Saturday, March 1, 2014 12:00 AM
By Cassidy, Matador Network
1. The science
A wonderful phenomenon called the “lake effect” is a major contributor to the champagne snow Utah is famous for. Cold air moves over the warmer water of the Great Salt Lake, water evaporates into the clouds, and more snow falls on the mountains. The science is complex, but the result is localized and intense storms that can double predictions and keep the snow culture floating for days.
Jim Steenburgh, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah, states that lake-effect snow’s “negative impacts are in terms of snarling traffic and potentially closing schools…. And then there are the positive benefits for Utah skiers, which is a deep powder day that boosts our winter sports economy.”
Lake-effect storms account for about 8% of Salt Lake precipitation during the winter. Depending on the snow year, that’s 30 to 50 inches per season. If the forecast says 5 inches, I’ll call my friend and bring dinner to his slope-side cabin. I may wake up to 3 inches, but there’s a good chance it’ll be 13 instead. Underestimating the power of the lake is a mistake you only make once.
2. The student culture
With multiple colleges in the greater Salt Lake area, individuals come for school and study around their snow schedule. It’s more or less a sanctioned thing — the University of Utah runs a direct bus from campus to the resorts, and every mountain offers major discounts for students. We come for school, get hooked on the snow, and continue the balance for as long as possible.
I landed here eight years ago as a transfer student, drawn by a quest to find the closest nursing school to a ski resort. Pre-nursing courses were demanding, but by taking the occasional summer course and loading my fall semester, my winters were surprisingly free. On busy weeks, you’d find me with a pathophysiology book on my lap, crammed with three other friends in the back of a Subaru as we made the trek up canyon. An hour and two chapters later, I’d step out of the car less stressed and ready for another amazing day of skiing with friends.
3. The professional culture
From Black Diamond to Doppelmayr, many big names in the ski industry call SLC home. When your job is on the mountain or based around it, work becomes play and the ski lovers stay. The perks aren’t bad either. Free lift tickets and food, gear discounts and guided adventures — working in the ski industry pays back. You may not be the richest, but you’ll have the support of a community that trades hookups for the important things, like beer, food, and friends.
4. The work-play balance
Salt Lake City is the epitome of work meets play. With the mountains so close, the balance becomes easier here than maybe anywhere else in the country. I’m a nurse and I date an engineer. We both work 40 hours a week and still get 70+ amazing days on snow each year. With a little extra energy than most, we night ski 1-2 times a week and ski every weekend.
Out of work at 5, take the bus home, change, pack the car, grab a snack and caffeine, drive to Brighton, and ski from 6pm to 9pm when the lift closes. Dinner and drinks up canyon (at Molly Green’s, Solitude, or a friend’s cabin) or Thai takeout on the way home. When it’s this easy to make skiing your way of life, there’s no reason not to work and play in the same day.
5. The ridiculous accessibility
There are 14 resorts within a few hours of SLC, and 11 within one hour. It takes about 45 minutes from standing downtown to sitting on a chairlift, half of which is a beautiful canyon drive. With an international airport five minutes from downtown, you can’t help but laugh when you land from Hawaii or LA and find yourself waist-deep in powder the same day.
From my house it takes about 10 minutes to get to the airport driving, or 30 minutes on the new Trax line. I can enjoy a leisurely brunch, grab a friend from the airport, stop by their house and drink coffee as they flick off their flip-flops and grab their ski boots, and make it to the mountain by early afternoon. There are few feelings greater than skiing with fresh sand and sea in your hair.
6. The rich history
Skiing has been an integral part of Utah since pioneers first settled here in the 1840s. Milling and mining led people up canyon, and 60 years later the first ski resorts were born. Founders such as Sverre and Alf Engen and K Smith turned their passion for skiing and the Wasatch Mountains into the current-day Alta and Brighton ski resorts. Old men whisper from the original walls at Alta Lodge, and black-and-white photos hang in most resort centers. They remind us of the dedicated mountain men who founded this lifestyle we love, and encourage us to continue living it to the fullest of our potential.
7. The powder flu
The “I might be ‘sick’ tomorrow” because it’s dumping snow is a more tolerated excuse here than in most cities. If you’re lucky enough to have friends who live up canyon, or live up canyon yourself, the impromptu sleepovers and carpooling phone calls happen faster than you can say “powder day.”
If the forecast calls for snow, I’ll start or be included in a 5-10 man text chain days before the storm actually hits. I’m lucky enough to have amazing friends in multiple near-slope locations, and the topics are always where to stay, who’s driving, and what to bring. We try to plan and work together 80% of the time. The other 20% is reserved for the all-powerful powder panic. Planned or not, my coworkers and boss know about my obsession with snow. This makes them surprisingly understanding when I ask to change shifts or come in late after a powder morning. I work hard when I’m at work and choose my days, but the snow support I feel in times of need is an unparalleled attribute that only a snow culture provides.
8. The community
United by a common love of mountains, snow, food, drink, family, and friends, we come for the powder and stay for the community (and more powder). Nothing beats the yips and hollers of your favorite people enjoying a run, or the ‘cling’ of cocktail glasses at the end of a good day. The stomp of skis waiting for first chair at Brighton, the sound of avalanche bombs ringing through the tram line at Snowbird.
Salt Lake is a community bound by the love of snow and a happiness that is present on every content face on the mountain — sitting at Alta Lodge, feeling that euphoric exhaustion you can’t describe, and knowing the person across from you, holding a cold beer and eating free appetizers, feels it too.
Welcome to the community. Snow + Skiing = Happy People, Happy Friends, Happy Life.