Friday, February 28, 2014

Snowbird, UT: 02/22/2014

I’m sure I would have been more than happy skiing Alta for a third straight day, but you can’t come to Little Cottonwood Canyon without skiing the Bird. Despite sharing a common boundary and appealing to expert skiers, Alta and Snowbird couldn’t be more different. Whereas Alta is spread out and has an old school vibe, everything about Snowbird is in your face, from the upscale base lodging to the 120-passenger tram that covers the Bird’s 3000 vertical feet in less than 10 minutes, passing directly over double black steeps that would make an Okemo skier wet his pants and cry for mama.

Boarding Snowbird's tram, Feb 22, 2014.

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Not that in your face is a bad thing. There’s amazing expert terrain everywhere you look. I have no regrets about how I allocated my 3 days in Utah, but getting to know Snowbird better is a reason to return.

After two days of stellar weather at Alta, we got dealt a windy, low-visibility day at Snowbird, at least starting out in the morning. Like a kid drawn to candy, we hopped on the tram first thing, catching the first or second car to the top. Filtered sun and flurries at the base turned to blowing snow and ski-by-feel conditions at 11,000 feet. Needless to say, we skied our way down into the trees as quickly as we could.

Top of the tram

First run: head for the trees

The actual visibility wasn't this good, I cranked up the contrast in the photo

The upside is that the inch of new snow on the daily conditions report was more like 4 inches in places. Visibility, depth perception and snow conditions improved dramatically as soon as we hit the trees of the Gad 2 lift. I can ski steep trees all day, but after a few runs on Gad 2 improving skies piqued our wanderlust.

Trees off the Gad 2 lift

Tram dropping out of the clouds from up on the Cirque Traverse

Foolishly, we went directly to the double black terrain off the Cirque Traverse. Visibility had improved, but the light was still flat. The tops of some of the runs (Great Scott) looked wind scoured down to rock. Skiable I suppose, but not by me, not today. I became separated from my partner Greg (no big deal really, we met up at the bottom) and as best I can tell from the trail map ended up skiing Middle Cirque and a whole bunch of steep trees back down to the tram. Like skiing Whiteface top to bottom, 3,000 feet of vertical in one shot is a lot.

Next up was Mineral Basin, where we found interesting terrain and some of the best snow conditions of the day. Visibility continued to improve too, with the sun shining through breaks in the clouds.

Mineral Basin

My friend Greg riding in Mineral Basin

Mineral Basin has chutes, scattered trees, good snow

A pocket of low-angle powder in Mineral Basin

With no time to waste on lunch, I found myself skiing solo by early afternoon. We'd had plenty of good skiing already, but I found myself wanting to find some really memorable terrain, like I had at Alta. I ruled out going back out the Cirque Traverse, and instead figured I could find an interesting mix of chutes, steeps and trees by heading out the High Baldy Traverse to the North Baldy area, the same terrain that will be featured in this weekend's Freeride World Tour. That terrain turned out to be fantastic, but I almost didn't make it there.

The 600' tunnel connecting the Peruvian chair to Mineral Basin

Looking out the High Baldy Traverse, Mineral Basin is on the right

A look back at the tram from the High Baldy Traverse

The tram provides the best access to the High Baldy Traverse and North Baldy. I boarded and we departed. A few hundred yards out from the base terminal, the tram stopped moving. After a 15 minute wait, we reversed direction and backed into the terminal and the operator announced the tram would be down for the rest of the day due to mechanical difficulties. Undaunted, I rode the Peruvian chair, took the tunnel under the ridge through to Mineral Basin, skied down and rode the Mineral Basin Express back up to the ridge line. Convoluted, but I got to the High Baldy Traverse.

Trees and steeps in North Baldy

A skier in the North Baldy terrain

The North Baldy terrain proved to be everything I was looking for, and it's an expansive area with lots of options. In retrospect, I could have spent all day up there. Like Alta, the long traverses are worthwhile. I can't identify the exact route I took from the trail map, but it was a mix of trees and steep, open terrain. A band of cliffs halfway down offered a couple of chutes or a ski-around. I watched a couple of skiers take the first chute, a twisting drop that I couldn't see clearly down. I really wanted to ski it, but chickened out and skied the next chute over - still cool terrain - with a clear line of sight.

Chute 1, the twisty drop. There's a skier standing in the flats at the bottom for scale

North Baldy terrain. The cheater chute is on looker's left.

I didn't think I'd get a second chance in the North Baldy terrain, but I got to the base just as the rope was being pulled across the Peruvian chair. The liftie waved me in anyway. Obviously I wouldn't have time to repeat my convoluted trek to the High Baldy Traverse, but I was able to traverse out from the top of the Peruvian to the lower half of the North Baldy terrain. This time I didn't hesitate at the top of that first chute. Piece of cake. Redemption. A great close to the day and the trip.


  1. I see you neglected to mention our hike back to mineral basin after we went past to lifts. We went just a bit to far for fresh tracks.

    1. Price you pay in pursuit of untracked. Next time bring your teles, it was really a pretty easy glide.