Climbing from the warmth of Snowbasin Ski Resort's tram out onto the windblown shoulder of 9,465-foot Allen's Peak, I can see the Great Salt Lake shimmering far below. I step into my skis and turn to glance down the steep pitch of the slope, wondering if I should have stayed on the lift. This isn't Snowbasin's toughest run. But it is the exact spot where the world's best skiers will start the Men's Downhill in the 2002 Olympic Games.
I'm nowhere near that good, but the soft snow, endless blue sky, and the skiers stacking up behind me convince me to point my skis in the general direction of the finish nearly 2 miles--and 2,959 vertical feet--below. I take my time, conservatively zigging and zagging down the steep black-diamond run. Of course the world's best won't be so prudent: They'll need to scream down the course at speeds approaching 90 mph if they hope to win a medal. But this winter I can take the course at my own pace, stopping to enjoy the panorama of wintry peaks stretching along Utah's Wasatch Front.
This isn't the only Salt Lake City Olympic site that's ready for a test-drive. Though they won't be needed until February 2002, nearly all of the Wasatch Region's Olympic venues are already completed and open for business. There's snowboarding and skiing on Olympic courses at Snowbasin and Park City Mountain Resort, and skiing at Deer Valley. Nordic skiers can kick and glide or skate-ski at the Soldier Hollow venue in the Heber Valley. The adventurous can squeeze into a bobsled for an icy ride down Park City's Utah Olympic Park track, while the curious can even learn the art of sliding a curling stone in Ogden.
Some of the world's elite will be competing here this winter. The Salt Lake Organizing Committee must test its venues before the Games arrive, so more than a dozen events--from bobsledding and figure skating to freestyle aerobatics and downhill racing--are scheduled.
And if all you're really searching for is to steep yourself in the snowy Rocky Mountain landscape, there's always a horse-drawn-sleigh ride or moonlit snowshoe hike followed by dinner in front of a roaring fire.
Technically, the 2002 Games belong to Salt Lake City, host of the opening and closing ceremonies, and home to the airport, and athlete's village. In reality, though, competition will take place all over north-central Utah.
Park City, which has long been on the international winter sports map, will be ground zero for most of the skiing, snowboarding, jumping, and sledding events. This season it's also the best base for trying the venues yourself or attending one of the test events.
Chat with people you meet both on Park City's slopes or in Main Street hangouts like O'Shucks Bar & Grill, and you might end up rubbing elbows with some of the athletes who will compete in 2002. Both Eric Bergoust, a gold medalist in aerials at the Nagano Olympic Games, and Joe Pack, a prohibitive medal favorite in the event at this point, live in the Park City area and hone their airborne twists and turns at Utah Olympic Park. Olympic ski medalist Picabo Street also lives in the area and, as director of skiing at the Park City Mountain Resort, cruises those slopes when she's not racing.
Still, for all the hoopla starting to surround the Olympics--pin collecting is already hot along the Wasatch Front--most athletes train here in relative anonymity. Even some of their sports are low-profile.
Take skeleton. One evening at the Olympic Park, I bump into Lincoln DeWitt, who until 1997 couldn't tell you the difference between a skeleton sled and a Flexible Flyer. A Vermont transplant who moved to Park City to teach skiing, he discovered the obscure sliding sport when a friend suggested, over beers, that they sign up for a clinic being held at Olympic Park. A lanky computer programmer then 30 years old, DeWitt wasn't fazed by a sport in which you ride face down, trying to hang on to a dinky sled while whipping through the bobsled track's 15 curves at speeds faster than 80 mph. North American champion last season, DeWitt is now a serious Olympic contender.
After watching DeWitt do a few practice runs, I too think it would be cool to roar down the track. Even cooler to do it in a four-man bobsled. And in fact it is incredibly cool--until the second turn. The professional driver keeps the sled upright, but slamming through the curves at 70-plus mph while pulling several g's on the biggest turns leaves me with a sore neck, wobbly knees, and a healthy new respect for bobsledders. After I pull myself back together, I am also left with a hunger to try it again--even at $175 a ride.
Still, sampling Utah's Olympic venues isn't all about speed and potential for bone-jarring crashes. Though Olympic Park visitors can also try soloing on a modified luge called an Ice Rocket or learn how to ski jump off one of the venue's smaller ramps, there are tamer sports to try. Turning my back on Park City and the Olympic Park, I head northwest 60 miles to Ogden and the Ice Sheet.
Within this nice, warm indoor ice arena, I come face-to-face with a 42-pound stone and quickly learn some of the intricacies of curling. A sport of sweat as well as touch, curling dates to 16th-century Scotland, where farmers exorcised winter's boredom by sliding river-smoothed cobbles across frozen ponds and lochs. Fitted with a "slider" over one shoe and armed with a broom to sweep the ice-covered court in a frenzied bid to control my teammates' stones, I quickly come to enjoy this slippery cross between bowling and shuffleboard.
Gliding along the neatly groomed nordic tracks at Soldier Hollow is a great way to appreciate the daunting task facing the world's best skinny skiers in 2002. The hilly course, cradled in a northeast-facing bowl and surrounded by the rolling sage- and willow-covered hills of Wasatch State Park, quickly brings a burn to your thighs. It also takes you back into silent, snow-covered country for mountainside views. The timbered day lodge, scheduled to open January 1, is the perfect place for contemplating your Olympic stamina over a hot drink in front of the stone fireplace.
While the process of bringing the games to Salt Lake City has been tarnished by controversy, the results so far have been nothing short of spectacular. Olympic Park's sledding tracks and ski-jumping hills appear destined to become the West's first national training centers for those sports, and a legacy fund is expected to keep the park in business. Ski areas that have been drawing winter lovers to the Wasatch Mountains for three decades have put on new faces, upgrading facilities and services that will be worth visiting long after the Olympic Torch is extinguished.
Having survived the bobsled, safely negotiated the downhill course, and learned how to heft and somewhat deftly slide a curling stone, I've come to better appreciate what it takes to become an Olympic athlete. More selfishly, though, with Utah's 2002 venues now up and running, I know I won't have to wait another four years to improve on my performances.
For details on the Olympic venues and test events, updates on the 2002 Winter Games, and ticket information as it becomes available, check the Games' official website, www.saltlake2002.com.
Most years there's dependably good skiing from Thanksgiving into April. Information on Utah's alpine and nordic ski resorts, including trail maps, ticket prices, and packages, can be obtained from Ski Utah at (800) 754-8824, (801) 534-1779, or www.skiutah.com.
For travel guides including lodging, dining, and local activities, contact the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau (800/541-4955 or www.visitsaltlake.com), Park City Visitors Bureau (800/453-1360 or www.parkcityinfo.com), or Ogden/Weber Convention and Visitors Bureau (800/255-8824 or www.ogdencvb.org).
Deer Valley Resort. Snowboarding is banned, but carefully groomed slopes and beginner and intermediate runs over 65 percent of the area offer easy skiing. Olympic slalom races will be held on the Know You Don't trail, freestyle aerials on White Owl, and the moguls event on Champion. 2250 Deer Valley Dr. S, Park City; (800) 424-3337, (435) 649-1000, or www.deervalley.com.
Ice rinks. Skating opportunities at Olympic venues are limited. But you can practice your triple axels in downtown Salt Lake City outdoor rinks at the Gallivan Center Ice Rink (239 S. Main St.; 801/596-2874 or www.gallivanevents.com), the Peaks Ice Arena in Provo, which will host Olympic Ice Hockey (100 N. Seven Peaks Blvd.; 801/377-8777 or www.peaksarena.com), or Park City Mountain Resort in Park City (see below).
Ice Sheet. Learn how to curl in this enclosed rink on Thursdays between 11 and 3; $6.25 gets you onto the ice and outfitted with a broom and slider. 4390 Harrison Blvd., Ogden; (801) 778-6300.
Park City Mountain Resort. The picturesque old mine buildings along the resort's ski trails will get plenty of TV time next winter. The giant slalom racecourse on CB's Run is usually closed to the public so racers can practice; ski Willy's, Erika's Gold, and PayDay--runs used for past World Cup races. Also open: Eagle Super Pipe which will handle half-pipe snowboard events. 1310 Lowell Ave., Park City; (800) 222-7275, (435) 649-8111, or www.parkcitymountain.com.
Snowbasin Ski Resort. This is where the Olympics' glamour events--the Men's and Women's Downhill, as well as the Super-G--will be held. Anyone can ride the Olympic Tram to the start to take in the view, but only advanced skiers and snowboarders should attack the Men's Downhill course from the very top. Strong intermediates can jump on the run near the top of the John Paul Express or just watch the pros from other runs lacing 3,200 acres of skiable terrain. A new access road opened at the start of the season. 3925 E. Snowbasin Rd., Huntsville; (801) 620-1000 or www.snowbasin.com.
Utah Olympic Park. This slick new center for bobsled, luge, skeleton, and nordic jumping events has a day lodge, a deli, and even a pool for summer aerials training. Reserve well ahead for a seat in a four-man bobsled ($175) or a solo run in an Ice Rocket ($40). Park admission from $5 per car. 3000 Bear Hollow Dr., Park City; (435) 658-4200 or www.saltlake2002.com.
SALT LAKE CITY
With several new and expanded hotels and 11 ski resorts within an hour's drive of downtown, Utah's capital is a great base for an Olympic preview--or for a trip to the Games next year. Area code is 801 unless noted.
Dijon Bistro. New downtown bistro with a provençal menu, a cheese board, and a 90 percent French wine list. Closed Sun. 54 West 200 South; 359-0150.
Grand America Hotel. When this 775-room tower opens in March, it will offer sprawling suites furnished with French furniture and colorful tapestries, as well as simpler rooms. From $245. 555 S. Main St.; (800) 621-4505 or www.grandamerica.com.
Hotel Monaco. Opened in mid-1999 in the historic Continental Bank Building, the hotel's 225 trendy, French-style rooms are favored by visiting pro basketball players. From $99. 15 West 200 South; 595-0000, (877) 294-9710, or www.monaco-saltlakecity.com.
La Europa Royale. A small intimate inn hidden on the southern edge of Salt Lake City with seven rooms and suites. Guests are pampered with two-person whirlpool baths, gas fireplaces, and heated ski lockers. From $129. 1135 E. Vine St.; 263-7999, (800) 523-8767, or www.laeuropa.com.
Lugano. Refined northern Italian menu with boldly flavored pastas, wood-fired mussels in saffron broth, fresh seafood, and grilled meats. 3364 South 2300 East; 412-9994.
Red Rock Brewing Company. This local hot spot shines with award-winning brews, pub grub, and wood-oven pizzas. 254 South 200 West; 521-7446.
A half-hour east of Salt Lake City, this historic mining town offers plenty of lodging choices. Area code is 435 unless noted.
Condominiums. Condos are sprinkled throughout town, with prices ranging from less than $125 a night to more than $600. For help with your reservations, try two agencies with large rental pools: Central Reservations of Park City (649-6606, 800/519-6312, or www.parkcityski.com) and High Mountain Properties (655-8363 or 877/340-1236).
Gamekeeper's Grille. Succulent game, meats, and maple-pecan-crusted trout served in a cozy hunting lodge atmosphere. 508 Main St.; 647-0327.
Nacho Mama's. Laid-back hangout with straight-ahead Mexican and intriguing Southwest dishes. 1821 Sidewinder Dr.; 645-8226.
Sage Grill. A casual local favorite with an exhibition kitchen and seasonal California menu. Closed Sun-Mon. 6300 N. Sagewood Dr.; 658-2267.
Washington School Inn.This downtown B&B with a dozen rooms and three suites started life in 1889 as an elementary school. From $225. 543 Park Ave.; 649-3800, (800) 824-1672, or www.washingtonschoolinn.com.
Yarrow Resort Hotel & Conference Center. The 181-room hotel is home to many international skiers when they race at Park City. From $169. 1800 Park; 649-7000, (800) 927-7694, or www.harthotels.com/yarrow1.htm.
This funky old railroad town 35 miles north of Salt Lake City is a close base for skiing at Snowbasin, 17 miles to the east. Area code is 801 unless noted.
Ben Lomond Historic Suite Hotel. This downtown Ogden hotel not far from the curling rink furnishes its 122 suites and 22 rooms with cherry wood to please the adults and video-game players to keep the kids happy. From $99. 2510 Washington Blvd.; 627-1900 or (888) 627-8897.
Roosters 25th Street Brewing Co. Try the brew house burger with bacon or choose from an eclectic list of pizzas in this friendly pub. 253 25th St.; 627-6171.
Snowberry Inn. Located on the edge of Eden (the town) and close to Snowbasin skiing, this five-bedroom B&B is a rustic log home with an intriguing collection of antique skis and showshoes. $115, including full breakfast. 1315 N. State 158, Eden; 621-8600, (888) 334-3466, or www.snowberryinn.com.