Last Weekend in Alta: the sweetness of Utah powder

Last weekend I took a spectacular four day ski trip to Snowbird/Alta, Utah, with five dastardly partners in crime: Greg Dillon, Leif Ueland, Jay Haynes, Mark Harris and Michael Hovey. On Saturday, I went heli-skiing for the first time with Mark in the Wasatch mountains — it was a beautiful experience, no doubt made all the more resonant by the risk factors. In the 48 hours that followed we got 12 inches of fresh powder, and skied it hard — at least by my 42-year-old standards.

Here I am enjoying a few turns in the fresh stuff on Monday morning in Mineral Basin, on the back side of Snowbird:

Here (below) is a shot of Michael Hovey, a freestyle bad boy in his youth, bombing the bumps, followed by Mark and Greg Dillon.

Here are a few photos of exquisite fresh tracks Monday morning in Catherine’s Area off the Supreme lift in Alta. You have to hike to get to Catherine’s — I call it the Mark Harris health plan — but it is well worth it: it’s long on gorgeous glades and chutes and short on skiers.

I love to ski. I dream about it during the winter, spring, summer and fall. It occupies a place for me that is unrivalled by any other physical activity, with the possible exception of making babies. The closest I can come to describing it’s magic is that it combines the speed and exhilaration of racing motorcross with the zen of surfing or sailing. On the one hand there is a jockey adrenaline-ratcheting physicality to it — you can rapidly accelerate to 30 or 40 mph on the flats, carve tight, precise turns, and soar through the air by stiffening a leg or ripping a last minute turn over a knoll. Ski technology has come a long way in the last couple decades — skis are more tortionally rigid and thus unyielding on high-G turns, and at the same time damp enough to offer a smooth, cadillac ride. This is my younger self talking — the gearhead thrill seeker.

On the other hand, there is the connection with the mountain. There is a gentle push-pull to skiing the backcountry half-way competently — it’s more about absorption and deference to the terrain rather than a blunt inscription of will. You are water finding it’s stream bed, wending around bigger obstacles, playfully cascading over the smaller ones. Done properly, it’s a gentle and intuitive touch, ski to slope — your legs are a pliant, load-sensitive suspension system, and your upper body, the happy, oblivious passenger, eyes on the horizon, enjoying a tempo several beats slower than the clatter occurring below. Powder makes the mountain more silent, beautiful, and forgiving — it amplifies the otherwordliness of skiing. It is a drug and I am not sober … as you can see, just talking about it renders me delirious.

That’s what it feels like when I am doing it right, when I am in the groove, which is not always easy to come by — when I lose it my suspension bottoms out, I instinctively hunch over, my fore-aft balance disappears, and I am all of a sudden a septuagenarian with a ski pole for a cane. The groove is not always with us. The groove can be flightier than a beaten cat. Which makes it all the sweeter when it comes.

One thought on “Last Weekend in Alta: the sweetness of Utah powder

  1. well said, ruf…in fact, i am promising to incorporate ‘wend’ into my own vocab. you boys look great in the videos. I am going to have to up my twice a decade regime to approximate that look. I was actually out cross country skiing today, after many years. it was a rare sunny winter day in minnesota and there were skiiers everywhere. lots of hilarious little kids skiing. not the quite the rush of hurtling down mountain, but soul enriching nonetheless.


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