Thursday, December 31, 2015

throughout the week

H took the week off between Christmas and New Year's Day, allowing him to rack up the ski days while I toiled away at work.

On Monday, he dusted off his telemark gear and reminded himself how to ski on them.  Amazingly it wasn't that crowded up at Alta - so strange, during Christmas vacation - and he even managed three lift rides all by himself.  The light was very flat and the temperature cold but reasonable (10 F at peak, 20 F at base).  Ski patrol opened the Back Side in the afternoon (Yellow Trail, East Greeley, etc.), which they had been bombing the hell out of on Sunday, but he didn't venture in, his legs already fatigued from a whole day on teles.

Tuesday was cloudy and colder, damp, and just barely snowing off and on all day.  Again, it didn't seem crowded - which is strange.  H skied on his teles all day and although he thrashed his legs - telemark skiing is a lot more work than regular alpine skiing - he said he felt like he was starting to figure it out.  Bonus: just as H was leaving for the day, he met Toby, a huge, sweet, slobbery St. Bernard who is a Town of Alta resident (i.e. licensed and allowed in the canyon), who was just strolling through the parking lot with his human.

H hemmed and hawed over Wednesday until around 9:30 a.m., trying to decide if he wanted to ski with more of the same conditions-wise.  He did end up going up - because really, why wouldn't you? - but reported that it felt colder than earlier in the week (starting temperature at the base of 10 F) and all but one of his runs was taken in very flat light.  Again, the trails and lift lines did not seem too crowded but Alf's at lunchtime was a complete zoo.

At 7 a.m. on Thursday, it was -5 at Wildcat base and so, as I trundled off to work, H took his time getting ready for skiing.  It had gotten to not-quite 2 F when he got in line for the first chair of the day and warmed up all the way to 8 F by the time he called it quits.  The sun was out, however, and it's always easier to face the cold when it's under bluebird skies.  H reported that it wasn't as busy as he expected it to be - not doubt due to the frigid temperatures.

And now we're hunkered down at the house for New Year's Eve, a big pot of potato soup warming on the stove, sparkling brut rosé in our glasses and a Twilight Zone marathon on t.v.  Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

ah yes, here are the hordes

In hindsight, it must have been the cold temperatures keeping the crowds away on Saturday, although H has an alternate theory that people spent Christmas at home, then traveled Saturday, then showed up to ski on Sunday.  Either way, the hordes we expected were at Alta in force on Sunday and all the requisite tourist crowd shenanigans were present throughout the day:  erratic skiing, inability to get on/off lifts, lots of falling, confusion in the lift lines.  It started off cold again (around 3 F at the base of Collins, but with an inversion that had it at 14 F at the top) but warmed up to the mid-20s under the sunshine.

We started off at Collins, with me doing a couple of groomers while H immediately pounced on his Sunspot run.  I needed to warm up after that so we gave the Ballroom a try.  Patrol had opened it late in the afternoon on Saturday and there had been a huge line of folks waiting to get in there; by Sunday morning, it was all tracked out but the wind-buff kept it soft.  The traverse was a little gnarly in a couple of places but it was good enough that we went back and did it again right afterwards.  We also saw our favorite Alf's cashier out there, ripping it up on her tele skis.

This is really too far away to tell, but
there are SO MANY people there

We got over to Supreme as soon as it opened and as we had hoped/feared, patrol had dropped the rope into Catherine's Area.  The snow was fantastic, of course, since this was the first it had been open all season, but there were so many people in there.  So many people.  I don't think I've ever seen so many people on the traverse, not even after a big snow.  Most people dropped off the traverse in the So Long section; we went a little further out to Sunset - contemplated going further but decided against it, mostly because we were overheating from hiking and sidestepping whilst wearing down.  I did two runs in there before needing to cool off on a groomer.  H did one more than I did and then decided to ski back to Collins to put his down jacket in the truck.  I did another couple of Supreme runs - the rest of the hill was practically empty because everyone was out in Catherine's Area, tracking things up - and then met him at Alf's a little after 1 p.m.  This was an excellent plan because despite there being so many people, the later lunch meant we had no trouble scoring a table.

After lunch we did a Cabin Run, having to avoid a ski school group that was stuck in the deep snow, and then moved back to Supreme so H could have one more go at Catherine's.  I opted out because my legs were tired after three straight days on my Rossignols - I haven't done three days in a row on those skis since my brother came to visit.  We skied out a little before 3 p.m..  We hadn't gotten as many runs in as we have on prior days because (a) it takes longer to do Catherine's Area and (b) the lift lines were much longer.  But it still felt like a successful day despite the hordes, clear and cold and at least a couple of good, deep snow runs.

Monday, December 28, 2015

boxing day

I'll admit that we were both ambivalent about skiing on the day after Christmas.  We knew it was going to be quite cold and we figured that it would be very crowded, with tourists in town for the holiday and with local families on Christmas break.  We both mentally prepared ourselves for dealing with erratic skiers, people who didn't know how to work a lift line and cutthroat lunchtime table-snatching at Alf's.  We even left home a whole half hour earlier than normal, despite the clear roads, just in case the traffic was backed up.

Skied out but still soft

We got it half right.  It was quite cold, in fact: when they started loading the chairs, it was 5 F at Collins base and -3 F at the peak - and that's just the ambient temperature, without factoring in any wind chill factor which was forecast to be around -13 F.  We both dressed for it with our down parkas and I am pleased to report that I seem to have figured out my cold weather outfit.  I stayed pretty warm, all things considered; my feet got cold enough that I had to go in for lunch early but the rest of me was fine, even my fingers for the most part.  I did keep my face tucked into my gaiter/neck-up as much as I could, which is gross because of breathing and freezing and all of that, but which hopefully keeps those two small frostburn patches on my face from reappearing.

Supreme: my happy place

What we got wrong, amazingly, was the hordes of holiday-goers.  There just weren't that many people there.  Sure, it was as busy as it's been but we only rode the singles line once, at Collins for first chair, and for most of the day we didn't have to share chairs with other people.  Alf's filled up right at noon but there weren't dozens of people circling the room, lurking to snatch up tables.  The only time people were really an issue was when ski patrol dropped the rope on Extrovert.  H and I managed to time it well enough that we got a great run out of it: we had to dodge other skiers but managed top to bottom untracked snow (H: "Best run of the year so far.").  By the time we got back on the Sugarloaf lift, Extrovert was swarming with people - and there had to be at least twenty of them in various stages of falling, flailing around in deep snow they didn't know how to ski.  Ten minutes later, the trail was completely tracked out.

Pausing under a dark blue sky

We had some other good runs too, including a softly-bumped Razorback, a more successful Cabin Run now that some tracks had been put in, Challenger (big, soft bumps) and fresh tracks on Rock N' Roll.  It was a very good day, made all the better because we'd called it so wrong on the crowds.  Surely though, we thought, it can't last.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

christmas 2015

The last bit of storm rolled through Christmas Eve, giving Sundance an amazing 19" (!!!) but only giving Alta around four or five.  Still, it was going to snow off and on throughout the day, and four or five inches are just enough to freshen things up, keep them soft.  We did, however, get four or five inches in our driveway as well, so H had to shovel before we left.  We still got up there in good time, only missing first chair by five minutes.  Skiing Christmas has never been crowded and this Christmas was no different.  We enjoyed every moment of that too, because the coming weekend, as the start of Christmas vacation week, is going to be a nightmare of people.

Christmas Day chair selfie

We both dressed pretty warmly (temperatures ranged from 6 F to 18 F throughout the day) and for the stormy weather; it never bucketed down but it did snow all day.  I got my layers exactly right - down parka under my Flylow shell - and never got cold, except for my toes.  The wind started to pick up in the afternoon but not nearly as strongly as we had thought it might.  We did a couple of runs on Collins to warm up and then switched to Sugarloaf.  The snow was actually pretty good and when we jumped off the trails into the trees, it was deep.  Ski patrol has been working their tails off to get more terrain open.  With so few people there on Christmas, we got some good runs in.

In-progress ice beard

Supreme was open (apparently they opened it late Thursday, after H had left) and we had some very good runs there, even though Rock N Roll, Supreme Bowl and Catherine's Area were all still roped off.  No. 9 Express, the Erosion Gullies, the trees off of 3 Bears, even Challenger was good - and Challenger is hardly ever good.  After lunch (NOT crowded), we did a couple runs off Sugarloaf again, including a Cabin Run where we totally got stuck in the deep snow (waist-deep on me in places), before returning to Supreme.  We stayed there until 3 p.m., before skiing out and heading home.  We were reluctant to go because the snow was good and the lifts weren't crowded ... and that's not going to be our experience in the coming week.  A very nice Christmas Day indeed.

Friday, December 25, 2015

christmas eve

Big difference between skiing Christmas Eve Eve and Christmas Eve.  Once up at Alta, H (I was at work) found sunny skies, cold temperatures and so, so, so many people.  Luckily, ski patrol was able to open more terrain and although the lift lines remained big, he was able to get out of the crowds for skiing.

View of Little Cottonwood Canyon from Sunspot

He went out along the High Traverse several times (still rocky in spots), taking runs in the West Rustler area, and going out all the way and getting into the back side, where High Greeley and Greeley Hill were quite good.

Heading out on the High T

Alf's was a zoo at lunchtime, presaging an equally zoo-y weekend and Christmas week ahead.  But this last storm will move out by the weekend and hopefully ski patrol can keep opening more and more terrain, spreading the skiers out over more acreage.

Greeley Bowl starting to fill up

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

yesssssssss (qualified)

Finally, finally we've gotten some great snow!  Since Sunday night/Monday morning (12/21), it has been the snowstorm that just won't quit, with Alta getting 40 inches, Sundance getting over 50 inches and Solitude claiming the big total (to date) of 58+ inches.  For the first time in years, the Wasatch mountains are right around their "normal" snowfall for the date.  Fantastic!

H has some vacation days coming to him and so he went up to Alta on Wednesday.  Here are some of the texts I received while I slaved away at my office job:

8:49 a.m. - In line, with the traffic stopped west of Wasatch Boulevard.  Road to open at 9 and Town of Alta interlodged.

9:40 a.m. - Road now open.

9:12 a.m. - Starting to crawl.

9:18 a.m. - Made it to the sheep farm.  3 snow covered sheep walking around.  The rest are standing under the trees with vacant looks on their faces.

9:32 a.m. - Can see the traffic light at Wasatch Blvd.

9:54 a.m. - Just crossed Wasatch Blvd.

10:12 a.m. - On LCC Road.

10:31 a.m. - Wildcat Base.  Parking lot pretty full.  Not loading Collins.

10:52 a.m. - He's working to get it open:

Fitz, on the job (and the 
lift opened shortly thereafter)

10:55 a.m. - Just opened.  But only loading 2 at a time.

Then his phone shut down from the cold and I didn't hear from him again until he was at the car wash back down in the valley.  The report is that while the snow was quite good, the rest of the conditions really weren't.  It was extremely windy and thus cold (around 14 F at the base and 4 F at the top, not counting wind chill).  Visibility was terrible, between the low clouds and the winds blowing the snow around.  Although the snow was fairly light, it was difficult to ski because of the visibility: he'd be skiing along and then hit a pocket whiteout and have to stop because visibility dropped to about four feet.  It was tough skiing for sure: there was one poor tourist family, apparently here with their kids for Christmas, and they were so over their heads that a patroller had to guide them down from the top of Collins to Watson shelter, and then they downloaded on the chairlift from the angle station to base.  H did do eight runs, including a pretty good one in Fred's Trees, but most of the resort was still closed while patrol worked - Wildcat and Collins were the only lifts open all day.

Tough visibility, yes, but look at the snow!

Not the best day by any means ... but there's plenty of ski days ahead.

Monday, December 21, 2015

a bit on the breezy side

The Sunday-Tuesday storm we were hoping for came through for us, delivering around 40" of snow to Alta by the time it was all over.  This packed down by about half by the time we got up to ski it on Saturday but still: 20" inches goes a ways towards covering up the rocks.  We anticipated a busy day, between the recent storm and more lifts (Supreme and Cecret) being open, so we left the house at 8:30 a.m.  The road up the canyon was a little bit busier than it has been, but it was clear and the vehicles kept moving.  When we pulled into the lot at Wildcat base, however, we wondered where all those cars had gone - they sure didn't seem to be there.

Atop Supreme - at last!

We did a couple of warm-up runs on Collins, noting that while the last storm did a good job of covering up the scratchy spots, there were still plenty of rocks poking through off-piste.  It was a bit on the breezy side too and so we moved over to Sugarloaf, hoping that the backside of the mountain would be more protected.  It wasn't and, in fact, as per usual with the Sugarloaf lift, the winds were even worse.  We tried to escape to the now-open Supreme but ski patrol was still doing avalanche control and they wouldn't be loading the chairs until after noon.  We took an early lunch then, to warm up and kill time, and then returned to Supreme for the rest of our afternoon.  H gleefully jumped onto the ungroomed No. 9 Express, so happy to get off the groomers.  I found the ungroomed and bumpy stuff to be a little stiff and crusty, and difficult to turn in,  Still, it was fun to work a few bumps, even as my legs complained that they weren't quite ready for that yet.

Woohoo/not a groomer

Really the only issue was that I did an appallingly bad job picking my layers this time.  The temperature at the base was 24 F, with a high temperature forecasted for 34-26F under partly sunny skies.  What I neglected to take into account were those fairly high winds, blowing in advance of the next storm.  I just wore my shell over a thin fleece, which neither broke the wind well enough nor was insulated enough.  When we were out of the wind, it was quite pleasant and my layering was fine; in the wind, however, I was cold.  Just more data for the journal, I guess.

The next, small storm moved in overnight, leaving just an inch of new snow on the hill by the time we got up on Sunday.  We stared out the windows at the socked-in mountains and stared at the heavy, low clouds filling up the webcam feeds, ultimately deciding to give it a pass.  If it had been nuking, we would have gone up for some storm skiing; if it had dropped more snow overnight, we would have gone up as well.  But terrible visibility, super-flat light and an inch?  It just wasn't that attractive and we decided that we could be indoor kitties for a day.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

warm before the storm

No 10:30 start for us on Sunday!  We got back to our usual routine and arrived at Alta's Wildcat base in time to wait in line for Collins to open, scoring a much better parking spot than we had with our late arrival the day before.  It was a lot warmer - warmer than I expected, and I even ended up taking off my shell by mid-morning - still cloudy and with light winds, but with temperatures ranging from the mid-20s to the mid-30s.  A big storm was expected to come in late Sunday night/early Monday morning and this was indeed the "warm before the storm."  I didn't mind: my toes didn't get cold at all!

Superior behind me, H reflected in my goggles

A paltry inch of new snow had come in overnight but the conditions seemed pretty good.  The groomers had covered over some of the rougher patches (like the first pitch of Devil's Way, coming off Collins towards Sugarloaf) and everything seemed to hold up pretty well, despite it seeming busy again.  I think part of why it is busier is that the regular lesson groups are starting to show up: instructors are getting to know/reuniting with the 5-8 kids they'll ski with for the season and there's always a bit of chaos before things settle into routine.  We watched one instructor, Zachary, at lunch time: we remembered him from last year and he is wonderful with his group (five girls, two boys, ages 9-12?).  Whatever he's getting paid?  It's not enough.

Here's Fitz in action from 12/6/15
(PC:  John Shafer, Alta)

Sunday was a day for Alta's staff.  We had a lift ride with Heinz, a new skier service's guy, who was very pleasant, friendly and mellow and stoked about the new season.  We rode up Collins with a young patroller who asked if we'd be able to ski the storm.  When we said no, he shrugged, admitting that most of the mountain would still be closed while they did avalanche control work anyway.  He was hoping that they'd get enough snow to get more terrain open: "I can't stand skiing this place until High Traverse is open."  And we had not one, but two Fitz sightings!  We saw him in the morning, hopping on a chair with his handler for a ride up Collins; and then later, we saw him slung over his handler's shoulders, skiing down under the Sugarloaf chair.  Fitz has a good job.

Monday, December 14, 2015

10:30 people

Over these first few weeks of the ski season we have noticed a consistent phenomenon:  from Alta's opening at 9:15 a.m., the ski slopes are pretty much empty, until 10:30 a.m. when the late risers arrive.  It's uncanny - almost exactly at 10:30 a.m., every weekend day.  We prefer to get up there and ski from first chair because the snow is better and you don't have to wait in line (Note: this will all change once we get to Christmas ... or once we get some decent snow), but an awful lot of people are down for a 10:30 a.m. start.  This Saturday, we too were 10:30 people.

We had good reason.  Every year around this time our neighborhood organizes a food drive for the Utah Food Bank.  Instead of baking cookies for the neighbors, we donate non-perishables or money and get together for a little while at breakfast for the collection.  (You may remember our garage party of two years ago when we were the "hosts.")  This year the collection/get-together was Saturday morning and we visited with the neighbors for a bit before heading up the canyon.  We hardly ever see our neighbors since we try to get out on the weekends year-round; it's good to spend a little time with them - once or twice a year.

Action shot! Cruising past the angle station
(that's not the angle station in the photo, btw)

It's not like we were missing a whole lot up at the mountain.  There had been maybe four or five new inches from a tiny Thursday night storm, so everything was as it has been: hard and fast and rocky.  It was mostly cloudy, light winds, with temperatures ranging from 12-20 F.  My toes got cold (of course) but luckily Alf's is now fully open and we were able to munch on french fries while I warmed back up.  It seemed busier than it has been too - it sure would be nice to get some snow.  Opening up more terrain will help spread the people out.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

thin cover

I mentioned that we need snow, right?  We really, really do and it was quite evident on Sunday when we went up to Alta.  There was no new snow overnight so we didn't rush up there, pulling into the Wildcat base parking lot just before they started loading the chairs at 9:15 a.m.  There was hardly anyone there at that point, although it did get busier as the day went on; I suspect people looked out the window and said, "We'll wait."  Which would have been a good idea weather-wise* because when we started skiing, it was cloudy with very flat light and super-windy.  The only good thing was that it was fairly warm (too warm, really, for the time of year): already in the 30s at the base.

As far as the snow went, the conditions were certainly skiable, especially if you have Eastern experience.  It wasn't bulletproof - the warm temperatures saw to that - but the strong winds blew the top layer of snow off all the trails and when the weather changed, the clouds lifting, and the people started showing up, it got skied off very quickly.

We switched from Collins to Sugarloaf and back again in the morning, trying to find the side with the least wind.  By 11:30, the winds had dropped and the clouds were breaking up.  We went in for a quick lunch at Alf's and then went back out, appreciating the better visibility, if not the trail conditions and the increased skier traffic.  Surprisingly, the trail that held up the best was Sugarbowl, off the top of the Sugarloaf lift.  This section often gets scraped off quickly, due to how high traffic it is.  But on Sunday, the winds were taking all the snow from up higher on the mountain and dropping it into the Sugarbowl area.  I think people thought it was going to be icy but it really wasn't, not even right down the middle.

The rest of the trails were not faring so well, however, and I got bored with skiing the same two trails while dodging people.  We headed down-canyon around 2 p.m., glad as always that we'd gotten out on the boards, but ready for some snow.  Come on, Mother Nature, hook us up!

*  But not snow-wise because it got skied/blown off

Monday, December 7, 2015

what a difference a week makes

We need snow, that much is perfectly clear.  We are (once again) at a historic low and approximately a foot below last year - and last year was pretty terrible.  There's a storm system looming in our fairly-near future, however, and we're keeping our fingers crossed about that.

In the meantime, there's still some Eastern-style skiing to be done while we wait for snow.  Saturday's weather was so different from what we'd skied in last weekend: sunny, mostly clear, calm and much warmer, with temperatures of 12F at the peak/20F at base when we started, and near 30F at the base and 20F at the peak when we finished.  It was quite nice, actually; I love skiing when temperatures are in the 20s and - amazingly - I seemed to have gotten my outfit right for once.

Sunshine on the Sugarloaf chair

Alta was hosting a Demo Days with mostly local ski companies, including Ramp, Voile and Black Diamond.  It was not at all crowded to start.  We skied four or five runs off Collins, then moved to Sugarloaf and there was hardly anyone there.  Despite the better temperatures, I got cold around 11:30 a.m. (which is what happens when you're just cruising groomers over and over again) and went in, with H joining me after a couple more runs.  There were lots of Alf's workers having lunch together, enjoying the quiet during early season before all hell breaks loose around Christmas.  We enjoyed the quiet too, especially not having to fight anyone for a table in the cafeteria.  After lunch, we did two more runs at Sugarloaf before switching back to Collins.  It was busier there on the front side with everyone demoing skis and we had to take the singles line a couple of times.  The conditions were deteriorating quickly though, with high traffic areas getting pretty skied off, and we called it quits early, leaving a little before 2 p.m.

Early season has its own challenges, with low snow, not much open terrain and too many people on too few trails.  But I like it because you can begin to retrain the muscle memory in your legs, it is not nearly as crowded as it will become, skiing hard pack doesn't bother me because I know how to ski it.  Plus, skiing early season gets us up in the mountains which is the most important part.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

more of the same

As much as I love skiing, by the time Sunday rolled around, bringing with it just an inch or two of new snow, cloudy skies and cold temperatures, I had had enough.  I can suck it up for a couple of days of quite cold (read: not getting above 15 F) skiing, but I just couldn't face it again.  I had found a couple of frostburned patches (never froze/got white but blistered a little later) on my cheeks, just below my goggles and my toes were still sensitive from having gotten so cold on Saturday.  I told H he was on his own for skiing.

I really like this shot, looking up the Collins liftline

While I puttered around the house, doing laundry and DVD yoga and generally tidying up, H put on his down parka and headed up to Alta.  He reported that it was more of the same of what we'd been skiing: very cold (6F at Wildcat base area), flat light, light flurries, snow firm and fast but improved slightly with the overnight inch, not particularly busy.  When he got home, he said that I definitely would have been cold if I'd gone with him.  I hate to miss out on a ski day but in all honesty it doesn't seem like I missed all that much.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

seems like winter may have arrived

Saturday arrived, bringing a couple of inches of snow in the valley and cold temperatures.  H and I both opted to learn from our outfitting mistakes from the day before, this time donning down jackets with hoods and heavier base layers.  As we drove up Little Cottonwood Canyon, we wondered what the crowds would be like, guessing that it might be quite busy and with lots of kids (because Saturday) but then again it might not (because of the weather).

When we pulled into the parking lot at Wildcat base, there was hardly anyone there, and we didn't get a surge of skiers at 10:30 a.m., like we've seen other days so far this year.  As we stood in the lift line, waiting for Collins to open, we both pulled our hoods over our helmets: it was cold (11F at the base and 5F at the top) and lightly snowing.  Hardly any wind, however, and that was a big plus.  We rode Collins for the first part of the morning, taking Mambo and Main Street down again and again under the snow guns, which was a little treacherous in the flat light.  The inch of snow Alta had gotten overnight really worked wonders as we skied on the best conditions (read: least scratchy) of the year so far.

Trying to stay warm (and succeeding 
somewhat better than the day before)

At 10:30 a.m., they opened the Sugarloaf lift.  Skiers surged over there and we did too, eager to mix things up a little bit.  The snow guns were running there too, near the chairlift in a couple of places which made for a cold ride.  The snow was holding up well there too and we did laps on Devil's Elbow for the rest of the day, taking a break for lunch (and to thaw our frozen feet) at Alf's.  Alf's is not fully open yet - just beverages, soups/chili, salads and snacks - but we were glad to get back there to say hello to the familiar faces behind the line, back again for another season.

That's H and me, on Alta's website as one of
their Pictures of the Day!  Photo credit: John Shafer

I couldn't stand the frozen fingers and toes any longer than 2:00 p.m. and we skied out, taking the EBT from the top of Sugarloaf lift around to the top of Collins lift for the first time this season.  Although these little snowstorms bring an inch here, three inches there, it sure would be nice to get a bunch of storms that just dump a bunch of snow: even with the expanded terrain that the Sugarloaf lift being open has brought, we're getting sick of skiing groomers in order to preserve our ski bases.