October 5, 1997

Make Tracks To Utah You’ve Still Got Time To Ski The Peaceful Slopes Of Snowbasin, But Hurry - The Coming Of Winter Olympiad Will Most Likely Change The Mountain Forever

Peter Shelton Universal Press Syndicate
 

At dusk on the winding access road to Snowbasin, Utah, mine was the only car. A young moose on toothpick legs tried to get off the roadway and into the woods, but deep snow sent her scrambling back. I stopped. She stared. We both waited. Finally, haltingly, she came forward and, running now, still eyeing me, she scuttled past and on down the hill.

Up at the A-frame Hillhaus Lodge, since 1962 a retreat for military personnel stationed at nearby Hill Air Force Base and the only overnight accommodations at the mountain, Barbara Manley leaned out from the rich smell of chili fries and said, “Oh, yeah. That’s our moose. There’s three of ‘em, a cow and her yearling twins. They live behind the garage. This is Russ. (Russ waves from the kitchen.) Here’s your key. The videos are over there, no charge. Hot tub’s outside. The girls saw a big snowshoe hare out there a while ago. They were sure it was the Easter Bunny’s helper.”

Hillhaus and its sleepy, ‘60s ambience is doomed - as is the unhurried, low-tech ski experience on the mountain above. The coming Winter Olympics in 2002 and the ambitious plans of Snowbasin’s owner, oil magnate Earl Holding, are about to propel this once-neglected corner of Utah into skiing’s big time. Call it “Paradise About to Be Lost.”

The skiing at Snowbasin has always been a dream: steep, then rolling, then steep again; from white-apron chutes above tree line to grand meadows ruled by solitary, magisterial firs, to lower-mountain gullies quilted with aspen and oak. Five chairlifts spider-web an expanse bigger than Aspen and Telluride combined. But there are startlingly few sliders, skiers or snowboarders on the slopes. The mountain looks and feels like Alta, the icon of Utah skiing, but without the crowds.

In fact, it was Alta’s founding father, Alf Engen, who suggested in 1939 that a ski area be built at Snowbasin 19 miles into the mountains east of Utah’s third-largest city, Ogden. The landowner, the U.S. Forest Service, agreed. A local ski club and an enthusiastic racing tradition fueled the early years. But with no private property at the lift base for a resort village and attendant lodging and real estate, Snowbasin remained in the slow lane, a modern anomaly, a ski area with nothing to sell but skiing.

Then Utah’s 1995 successful Olympic bid pulled back the curtain on a powdered Brigadoon. Alta and her sister areas in the canyons closer to Salt Lake City - Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude - were properly deemed off limits as event sites; overuse already threatens their fragile environments. Most of the skiing venues were assigned to Park City and Deer Valley on the back side of the Wasatch Range. The only mountain left with the requisite physical gifts to stage downhills, the glamour events of the Games, was Snowbasin, an area that few skiers outside Utah had even heard of.

The Olympic imperative helped to fast-track a controversial land swap between Holding, who also owns the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho, and the Forest Service. In exchange for private land yet to be determined or appraised, Holding stands to acquire 1,320 acres at the mountain’s base, land which will become the newest, and some say, the last major ski resort in the country. Plans call for Hillhaus to be bulldozed into a parking lot.

“Yes, I’m bitter,” says Barbara Manley, drawing a beer with a tug on a ski-tip handle.

Others in the area welcome the coming transfiguration. “Snowbasin was either going to change or die,” says Kent Matthews, the area’s longtime mountain manager. Matthews grew up in Huntsville, population 580, at the foot of the Snowbasin scarp. On his office wall hangs a blueprint of Phase One and a portrait of his champion team roping horse, Gobo Spade.

“Our little mountain has been not recognized all my life, just about,” he says in a voice remarkably like John Wayne’s. “Alta and them do 500,000 skier days. We’re lucky to see 80,000 to 100,000 skier days a season.”

Indeed, when I skied Snowbasin last winter - weekdays, admittedly - the average number of lift tickets sold was about 100 a day. It made me giddy. At times there were no other riders visible, ahead or behind, on the chairlift. The powder never got completely tracked out.

This happy emptiness certainly will vanish before 2002.

Phase One of the new development, which began this summer, will focus primarily on the mountain: new lifts, new snowmaking equipment, parking, an Olympian stadium and press and spectator centers. Matthews expects 30,000 to 40,000 ticket holders plus 7,000 to 8,000 press people for each event. There may be some lodging, but according to general manager Gray Reynolds, “it won’t be significant. Olympic visitors will have to drive back down to Ogden or Salt Lake City in the evenings. The big hotels and such will come with Phase Two after the Games.”

Tom Leonard, Snowbasin’s director of snow safety, sees more work for himself in the coming changes.

“I’ll need more patrollers to help control the new terrain,” he says. “That John Paul area has some avalanche problems.”

Both downhills, men’s and women’s, as well as the slightly shorter Super G courses, will plummet through new terrain on John Paul Mountain. Leonard took me beyond the current boundary rope for a tour. The men’s course starts on a naked ridgeline at 9,300 feet. It’s a dizzying place, teetering between two worlds, alpine snows to the east and the Great Salt Lake, shimmering blue on the tan desert, to the west. At timberline, the men’s course joins the women’s, and together they careen through a series of steep gulches. Racers will connect one gully to the next by launching off the intervening ribs. Designed by 1972 Olympic downhill gold-medalist Bernard Russi, they are among the most hair-raisingly beautiful descents in the world.

We skied the full 2,900 vertical feet alone in ankle-deep powder. I wanted the run to go on forever. I wanted to still be skiing Snowbasin as it is when I’m 80 years old.

I thought about Holding’s other ski area, Sun Valley, and how he had revived a once-faded star with great infusions of cash and technology. Now Sun Valley is the unapologetic glitz capital of Western skiing, boasting, as they say, a profusion of single-name, second-home locals, including Arnold, Bruce and Demi.

Is Leonard going to miss his private powder stashes? He said nothing, but a slow smile as much as said he knew this was the end of an era.

Ogden native and former ski racer Mike Bachman has no reservations whatsoever.

“I’ve skied the Basin all my life,” says Mike, now a plumber who would ski every day if he could. “It’s the best skiing in the state. It’s about time it made some money. Earl told me that as things are, he’d do better financially if he just walked up to everybody in the ticket line and handed ‘em a $20 bill and said, ‘Go home.’ He owns Sinclair Oil, you know. He knows how to do it, and he’ll do it right.”

Others aren’t so sure. “The Olympic connection is very galling in the whole history of this land exchange,” says Gale Dick, co-founder of the Utah grass-roots organization Save Our Canyons, which joined with the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society in trying to block the deal. They believe the land swap was not necessary to stage the races.

“Earl Holding sits on the Salt Lake Organizing Committee,” he says. “And that body is entrusted to not use its power to enrich any of its members. It’s a sad story. But I’m afraid it’s a done deal.”

Down in Huntsville at the log-cabin Shooting Star Saloon, bartender Carol Conway serves the famous Star Burger to a mixed clientele of local skiers, dairy farmers and newcomers. The Shooting Star is the oldest, continuously serving beer tavern in Utah, going back to 1879.

“Things are changing again,” says Carol, glancing from the stuffed jackalope on the wall to the autographed dollar bills pinned to the high ceiling. “It used to be all dairy here. Now it’s the big IRS processing center down in Ogden, the Air Force, the space industry. A hundred and six new houses are going in below the four-mile marker on the Snowbasin road. Pretty soon you’ll have to pay big bucks for a spot on our ceiling. We’re putting 50 bills a week up there now.”

Asked how she feels about the coming transformation at the ski area and what it might mean for Huntsville, she replies with equanimity, “When we stop having people, we’ll stop growing.”

Outside, as the last of the sun bathed old back porches and backyard horses stamping the snow, I wondered about what was coming - the kind of real-estate driven, “pampering” skiing that Gray Reynolds says people today demand. And what stands to be lost is an unpolished, nearly vanished ski experience in a place peaceful enough for Trappist monks. (The monastery farm is just east of Huntsville.) Did it have to be one or the other, Hillhaus or Sun Valley South? And what will happen to my moose girl?

Clearing of the Olympic pistes began last summer, but there is time left to ski Snowbasin’s charming time warp.

xxxx

If you go

Sadly, rooms at the Hillhaus Lodge will no longer be open to civilian skiers; the Air Force decided this year to limit use to military personnel. There are, however, a number of small lodgings in the Huntsville/Eden area 15 minutes from the slopes and in historic Ogden Canyon, 20 minutes away, including:

Snowberry Inn B&B; five rooms; $85 per night per couple; 801-745-2634

Wolf Creek Village; one- and two-bedroom condominium; $90 to $120 a night; 800-933-9653

Jackson Fork Inn; eight rooms; $60 to $100, double occupancy; 800-255-0672

In the city of Ogden (1/2 hour from the ski base), the Skiers’ Special at the Ogden Park Hotel (800-421-7599) includes half off the regular room rate and discount lift tickets to Snowbasin.

All services, including ski school, ski and snowboard rentals and repairs, and food and beverage services are available at the Snowbasin base lodge.

Snowbasin is 53 miles from Salt Lake International Airport via Interstate Highway 15, I-84 or Trapper’s Loop Road. From Ogden City, the ski area is 19 miles up Ogden Canyon to State Route 226. Because there is no lodging at the mountain, a rental (or private) car is advisable.

Salt Lake City International Airport is served by several major airlines.

Lodging information: (800) ALL-UTAH.

Ski area information: (801) 399-1135.


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