Thursday, April 20, 2017

Alta Addiction


The Alta Addiction - Courtesy of Alta Ski Area
Alta is all about longevity and loyalty and a likeminded love of snow! Skiing is dominated by diehards from the 70s and many of the stay-put staff have been happily working there for decades. Ancient Alta addicts appear from all over the Salt Lake City area to vie for downhill dibs whenever there is a new snowfall. And, although the demographics even out a bit on busy weekends, in the weekdays you're going to see a lot of ski-niors! There's even a dedicated group called The Wild Old Bunch, self-dubbed 'an extended group of "old time" skiers capturing Alta's long tradition of pleasant company and deep powder' - who meet daily at 11 am at Alf's mid-mountain restaurant

Alta Peruvian Lodge heated pool - Courtesy of AltaPeruvian Lodge
In the hot tub at the cute and cosy Alta Peruvian Lodge (where we stayed) the conversation always started with 'and how long have you been coming here?'. Our 'this is only our second time' was easily outdone by everyone else. The first day we skied with instructor and guide, Julia Howlett who has been living in a slopeside cottage there for the past 35 years. And, in a career where people seasonally move about all the time, Connie Marshall has beaten the odds by working firstly in the ticket department for 19 years and then 24 years for Alta's PR and Marketing department. 

Hike to Devil's Castle - By Simon Hudson
So, why does everyone keep coming back? The scintillating skiing, of course, is a main component in that. An average seasonal snowfall of 551" (1,400 cm) is the most compelling stat, coupled with a top elevation of 10,550 ft, a 2,200-acre layout of over 116 runs, and countless off-piste options accessed by hike and traverse - for example Devil's Castle, a vast sidecountry bowl, where we skied with Julia. Although it is known as an expert's enclave, there's also 25 percent beginner terrain and 40 percent intermediate runs, so plenty for every standard. Local skier, Richard Badenhausen (who I interviewed for my Snowbasin blog last week) faithfully skied Alta while his family was growing up: "We skied at Alta for ten years after moving to Salt Lake City in 2001. We absolutely loved Alta—our kids went through all the programs there and my actual Utah license plate read '5kialta' - I had to replace the 'S' with a '5 because the S-version was taken." He was drawn by the terrain at Alta and also the solid snow record: "They get great snow - the lake effect is especially pronounced at times. When other resorts are getting 3-4 inches, Alta can still get pounded with a foot."

Social dining at Alta Peruvian Lodge - Courtesy of Alta Peruvian Lodge
It is also the likeminded aspect which is highly significant in attracting high rates of repeaters to Alta. At accommodation like the Alta Peruvian Lodge, offering a European chalet-style atmosphere, everyone gets to mix and mingle and the home-from-home ambiance results in 75-80 percent return guests. "Since John Cahill  purchased the lodge in 1970, he has been adamant about maintaining the social aspects of the lodge," explains general manager, Todd Collins. "The 'family style' seating at all three meals each day is just one aspect of the effort to encourage our guests to get to know each other." Because the Peruvian provides all meals and even 'tea-time' snacks, everyone comes back to the same place several times a day - rather than dispersing around a variety of après ski offerings - and there is immediate recognition and rapport. This pervades the lounge area, the upstairs bar (which is incidentally the local workers' pick, too) and hot tub. Later, at dinner, everyone is randomly seated at round tables, dinner-party style, forcing everyone to open up and interact. Not for wallflowers, perhaps, but wonderful for everyone who likes to share their ski and mountain enthusiasm - and you never know, you may even sit down with Brian Cahill, one of the family owners of the lodge. 
Alta Village - Courtesy of Alta Ski Area
With many top ski resorts being developed and modernized for the mass market, somehow Alta seems to have evaded the renovating radar and kept its authenticity. It's bewildering, at first, for there to be such an extensive and radical ski hill - served by just seven chairs and three tows - and not to have the convoluted commercial infrastructure to go with it. "A lot has changed, yet Alta would be very recognizable to someone who skied here in the 1970s," says Connie Marshall. All the lift infrastructure has all been upgraded during her tenure and Watson Shelter was torn down and rebuilt near the old site a decade ago. "Alta Skier Services LEED certified building (Silver) was completed late summer, 2012," Connie adds. " It houses admin staff, season pass sales, lift department maintenance shop."

Courtesy of Alta Ski Area
Instead of a Main Street, the 8,530 ft high village which borders the slopes has slipped its services in the quaint lodges. There's a Childcare Center and the Ski School, of course, and a few ski shops and rental outlets dotted around the base. Other facilities are all attached to the accommodation lodges. For example, there's a spa at the Rustler Lodge, and just opposite is the Post Office and Library in the Community Centre. There's a medical clinic in the Goldminer's Daughter Lodge but no grocery in the resort - although Connie recommends the Albion Lodge for typical market fare. Other more recent innovations at Alta include the Backcountry Adventures program which includes cat skiing, Ski Six Resorts in One Day, Utah Mountain Adventures and heli skiing. These days, a volunteer naturalist from the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation heads up Alta's Tour with a Ranger program on weekends and holidays. The 45 minute free tour shows skiers around the groomed runs off the Sunnyside and Cecret Lifts, educating them about the fascinating flora and fauna. 

Parallel Powder at Alta - Courtesy of Alta Ski Area
With only a few skier-only resorts left in the world (including Deer Valley), Alta is unusual right from the start. Not only is the village a bit of a nod to nostalgia, but so is the pre-snowboard vibe. I even saw a couple of mono skis while we were there! When you ski up to the gate with neighbouring Snowbird, it is particularly odd to see snowboarders just over the other side. Skiers and telemarkers from both Alta and Snowbird - with the $128 Alta Snowbird pass or the $38 add on - can cross freely back and forth through the gates but snowboarders have to stay on the Snowbird side! It reminded me a bit of Belfast or the Berlin Wall!   

Alta is also part of the Mountain Collective, which means passholders can ski two days there as well as two days at Snowbird next season (this winter Alta/Snowbird was treated as one venue). The pass offers 32 days in total at 16 resorts which also include Snowbasin from next season. A great three-centre itinerary for passholders would be Alta , Snowbird and Snowbasin
Traverse to Ballroom - Courtesy of Alta Ski Area
Me at Alta
The Wasatch Mountain terrain at Alta is rugged, steep in places, with most runs following the undulating topographical contours. There is really interesting terrain in the black bowls, accessed by brief traverses through gates. There are bigger hikes, too, for example into Baldy’s for those after couloir cachet. I loved Devil's Castle, my fave groomer this visit was Race Course, and bowl of the day was Ballroom which we managed to hit after the slightly sun-baked crust from the day before had softened. 

There are many different ski groups which have chosen Alta as their hub. The Wild Old Bunch is probably the oldest, with more than 100 members who are ardent Alta addicts from all over the country as well as further afield from Quebec, Australia, England and Germany. "Most are avid skiers, but as some age they participate more for the social aspects," says Harriet Wallis, an award-winning journalist and photographer who is communications specialist for the group. "Most are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. But one gentleman is 99-1/2 and he skis like a teenager." Many of the members come just for the ski season, staying in Alta or further down the Little Cottonwood Canyon if they are from out of town, or commuting in from the Salt Lake City area. "They meet informally at the only round table in Alf's mid mountain restaurant about 11 am daily," says Harriet. "However, some days there's a large group and other days it's just a few. And if by chance other people are already sitting at the round table, the group splits up to other tables." It's actually a lovely stop-off point with a great sun-drenched patio on clement days. Can't get a latte there yet, but they do serve various maté drinks.

Me wearing my fur-trimmed Helmet Hugger (over my helmet - I know it just looks like a hat!) at Alf's Restaurant, Alta
Photo by Simon Hudson 
Alta's technical terrain has prompted a multitude of ski progression workshops over the years. The resort runs advanced and expert off-trail tuition for adults - These 2 1/2 hour workshops meet every afternoon outside of the Watson Shelter (cost $85). With a maximum of five skiers, the focus is on accomplished adult skiers (although older teens are also considered). The Alf Engen Ski School has identified three levels within the expert designation. "The first is an entry level to skiing off trail terrain for advanced skiers confident on all groomed runs and just starting to ski off-trail in small bumps, powder and ungroomed conditions. This entry level group usually has a lot of coaching to develop off-trail skills," says Ski School Training Director, Scott Mathers. 


Advanced Workshop at Alta - Courtesy of Alta Ski Area
"The top skill level group is composed of expert skiers with the skills and capability to ski any terrain and snow conditions at Alta including hiking and traversing to the highest country. The format for this expert group tends to be a lot of guiding to the best snow and terrain with a pointer or two for each participant to ski a little smoother, with more fluidity and rhythm in challenging situations." And there is a mid-level group which concentrates on honing skills and tactics in most black terrain off-trail terrain. It's a great way for newcomers to discover the full extent of Alta's expert territory: "Our workshops are quite popular with new skiers to Alta coming to learn Alta’s terrain. Many have such a great time in the workshops that on any given day quite a number of participants are return workshop takers," says Scott.

Kristen Ulmer's Ski to Live program at Alta - Courtesy of Kristen Ulmer
Celebrated professional extreme skier and author, Kristen Ulmer holds her 'Ski to Live' program at Alta. I met her in SLC a few years ago and heard firsthand about her motivational mindset-only camps: no technique tips, the aim to get 'mentally unstuck'. Running for 14 years at Alta, the 2, 3 or 4 day camps are life changing experiences for intermediate, advanced and even pro skiers. "We first take a deep dive into your unconscious mind to see where you are stuck in any patterns that don't work for you anyway, and set you free," says Kristen. "Once in flow, we then explore other forms of consciousness together, that maybe you've never had access to. By the end of the camp you are taken all the way into a whole mind, infinite experience." Insights gained from the weekend adventure radically impact skiing as well as life, relationships and work, she adds. Kirsten chose Alta as it is known for being the heart and the soul of skiing. "The vibe there is really lovely, down to earth, and the management is exceptional. They treat me really well and allow me to do something very very different than what is offered at other ski resorts." 

And Alta could be the ultimate place to switch to telemarking. The Telemarking Workshop is for beginners and intermediates (who are already accomplished alpine skiers) and there are private lessons for advanced telemarkers. By the way, have you ever actually seen a beginner telemarker? I haven't - they all seem to be born to it!

Alta Peruvian Lodge - Courtesy of Alta Peruvian Lodge
Hot Tub at the Peruvian - Courtesy of Alta Peruvian Lodge
More about Alta Peruvian Lodge:
Dating back to 1948 when it was constructed from a dismantled World War II nursing barracks, the Alta Peruvian Lodge has rustic rooms ranging from dorms to large two-bedroom suites (none of which have TV which I thought was great as it gets people out of their rooms and into the sizzling social scene - often in their hotel bathrobes). This is a purposeful policy, says GM Todd Collins, "to encourage our guests to spend most of their time in the common areas of the lodge, such as the main lobby, where they play cards and board games, do jigsaw puzzles, or simply relax, converse or read by the large fireplaces. The outdoor heated pool and 2 hot tubs is another fantastic meeting area. This concept gives our lodge a much friendlier feel, and even helps develop returning groups of skiers who arrange their future reservation to coincide with new-found friends."

In terms of ambiance, think quaint, cosy, with lots of wood and wainscoting, stairs leading down from the comfy reception and lounge area to the restaurant, outdoor hot tub and heated pool. The pool area has its own bar, encouraging everyone to linger with a libation longer to benefit from the fiercely therapeutic jets, soul-soaring views, and fun conversation. On the top floor of the lodge is another bustling bar, open until 10pm, and frequented by resort workers and locals. Having a bouncer by the door suggests the lively level of levity there. 

Food at the Peruvian is phenomenal! The breakfast buffet has all the typical hungry-hot and Continental-cold options plus custom-made omelettes, fruits, yoghurts, cereals. Lunch is another bountiful buffet, there are afternoon tea tidbits downstairs by the hot tub bar, and then dinner is gourmet with several choices for each course. Todd says the lodge is run like a cruise ship with a captive audience: "We know that the physical facilities, particularly the guestrooms, are called 'sparse' by some, mainly due to the size of the rooms compared to larger modern hotel rooms. For this reason, we feel it is important to raise the bar where we are able to, and this is where our fine dining food comes into play. Given that all meals are included with our guestroom packages, we know that we need to attempt to make sure that we provide a variety of culinary options each night. We make sure there is a beef, pasta, fish, vegetarian, and other options which change each night, as well as a grand buffet on Saturday nights. Our guests have also come to look forward to the baked treats and appetizers that we put out at 4:30pm each day. Little added touches can go a long way to making the guest experience even better." As a self-professed fair-weather 'advanced intermediate' skier, Todd's tip for visitors is the loop from the top of Collins, down to the Supreme Lift and then down to the Albion side of the resort. 

An Alta Addict - Courtesy of Alta Ski Area
With such a close proximity to SLC (32 miles from the international airport which incidentally now has direct flights to London Heathrow), weekends can naturally be popular at Alta - particularly Saturdays - so the Canyon road can be slow. And whenever there is fresh snow, Alta addicts appear to track out the powder pitches early. "There’s a reason people refer to the 'Powder Hour' at Alta: after a storm, the place gets tracked out in an hour or two. The testosterone/bro factor has also gotten pretty severe there," says Richard Badenhausen. So try to plan your visit to encompass some of the weekdays and make sure to arrive against the traffic. Because of Alta's phenomenal snowfall, the Little Cottonwood Canyon is prone to occasional road closures, so it is wise to consult the road status on their website before setting off. However, this means that lucky locals, and those already staying onhill, can get marooned there with all that perfectly-pitched powder to themselves! 

No news on events yet, but next season Alta turns 80 so be prepared for the powder party!

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Courtesy of Alta Ski Area

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