2004 ski trip to Alta, Utah

Pre-Trip: About 10 days before the trip I started checking the weather.com site to see what we might expect when we arrive. Let's analyze my ski trips to Alta. Here are the facts:

Notice how through 2002, it was an easy pattern of snow in the odd years and no snow in the even years, except the year I didn't go. In my opinion, missing that one year introduced a mutation into the mix, unlike how a mutation gets introduced into evolution. We didn't see it take effect in 2002, but look what happened in 2003. It snow he entire time, but barely anything to talk about, yet 2500 miles east, it was out of control. I'll take input from true scientist who wish to lend me any insight, or mathmeticians who wish to explain the patterns.

Weather.com showed the next 10 days of mostly sunny skies around 38-42 degrees daily. Maybe a snow flurry in there. This is not what I want, but I can convince myself that coming back with a screwed-up skiers tan will have to do. However, I am checking the Alta website daily and it is snowing the entire time over the next 4 days with a total of 51 inches of snow. How did weather.com not see this? So, I can safely ignore weather.com forecasts. A few days before the trip, Wasatch weather shows 40-60% chance of snow almost the entire trip and then it jumps up to 60=80% as we get ever closer. Alta's own webpage shows a big cold front coming through on Thursday with snow on Thursday and Friday. So now I'm feeling really good, but the day before my trip, now their site shows only a chance of light snow on Thursday or Friday. So, it's safe to assume that you can only give the weather report AFTER the day is over.

This trip will also bring some guests from the past and a missed opportunity. Willis, who I met last year in Alta via an online dating service before I headed out west will try to ski with us one day, and if not, then at least stop by to say hello. She lives outside Salt Lake City. Amy from Kansas who now lives in Utah may also stop by to say hello. She may live too far away to come all the way to Alta just to say hi though. And a guy from the state of Georgia (whose name is combination a new 2004 Yankees player and a new 2004 Mets player who used to be a 2001 Yankees player ) who found my ski web stories amusing was going to be skiing in Utah the same exact period before his job got in the way. Plus a pregnant wife didn't help. Hehehe.

On Wednesday March 3, my flight leaves at 5:15 pm. I am due to arrive at 9:40pm. This gives me plenty of time even if the flight is delayed to get to the mountain at a reasonable time. I am attired once again in my famous grunge brown shirt which has been worn by me only 14 times in the last 8 years; to and from my ski trip since 1996. Once of those ski trips I forgot to wear it. I am sorry. I am in a window seat and some guy is in the aisle seat, so this gives us some room as the middle seat is empty. For some reason, the floor is ice cold under my feet. I have never felt this before. My feet were so cold, I felt as if I were walking in the snow barefoot. Flight was uneventful. I shared a shuttle up to the mountain with a few people. The driver asked us if we were all going to Alta and we confirmed. It's called the Alta Shuttle, so I don't know why he had to ask us this. A promising sign was that for the first time in a few years, I see quite a bit of snow on the side of the road all the way up the mountain. In previous years, it was usually only on the mountain as we drive up. The ski is clear and it's about 30 degrees. As we approached the Goldminer's Daughter, he didn't even ask which lodge any of us were going. We pull up to the Alta Lodge and he gets out to unload luggage. When no one gets off he tells us that we are here. I tell him I am going to the Goldminer's and the other people say they are going to the Rustler. He then asks us why we all said yes when he asked if we were going to Alta. Ummm, duh, we are all going to Alta, the mountain. Leaving off an important word like “lodge” what the hell do you expect us say? What if we never heard of Alta Lodge? Maybe he could have meant the Alta diner (If Alta had anything other than nothing).

After getting that sorted out, I get to Goldminer's. It has been renovated for the first time in...well, forever. Alta doesn't upgrade anything, but not they have a new owner at the Goldminer's and they now have someone at the desk 24 hours per day, and even have a Wifi internet connection in the looby. This feels wrong! Penee is at the desk and greets me with a “Hello Gary” as I walk inside. It's nice to be recognized in a place so far from home on sight. She tells me Trok is missing. Huh? There is no flight number from Chicago with the number I had given her to give to the shuttle service. I told her that it changed and I forgot to relay that info. Ooops. Ah, he'll probably get here. Hopefully not too late. I ask Penne what the weather is supposed to bring us and she confirms that it looks like only an inch or two. It is about 11pm local time now and I am ready for sleep. I hit the sack and Trok gets in about 12:15. We have a slopeside view this year (we are moving up in the world) but the room has a temperature problem. I had to turn the thermostat down to 50 degrees and open a window to cool it down.

Thursday, March 4th: I wake up around 6:30am and look outside. It looks foggy. I ask Trok if that's fog or snow. He says it's snow. Cool! Woo-hoo! It looks to be about two inches so far and doesn't look like it's going to end anytime soon. We go down to the front desk before breakfast and ask what the outlook is. Now they are singing a different tune. 2-5 inches expected today with 4-8 overnight possible. At breakfast we see the snow forecast hanging on the wall and it reads 4-8 inches overnight possible before clearing in the morning. Just as our hopes fade, it continues with “before another storm comes in Friday afternoon.” Did I mention woo-hoo before? Now this is what we were looking for. Excellent!

We get outside and walk to the lift. There are way more than 2 inches on the ground. I have read in Ski magazine that Alta under reports their snow. I have yet to hear an explanation as to why they do this. I have my own theories but they don't need to be discussed here. (Other oddities about Alta are that they added a high speed lift 2 years ago, yet they rarely ever run it at it's top speed. Leave it to those kooky Alta people). We get off the lift and overhear someone complaining, “Not this again. I have skied in this stuff for five days.' Hey pal, go somewhere else if you don't want these weather conditions and leave it to the people who appreciate it.

Of course, with the snow, many of the good “gated” runs are closed. I am anxious to get to Devil's Castle as I only discovered it (or worked up enough nerve) on my previous trip to Alta, and only at the end of the final day. Trok will just have to wait another day. While talking to people on the lifts and on line we found out that Devil's Castle closes when it's snowy and windy due to the buildup of snow in the cornices making it high avalanche probability. When they got the 51 inches the previous storm, it was closed the entire time and opened up on the day after, giving people 4 feet of untouched powder. That is a dream experience. The weather cannot make up it's mind today. We go from heavy snow with extreme poor visibility to light snow, to breaks in the clouds and even to a f w moments of sunlight. However, fear not, we are definitely dominated by snow. It's not so much the poor distance visibility, but the poor visibility at our feet. Not knowing when there is a dip and a bump in the terrain can cause some unwanted tumbles, especially at accelerated speeds. Usually in these kind of visibility conditions I keep it slow to enjoy the powder and avoid unwanted surprises. Once we get to Germania lift, we head on over to East Greely Bowl and have the best experience of our trip. We are now explorers trying to find our way back to civilization in deep powder, mostly untouched.

Coming down one of the trails off of Sugarloaf lift we see what appears to be an immobile body with two people standing around. It was hard to tell if it was a person or just a rock or tree. Near the bottom we are approached by two people. One lone girl skier ask us where to get to the lift as she has been skiing quite a while and can't seem to find a way out. She is a new skier and does not enjoy the power experience yet. Another person asks us how to get in touch with the ski patrol as they need it for their friend. This must be the immobile lump we saw lying on the ground. We direct him to the lift. We take quite a few of off-trail detours and “through the trees” skiing on untouched snow. We are in heaven as there is plenty of power to be found off trail. With the 2-5 inches during the day, the mail trails are soft, but not what I would call true powder skiing. When arriving at any lift during the day and looking at the trail list, almost every one show “closed” on the status board. These are the gated areas, not the marked trails that you see on a trailmap, with the exception of Rock & Roll, which gives access to Devil's Castle. The message boards at the lifts indicated the road was closing between 2:30 and 4:30 for avalanche control. Of course, if the avalanche control worked too well and it caused an avalanche, people we going to be stuck up here.

We did a few runs over by Supreme Lift, but with Rock & Roll closed, there wasn't too much variety. We made our own trails through some trees to keep it interesting. Germania Return is closed toward the end of the day so we are forced to take the long way back via the bottom of Sugarloaf Lift. At about 3:15, Trok is too pooped to continue and heads inside. I decide to a do my final runs in the Wildcat area. I come down the main area and take the short traverse over over to the lower part of High Rustler. This is he first are we ever did in our first trip to Alta in 1997 when the powder was unbearable. Little did we know how much we would enjoy this type of condition as we got used to it. Not unlike that time, this area was mostly untouched and the power here was the best of the day. There was no one in sight. I think this is because High Rustler was closed due to the weather conditions and no one wanted to waste their time on the lower part of the run which can be boring for the maniacs who attempt High Rustler. I try to capture the height and steepness of High Rustler in pictures but it just does not translate at all in photos.

I get back to the room and there is a call from Amy saying that the best time she can meet up with us is on Sunday. I am not sure she is aware that we are laving early morning on Sunday. Willis gives a call as tells me her brother was mugged in Las Vegas and doesn't know when she will be able to meet up with us. I want to call Amy back and tell her that Sunday is no good but realize I don't have her phone number. And for some reason, here number does not show up on the missed calls list or incoming call list. Hopefully she is smart enough to know that if I haven't called her back in a reasonable time, she'll call back again. Looking outside, I see a very bad thing. Blue skies out of nowhere. Where did this come from? No worry, half an hour later it clouds up again and by dinner time, it is snowing harder than ever. Going down to the front desk reveals that we accumulated 7 inches during the day and now 12 inches are possible overnight. This leads to my decision that it will be yet another year with no skiing at Snowbird. One of these years I am going to get there. The circumstances are just not favorable for it. As a rule, you don't want to ski snowbird on a weekend as they can get long lines. If there is plenty of powder, why leave Alta with its vast selection of terrain spreading 2200 acres.

Friday, March 5th: Does this sound familiar? We wake up and look outside. It's snowing. Once again, it does not look like it going to end anytime soon. Official posting at breakfast is 12 inches overnight with 20” so far in the storm. We are now officially inside a typical good Alta trip. The avalanche bombs are going off this morning.

On the slopes, the snow continues of course. We see a few rays of sunshine here and there but they are soon overwhelmed by snow. Today it is falling very heavy at times. On our first trip up, you can behold a very common Alta experience. We hear lots of laughing and “woo-hooing.” This is a side-effect of skiing in soft fluffy powder, tumbling, falling completely under the snow and loving it. We see lots of wipeouts, face plants, lost skies and truly happy people. From what we see from Punch Bowl, that is something we must do immediately. There is definitely deep powder in there. We get off Wildcat lift and take a right turn and we were right. With the blowing snow overnight, there is knee-deep powder here. Trok and I decide to try it straight through. Many times before we have made this declaration and many times we have failed. This time was no different. I took a nice tumble and Trok did his typical fall where only his head was sticking out of the snow. Luckily I had my camera with me. There is definitely some waist high powder here in some of the unskied areas in Punch Bowl. It isn't east getting out of here once you take a tumble as there is an extended flat area. Trudging through deep powder in the flats is grueling and tiring but something I wouldn't want to give up.

From here, I show Trok the lower part of High Rustler that I discovered yesterday. For some reason, it is still untouched. We make the first tracks and it's a doozy. Trok makes it down but I take two spills. Harmless, but not easy to get back into a standing position due to the powder and steepness of the slope. I manage and decide it's time for some camcorder recording. We do this same exact trek from Punch Bowl to Lower Ruslter about 5 times before heading over to Germania and tackling the powder over there. Die to the high availability of powder, there was no reason to go over to Sugarloaf until after lunch as we were having too much fun on the front of the mountain. Our usual lunch time of about 12:15 or so fall all the way back to 1:30 also due to the fun in the powder. I must interject here that this is not the usual champagne powder that Alta gets in late January and February, but it is still better than any powder you'll find elsewhere.

The rest of the days has us doing the Sugarloaf area. We didn't even make it to Supreme today as Devil's Castle and Rock & Rock were once again closed today. The road was closed once again today from 2-4pm for avalanche control. The sign at the lift said if you need to be out of here between those hour, “leave now!” The sun breaks out at 3:45, just like yesterday and I am worried. We ski until 4:30 today and my fear are allayed as once again it clouds up. Official total is seven inches of snow during the day. We are up to 27 inches now.

Trok's calves are killing him but I seem to be fine. I head to the hot tub and have a conversation with some guys from San Francisco and we talk about the Lake Tahoe, Alta stories and European skiing. A kooky thing we noticed in our room today is that the remote has no numbers on it. This is not that unusual, but it has a previous channel button. I'll leave it to the reader to figure out why this is kooky. The room still has a temperature problem.

Saturday, March 6th: We wake at about 7am to what else...snow. It looks like a blizzard outside. My guess is the winds are about 30-40 MPH. The trees are void of snow as if hasn't snowed in days due to the high winds. No one is out by the lifts which makes me tend to think they will not be opening on time. Usually at this time, the avalanche control is on their way up to do their work. Breakfast today is more crowded. It is a weekend, and I don't think anyone wants to go outside just yet. We find out the gusts are reaching 50 MPH, with 3-5 inches of snowfall expected.

We get a little later start today because we don't want to head outside until we see people going up on the lift. We don't want to be standing on a line waiting for them to open the lifts in a blizzard. The snow today is blinding at times causing us to stop dead in our tracks a few times. Just the way we like it. We must do the lower Rustler area and head on over. We decide to try coming down a little further over, between some trees. I make a quick reaction turn to the left right after the last tree, knowing I might get stuck in some deep snow. Trok, who is ahead of me fails to do so and I see what looks like a puff of smoke and then a complete void of any movement. Trok has made one of the best crashes in all of our ski trips. In an attempt to prevent me from getting to far ahead of him, I put on the brakes and take a tumble. It takes me some time to get out but I am well ahead of Trok's attempts.

Unfortunately I decided to travel light today and only have my camelback pack for rehydration. No camera or video. He is only about 20-30 feet from me but it's probably going to take him 20 minutes to reach me. He is in at least waist high powder the entire way. First he tries to reach me with his skies on and then he resorts to taking them off and tossing them in my direction before trying to free himself on foot. He finally makes it out and he is shot, but we continue on. We stick to the front of the mountain until lunch time again.

After lunch we head on over to Sugarloaf for the afternoon. Since Devil's Castle is closed yet again, there is no reason to go to Supreme Lift. I would have liked to have done The Catherine's area, but with all this powder, there was no need. We experience some pretty thick fog and “cloud skiing” during the afternoon. We can't even see if the trail back to Germania is open so when we finish up for the day, we go the long route back. It turns out it wasn't open. We wanted to try to gate immediately over the top of Germania into East Greely Bowl, but with our strength depleted, we thought better of it. I'll tackle it again next year. When getting of the lift at some point, we overhear a girl say, “But I can't ski powder.” This baffles me why people would come to Alta and either complain about powder or not like it. Please go somewhere else next time. We don't have need for people like you.

That night at dinner we were seated with two brothers who do a trip each year and this year it was Alta. Once hails from New Mexico and the other from Indiana. We had a nice dinner and traded some good Alta stories. The snow has ended. We never bothered to find out how much fell during the day. Wit the wind, it was hard to tell. It doesn't really matter. We got what we wanted from this trip. Thank you.

Sunday, March 7th: We make it the airport without incident and Willis finally hooks up with us there, albeit for 15 minutes. The driver of the shuttle gave us some fun facts that I will share with you.

So, three plans for this trip fell by the wayside. Snowbird: skipped. Devil's Castle: no option to ski. Catherine's: no need with all the fresh powder. It will all have to wait another year. Additionally, Willis couldn't ski with us and I never met up with Amy.

Look for a ski trip February 16-20, 2005 back in Alta.