Friday morning: snow day. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my lazy carcass out of bed (as my father likes to say) and we missed our window to slash the pow-pow. But, as we did a drive-by on the parking lot at the bottom of Beaver Creek, not skiing seemed okay. The parking lot was swarming with people and cars, the bus stop which shuttles folks up to the mountain a seamless, colorful queue of skiiers and boarders. So, we took to the open road to Utah.
Instead of sticking to the I-70 corridor, we exited in Rifle and headed north on two lane roads busy with truck traffic — driven by “oilies” because of all the petroleum extraction ’round them parts — and not much else. Snow dusted pinion pines and steep, lean hillsides lined the roads. Tops of oil rigs peeked out from behind ridges. As we drove, the snow gradually gave way to frozen dirt, and then just dirt as the weather warmed and the wind awoke. Lunchtime found us pulling into “Country Grub” in Naples, Utah. We ate burgers and freshly cut fries in a red plastic booth decorated with fake flowers arranged in a little gold bag. The girl who delivered our food asked us where we were from and where we were going. Everyone there was genuinely nice. No egos or odd snottiness like sometimes found back in Summit County, Co.
Hours later, after a brief jaunt on interstate 80, we turned off after Morgan, UT and headed for the mountains. The sun was beginning to set across the towns of Eden and Huntsville down in the valley. As we climbed, we could spot bigger, richer log cabin style houses perched on the hillsides and modest Wolf Mountain ski area lit up for night skiing.
The road to Powder Mountain — our destination — came with a sign stating all users were required to have snow tires, chains and/or 4-wheel drive. In the encroaching darkness, we could pick out the narrow road sloping steeply into the night. We crept in first gear, marveling at the moonlight on the sheer mountains on either side and the road itself. Powder Mountain received 18 inches on Friday, and we could only imagine what kind of a journey this was earlier in the day. Snow was piled on either side of the road, and the piles only grew as we gained elevation.
Just under the top of the mountain, we spotted Powder Ridge condos. Drifts of snow on either side of the road leading in dwarfed the car entirely. The wind blew stoutly as we searched for the lodge; just below and above our condo were lifts, silent and ominous looking in the post-storm dark.
The next day — Saturday — dawned dark and cold. Still, we arose early and geared up. We imagined — and later found — that since Powder Mountain is 7000 acres, there still would be some powder to play in. Unlike where we live, even a busy day around here only slashes the surface. We purchased tickets from a man in slow motion (we learned quickly that nothing happens quickly here) and drove to the very top of the mountain and the Hidden Lake lift — just above our condo. The wide, flat parking lot looked like the surface of the moon. Everything existed in shades of gray and white and the clouds hugged in so tightly we could see nothing aside from where we were. We waited with a handful of other people for the lift to start running at 9 a.m.
Soon, a man in a red jacket with white cross that labeled him ski patrol picked up the “closed trail” signs.
“We’re open, have fun!” he said.
“Thanks dude!” I said, as I happily swished by.
“Merry snow day,” he said.
And merry it was: the other five or six people ahead of us had disappeared. Tyler and I zoomed down through mostly untrammeled powdery snow up to our knees. Down and down, just us, through wide Aspen trees with snow flying into the air around us, our thighs burning gloriously. At the bottom of the Hidden Lake lift, we noticed a green catwalk heading further down. We asked the liftie (the dude who mans the lift), if we should go there.
“Just opened,” he said with a grin. “I’d highly recommend it.”
Lying he was not. We zoomed down to another lift which took us above a beautiful spine crowned with sheer red rock and gnarled pines, all shrouded in new snow. Every two seconds we excitedly pointed out a line we could ski. Every swatch of snow looked inviting and fluffy. Only one other dude — several chairs ahead — rode the lift, his snowboard swinging in the breeze. We had Paradise to ourselves.
Off the lift and into the snow. We headed straight for a run aptly called The Powder Chamber. I was about to pee my pants the snow was so good. I had forgotten the sheer joy a powder day can bestow on a person after experiencing such a lean winter up in Slummit County, a.k.a. the Slummit. The joy was painted across both of our faces like a shooting star across the night sky. We were full on stoked.
After the next breathtakingly slow lift ride, we traversed way out the ridge. A haphazard route along the top sent us shooting past boulders and scraping our ski tips on half-buried rocks. But really, it’s not a day this season without the cardboard ripping sound of rock on ski. Anyhow, we bounced and floated to the very end of the ridge where an untouched field of matte white snow lay waiting. After those glory turns, we decided to head to a different part of the mountain: Powder Country (or “Powdah Cun’ry,” according to Tyler).
Powder Country is an old school story: you slash out of some gates, through some disgustingly good powder down to the highway that runs up to Powder Mountain. There, you wait with some other folks on the roadside for a bus that chugs you slowly up the impossible grade back to whichever base you prefer, diesel spewing out the back. We took one treed run and waited in line awhile for the bus — longest lines this season, or maybe ever, depending on which conversation you tuned into. At around 11 on a Saturday morning, with a billion inches of the fresh stuff gracing the ground, everyone had come out of their holes. And everyone was a snowboarder, seriously.
The next couple laps were pure bliss; some of the sunnier aspects had a faint crust from yesterday’s sun, but every other slope was buttery soft. In another shuttle line, we met Gary, a ski patroller on hiatus, and his wife, Laurie. After chatting for awhile, we all piled on the bus and they offered to take us to their Powder Country sweet spot, which Tyler labeled the “Honey Hole.” It was referred to as such by all party members henceforth. And a honeypot it was — perfect aspect, perfect, soft, consistent snow all the way to the bottom. Laurie hooted with joy every few seconds as she descended.
“Man, my legs are tired,” she said with breathless glee.
On the bus, we got to chatting again. Laurie mentioned her mom worked for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
“Mine too!” I said. “Where does she work?”
“St. George,” Laurie said.
No fricking way. “My dad works there, too!” I said. Turns out, her mom does all the budgeting for the whole office. And of course, when I talk to my dad later, he knows exactly who she is. I guess it’s a small world, after all.
After a few more laps in the Honey Hole, we parted ways and skinned up to Lightning Ridge, a 15-20 minute skin up a cat track. The cat was $10 a lap, and people in line looked at us like we were crazy and/or stingy. At that point, I was completely out of steam so we headed back down the front side, two squiggly lines on an empty canvas of soft white — a perfect last run of the day.
By then, it was after 4 p.m. and — for some unknown, unspoken reason — buses ceased driving to Hidden Lake lift and the top of the mountain. One bus a minute (or more) drove between Sun Down (the lowest lift) and Timber Ridge (middle lift, just a mile or so from Hidden Lake). But beyond that was a barren, uninhabited wasteland of road, and beyond that… our condo. Tyler gallantly decided to take lifts and ski back to Hidden Lake, get the car and then come get my sorry butt. One of the shuttle drivers also promised to get me in “about half an hour.” After what seemed like at least 16 years, bus traffic slowed down and then eventually stopped. What the heck, over? What happens to those poor fools whose cars were marooned on the moon?
They walked. Fortunately, after about half an hour of trudging along in my ski boots, two dudes stopped to pick me up. Fortunately, before that I witnessed one of those classic Utah Bubba trucks — lifted, with naked lady mud flaps, flood lights and probably truck nuts — pulling a smaller truck out of the ditch.
Tyler suffered a similar fate after being rejected by all bus drivers and finding the Hidden Lake lift closed. At any rate, it was a fantastic day, aside from the internal transportation mysteries. We stood in front of the sliding glass door watching the sunset. Low clouds descended on the Wasatch Front but an orange-pink glow lit up the horizon and reflected across the salt lakes through a perfectly v-shaped valley. Above all of it loomed James Peak, beckoning us to climb it tomorrow…