Posted by Kevin on Friday, Dec 08 2017

Written by: Timothy Johnson

Snowbird, Utah - The Cirque

Lately I’ve come across a few blogs and articles about how my generation (70’s child) is one of the last to experience a pre-internet life. University days were filled with card catalogue and microfilm library research to pull together an essay. I remember getting my first email address in 3rd year, right about the same time that I’d skipped the first week of classes in the Winter semester to join a friend for a ski trip to Fernie. 

Looking back at pics from that memorable 5 days in BC, I was reminded that I’m also of a generation that’s spent a good chunk of my skiing life on long, straight skis and watching my early heroes - Schmidt, Plake, Hattrup - absolutely rip on 210 K2’s. Warren Miller and Greg Stump films captured the early pioneers of “extreme” hurling themselves off cliffs, hammering bumps, ripping steep chutes, and, in one unforgettable moment, launching out of Snowbird’s tram into the steep lines below. 

Fast-forward to January 2009. I’m exiting that same storied tram at 11000 feet and peering at those same steep lines, finally experiencing one of the legendary resorts that sits at the top of Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon. Snowbird and Alta are cornerstones of ski mythology, holy grails know for epic terrain and nearly 13 metres of abundant dry powder, year after year. Sometimes the bigger storms close the road up from the Salt Lake valley and trap people indoors in a situation known as interlodge, where you literally can’t step foot outside until avalanche control work finishes. What follows, though, is often some of the best deep-powder riding you’d ever imagine.

Sadly, our timing is a bit off and we arrive in the midst of a cold high pressure system that brings crisp, bluebird days but none of the epic snowfall that we’d hoped for, the last storm a week or so gone and the mountain tracked out. Still, it’s a trip-of-a-lifetime for old ski buddies and we’re pumped to find ourselves poling along the exposed spine of the Cirque Traverse, accompanied by the soundtrack of cable hum from the tram line overhead. To our right is The Cirque, the big northeast-facing bowl below the summit of Hidden Peak. With the somewhat sporty-looking conditions (read: firm, bumped up, tracked out) we bypass the first few steep lines of Great Scott and Upper Cirque and work our way along the ridge, settling on a line in Middle Cirque that looks like it might offer a few soft-ish turns. The view is stunning, the base area far below dwarfed by the steep walls of the canyon and the looming mass of Mount Superior across the valley. We scout the line for a few minutes, plotting turns and hopeful that what looks like decent snow proves to at least be somewhat skiable. The red and blue tram cars glide by overhead on their 900 metre ascent. 

I drop in. It’s steep and I sink low on my tele skis, anticipating firm chatter on the week-old conditions, but instead finding surprisingly soft, edgeable snow. The pitch is steep but the snow is forgiving and I let the skis run for a bit before stopping for a breather. Kevin follows with strong short radius turns as he skis by, drawn downward by the pull of the fall line. I watch him crank a sudden tight left around a cluster of pines lower down the bowl to catch a handful of actual deep turns in a pocket of untouched powder. The pitch gradually mellows and our turns get bigger and faster. Halfway down the mountain we intersect with some fast groomers and fly down the rest of Snowbird’s big vertical back to the tram.

On this sunny weekday the tram line is negligible so we spend the rest of the morning ticking off lines off the ridge. We leapfrog down the steeps, stoked to be skiing bucket-list runs at a bucket-list resort and finding alternating pockets of tracked-but-soft snow mixed with untouched stashes closer in to some of the more treed lines. Snowbird and Alta offer huge acreages of terrain and we spend the next few days seeking and finding rewarding nooks and crannies with great snow.

Over an end-of-day Chasing Tail Golden Ale in the tram plaza, we feel we’re merely sampling an amuse-bouche, rather than the usual endless buffet of all-you-can-eat powder turns, season after season, that Little Cottonwood Canyon is portrayed as serving up. I mean, is it that good all the time? Most of the time? Only some of the time? 

Inevitably, the talk turns to a return visit and we pulse a staffer friend who’d showed us around that day for his thoughts on the best time of winter to catch an epic Utah powder day. 

He digs into his jacket...a quick refresh of his phone’s weather app. “Next week, probably.”