Friday, April 29, 2016

closing day, 2015/2016 version

Alta's second Closing Day for the 2015/2016 seemed like it was going to start off like the 2014/2015 closing day: with a storm bringing eleven inches of new snow overnight.  That was the beginning and the ending of the similarity, however, as this year we got there earlier, stayed later and pretty much had a good day to close things off.

The canyon road was closed until just before 8 a.m. since avalanche control work was necessary after the overnight dumping.  We left the house at 8:30 and while traffic was steady, it moved well all the way up.  The snowline was clearly visible at 6,000 feet.  As we climbed the canyon, it was fairly bright and clear until we got above Snowbird; then the cloud ceiling lowered to below the mountaintops.  The corral was full and the singles line stretched all the way out by the time we got in line at 9:10 a.m.  Everyone was stoked about the new snow but I was more concerned by the fact that it was extremely sticky underfoot.  It was much colder up top (22 F), though, so we didn't have any trouble with our skis.

In the Ballroom

When we first started skiing, it was busy but not terribly crowded (yet).  Ski patrol was shooting charges off all over the place, trying to get safe terrain opened up to spread the skiers out.  The Sugarloaf/Supreme side was entirely roped off at first, so we did a couple of runs down Collins, just down Mambo.  All the crunchy, scratchy spots on the groomers and low angle faces were covered by the new snow; H jumped into Fred's Trees and then just as quickly jumped out, reporting frozen bumps that the new snow hadn't stuck to.  Still, conditions were soft underfoot for the most part - although we could tell that with the high volume of skiers, things would get clumped up quickly.  The new snow was dense and extremely heavy.

H's view of me from the Cecret Lake moguls

Once ski patrol cleared the Sugarloaf/Supreme side, we went over there and had a fantastic run down Extrovert.  There had only been four or five people down it before us so the turns were creamy and largely untracked.  Just a couple hours later we skied past that trail and I was astonished to see that it was completely skied out and trampled - glad we got to it early.  That was the story of the day, really, as more and more people poured in.  Lower Collins got soft and skied pretty well but Corkscrew was a pain since we had to play dodge 'em, skiing around all the people who were struggling with the heavy snow.

My view of H, skiing the bumps

We ended up having several really good runs, actually: three times through Ballroom, where we found lines in around the debris from the avalanches ski patrol had triggered, and then once back over towards Supreme, where H had a great run all to himself over Razorback and down the moguls below Cecret Lake.  I had followed him over Razorback and struggled with the heavy, tracked-out snow.  But when we got over nearer Supreme, no one had been there and the smooth, dense surface was wonderful to ski on.

Closing Day selfie

We skied through lunch and by 1 p.m., my legs were really tired from pushing all the heavy snow around.  We did one last chair ride on Wildcat, watching the teenagers throwing themselves off the jumps still standing from last Sunday's Frank party, then skied out.  The sun was in and out, the breeze light, but it was still chilly as we drank our celebratory close-out-the-ski-season beers on the tailgate.  (Not as chilly as last year, however.)  Around us, other people were tailgating too, some high end with wine and fondue, others with cans of beers and deli sandwiches.  It was a very nice way to end a pretty good season, on a 100" base and over 400" total on the season, after that overnight storm.  And now we have seven months - for hiking and biking and camping and the rest of it - until the chairs start turning again.  Viva Alta!

Monday, April 25, 2016

next to last, 2015/2016

Our next-to-last day of the 2015/2016 ski season was actually pretty similar to our next-to-last day of the 2014/2015 season.  A front moved through Friday evening, bringing high winds and choking dust to the valley when we went out for dinner (pulled pork plates and local beers at Bandit's Bar & Grill), then settling in and bringing a few inches of snow to the mountains.  The forecast promised off and on snow all day, getting heavy in the afternoon, with gusty winds and dropping temperatures.  This of course sent me into a tizzy about what to wear and I didn't quite get it right.

They didn't quite get the forecast right either, though, as we found mostly cloudy skies, flat light, gusty winds, occasional spits of snow and temperatures ranging from 26 F (summit) to 36 F (base).  Snow conditions were soft-ish, although the new snow got clumped up and scraped off the more-frozen base as people skied throughout the day.  Low down near the base area, things stayed soft, turning to slush as the day wore on, even without any sunshine to speak of.  Nor were there any skiers to speak of - when we left, the Wildcat base parking lot hadn't even gotten half full.

Not to worry: avalanche danger was actually 
pretty low when we skied past Supreme

With only the Collins and Sunnyside lifts open, skiable terrain was limited, especially with closures like the High Traverse and the Backside.  Off-piste wasn't a great option either since it had been sunny midweek and the ungroomed areas were pretty crusty from sunbake underneath the newly fallen snow.  Mountain operations had groomed both Mambo and Main Street, however, as well as Aggie's Alley which was accessible if you were willing to skate across the traverse past Ballroom, so there was enough to ski on, even if we were skiing the same trails over and over.  We did do an "around the world" run, off the top of Collins to Sugarloaf, cut across to Supreme, down through Sunnyside and back to Collins via the interminable rope-tow; it was sticky and slow and we had it all to ourselves.

I wasn't really feeling it for some reason (probably because I was a bit cold all morning with my not-quite-right layers) and we bailed out at noon.  More snow was scheduled to move through Saturday afternoon and evening so the chances of some heavy, sticky fresh for Sunday morning were pretty good.  It would be nice to have a sunny, warm, real spring skiing day for the final day of the season - it doesn't seem like we've had that many real spring skiing days - we'll just have to see what Mother Nature decides to bring us.

P.S. I haven't talked about it because I try to keep things positive here, but the lawsuit against Alta is finally over - hooray!!!  A couple of years ago a group of snowboarders sued Alta, saying that since Alta is on leased National Forest Service land, they were being discriminated against by not being allowed to ride at Alta - never mind that there are thirteen other Utah ski resorts that allow snowboarding, including Snowbird which is right next door.  The federal judge in Utah smacked them down and then they appealed the decision, taking the suit to the federal appeals court in Colorado.  This past week, the appeals court smacked them down again with a 3-0 decision.  So Alta is, was and continues to be for skiers.

Friday, April 22, 2016

may the frank be with you

Alta sent out a tweet this morning, first thing:  "Closing day #1.  Today we Frank."  This refers to the 6th 2nd Annual Frank World Ski Classic (I'm assuming it's the 6th 2nd Annual this year since last year was the 5th 2nd Annual.  And no, I can't explain why it's named that way), the afternoon party and ski competition/show-off fest that happens on Alta's first closing day of the season, before the last run of the day down High Rustler (or "High Boy," if you're local).  But first, there was some skiing to be done!

The weather was pretty much identical to Saturday's, a little less windy perhaps, maybe a tiny bit sunnier.  I switched jackets back and forth a couple of times, trying to get my layers right.  My toes were cold all day but there was enough sun to work on my goggle tan so we're going to call it good.  Conditions had set up overnight so that it was a little frozen.  We stuck to the groomers all morning with one notable exception: when ski patrol cleared Devil's Castle and dropped the rope.

Good stuff in Devil's Castle

All day Saturday we had been eyeing Devil's Castle and hoping that patrol would do a morning route to clear the avalanches.  Ski patrol came through and we joined the long line on the traverse.  We didn't go in very far, not caring to sidestep along in the line any longer than we had to, but when we dropped in, we found wonderful snow, even in that first section below Sugar Shoulder.  The snow was decently deep, probably around eight inches, soft and extremely easy to ski in - even for me.  We went straight down to the cliffs above Cecret Lake, then cut to skier's right and went out through the trees into Boulder Basin.  In the trees the snow was soft and light; out in the sun it had settled enough that I could ski right on top without breaking through.  Super fun all the way around.  H went back and did another run in the Castle while I begged off: I figured it wouldn't get better than that one run I did, plus my right quad was feeling like I might have pulled it a bit.

Revelers in line for the little
two-seater Wildcat lift

After lunch we did one run down Extrovert, which was finally starting to soften up, and then headed back to Collins to see what was going on there.  The party was kicking into gear with all sorts of costumed skiers queuing up to get on the Wildcat lift.  Notable costumes included Batgirl, Wonder Woman, Elmo, Cookie Monster, hotdogs, tacos, Gumby, dragons, lots of spandex and bedazzling, vintage 80s one-pieces and an excellent pale blue tuxedo.  There are so many weirdos at Alta.  I just love it.

Ringside seats

Rather than standing in that monster line, we did a couple more runs off the Collins lift before we noticed that some people were traversing all the way around to get to the Frank party, from the top of Collins, across the Ballroom to the Shoulder Traverse, under Baldy Shoulder to the top of the Wildcat lift.  People seemed to be making pretty good time doing that so we thought we'd give that a try, rather than waiting in line for the Wildcat lift.  The traverse was extremely gnarly in spots and we had to navigate around some giggly, drunk-ish girls in purple spandex at one point, but we made it around quickly and skied down to find a good perch to observe the shenanigans.

There's a guy in green in the center, mid-air

There's a fair amount of shenanigans up there at Frank: people are definitely out to party.  But the crowd was also very appreciative of the competitors who were hurtling down a monster bumps run at the edge of Punch Bowl and then throwing themselves off one of the five or six jumps that had been painstakingly built.  Any little kid who gave it a try got cheers from the audience and the biggest roars of approval came for (a) the couple of guys who did front flips (instead of the more plebeian backflips) and (b) the several naked skiers, including one topless chick.

A whole conga line on the bumps run

We watched for about an hour, until the clouds rolled back in and began spitting snow.  We skied out, toasted Closing Day #1 with a tailgate beer, then headed down canyon after inching our way out of our very tight parking spot.  Lots of people had come up for Closing Day #1.  Three more days of lift-serviced skiing at Alta remaining in the season - we're hoping to get two more of them.

Party on, Frank

Monday, April 18, 2016

grip it and rip it

Northern Utah got a very nice midweek storm, bringing about eight dense inches of snow to the Cottonwood Canyons, just in time for Alta's first closing weekend.  As we drove up Saturday morning, we weren't really sure what we'd find.  It had been cold enough to frost the rooftops in our neighborhood and a low band of clouds was trapped in the canyon, but the winds were moving things around and the sun looked to be coming out.  We ended up with partly sunny conditions, fairly constant winds and cool temperatures staying in the low 20s at the summits and mid- to high 30s at the base.  I was too stubborn to wear my boot covers so my toes were cold but the cooler temperatures kept the snow from getting too sticky, which was very nice.

In the Ballroom, second run of the day

The snow was much better than we expected.  It had been windy overnight so there was a lot of blown-in snow, filling in ruts and bumps.  Where it was groomed it was soft and not just chunked-up ice.  Where it was untracked it was smooth and soft, fluffy in the protected areas and heavier where the sun could get at it.  Over time, as the conditions got tracked out, the off-piste snow got quite a bit heavier, to the point where it was difficult to push through.  And at the end of the day, lower Collins - from the angle station to the base - was just delightful, very soft and buttery but not sticky or slushy.

Into Gunsight

Despite the Wildcat base parking lot being more full than it has been in weeks, there really weren't very many people there.  Aside from first chair, we never waited in lift lines all day, pretty much skiing right onto the lift each time.  A couple of times there would be a small crowd of people, like when skiers lined up on the ridge, waiting for patrol to drop the rope into the Backside, but sometimes we were the only people on the trail, if only for a moment or two.  It was lovely.

Out of Gunsight

H was back on his alpine gear and was taking advantage of it, doing Gunsight, Keyhole, Chartreuse, and the Backside, and jumping into the trees whenever he could.  I elected to avoid the hikes (my legs were a little fatigued since I had missed skiing the weekend before) but had a fantastic run through Glory Gulch, starting along the little ridge to skiers' right of Keyhole, into Glory Gulch and up and out to skiers' left, then down through Glitch (or maybe Glatch).  I wasn't the first skier in there but it looked like there had only been one or two ahead of me and the snow was really good.

Patrol shot the Backside up like crazy -
you can see all the slide rubble

We did a couple of runs up and over Razorback, then going in through a gate and down the bumps below Cecret Lake, finishing out once past the now-closed Supreme and twice via the Cabin Run.  Extrovert skied well all day but we did look longingly across the valley at the skiers skinning up Rock N' Roll and getting first tracks down Challenger.  Ski patrol did not go into Devil's Castle all day - and it looked so good! - so we were hopeful that they would maybe schedule an early morning route and drop the rope on Sunday.

About to drop into Keyhole

By 2:30 p.m., the snow was getting heavy and my legs had had it.  We perched on the tailgate for a quick beer, watching the clouds create shadows on the flanks of Superior above us, then hopped into the warm truck to head home.  Only three ski days left at Alta for the 2015/2016 season!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

farewell supreme

As I mentioned, H ended up having to work for most of last weekend.  But by early Sunday afternoon, he was able to get away and go up to Alta for a couple of hours, just long enough to say farewell to Supreme.  Alta does a rolling close at the end of every season: the Supreme and Cecret chairs close first; then the next weekend there's the official closing of daily operations, the last weekend for Sugarloaf chair and all the shenanigans of the Franks World Classic Ski Competition; and then they reopen for one final weekend, with just the Collins and Sunnyside chairs running.

Looking back at the chair from 
the entry to Catherine's Area
View from Catherine's

It makes sense that they're closing, I guess, even with a 90-ish inch base: when H got up there Sunday afternoon, the Wildcat parking lot was less than half full and people were heading down canyon at a constant pace.  He skied onto the lift every time, never waiting in any lines - there just wasn't anybody there, relatively speaking.

Our favorite glade in Catherine's Area

H went straight up Collins and over to Supreme, wanting to get as many runs in there as he could before the chair closed at 3:30.  He managed to run the hill, starting with a run all the way in at Catherine's Area (and he figured that that was possibly only the fourth time he'd been in there all winter, what with his telemark focus keeping him on piste) and then successive runs down Challenger, No. 9 Express, Sleepy Hollow to Three Bears, Big Dipper and Rock N' Roll.

Looking up Supreme chair one last time

When Supreme closed, H moved to Sugarloaf and then when it closed at 4 p.m., finished out the day on Collins, each time nearly nabbing the last chair of the day.  What had been partly cloudy skies cleared into a pretty nice day and the snow, while very soft, was not nearly as sticky as it has been earlier this year.  He didn't linger after everything closed down at 4:30 p.m., having to get back down canyon and back to work, but he was glad to have been able to squeeze in at least a few runs and putting himself over his 1,000,000 vertical feet goal.  The end of the ski season is within sight and now, every run counts.

Until next season

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


There is indeed a post pending but you'll have to wait just a little longer for it.  I was out of town, gone back east to see family, and H ended up having to work more over the weekend than he would have liked, but he made it up to Alta for some runs on Sunday, Supreme's last day for the season.  As soon as I get his thoughts together, I'll share his afternoon on the hill with you.

Friday, April 8, 2016

sticky stuff

The weather guys ended up nailing the weekend forecast: full sun on Saturday; partly sunny but warmer on Sunday.  Regardless of how much sun there was in the sky, it was full-on spring skiing at Alta.  Because of the very heavy snow, H decided to switch to his alpine gear for Sunday.  I have really admired his dedication to telemark this year, even though it has meant that I haven't skied with him all that much.  Of course, this time, with him back on his Blizzard Cochises, we weren't skiing together that much either as it was more me trying to keep him in sight.  Still, we rode most chairlift rides together.

Conditions started off fairly fast on frozen corduroy, although we could tell that it was going to soften up very quickly.  We did four runs on Collins - including one down a new groomer track, through Sunspot, down to the top of Corkscrew - and the conditions were pretty firm.  I thought Corkscrew was a bit of a mess towards the bottom, where they had chunked up the ice into what we referred to back East as "frozen death cookies."  I found this hard on my legs and feet and after four times through it, had had enough.

H wanted to do a couple more runs on the front side so we planned to meet up on Sugarloaf in a bit.  There was scarcely anyone skiing so I found him again easily after two runs.  The snow was much softer on this side and even Extrovert was skiing well, particularly soft on skier's right.  By 11:00 a.m., however, it was already getting heavy and people were falling all over the place, getting caught up in the clumps.

With all the telemark skiing he has been focusing on, H hasn't been off-piste very much, so on our first Sugarloaf chairlift ride together, he suggested running around the EBT and going into the Backside.  It was extremely soft in there, but not as heavy as I thought it might be.  Still, I skipped going through the Glitch/Glatch chutes at the bottom, opting for an end run down below.  On the next chair ride (and we were all but skiing right onto the lift each time), I suggested that we give Devil's Castle a try, seeing how H hadn't been in there hardly at all.  We passed three people on the traverse and then picked our spot to descend in the Sugar Mountain area.  The snow was quite deep - H got stuck for a moment when his skis dove into a soft patch; he may have had snow in his helmet for a few minutes until it melted in the sun - and heavy; I struggled and flailed in it.

The skies are even bluer than my softshell

After lunch, we move on to Supreme, doing a Challenger run (soft but with people on it) before heading into Catherine's Area.  As had happened for me the day before, we had it to ourselves - a far cry from those stormy January days when it seemed like everyone on the mountain was in there.  We went in as far as Snowshoe Hill and went down through there.  H pushed through the soft, heavy snow like a hero but my legs were fatigued at this point, and I skied it terribly.  When I caught up with H at the bottom of the pitch, I just shook my head.  There are some runs when I feel like I'm a good skier and then there are runs like that one when I wonder why I ever bother strapping those boards to my feet.

From that point on in the day, it just got hot, even with the gathering clouds.  The snow got incredibly sticky, grabbing our skis even on the pitches and slowing me to a near stop on the flats.  I suggested that we go back to Collins, where it gets the sun later and maybe the snow wouldn't be so sticky, but on our run down, I just barely kept from a massive wipeout when the snow yanked at my left ski.  I told H that I was done for the day, not wanting to risk wrenching a knee or my back, and he was perfectly willing to join me at the Goldminer's Daughter for a PBR.  That's the thing about spring skiing: when you're done with the skiing, there's still plenty of sun to be had on the patio.

Editorial note:  The next post will be slightly delayed due to a conflicting schedule.  Not to worry, however, as there will still be skiing at Alta and reporting thereupon.

Monday, April 4, 2016

tick tock

Tick tock.  That's the sound of the clock winding down on the ski season.  Most of Utah's ski resorts will close next weekend (April 10); Snowbird isn't saying when it's going to close - currently, "open for winter" - but they are always the last, stretching the season to Memorial Day at least.  Alta's very last day will be April 24, but their first closing day (the one with the big party) is April 17: they will then be closed during the week. reopening for that last weekend.  It's gone so quickly this year.  It seems like it was just February and here we are, into April, with goddamn dandelions popping up in our yard.  (No wonder I prefer winter: no dandelions.)

Coming down through the Ballroom

After another midweek storm that dropped up to three feet in spots along the Wasatch, Alta's base is at 112 inches, perfectly respectable.  Wednesday had been the day for pow and we knew that things would be tracked out by the time we got up there on Saturday.  The skies were perfectly clear and blue, there was hardly any wind and the sun would strengthen mightily throughout the day - a gorgeous day for spring skiing.  Even better, there was hardly anyone there for some reason and we were able to ski right onto the lifts more often than not.

I never ever get tired of this view

It was a little firm to start as H, back on his teles, and I cruised the Collins side for four runs.  Above us, Baldy had been well-skied, showing tracks all across its face and down through its chutes.  I tried one run through the Ballroom, finding it chunky and not quite as soft as I had hoped.  We switched to Sugarloaf and skied together there for a couple of runs.  At a different angle to the sun, some of those trails were starting to soften up.  Extrovert, which was not getting sun-softened, still skied pretty good, having been groomed the night before.

112" base, baby

We split up for an hour before lunch, H staying at Sugarloaf while I went over to Supreme.  I could hear skiers clattering over some frozen ruts coming out of Catherine's Area and decided to hold off on that until after lunch.  No. 9 Express and Sleepy Hollow needed some additional warming as well; Challenger wasn't too bad and I knew it would soften quickly in the sun.  This was one of the few days at Alta where absolutely everything was open, including Supreme Bowl, Devil's Castle, Baldy and East Castle.  There was a well-trodden side-step put in up East Castle and lots of people were availing themselves of it.  I was leering of skiing it without H so instead I went into a high gate off Upper Big Dipper.  Although there was still a bunch of untracked snow in there, I was a little disappointed to find that there was a thin crust on top of it all: I could push through fine going straight but turning was difficult.  I came back out onto Rock N' Roll as soon as I could and confirmed with myself that I would not be doing East Castle.

Amazingly, I had Catherine's
Area all to myself

After lunch H skied with me on Supreme.  I did give Catherine's Area a go and found it very heavy.  Not enough people had skied it so it was chunked up and I wasn't strong enough to push through it, bouncing off the clumps instead.  Back on the groomers, things were getting soft, sticky and heavy quickly - tough on tired legs.  H skied until 2:30 and I met him at the truck shortly thereafter, both of us with shaky legs from the exertion.  Such is spring skiing with its changeable conditions.  Also a part of spring skiing: a couple of beers on the tailgate of the truck, of course.