“We live in Utah, we don’t ski moguls,” my friend Marc told me. I looked at him with complete incredulity. “You don’t ski moguls?” I repeated quite slowly to make sure I had understood him correctly. “No, we don’t ski moguls,” he repeated. “We usually get so much snow that it covers up the moguls.” Now I understood. In other states, skiing moguls is considered fun and for some, a badge of honor. In Utah, moguls (even small ones) are just a reminder that the early season snow has been light.
It was Saturday, the 10th of December. My family and I were enjoying the second day of a three-day weekend at Alta. We met up with Marc Guido, the publisher and editor of First Tracks!! Online (here is his report from Alta that day), and some of his ski buddies: a bunch of locals; Jamesdeluxe, a writer from New Jersey; and Jamey Parks, a pro skier and Salomon-sponsored athlete who makes Alta his home base.
We Choose Wildcat
Taking a look at the trails that were open when we arrived the day before, my family and I had sussed out the conditions and decided that we’d start at the Wildcat Lift. This veteran lift serves the easternmost part of Alta and gets morning sun. In the spring, the snow can get soft quickly. In December, it skis well, especially considering the conditions. The terrain is steep and ungroomed with lots of trees. While the glades were pretty dicey — not enough cover to avoid limbs and rocks — the open faces were firm, but not icy, and mogul-y.
We had such a good time on Friday, that of course, we suggested that Marc and company ski Wildcat with us on Saturday. That’s when we learned about moguls, the bane of the Utah skier. As for us Coloradans, we thought they were great.
A Very Sweaty Jitterbug
While much of the more difficult and steep terrain at Alta is not yet open, we actually timed our visit pretty well and hit the openings of Ballroom, some off-piste intermediate and advanced terrain accessible via traverses off of the Collins lift, and the opening of a (sweaty, steep, 510 step) bootpack up Jitterbug, to ski down into Greeley Bowl (yes, it was worth it for the views alone).
Ordinarily when we ski Alta, there’s a lot of snow and we ski a lot of chutes off of the Collins and Supreme lifts. Even with typical Utah snow, there are some rocks on the traverses and these pitches need a ton of cover. With such light snow (light in Utah being a season total thus far of 86 inches), Alta hadn’t yet opened Supreme and was relying on the Collins and Wildcat chairs to provide limited access to advanced slopes.
While there were a few places to duck rope and get off the groomers under the Sugarloaf Chair, it was at significant risk to your ski bases. Still, what was open was completely enjoyable, whether full of moguls, crud or perfectly groomed. We had no complaints. We were at Alta in early December, and that was our badge of honor.
When You Go…
Since I’m posting this 10 days after we left Alta, let’s hope my report is out-of-date and snow has fallen. If not, here’s the deal: Alta has been blowing snow on the lower pitches and doing a great job of grooming. While we found a few bulletproof patches, these were mostly at the top of the Sugarloaf chair and could be avoided by skiing the Devil’s Elbow. Other than that, what was open was smooth sailing and tons of fun.
Ski School (Or Is it Guided Skiing?) For All
One of our favorite strategies for dealing with low snow is to take lessons or to put on our tele skis. While we’re usually unwilling to slow down and work on technique when the pow is deep, weekends like this are perfect for honing skills. On Friday, Alta hosted our two sons in a lesson with an instructor named Alan. My boys, ages 15 and 12, are completely opposed to any “lesson.” But to ski with a “guide,” well that’s another story. Especially when the “guide” showed them which ropes to duck, which untracked terrain would be safe in thin snow, and helped them perfect their landings off of jumps. He also gave them some great tips to improve their skiing. They loved it and provided us with a full, enthusiastic debriefing.
The Alf Engen Ski School can arrange lessons like this anytime and tailor them to your kids’ desires. The Ski School also has a Teen Freeride Camp during Christmas Break (December 26-30) and Presidents’ Week (February 18-24). The camp is for teenagers ages 13-17 and costs $120 per day. You can sign up for any number of days. There is no minimum. Participants are divided into groups of 8, with an emphasis on athletic skiing and peak performance.
Not to be outdone, my husband and I strapped on the tele boards on Sunday morning and took a lesson with Laura, an experienced Alta telemark instructor. Because we two-time tele with Alpine (or maybe the other way ’round), we are intermediate tele skiers. This makes it really fun and challenging to be on blue runs. It changes the entire skiing experience, forces us to concentrate on fundamentals, and gives us no reason to complain when terrain isn’t open. Laura helped us a lot, working on maintaining constant motion, even edging and proper stance. We got off of the groomers and even ventured into the Ballroom to break up some crud together. Success!
There is a strong, established telemark culture at Alta, which makes it a perfect place to improve your skills. Telemark workshops are held each week throughout the season at 1:00 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. These workshops last 2 1/2 hours and cost $65 on a first-come basis. Private lessons are also available, by reservation.
A note about skis: Part of the reason I know I didn’t mind the hardpack at Alta was that once again, I wasn’t on my old skis. I demoed the Salomon Lady from Ski ‘N See and Utahskis.com. The Lady, despite its genteel name, is tough as nails and handled whatever I threw at it. Great edging on hardpack and easy turning in crud, I wasn’t completely sold on the ski’s ability to break up crust, but that may have been operator error. And All-Mountain ski like the Volkl Aura, the Lady is a semi-twin tip ski with all mountain rocker. Not too fat and not too skinny, the Lady is 85 under foot in a 161 length.
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