Snowbird Resort: Snowbird, UT

It was the trip I had waited over ten years for, my first ski trip out west. I had done the research and read the magazines, and it all came down to one resort…Snowbird. One article that caught my eye was one I read in Ski magazine. It talked about the water content in the snow at different resorts. The author stated that the best snow was the driest snow, and number one was Snowbird in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. It also didn’t hurt that they boasted to have the top average annual snowfall of 500 inches. It all made perfect sense to me. We were going to Snowbird.

For those of you who love skiing and riding, you probably know that the ’02-’03 season has been really strange. There were monster snowfalls since October on the east coast, and very little snow out west. It was a true El Nino year. After we booked our trip, we had been watching the weather at Snowbird religiously. Much to our chagrin it seemed the snow just wouldn’t come. One week before our departure, they finally got a two-foot snowfall. I saw a picture on where the snow was up to a guy’s neck. Pepe called me and asked if I looked at the forecast for next week. It was calling for snow and he kept telling me, “It looks like we picked the right week.” It was the first time I can remember that I hoped he was right.

We arrived on a Wednesday night and shuttled the brief 29-mile trip from Salt Lake airport up Little Cottonwood Canyon to the resort. We had booked two rooms at the Lodge at Snowbird, which turned out to be a good call. The Lodge is right at the base of the mountain and is only a short walk to the Tram and other lifts. The package was very reasonable and included lifts and lodging. It might not be The Cliff Lodge, Snowbird’s resort spa, but it was more than sufficient for the likes of us.

I had called ahead to see if I get could get a tour of the mountain, which might help me with my review. I was connected with Ms. Laura Schaffer of the Snowbird communications team. She took us out for our first few hours on Thursday morning. We started out on the 125 passenger Tram, which took us to the top of Hidden Peak some 11,000 feet above sea level. She showed us the backside first, an open bowl known as Mineral Basin. There are lots of chutes and steeps and plenty of wide-open bowl riding. The snow report said ‘early season snow pack’, but that didn’t stop us from having a blast. She then took us over to the front side to get to know the rest of the mountain. We mentioned we’d like to do some tree riding and she took us over to the Gad 2 lift where we accessed plenty of gladed terrain. After showing us around a good part of the mountain, Laura had to get back to work. She got us off to a great start and we were all psyched at what we learned in the first few hours of our trip.

After ripping it up all morning, we went down to the cafeteria in the Tram base lodge for lunch. On my way in, I struck up a conversation with a guy who called himself Patch. I told him we were in from NYC and were looking to have some kicks. He told me he worked at the mountain and would be more than happy to show us some of the terrain that we would never find on the trail map. This was exactly what we were hoping for and it was still only the first morning of our trip.

The next few days we rode half of the time with Patch and his buddy Trevor. These guys were nuts. They really hooked us up and showed us some crazy stuff. We found ourselves entering through the avalanche gates on every run into terrain that we surely wouldn’t have found without their help. We rode along the tops of ridges and were making fresh tracks almost the whole time. From the time we woke up on Thursday morning, it hadn’t stopped snowing for more than a couple of hours. It was really starting to add up. One thing I found strange was the snow report, which said it snowed two inches. I swear there was a foot in the bowl after this “two inch” snowfall. At many east coast resorts, which shall remain nameless, they’d be out measuring all of the different areas reporting the deepest reading they could find. Out here it was almost as if they did the exact opposite. I found this refreshing because the next day they reported five inches. This “five inch” snowfall ended up being over our knees in Mineral Basin.

As far as trails for beginners, I didn’t see much. One day we ended up on Big Emma, which is a green trail you can take down from the Mid Gad Restaurant. I must say I was a little surprised to see moguls along the right side of the trail. I have never seen moguls on a green trail before that. I felt like it pretty much summed this place up. It’s not a resort where you want to take someone who is just learning. This is a place for people who like to be challenged, and scared for that matter. There were times that we got back to our room and we were all thinking, “Thank God I made it back alive.” We usually had Patch to thank for that. If you should find yourself at Snowbird with a rookie, you can ride the Baldy Express Quad in Mineral Basin. This lift does access some mild bowl skiing nd riding. If you are a skier, you can also hop over to Alta from the top of this lift. They sell a combo ticket where you can ski both resorts on one ticket. For some reason snowboarding is still banned at Alta. One day they’ll realize how much money they’re leaving on the table and let us in. Then we won’t have to sneak over and cut back through the Westward Ho gate all of the time.

If you’re looking for challenging terrain, you want to go to Tiger Tail off of the Gad 2 lift. We only managed to get in there for a couple of runs because the avalanche gates were almost always closed. When we did get in there it was incredible. Fresh tracks the whole way. At one point we found ourselves at the top of a 50-foot cliff. It scared the crap out of us and we ended up backing out of there. We also really liked Black Forest, which was aptly named. It had some well-spaced trees and there were times where you actually felt you could relax while cutting between the trees.

One thing you need to be wary of at Snowbird is the avalanche risk. When it snows here, because it is so steep, there is always the threat of avalanches. In fact while we were in town, an experienced local skier was killed in an avalanche while skiing in the backcountry. They had avalanche beacons and all of the necessary safety equipment. Unfortunately it didn’t help much when he was buried under four feet of snow after sliding 1,500 feet. Thankfully the Snowbird Ski Patrol does a great job of controlling this threat. There is a tremendous amount of roped off area due to avalanche management. You can only enter these areas through the gates, when they are open. Each day we awoke to the sweet sound of blasting to pull loose snow down off of the peaks. It was unsettling at first, but I learned that it meant there was more new snow to greet us that day. It did get a little scary when it sounded like they were blasting right above us one morning in Mineral Basin. Never have I cut such a straight line through the deep powder.

On the last day of our trip we finally made it to their terrain park. It sits on the lower western part of the resort and is serviced by the Baby Thunder lift. They have some awesome hits and plenty of rails for you mall rats. You can also access a sweet trail called Thunder Alley, which it seemed nobody was riding but us. We cut freshies back there for a good four hours. Not much vertical over here but lots of fun rides to be had.

The nightlife at Snowbird is actually a bit tame as far as resorts go. There are a few decent restaurants and pubs, but not much more. We were at the Cliff Lodge one night at a place called Keyhole Junction. They served some good southwestern cuisine and had a small bar. We ordered five car bombs and were a bit shocked to find that they had only two shot glasses in the house. We chalked it up to being in Utah.

All in all there are two words that summarize Snowbird best, steep and deep. I spoke to somebody who has ridden all over the place out west and abroad. He said Snowbird and Jackson Hole were the two steepest mountains he’d ever been to. Having never gone to Jackson Hole, I can only say that I have to agree with him when it comes to Snowbird. I felt like I became a better rider with every passing day there because of the challenges I faced on the mountain. As far as the powder goes, it snowed just about the whole time we were there. After a tough year out west, it was a welcome sight for both the locals and myself. On top of that we got stuck in town for two extra days because of the Presidents Day nor’easter that dumped over two feet of snow in the northeast. We were heartbroken.

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