In February of 2002 Carroll Lowe and I started our several year long tradition of an annual snow skiing trip to a western state. We started big by going to Salt Lake City and skiing at a half dozen resorts. Our good friend Annie Garwood was our travel agent, so she made the arrangements for our flights and hotel in Salt Lake City. Like a good mother hen, she called us several times during the trip to be sure we were okay.
The trip began on a tough note. Our flight left Charlotte, NC, at 6:45 a.m. on a Saturday. Carroll drove to my cabin to pick me up about 3 a.m. The weather was completely foggy. We could barely see the roads. We even missed the turn off NC-115 to Harmony and had to backtrack a few feet.
The first couple days we skied together at Alta Resort and Park City Resort. Carroll is a ski patrol member at Appalachian Ski Mountain in Blowing Rock. He is a better skier than me. He would usually head for the black diamond and double black diamond slopes while I warmed up on the greens and then opted for the blues. After a few hours or a half day of practice, I would try a black diamond or two.
On my first trip to a western ski resort a couple years earlier with a bunch of bankruptcy lawyers, we went to Park City. I had brazenly ridden the farthest lift to the highest, steepest, ungroomed slope, not even paying attention to the fact that it was a double black diamond. I thought, with all this deep snow, how hard could it be? Little did I know. The snow was older, consolidated, dense and tracked up. It was like trying to ski in a plowed field, hanging sideways on a mountain. I got the stuffing beat out of me. I was afraid I would never make it alive to the end of the run. Eventually I figured out to take off my skis and walk to the bottom of the slope. Then I was lost and did not know how to find the lodge or the closest lift. Some other skiers happened by and gave me directions. After that, I learned to follow the signs for both difficulty and direction.
After a couple days of sunshine, blue sky and mostly older, consolidated snow, we went to Snowbasin Resort. We got in my first ever big powder snow dump. We were socked in by fog and several feet of new snow falling in several hours. Once more in my hubris, I thought, with all this fresh, soft powder, how hard could it be? Again I went to near the top of the mountain, and promptly got lost. I was not really afraid of finding my way back to the lodge, since all the slopes lead downward in that direction. The real problem was the cloud cover and thickly falling snow meant I could not see two feet in front of me. And my glasses were completely fogged over. I could not tell where to go or where to turn. Eventually, I made it to the bottom. In the lodge shop I got my first pair of ski goggles. Visibility was still poor, but at least I could see a little better.
Skiing in deep powder is way more fun than in consolidated snow, but it still takes work. It is just different. If the powder is only a foot or two deep, it is wonderfully creamy feeling. If it three or four feet deep, it requires a whole new technique I can best describe as soaring. I tried to get into the soaring at Snowbasin, but the experience was too new for me to get very good. I mostly floundered. It is not true that deep powder snow is easy to ski. The snow will pack under the skis like real tall railroad rails, and it is easy to lose your balance and fall off to one side of the rail. It is more fun, though.
Then I tried something totally new to me. Carroll and I drove our rental car east of Salt Lake City to Little Cottonwood Canyon. Carroll dropped me off on the south side of the road at a trail head located at Jordan Pines campground in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, while he continued up the canyon to Snowbird Resort. He would leave me to my own devices for the day and come back to pick me up at a certain time in the afternoon. I had with me my randonee skis with bindings that can be locked down or left free in the heels. The skis also had skins that can be attached to the bottoms to facilitate hiking up a mountain in the snow where there are no mechanical lifts.
The first thing I saw after Carroll drove off was a big Forest Service sign listing all the dangers of skiing deep snow in the back country. It also listed all the kinds of equipment that are required – including avalanche transceivers, snow shovel, avalanche probe poles and a group of other people. I did not have any of those things. If I got caught alone in the back country, I could actually be arrested. Very fortunately, as I read the sign, a group of back country skiers drove up and let me join them. They gave me a quick course in deep snow travel. Among other things, it is deadly. People have been known to simply lose their balance and fall over into eight feet deep, soft snow and be left hanging upside down from their skis. They could not dig themselves out or get back upright and died there.
After getting oriented, we had a good time skiing up the mountain on our skins. This group was not hard core. We stayed on existing trails and avoided avalanche chutes. The going was fairly easy and I was fitter than most of the members, so eventually I moved to near the front of the line. I bravely made a few short side trips into deep, soft, untracked snow and was chastened by now difficult were even the simplest maneuvers. Just making a 180 degree turn was a yoga-like exercise in body control and mental concentration.
Then came the fun part! We took off our skins and skied back down the mountain in big, swooping turns. As long as you keep moving the deeper, softer snow is less dangerous, or at least more likely to hold you up when you start to fall. Back country skiing yields less downhill time than at a lift served resort, but it feels better to earn your turns.
At the appointed time, Carroll picked me up beside the road at the trailhead. I was quite tired and really enjoyed supper and a good sleep that night.
For our last day we chose to go back to Alta. I think it is my favorite resort. It is more basic and has fewer amenities than the other resorts. But it is a pure skier’s mountain. It is known internationally for the most snowfall, smallest crowds and the longest lasting powder in the world. On the lifts I heard other skiers speaking more foreign languages at Alta than anywhere else that we have been.
As we flew home, we made plans for our next year’s trip to Jackson Hole, but that is another story.