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Alta Ski Resort Turns 75: Just Slightly Greater Than Ever

Published: 03/25/2013

(Larry Olmstead, Forbes) --Some ski resorts embrace the ski lifestyle, with as many resources devoted to non-ski and après-ski experiences as to skiing itself. Others are what we call “skiers’ mountains.” Alta is unabashedly, unapologetically the latter, and has been since it opened the nation’s third chairlift. Since 1938 it has remained independent and in the hands of the same family, and it is one of the most historic and prominent ski resorts in the world.

Like K2 for alpinists or Pebble Beach for golfers, Alta is one of just a handful of mountains in the pantheon of “must visit” for the avid skier, a place whose fearsome reputation mandates a trip. It is awesome, with old school skiing featuring long, straight runs cut down the fall line, including one of the most famous in skiing, Alf’s High Rustler. It also has plenty of tree skiing, its own sno-cat skiing operation, and is known as one of the most challenging mountain in the world in terms of in-bounds terrain, yet nearly half the runs at Alta are suitable for beginners and intermediates. It is also very easy to get to, located in Little Cottonwood Canyon just outside downtown Salt Lake City, making it one of the most accessible major ski resorts in the country. Little Cottonwood, like much of Utah, also gets lots of ultra-light powder. Simply put Alta is a legend, always uncrowded, with about 2,200-acres of skiing for a relatively small number of visitors, all covered with an average annual snowfall that tops 500 inches of some of the finest snow on earth.

I hadn’t been to Alta in more than a decade and expected things to be pretty much the same – this is not a mountain known for embracing change. But change has come nonetheless, and change for the better. Alta is a purist’s ski resort with a strong loyal repeat following, many of whom come back simply because it sticks to its traditional values and does not build new artificial base villages, fancy restaurants or spas. Its slopes have no ski-in/ski-out condos, and there is little you can buy here that is not directly related to skiing. Most ski areas send out annual press releases touting their terrain expansions, new on-mountain dining or summer fun parks. Alta does not. Its changes have been very subtle, but very real, while keeping the overall feel of the place – which is iconic – exactly the same.

So what has changed at Alta? Mainly the lifts. This was a resort known for using old gear to transport skiers – it did not move beyond the double until the Nineties, the same decade it finally added snowmaking. The first detachable lift, a triple, did not show up here until 1999. But since then Alta has quietly upgraded with a couple of current high speed quads, and last year broke with tradition by installing safety bars on its chairs. They even added RFID technology so lift tickets can be kept in your pocket and lift gates open automatically, a European feature that is still a US rarity, seen at Aspen, Solitude, and a handful of other areas. Most notably, Alta had an infamous reputation for forcing skiers to move uphill to board lifts, a chore that has been eliminated. The big difference between Alta a few years ago and Alta today is that it is much easier to get at the same great skiing and snow they always had thanks to a much improved transportation infrastructure. None of the unique character was sacrificed to accomplish this.

There are a few more significant changes coming in the near future, assuming the National Forest Service approves an upgraded Master Plan the resort submitted. Many of the changes have to do with renewable energy, adding wind turbines to the tops of several lifts and solar panels on all resort buildings. The one major proposal which is expected to come fairly shortly that will impact skiers is the construction of a mini-tram from the top of the Collis lift up to Mt. Baldy, which would put the now hike-to chutes in reach of skiers who do not wish to climb the cliff strewn ridgeline on foot. An entirely new lift from Sugarbowl to the top of the Collins lift is also proposed. In keeping with the steady upgrade of lifts the new proposal seeks permission to replace the Albion lift with a detachable cabriolet lift, the Wildcat lift with a detachable quad chair, and the Supreme lift with a high-speed quad.