Outside magazine, Travel Guide 1997-1998
The beauty of becoming an expert is this: The whole mountain is yours. Not just the black-diamond parts — everything. Named and unnamed, chutes, trees, rocks, sky. Skis become tools of self-expression, and you begin to see snow in a painterly light. You crave complex, dramatic terrain; you feed off the energy in exploration. You find yourself hoping for weather — not your brochure-blue-sky weather, but serious, plan-changing, mountain-altering, full-conditions weather.
You might, for example, get "interlodged" at Alta. This happens when a storm pounds up Little Cottonwood Canyon and they have to close the road from Salt Lake City and shoot down the avalanches. No one is allowed outside the lodges while the shells fly overhead, so you might have to bivouac on the floor at Alta's Rustler Lodge — but you will certainly be among the first on the chairlift the next morning. And you will have Alta pretty much to yourself, surfing that luscious, chest-deep snow before the road reopens.
Or you may be at Alta when the sky refuses to snow. It happens, even at a place that averages 500 inches a season. But at Alta it's okay, because the terrain is so varied, so huge, there will always be good sliding somewhere. I hit Alta once during a two-week drought. Wind flung snow like white prayer flags from the ridges. But as one exposure was stripped, its opposite received a wind-borne bounty. Eddie's High Nowhere, on the lee side of High Traverse, became a flawless, styrofoam tongue stretched taut for 1,600 vertical feet. Our edges cut pale crescents white on white. Had we gone back to do it again, we would have found the wind had sanded smooth all traces of our passing.
But we didn't return to that particular spot; there were too many other hunches to follow. Jackson Hole has this kind of encyclopedic choice, too. When you step out of Jackson's red, 63-passenger tram on top of Rendezvous Mountain, the decisions can be boggling. Should we dive straight off into the bumpy embrace of Rendezvous Bowl? Or creep along the ridge to the vertical bite in the mountain that is Corbet's Couloir?
You've got 4,139 vertical feet and 2,500 acres to play with. Should we figure-eight the sun-soaked Cirque? Or drop over the wall scored by the Expert Chutes? Head into the cold, blue quiet of Cheyenne trees? Or carefully negotiate the tortuous stair-steps in Alta Chutes, where adrenalin gives way, once you are down, to relief laced with euphoria?
The trail map is a must, especially in Whistler's immense high-alpine zone. My daughters and I spent an hour one morning trying to find West Bowl in a fog: skiing by braille, stopping, listening, guessing. When we dropped, finally, into the cream-cheese bowl and looked back at our tracks, we realized that we'd lucked through the only safe slot in a serrated cornice ten feet high. Were we lost? Not quite. Had we been in real danger? Just enough to regale Mom at lunch.
I call this the adventure quotient. Taos hides it amid silent, old-growth trees. Big Sky spreads it around a radically-pitched, Euro-white cone. Mammoth Mountain has it in spades, thanks to the weather. The ski hill is a dormant volcano that just happens to plug a low spot in the Sierra crest. Pacific storms roar up San Joaquin Canyon and spill their rewards all over Mammoth's broad shoulders. Six feet can pile up overnight. Twenty feet on the ground in March is not unusual. Some years, they have to dig trenches under the chairlifts so your skis won't drag. Each big snowfall delivers renewal, a clean slate. Yes- terday's moguls? Buried. That rocky, unskiable slot in Hangman's Hollow? Filled in to soap-smooth, jump-turn perfection. Of course, Mammoth also has the terrain to shape the snow, the beautiful bone structure, the open, treeless faces to show it off.
All of the best expert mountains started with superior genes. When 10th Mountain Division veteran Larry Jump first beheld the naked contours of Colorado's Arapahoe Basin more than 50 years ago, he swooned for "the rolling slopes dropping down for miles, the snow-plumes streaming from the corniced ridges and swirling in gullies ... " Now A-Basin has everything except a resort at its base. (For that, you have to drive six miles down the pass to Keystone.) Muscular, exposed skiing. A few named runs on the trail map with myriad lines to explore between them. Adventure? If you want to, you can hike to a chute called S--- For Brains. And the weather? On the continental divide at 13,050 feet, the Basin really gets hammered.
And as every expert knows, bad weather makes good skiing. Which leads, ultimately, to spring, when a reemergent sun bakes powder into corn, the easiest snow of all. A-Basin's season (as well as Mammoth's and Whistler's and Snowbird's) lasts well into June. Locals set the barbie in a snowbank, rub on silver wax and SPF 30, and ride out to glory. This is hero snow; imagine a path and your skis follow. The whole mountain opens up. You feel like a god, at play on the pistes of the Lord.