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Alta Ski Area, Utah

Published: 01/17/2014
Nathan Borchelt, USA Today -- In the well-heeled world of roving on-mountain champagne bars, heated gondolas and valet parking, Alta offers a refreshing reminder of the pure essentials of skiing. In many ways, the resort's present identity is anchored by the fact that it was one of the first ski resorts to open in the country. You're more liable to see duct-taped down parkas than fur-lined jackets here. And the mountain's loyal following understand that a dearth of amenities helps reinforce that skiing on the mountain is Alta's sole identity - and it hasn't allowed snowboarders since the first lift started running back in 1939, one of the few skier-only mountains in the country.

The resort is fortuitously positioned in the upper reaches of Little Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains, 33 miles and a world away from Salt Lake City Airport. Here the snow comes in harder than most other Utah resorts, with an average of 560 feathery-light powder inches a year. At first blush, its relatively modest 2,200 skiable acres can seem paltry when measured against other resorts out west. But the terrain remains some of the most challenging in North America.

Start from the bare bones main lodge at the Wildcat Base area and hop on the Collins Lift, which slices into the central mountain and accesses a good chunk of Alta's best intermediate and expert runs. From the summit, you can drop east into East Greeley and test your mettle on black diamond runs like Eddie's High Nowhere and Gunsight before hooking up with the Sugarloaf Lift. You can easily yo-yo runs in this region for half a day, but you're best served traversing further east to Supreme, which opens into Alta's arguably most invigorating and creative terrain: winding narrow traverses that lead to the tight, tree-choked chutes of Catherine's Area. Here, you can choose to stay on a designated run through chalky powder or carve your own route down the mountain. Either way, your yelps of joy will join a larger chorus of Wasatch whoops that reverberate through the mountain.

Alta purists, meanwhile, often forgo Collins entirely and ride the old two-person Wildcat Lift and tempt fate and gravity by carving down the extreme pitches of blacks like Rock Gully or Wildcat Face. Or opt to clip out of your skis and boot up the western ridge of Mount Baldy. At 11,068 feet it's the tallest part of the resort, also accessible off Colllins - and the Baldy Chutes that line the mountain face provide the heady, stomach-dropping experience for which Alta is famous.

The more novice skiers shouldn't feel entirely intimidated by Alta, however. Three lifts deliver ambitious beginners to ten green and blue runs, most anchored off the Albion Base area, which is connected to the Wildcat Base via an old-school tow rope. Alta also hosts a wide variety of half- and full-day ski lessons, from kids' beginner courses to multi-day, adults-only performance ski camps.

Despite its ramshackle reputation, the resort does have some good on-mountain facilities, including a multi-story mid-mountain restaurant at Collins and a full-service restaurant close to the Wildcat Base area. In 2008 they installed a magic carpet to make it easier and more efficient to load the fixed Supreme Lift. And all of the on-mountain shops offer high-end ski rentals.

But overall, Alta isn't rushing to revamp or modernize itself, which keeps the ticket price low. You can also buy a combo lift ticket that gives you easy access to the adjacent Snowbird Resort, which adds another 2,500 acres and a huge cache of extreme terrain to the equation.

DINE: Après at Alta typically unfolds in spontaneous tailgating in the parking lot or in the sprawling patio outside of the Wildcat Base Area. But the Shallow Shaft Restaurant - located a short distance from the resort, on the other side of the canyon road - offers kind solace for those yearning to cap their day with some high-quality, locally source cuisine.
shallowshaft.com

STAY: It doesn't get more refreshingly simple than bedding down at Alta Lodge. The relaxed atmosphere feels as if you're staying with an old friend, from the cozy upstairs bar to the casual open spaces cluttered with like-minded skiers still buzzing from their day on the mountain. Ski right in from Collins Lift, stash your skis in the downstairs locker and you're home. The simple rooms boast boot dryers, free wireless and - refreshingly - no TV to cloud the memories of your day.

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