I am not much of an athlete, or a talented musician but something about carving a nice line down a steep mountain gives me sense of what it might feel like to be either of the above. When everything is going well on the slopes, skiing can be a transcendent experience. Snowbasin is a place where nearly every trail elevates the spirit. It’s a ski resort where you can carve your edges into miles of terrain without awkward trail crossings, ugly housing developments, crowds, or other annoyances to spoil the karma. Early in the morning or late in the day, you feel like you own the place. It’s just you, the rocky spires of Mount Ogden and Needles peak, spruce trees, and snowfields stretching as far as one can see.
For months, I had dreamed of a destination ski trip somewhere in the world. At first, Lech appeared to be the ideal choice. With record early season snows and low temperatures, the Alps were having the best season in years. But after looking at the cost of an Austrian ski junket, I began to have second thoughts. An invitation to stay with a friend in Roy, Utah, solidified my decision: for a third of the price of a European ski trip, I decided to ski the world’ s greatest snow and experience a sense of gemutlichkeit [comfortable friendliness] in many respects comparable to the Alps. My next challenge involved dates. A busy work schedule for both myself and my wife meant that we could only travel during the second week in March. Normally, March is midwinter in the Wasatch mountains, but the fluky El Nino weather concerned me, as did the season’s record light snowfall. After some fairly decent snows in late February, however, I cast aside my doubts and booked the trip. One of the great advantages of Utah for the DC area skier is the availability of direct flights to Salt Lake City (SLC), and the close proximity of many resorts to the airport. Leaving on a 4-hour direct flight in the morning, one can be skiing in the afternoon. Delta offers non-stop flights from both Dulles and Reagan airports and Southwest has similar service from BWI.
Based on a recommendation from DCSki forum member JohnL, I opted to ski Snowbasin for this trip. JohnL felt that my wife and I would appreciate the open, European-style slopes, and the area’s lack of slope-side real estate development. He was spot on. With its authentic alpine scenery, big vertical, and lodges befitting royalty, Snowbasin can only be described as a monument to skiing.
Despite record warm weather, the mountain report still called for packed power/machine groomed conditions on our first day, and those conditions not only proved true, but would hold for most of the day. As I rode up the Needles high-speed gondola for my first run, I marveled at the perfectly groomed trails -; just what I needed for a warm-up. I also appreciated the friendly vibe on the gondola. On nearly every 12-minute trip, other passengers engaged us in conversation. We met people from Texas, California, Utah, Michigan, New England, and even the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Japan.
After an effortless run down Blue Grouse, we took a ride up the Porcupine triple. One of the few fixed-grip chairs in the resort, the Porky triple does not get much traffic, but it services some excellent intermediate trails (Porky Face and Needles) with decent sustained pitch. Because of their protected position nestled between Needles peak (9,010 ft.) and Mount Ogden (9,570 ft.), these trails hold their groom better than most trails. On warm afternoons, we often gravitated to Porky for some of the best conditions on the mountain. From Porky, we skied Strawberry Peak (9,265 ft.). Like Needles, Strawberry is served by a high-speed gondola and accesses several wide, European-style intermediate pistes covering over 2,400 feet of vertical. One of the finest aspects of Snowbasin is that whether you ski Needles, Strawberry, or Allen Peak (9,465), you will experience over 2,300 feet of vertical rise on every quad burning run.
The only catch for lovers of big vertical is that on very windy days, the gondolas often do not run. Wednesday was one such day, but advanced skiers could still use the John Paul high-speed quad and the Porky lift to access a fair amount of terrain. The windiest section of the mountain was the saddle coming off the Strawberry gondola. From that ridge, you can see all the way to Antelope Island State Park and the Great Salt Lake. The trail then drops down a steep headwall and descends in roller-coaster fashion down Strawberry peak. The terrain features of Snowbasin were one of its most endearing features. Disappearing horizons, double fall lines, and gullies that form natural half pipes could be found throughout the mountain. One of the most impressive of these natural half-pipes is on the John Paul men’s downhill run, where a steep headwall funnels into a dogleg gully! A blast at normal speeds, the curve must be quite a challenge to a downhill racer. John Paul, a black diamond, can be skied on most days by advanced skiers, but should probably be skipped by lower level intermediates. Those skiers can make their way down Allen Peak on the Ogden Road, a blue square groomer.
Snowbasin is an ideal mountain for confident intermediates. It also has ample double blacks, and off-piste for true experts. Skiing mostly blues and blacks, I never found myself outside of my comfort zone, but admittedly, the mountain might be tough for lower level skiers since there are no green circle trails servicing Needles, Strawberry, or Allen Peak. Beginners are relegated to the learning lift and Becker, a fixed-grip lift servicing 1,261 feet of vertical not far from the main Earl’s Lodge.
On our second day, we spent an afternoon skiing with an instructor. Steve took us up Needles for our first two runs, and then moved us over to John Paul for work on steeper terrain. I hadn’t taken a lesson in a while, and Steve immediately noted several old school techniques in my style. These included keeping my skis too close together, spilling speed with my tails on steeper runs, and not fully employing my uphill edge. He spent much of the lesson trying to wean me of these habits and getting me skiing the PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America) style. Although many skiers still ski old school, the PSIA style is designed in theory to make skiing easier. With more lessons, I should be able to master this style over time. Steve claimed that one needs to make 500 turns before muscle memory kicks in for skiers like me.
“Aren’t you guys tired?” Steve asked after we had made multiple runs down John Paul. “No,” my wife responded. I explained to Steve that we both work with a personal trainer at the Washington Sports Club, and her strength training program (especially lower body, core, cardio, and balance) has given us decent endurance on the mountain, even at higher altitudes. Some of the principals Steve stressed sounded remarkably similar to my trainer’s missives: use your big toe and ball of your foot when balancing on the ski, keep your legs shoulder width, engage your core, etc.
Throughout our week at Snowbasin, locals apologized for the “poor” conditions. “Poor conditions?” I shot back. “Every run is open with ample base! What more could a Mid-Atlantic skier ask for?” True, we did not experience epic powder, but the warm weather and extremely low crowds partly compensated for it. I also loved how the surface conditions changed throughout the day from hard-groomed in the morning to soft Spring snow by the afternoon.
As any Snowbasin skier will tell you, the lodges are a highlight of the experience. Walking into any lodge at this resort feels more like entering the lobby of a five star hotel than a purpose-built ski lodge. High ceilings, padded furniture, chandeliers, and carpeting give these lodges an opulence I have only experienced at a few other resorts. We always looked forward to lunch, especially the central European choices at Needles, and we often spent an hour or even longer relaxing by the fire at Earl’s after a long day of skiing. Looking at other skiers in the lodges, I could sense that they enjoyed these amenities as much as myself. Even adults could be spied catching the occasional catnap on one of the couches or curled up by the fire with a favorite book or electronic device.
Reluctantly, we flew back to Washington, wishing we had stayed for a few more days, but perfectly content with our experience. Two days after we left, Snowbasin received 16-inches of fresh snow along with much colder temperatures. One skier said that the mountain could get big snows even as late as April. We will certainly return to Snowbasin in the not so distant future.
John Sherwood is a columnist for DCSki. When he's not hiking, biking, or skiing, he works as an author of books on military history.