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Snowbasin in Utah - Skiing at Its Best
by

Bob Goligoski

After having skied more than 75 ski resorts in the U.S., I thought I had seen it all – the biggest mountains, the longest runs, the deepest powder, the most spectacular scenery, the best groomed slopes and the most captivating and charming places where one could possibly ski.

I was wrong – flat out wrong because I had never skied Snowbasin in Utah. At least until last winter.

Just 40 minutes north of the ski capitol of Salt Lake City, one would think that Snowbasin would be a popular spot – well-known to skiers and snowboarders all over the country. But such is hardly the case. Snow lovers going to Utah almost always end up at Snowbird, Alta, Park City and Deer Valley, well-publicized winter resorts also a snowball’s throw from Salt Lake City.

The first time Snowbasin – which opened in 1940-- really showed up on the national radar was 2002 when it was used as site of the men’s and women’s downhill races at the Olympics. But skiers and riders didn’t start flocking to the slopes the following year in large part because Snowbasin has no base lodging and is not a destination resort.

Snowbasin, with a big-league vertical drop of 2,950 feet and a dazzling array of 53 runs spread over 2,660 acres, perhaps best reflects the personality of its owner, Earl Holding. Now in his late 70’s, Holding is a low-profile billionaire who owns Sinclair Oil, the Sun Valley ski resort and various hotels. He is a mainstay on the list of the 400 richest Americans published annually by Forbes magazines.

Mary Rowland, Snowbasin’s public relations and marketing manager, reflected that “this is the first year we ever put an ad in one of the ski magazines. This has pretty much been a mom and pop operation for so long.”

Snowbasin is anything but a small-time operation. There are 13 lifts including two top-to-bottom gondolas. Hop into a gondola and 8 minutes later you are at the top of a phalanx of runs and a two-to-three mile dash to the base. There are not many places anywhere where one can ski so many miles so quickly in one day.

With a its high rocky cliffs, granite spires, sharp outcrops and jaw-dropping chutes, Snowbasin has a wild, untamed feel. It reminds one a lot of Jackson Hole.

But Snowbasin generally has much tamer terrain that Jackson Hole and scopes out at 20 percent novice, 50 percent intermediate and 30 percent expert. But the real tough runs here, such as the men’s and women’s downhill courses, are well-groomed and within the ability of high intermediate skiers and snowboarders.

One morning we took the Mt. Allen tram to the start of the men’s Olympic downhill. We didn’t garner many style points sliding off the 60 – 70 degree initial pitch but it was rather startling to hear that the men racing in the Olympics were hitting 80 mph only six seconds out of the start gate.

Taking a break here for a mid-morning cup of hot chocolate is an experience because the several day lodges at Snowbasin resemble five-star hotels. Grand fireplaces line the walls. Italian chandeliers sparkle over acres of marble floor. Rich, custom carpets are splayed across shimmering white oak floors.

No one eats off plastic or paper plates at this resort. There are proper dinner plates befitting the cuisine that includes Swiss cheese fondues, wine braised homemade sausages of pork, boar and elk, black corn tamales stuffed with lobster and roasted whole tomatoes filled with tangy mozzarella.

Back on the snow, we come across what looks like a stunning day lodge that isn’t on our trail map. On closer inspection, this is not a day lodge. It’s a service building that houses what is said to be the most advanced snowmaking system in the world.

The system includes 300 miles of wiring, 47 miles of pipe, and 591 snowmaking guns and has the ability to cover 23 miles of runs with man-made snow. Some 104 weather stations around the resort feed new data every 15 minutes to an advanced computer system which runs the operations.

One of the snow makers explained that “we can make about 20 different kinds of snow. If you want powder, we can make a very light powder. If we have some races scheduled and heavier, dense snow it needed for the race course, we can produce snow with just the right consistency.”

With a normal annual snowfall of more than 400 inches, Snowbasin probably doesn’t need to make much snow.

Even though we were skiing on a cloudless, warm sunny day during the “high” season, the slopes were not crowded and lift lines were less than two minutes long. On a busy day, Snowbasin will attract about 4,000 visitors. Compare that to Park City which will lure more than 12,000 skiers and snowboarders.

On a typical Sunday, you’ll likely see more jackrabbits than skiers on the slopes. This is Mormon country and the Mormon churches are filled most every Sunday.

One of attractions of Snowbasin is the price. Daily adult lift tickets are $58. Compare that with $74 at nearby Deer Valley and $62 at Snowbird. Snowbasin also is opening a lift-served, six-lane tubing hill this season. Kids can slide down once for $2 while the adult fare for one ride and slide is $5.

Snowboarders come here mostly for the 340-foot long super pipe with 18-foot walls, plus two well-designed terrain parks. For cross country skiers, Snowbasin has a network of Nordic trails that spans 26 miles.

When Earl Holding bought the resort in 1984, he brought a “spare no expense” attitude to the Wasatch mountains. It is hard not to leave with a very pampered feeling after a day of sliding down impeccably groomed terrain, on snow that has been custom made to exactly the right consistency and on slopes that you virtually share with no one else. Not to say anything about the food which Zagat would rate off-the-charts for a ski resort.

There is considerable talk around the resort about what the tight-lipped Holding has in store for the future. Mary Rowland will say only that “the base facilities are being reviewed for potential build-out in two to five years.”

The local betting is that Snowbasin will become a destination resort soon. One of the locals speculated that “we’ll know about this new hotel the day that Mr. Holding writes the check to start work. We’ll all wake up one morning and there’ll be 2,000 workers here with shovels to start on that hotel.”

Holding already owns the Grand America and Little America hotels in Salt Lake City. There is some shuttle bus service from Salt Lake City to the resort.

Some visiting skiers say in the condo’s and bread and breakfast joints 10 minutes down the road in the Ogden Valley. The city of Ogden, with its numerous hotels and motels, is 20 miles away.  

We ended the day where many Snowbasin skiers and riders go when the lifts shut down – in the Shooting Star Saloon about 10 miles down the road in Huntsville. The Shooting Star, which is as much a museum as it is a popular watering hole, opened in 1879 and is the oldest, continuously operating bar in Utah.

 (More information about Snowbasin can be obtained by dialing 888-437-5488 or visiting the web site at www.snowbasin.com)

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Bob Goligoski, a ski and travel writer based in Sunnyvale, CA, has visited more than 90 ski resorts around the world and has written stories for numerous publications including Ski Magazine, Ambassador, California Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. He formerly worked as a ski columnist and reporter for the Mercury News and the St. Paul Dispatch for 18 years. bgoligoski@sandisk.com. (More about the writer.)

 

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