Vertigo - Snowbasin Ski Area

Several years ago, while ski mountaineering in British Columbia, I experienced vertigo for the first time.

Snowbasin I was above timberline on a mountain in central British Columbia. The weather had not been good to start with, but once I got above the tree line things went downhill rapidly, with thick snow falling and clouds and fog drawing in. Nevertheless, I pressed on to what I supposed was the top of the mountain - a high point luckily surrounded by gentle snowfields.

When I pushed off to ski back down, I learned about vertigo the hard way. The snow blended effortlessly with the fog around me, erasing all markers of vertical relief or the horizon. I took one turn, wobbled and fell. I got up and was not sure if my skis were facing uphill, downhill or sideways. I pushed with my poles and slid around in a circle, falling backward this time. I felt dizzy and sick, but after trial and error found rightside up and downhill and skied off the mountain gingerly.

Today, high up in the Strawberry Bowl of Snowbasin ski area, I had vertigo again. Laura, myself and R.C., our guide for the day, stepped off the Strawberry gondola into a summit whiteout of blowing snow and fog, one where rime ice formed on our jackets almost immediately. Laura buckled on her board and R.C. and I threw on our skis; Laura and I followed R.C.'s bright jacket, which disappeared into the gloom faster than we would have liked. We skied the safe way down, sticking to the catwalk, until I decided it might actually be less dangerous to simply ski the steeps of upper Strawberry rather than worrying where the edge of the cat track was. After a few hardedge minutes we descended below the blizzard and could see across the entire valley before us. The bottom of the gondola was still a long ways off.

Not to scare you or anything - most days the Strawberry Bowl is all about good weather - but any mountain this high is liable to get stuck with a bad weather day every now and again. Most of the time, dropping in to Strawberry is a sublime experience.

The adventure to be found in Snowbasin's Strawberry - or in any of its other bowls or jagged peaks - is emblematic of Snowbasin itself, I think, and to an extent the journey it has traveled in its half-century of operation. Though the name 'Snowbasin' borders on hokey, Snowbasin is actually poised to become the best-known ski area in the world.

A Public Playground, on Steroids

Oly Races Begun in 1940 as a 'huge public playground' for downvalley Ogden residents, Snowbasin plodded along in near obscurity for decades until the resort replaced its old tows with more modern chairlifts which reached into prime intermediate and expert terrain. Actually, beginning in the '30s the Ogden Ski Club had skied around on the hills near Huntsville but looked up to the beautiful snow fields on Mt. Ogden. The city of Ogden, who wanted to protect its municipal water supply on 9,570-foot Mt. Ogden was a player in the installation of the first tows; the Forest Service and local skiers provided more encouragement. The Civilian Conservation Corps built a road to the ski hill and set some old barracks near the parking lot to serve as a base lodge. Alf Engen, who gained notoriety over at Alta, led the clearing of brush from the slopes for the first runs. The first tow was put on City Hill, a.k.a. Becker Hill. The first year 13,000 skiers showed up, and the Ogden Chamber of Commerce picked 'Snowbasin' from over 1,000 suggested names.

After WWII the mile-long Wildcat lift was built; later the beginner's Little Cat, intermediate Becker, and intermediate-expert Middle Bowl and Porcupine chairs were put in. These lifts served as Snowbasin's locally-cherished core until three years ago, when new owner Earl Holding (who also owns Idaho's Sun Valley and the Little America chain of hotels) in one hectic summer the resort installed two gondolas, one tram, and one high-speed four-seater. Two of those lifts, the tram and quad chair, will serve the world's best skiers one year from now during the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Unlike most previous Olympics venues, Utah has had most of its Olympics venues ready for competition far in advance of the start of the Games. Games venues in Utah have been ready for months if not years, and the event venues at Snowbasin, which is to hold the Downhill, Super G, Combined Downhill and Paralympic events, are no exception.

Both the men's and women's courses are deliriously steep, and even if they had been open I am not sure Laura and I would have skied down them. The runs drop precipitously from the top of the John Paul and end in a nervously short runout area now bounded by stands and a huge electronic scoreboard. The runs will be utilized Feb. 23-25 for a World Cup ski race.

With the four new lifts, Snowbasin has become one of the largest resorts in the state, and from the valley far below the resort seems to stretch across the entire breadth of Mount Ogden. Technically, the resort boasts 55 named runs, but those are set upon 3,200 acres, much of which is great cruising terrain.

New Lifts In, But Improvements Continue

Snowmaking Computer Though Snowbasin got those four lifts in and running - R.C. said he lost 30 pounds that summer from hiking up and down the mountain with huge backpacks full of equipment - a depressing drought struck, and the resort's lifts did not turn on until after New Years. Last summer, Snowbasin got busy with a project perhaps not as sexy that the lifts but no less impressive: snowmaking.

Kevin Stauffer, who now helps oversee the mountain's snowmaking system, took Laura and I into a beautiful building that looked like a lodge but actually held pumps, compressors, and two computer monitors. Destination resorts these days have to have snowmaking, said Stauffer, and resorts essentially have to be open by Thanksgiving in order to draw the crowds in for Christmas. Last summer, he said, the resort plumbed the mountain for what he called the nation's most extensive and sophisticated snowmaking system.

First, the resort built three one-million gallon underground reservoirs fed by on-mountain wells. When it is time to make snow, pumps pull the water up and mix it with air from one of three compressors that can put out 20,000 cubic feet of air per minute. In the snowmaking operations building, a computer measures temperature, dewpoint and humidity variables, and the computer can automatically adjust the air-water mixture to create either dense snow for a base or fluffy snow for a fresh-powder effect. Old systems, said Stauffer, required manual adjustments, and all too often once snowmaking begins the temperature or humidity changes meant that the snow coming out of the guns is not the snow that should be coming out. At Snowbasin, that doesn't happen.

Nice Bathrooms The business end of the system is what everyone sees when they ski at Snowbasin - 540 snowmaking guns. Most ski areas place their snowmaking guns off to the side of a trail. At Snowbasin, the guns are mounted on tall poles placed in the middle of the trail. While I'll have to admit I found perfect snow on all the runs, I'm less impressed with the guns in the middle of the runs. Stauffer and R.C., however, said they don't even notice them anymore.

There is more new here, though. The resort finished a mildly-controversial new access road, the Trappers Loop Connector Road, which shortens the trip from Salt Lake City from 53 to 40 miles by taking the driver up Interstate 84 through Weber Canyon then over a low pass to the resort.

Also, the resort is now working on a mammoth day lodge at the base to replace the woefully outdated '50s-style lodge at the base of Becker, as well as two spectacular on-mountain restaurants. All lodges are done the Earl Holding way - huge hand-picked logs, tall airy spaces, and beautiful, beautiful bathrooms*. (*I used to think that Deer Valley had the nicest bathrooms, what with their potted plants and all, but Snowbasin is giving that luxury giant a run for its money.)

Out of the Fog

Welcome to the Jungle R.C, Laura and I were briefly joined by Justin Rowland, a snowmaking and guest services supervisor, who met us at the top of John Paul. John Paul serves all expert and one intermediate trail, and ends in the cusp of a classically Western cliff-ringed valley. Next to the John Paul quad stands the Olympic Tram, a small, short two-car tram designed specifically to haul racers to the top of Allen's Peak. I was all ready to take the tram and throw myself down the mountain, but for some reason, probably the weather, the tram was closed. That might be a good thing. The first batch of racers who took part in Friday's pre-World Cup races said the run was so steep falls were a certainty. Racers crossed the finish line clocking 80 m.p.h.

Instead we skied down the Mt. Ogden Bowl trail which, like Strawberry, was sheathed in fog and required a slow-go. The whole day was like that, skiing through the fog and blizzard. I found it highly annoying because I felt like I could never get a real grasp of the mountain. But in a way, too, it made the day quiet and dreamlike, with forms appearing through the gloom like ghosts and apparitions. In the late afternoon, just for a moment, the mountain cleared of clouds and reverberated beneath red sunset clouds. Then the mountain was plunged back into storm clouds.

Snowbasin Basics

R.C. and Me Olympics: Races held at Snowbasin are scheduled to begin Feb. 9, 2002 and run until they are completed. The races are to occupy only the John Paul and No Name area of the resort, and Rowland said the rest of the mountain would remain open for skiing during the Games. Check out www.slc2002.org for more information.

The Mountain: Encompasses 3,200 acres and is serviced by 53 named runs, one tram, two gondolas, one quad chair, four triple chairs, one double chair and one race-area rope tow. All day adult tickets are $43. The lifts serve 14,650 skiers per hour and 2,950 vertical feet.

Accomodations: Are surprising sparse. There is nothing at the base of the mountain - yet - but medium-sized city Ogden is a few miles away. A nice place to stay in endearingly cute Huntsville, just a few minutes from the slopes, is Valley House Inn.

Best tip: This year, do all you can to avoid the base-area restaurant during peak lunch hours. It's crowded and smells bad. Next year, though, there will be three new lodges to munch in.

For more information: Check out the resort's web page at Snowbasin.com

Jeff's bio

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