Ballroom didn't open all morning due to the increased avalanche danger.  There was only one groomed trail from the top (Mambo) and evidently the groomers have ceased caring about their work because it was a bumpy, rutted mess.  I found the skiing fairly challenging: the new snow was very heavy and difficulty for me to turn in.  I was bouncing off the clumps like a pinball and because of the cloud cover, the sun never melted the new snow into slush, which I can actually ski.  H didn't have the problems I did, being strong enough to turn and ski through the clumps, but even he remarked that the new snow was really, really heavy.

Scarcely looks like spring

We did one run through the now-closed back half of the resort: down Devil's Elbow to the Supreme cut-off, and out through Sunnyside.  As we made our slow way across the Supreme cut-off, we noticed footprints running right down the center of the trail, following a snowmobile track.  They were moose prints and even though we couldn't tell whether the moose had been hiking up or down, the animal had clearly been following the snowmobile track so as not to have to break trail.  The tracks went past the Supreme lift and Alf's, and we finally lost them somewhere in the middle of Sunnyside.

We kept skiing until 12:30 p.m., at which point I told H that there was no way I was going to be able to ski all day - my legs just couldn't handle the heavy snow.  Since the conditions were not going to get any better, we decided to leave then so as to have lunch at home.  Back down in the valley, H managed to get in a bike ride before the second wave of the storm moved in, drenching the valley with rain (and possibly/probably drowning the seeds I'm trying to start) and - hopefully - leaving more snow (local forecasts called a possible 7-10 inches) for Alta's last-last day of the season.

Friday, April 24, 2015

shenanigans: alta's 2015 closing day #1

A carbon-copy of Saturday weather-wise, Sunday was Alta's soft close for 2014/2015 season - the last day of daily operations, although they'll be open for one more weekend.  For whatever reason, closing day #1 is when all the Alta crazies come out to play and they were out in full force on Sunday.

We got up there about a half-hour earlier than we had the day before and cruised the frozen corduroy for a while.  There seemed to hardly be anyone else skiing at that point.  We went directly to Sugarloaf and when H off-loaded a couple of PBRs into the lifties' treats cooler, he got applause and a handshake from the lifties.  The snow got softer with every run and we did laps on Devil's Elbow and Rollercoaster, with a mid-morning cruise by the now-closed Supreme lift before it got too sticky.  By then Extrovert had softened enough to give it a try.  H liked it pretty well and added it to his repertoire; halfway down it, my legs started shrieking at me and I realized I had thrashed my quads too badly on Saturday to be able to do anything but cruise groomers.  After our last 2014/2015 lunch at Alf's, we said farewell to the Sugarloaf lift (which will not be open for Alta's last weekend) and moved back to the Collins side.  We did several runs there, noting that the parking lot at Wildcat base had filled up for the first time in weeks and weeks.  But where were all the people?

Party people

All the people, in all their costumed glory, were hanging out underneath the Wildcat lift, perched on the sides of a gully just below Wildcat Bowl, watching the 5th 2nd Annual Frank World Classic Ski Competition and partying their butts off.  There were fantastic costumes: giraffe, dragon, unicorn, banana, Winnie-the-Pooh, boys in ballgowns, fairy wings, gold lamé, pleather, short-shorts, wigs of all kinds, 1980s sunglasses and ski outfits, Alta stickers worn as pasties, blue leisure suits - you name it, someone was probably wearing it.  I saw one guy walking around with a big bowl of fruit salad; another guy climbed up a tree to take photographs.  The partiers were drinking terrible beer, smoking funny things, shooting off firecrackers, throwing snowballs at each other and people in the chairlift above and cheering on the folks in the ski jump competition.   the organizers had built six ski jumps and every great jump brought a roar from the assembled crowd - as did the one naked ski jumper.  It was hilarious and a lot of fun - everyone just enjoying the gorgeous day, blowing off steam, celebrating another season at Alta.

We stayed up at the Frank quite a while, enjoying the people-watching, and then skied down to the Collins lift for one more run.  When we got back to the truck, there was a live Southern rock band playing at the far end of the parking lot so we walked down and listened to them for a while as we drank our aprés-ski beers.  The wind was brisk, however, so we didn't linger too long, heading down canyon around 3:30 p.m.

There's just one more weekend left for Alta although Snowbird will be open a while longer, with a tentative closing date of May 17th.  Mother Nature is not quite done with us, however, and the forecasters are saying there's another decent storm approaching, perhaps one last hurrah for those of us who like fresh snow.  To that I say, hurrah indeed.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


We had a monster storm earlier this week - Tuesday afternoon into Wednesday - that dropped about 3.5 feet at Alta; it was reportedly the biggest 24-hour storm in ten years.  We had to work but by all accounts, storm-skiing on Wednesday was magnificent and just what people have been waiting for all season this year.  One of my coworkers went up to Snowbird on Thursday, reporting massive crowds and deep turns in snow that got heavier and heavier with every turn as the day warmed up.  That storm was so important for this area: while it didn't make up for all the precipitation we need, the water is welcome and the late spring coverage will help Alta and Snowbird finish out their seasons.  We even got several inches on the lawn at home on Wednesday, just enough to cover up all the dandelions for a few hours.

Chunky and heavy in Yellow Trail

We headed up Little Cottonwood Canyon at a leisurely hour on Saturday, getting on our first chair a little before 10 a.m.  It was not at all crowded (although Sunday probably will be, since it is the next-to-last weekend for Alta and all the crazies will come out to play) and the sun was out.  It was warmer than the last couple of weekends, even with a light breeze blowing, and for once I did okay with my clothing selection; I was a little hot when we got off-piste but at least I wasn't cold.  We did a couple runs off Collins to start, a groomer and then a run through the newly-opened Ballroom.  The groomer skied very well with the new snow and no scraped-off or icy patches; the Ballroom was pretty good too, except for the very slow newbies on the traverse that we had to pass.

Those skies, though

We moved on to Sugarloaf, where they had just opened Devil's Castle for the first time since the storm, but we changed our minds and immediately took the EBT back around to Collins to give the Backside a try.  Oof.  That was a struggle.  All the new snow is rapidly melting and compressing in the bright spring sunshine, and because it is new snow and hasn't gone through many freeze/thaw cycles, when it gets warm it gets extremely heavy and very sticky.  While it would have been ideal snowman-making snow, it made for challenging skiing, especially for me.  H can power through it but I'm just not big or strong enough.  I have to push really hard against the snow to make any turns (which is fatiguing) and hitting big clumps either stops me short or knocks me over.  Even the groomers got difficult for me as the day went on:  the new snow is so sticky that it grabs our badly unwaxed skis, and I skied lurching down the slopes, feeling like I was going to go over the handlebars at any given moment.

Still some untracked in Devil's Castle
at this point

We made the best of the conditions, of course, because it feels wrong to complain on the heels of that lovely storm and underneath those gorgeous blue skies.  We did one hike/run into Devil's Castle where I managed about seven nice, flowing turns before floundering in the lower, stickier slopes.  We cruised past Supreme lift to say hello and did a cabin run before lunch.  After lunch we went back to Collins for a couple of hours, doing our best to avoid the stickiest spots; Aggie's Alley fared the best of the major runs, while Corkscrew was a sticky, clumpy mess.

So nice to see snow again!

My legs fatigued very quickly, doing battle with the slow, heavy snow and by 2:30 p.m. I had to call it quits.  The breeze had picked up by then, making it cool - but not too cold to drink a beer while sitting on the truck's tailgate.  As we enjoyed our apres, we watched a couple people pick their way down High Rustler and wondered if we should maybe put that on our list for Sunday.

Friday, April 17, 2015

in which we say goodbye to supreme for another year

I know I said last weekend was one of my most epic fails in figuring out what to wear, but I think I need to revamp that and say that this whole ski season has been one outfit failure after another.  Case in point: I did it again on Sunday.  I looked at Alta's weather conditions and forecast - I did - and it said 25 F at 5 a.m., mostly sunny skies, high of 46F.  I upped my game a little bit and wore my UnderArmor base layer, plus a pair of hand warmers, and at the very last minute swapped out my mid layer for a lightweight fleece to wear under my uninsulated shell.  But it was way colder than I had been led to believe - it was 19F at the top until nearly noon! - and I was not warm the whole day.  (Poor H got very, very tired of hearing me complain about my frozen toes.)  And yet, despite my poor clothing decisions, it was a very good day of skiing.

The conditions were pretty good, for one thing.  Alta had gotten about an inch of snow overnight and, amazingly, that improved things a whole lot.  It was dust on crust for sure, since Saturday's soft spring conditions had gotten rock hard overnight, but that dust was soft and nice to ski on.  It was awfully grabby too, for some reason, slowing our wax-free skis down a lot.  Because of the colder temperatures, it took a long time for the snow to soften up (after 2 p.m. by my count) but that little bit of extra really made a difference.  There were hardly any people there either, which helped keep the snow on the trails.  We started off at Sugarloaf, just doing laps on Devil's Elbow and Rollercoaster.  Extrovert was pretty hard and I only did one run down it, dodging a couple of other skiers who were not at all happy with the frozen conditions; H liked it quite a lot and skied it several more times.  I'm not sure he made any turns.

A little after 11 a.m., we went over to Supreme to see what was going on there.  This was the last day for that chairlift as Alta does a rolling close:  Supreme and Cecret close first; then Sugarloaf and Wildcat will close next Sunday; then Collins and Sunnyside will be open for one last weekend.  On each lift's last day, people usually give "lifty treats" (cans of beer usually) to say thank you for the season.  Not-Ben had been our favorite lifty at Supreme: he ran the lift line very well, not suffering any fools, and he came to recognize us when, weekend after weekend, we knew how to go through the singles line correctly.  I'd picked up a small bottle of Jack Daniels and when we got over to Supreme, Not-Ben was standing in the corral so I just handed him the whiskey and said thank you.

We did a couple of runs on Supreme (where we saw Stef from Skier Services who said that she knew we'd be there for the last day) and then went in for lunch because my toes were frozen.  After lunch, as we made our way onto Sugarloaf, Martha from Skier Services remarked that she was surprised we weren't at Supreme.  Apparently we've got a reputation for liking that lift - it's nice to be a local.  We then went around the EBT and skied Collins for a couple of hours, doing laps on Mambo, Main Street and Aggie's Alley.  As the snow finally softened in places, my legs began to fatigue and I tried something new: not turning so much.  Lo and behold, it is much easier on the legs to make long arcs instead of lots of tiny turns.  Who knew?  I'll have to try that more often.

At 2:45 p.m., we went all the way back to Supreme and managed to get in three more runs there before the lift closed - for the season - at 3:30 p.m.  After that there was nothing left to do but ski out via Collins, perch on the truck's tailgate and have a toast to another season on Supreme.  Two more weekends left.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

spring has sprung

This is how you know it's springtime at Alta - because you start seeing things.  Weird things, like skiing bananas, 1980s ski outfit, dragons and girafficorns.  You also see things like the local porcupine way up in a tree next to the Supreme chair and an avalanche dog, barking with joy while getting a piggyback ride down the mountain on the shoulders of a patroller.  But it's the weirdness, like the girl skiing whilst carrying her pet rabbit (a real life ski bunny!), that really lets you know spring has come to Alta.

Alta reported 32F at 5 a.m. so we knew it would be warmer than the last weekend.  I would have been fine in my layers (without hand warmers) except that I did an unfortunate last minute base layer change and should have stuck with my Under Armour shirt.  We figured that it would be more crowded on Saturday than it has been, given the midweek storm that dropped ten new inches in upper Little Cottonwood Canyon, plus Alta was having Demo Days (with lots of indie reps including 4FRNT, Icelantic, Moment, Soul Poles, RAMP, Kitten Factory, etc.)  Despite it being slightly warmer to start, things had still set up overnight so we started off our ski day at Sugarloaf.  There really weren't many people and the snow softened with each run, although thin clouds were building so it would only soften so far.  We skied there until about 11 a.m., ending up with a run down Extrovert.

We then moved to Supreme where Not-Ben* greeted us with a "How you guys doin' today?"  Challenger was in rough shape at this point with "natural melt" down to dirt and grass nearly all the way across.  It was still open but patrol had signs up warning folks of the poor conditions.  Patrol had also been busy shooting up East Castle all morning, trying to knock loose any potential snow slides, and now lots of people were hiking up and skiing down, which was entertaining to watch from the chair.

After lunch, we rode Sugarloaf up and took the EBT around to Collins - but we were horsing around on the EBT and the basket to one of my poles fell off, so we had to go all the way back down to get on the Sugarloaf chair and ski back around the EBT again to pick it up.  We stayed at Collins for the afternoon, doing laps and staying on Mambo, Main Street and Aggie's Alley.  At this point clouds had built up but it was warm enough that the snow continued to soften, with Corkscrew very heavy and sticky by the end.  We skied until after 3:30 p.m. and then had quick beers on the tailgate as the ski reps packed up their skis.

*  Obviously everyone tends to be bundled up in the cold of winter, including the Alta employees.  There were a couple of new lifties at Supreme this year who looked kind of similar: short guys with beards, wearing hats and goggles/sunglasses.  One of them had a name tag and was Ben (from Vermont, which we learned when we rode the lift with him one time).  The other one never, ever wore a name tag and so I called him, in conversation with H, "Not-Ben."  

Friday, April 10, 2015

thar she blows

This past weekend definitely goes down as my biggest fails in outfit planning: having not learned any lessons from being cold all day Saturday, I looked at the weather report - a little warmer but windier - and wore the exact same thing on Sunday.  While temperatures were a little bit warmer, I was cold all day, despite sticking a pair of hand warmers in my mittens. What I should have done, knowing we'd just be skiing groomers all day and not working very hard, was wear the light down jacket I picked up last summer.  That would have been perfect. 

We didn't expect a big crowd on Easter and the Wildcat base parking lot never filled up to halfway, even by the end of the day.  The lone parking attendant was so bored that he was alternately hulu-hooping and riding his long board around the parking lot.  (When he does both at once, I'll be really impressed.)  We went to Sugarloaf immediately where the snow wasn't rock hard; slowly warming, it was like skiing on granulated sugar.  The wind blew consistently, however, and then got gusty enough that we held onto the chair at least once a chair ride throughout the day.  We moved over to Supreme around 11 a.m., finding hardly anyone there.  It was much less windy too, with just a few gusts and snow-devils swirling at the top. 

For the record: the Easter Bunny is a 
much faster skier than I am

After lunch we went back to Collins and stayed there for the afternoon.  The trails that were at the right angle - Corkscrew, the top of Meadow, parts of Main Street and Mambo - got softer with every run (by the time we left, the bottom half of Corkscrew was heavy and very soft) but the trails that weren't soaking up the sun stayed pretty firm.  You could get an edge in and things didn't seem to be quite as scraped off as Saturday (with the exception of High Main Street, which H reported as much icier than the day before).  We rode with a patroller and asked him about last year's new avalanche puppy Fitz, whom we hadn't seen all season: avalanche dogs can't test for their Class A ratings until they're 18 months old and Fitz won't be 18 until the end of ski season, so that's why he hasn't been around so much.  Then, on the top of the very next chairlift ride, there Fitz was, outside the patrol shack at the top of Collins - he's turned into a very beautiful young dog!

Once again we skied out at 3 p.m.  We had a quick beer on the tailgate as some clouds made their way into the canyon from the Salt Lake valley;  the winds had brought a dust storm in from out west.  Time to call it a day.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

never quite warmed up

Ah, the vagaries of springtime.  We got a small storm earlier in the week, which dropped approximately two inches of snow in the upper Cottonwoods, and then a bit of a cold snap.  This meant that at 5 a.m. on Saturday it was 23F, meaning everything that could freeze solid, did freeze solid.  Of course I got my layers wrong and was cold all day; I should have gone back to the truck and gotten my hand-warmers at least since all we were doing was cruising (me)/flying (H) down groomers and thus not working very hard.

Alta was, not surprisingly, not crowded.  We had clear skies with sunshine but a consistent, chilly wind; at midday, high, thin clouds moved in but after lunch those clouds cleared and we were back to sunny and breezy for the afternoon.  When we started skiing Saturday morning, we went straight to Sugarloaf.  Even there the snow was hard and pretty fast.  Temperatures stayed too cold to allow the conditions soften much in the morning - we were skiing on sugar (granulated) snow but not corn snow.  It was cold on the lifts with the wind and I just didn't warm up as we skied because the hard conditions encouraged us to stay on the groomers.

We tried Supreme, hoping to get out of the wind, and found it slightly more protected from the breeze with not many people.  There were enough skiers, however, that the trails were starting to get scraped off fairly quickly, but with the good visibility we could see where there was snow and aim our skis there.  Our fingers and toes got cold and when we went in for lunch, we were both chilled enough that we never really warmed up, other than getting our fingers and toes back.  We went back to the Collins side after lunch, hoping that the snow would have softened there.  It hadn't, except at the very base where the corral was getting slushy.  The cat track off the top of Collins was hard and slick, treacherous for people not used to used their edges, and H reported that High Main Street was a sheet of ice.  Folks, we've skied on ice back east so this was actually ICE, not what native Utahns think is icy (what Easterners call "packed powder").

You can see how bare the mountainside is across the valley

By 3 p.m., it still hadn't softened much except in a certain few spots in direct sun.  More people had moved back to Collins at this point, which wasn't ideal because they would side-slip down some of the harder sections, scraping off what little snow was there.  When my fingers and toes got cold again, we called it a day, quickly downed a beer on the tailgate and headed home.

Friday, April 3, 2015

froze up

A cold front moved through Saturday evening, dropping temperatures overnight and freezing the slush solid for Sunday.  It was definitely cooler for the morning's start and we could hear the skis rasping and grinding on the snow as we rode up Collins.  Daunted by the prospect of skiing on that frozen corduroy, we went immediately to Sugarloaf for several runs but although the sun was out and the sky cloudless, the snow underfoot was clearly not softening as fast as it had Saturday.

There didn't seem to be all that many people out skiing, but all those who were there were skiing on Sugarloaf.  And when we moved back to Collins for a couple runs, we understood why: the trails off Collins, even the groomers, were still rock hard and really quite horrible.  We only did one run there, skidding through the turns on our edgeless skis, then rode the chair back up and went straight across to Supreme.  We were happy to note very few people skiing there.  When we got up to the top, we paused at the top of Upper Big Dipper to take a look: even though that trail had not been groomed - and consisted of scraped-off ice interspersed with hard mounds of frozen slush - there still were a couple of people trying to pick their way down.  Not us, no way.  Unfortunately, since No. 9 Express, Sleepy Hollow and Challenger were all in the same ungroomed and frozen shape as Upper Big Dipper, the only trail off the top was the cat track, down to Lower Big Dipper or Rock N Roll, so everyone skied that, making the cat track quite congested.  We did a number of runs, however, alternating Lower Big Dipper or Rock N Roll, which were finally starting to soften and skiing pretty well.

After lunch, we went back to give Collins another try.  We ended up staying there as those trails were getting softer with each run.  We noticed one major plus: for some reason the snow was not getting sticky like it had been Saturday.  (Another plus:  I pulled the orthodics out of my boots, replacing them with some old over-the-counter insole, and that seemed to fix my boot issues.)  By 3 p.m., however, my knees and legs had had enough of pushing the soft, heavy snow around and we skied out to sit in the sun on the truck's tailgate and have a couple beers.  We weren't the only ones with that idea: there were some other skiers a row over grilling up burgers and dogs on a hibachi as the sun shone down on the quickly-melting snow.