Alta: The last great ski resort

No glitz, no attitude, waist deep powder. This is why you love to ski.

Ski base lodge in Alta, Utah.
Photo: Photography by Brown Cannon III

Is this really worth it?

We hop off the Sugarloaf chair and onto a big “dump” (a record-setting blessing of snow) and join the parade of people inching their way, single file, up, up, up, and gliding precariously, over, over, over, only to climb again. Is this really worth it? I think to myself, sweating in the snow. I contemplate taking off my skis, but then I look up.

“Aw, it’s a bootpacker!” one guy yells at another fellow who’s stomping with his boards on his shoulders rather than suffering the steep sidestep with everyone else.
I press on, inspired by the unspoken camaraderie on the traverse toward Devil’s Castle―a wide-open bowl and depository of powder―and the shared anticipation among strangers bound by a passion for Alta’s almost guaranteed fresh tracks.

Still, exhausted―okay, panting really―I stop and watch as the hard-core hikers keep stomping; my heart is pounding. I look downhill at the almost untouched powder and decide I’ve had enough hiking. Who needs the untouched stuff? Time to ski.

After a blissful day on the slopes, the return to the Peruvian lodge is a comedown. The guest rooms remind me of my college dorm. There are shared bathrooms and a Ping-Pong table but no TVs. Still, the Peruvian, like all of Alta’s lodges, has a 75 percent return rate.

I’m honestly baffled, but by the end of dinner―a slippers-acceptable, family-style affair, where a wine collector wearing turquoise sweatpants shares rare bottles he brought from home and our table swaps stories like old friends―I start to understand.

But, unlike most of the longtime guests, who remain fiercely loyal to “their” lodge, never venturing steps away to check out another, I’m curious and leave Didi a few nights later for Alta’s Rustler Lodge, where things are a tad more civilized (read: pricey).

Now I have a television and my own bathroom, and reservations are taken for the window-walled dining room, where the next morning, I overhear a waiter bellow “Welcome back!” to guest Roger Urban, who has been staying here since his bachelor days. He and his wife―looking very ’80s (like the lodge) in their matching rainbow-striped rugbys―fuel up at the breakfast buffet, while their teenage daughter, Alexandra, heads out for a lesson with the same instructor she’s always had.

Meanwhile, I finish my eggs alone and realize that I miss the chaos of the Peruvian’s hostel-like atmosphere. I slip on my skis and hop the rope tow to meet Didi for another day on the slopes.

Alta never changes

From the chatter around the lift line, it’s clear that it’s not just the powder that draws people to Alta―it’s also the people themselves. Old college buddies, moms and sons, widows who used to come with their husbands … everyone returns without question. Likewise, all the locals I meet say they’d intended to come out for a season and do the ski-bum thing. But before they knew it, 10, 20, 30 years had passed―and they’re still here. “Alta just swallows you up,” says Craig Dillon, Didi’s ski shop crush, who, it turns out, is 41 and has lived here half his life.

And so, because people never leave Alta, it’s only natural that they grow old here. Not in the typical, canasta-by-the-pool way of growing old. Rather, Alta is like a real-life Cocoon, where the mountain is the fountain of youth. Senior passes start at age 80.

Didi and I return to the Sugarloaf chair and ride up with an 86-year-old couple. “Skiing is only getting easier!” the husband says, beaming. “Free tickets!” says his wife. Inspired, I make a mental note to be just like them in 50 years.

As we climb, once again, toward Devil’s Castle, a father whizzes by with a tiny skier bouncing on his shoulders. “Daddy? Are we at Devil’s Castle yet?” He hikes as far as possible, plops his daughter in knee-deep powder, and off she goes: a 4-year-old making fresh tracks. I watch, dumbfounded.

And determined. I decide to hike out as far as I can. I want those fresh tracks, and this time I’m willing to work for them. Heart racing, legs aching, I reach the end of the ridge. I rest for a moment and then dip in. Flying solo through feet of untouched powder, carving near-perfect turns, snow spraying like the pros, I realize that I’m floating. This is it. This is why I’ve come to Alta.

Later that evening, lounging around the Peruvian lobby after dinner―with Scrabble, impromptu sing-alongs, nothing to face tomorrow but more fresh snow―I get the feeling I’m continuing a tradition at risk of being lost forever to the fast-paced, froufrou world beyond Little Cottonwood Canyon. “Everything changes in your life ... so much,” reflects Leslie Johnson, who’s been coming here every winter since 1982. “Friends move on ... my family’s homes have come and gone ... but Alta, Alta never changes.”

I get it. I’m hooked. Another Altaholic is born. 

 

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