By Deidre Macken for The Australian — Up a knife’s-edge canyon in Utah, where Mormons keep their records in a cave, where avalanche trails snake above the road and the tracks of off-piste skiers testify to a crazy sort of bravery, lies Alta and its lodges.
Alta’s five lodges are pretty much all there is at the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon and that’s the way locals like it. Lifts might get faster, skis might get fatter and day trippers might fill the carparks but Alta retains the style of a 1940s ski resort. Alta appears like a dog-eared postcard to anyone arriving from Utah’s more popular ski resorts of Park City, Deer Valley and Canyons, where developers have built five-star resorts and turned mining towns into shopping strips.
The change of pace is apparent as soon as you check into the most upmarket of the lodges, The Rustler, and find yourself struggling with the combination to the ski locker. The man who stops to take me through the process turns out to be the manager of the lodge and former mayor of the area, Tom Pollard, and he’s often in the locker rooms in busy times to help out guests.
Lodging here requires a new understanding of that term guest. Here, you’re more house guest than hotel guest; there’s lots of camaraderie but not much commerce and people only dress up to go out into the snow. The next man to help me with my combination lock is in bath robe and slippers. The feels-like-home vibe is partly because all the lodges provide half board so you’re having breakfast and dinner with the same people and it’s partly the layout that allows kids to play Jenga games in loungerooms; blokes gather in the bar still dressed in spa robes and young skiers roll up to the wine-tasting hour dusting snow off their helmets and gloves.
It’s no surprise to talk to guests and discover they’ve been coming for years, or they have college reunions here every decade or they feel so much a part of the place that they offer to help out the staff. It’s also no surprise to learn that The Rustler has been in the same family ownership since 1950 and, indeed, the other four lodges have a history of local ownership. The fact Alta (population 389) only has lodges for a ski area that offers 116 runs across 10sq km of dry, deep snow, is a result of planning restrictions and local preferences. But selecting which lodge is as personal as choosing a perfume.
The oldest, Alta Lodge, was opened in 1939 and still has the higgledy-piggledy feel of a place that’s grown from 12 guestrooms to 57 with enthusiasm. Although its entrance looks like a bus stop (well, it is a bus stop), once you’ve walked down the old timber stairs, the lodge opens up as a casual and bustling retreat.
Further down the road is The Peruvian, built in 1948 from redundant hospital barracks and while it has been updated in the years since, it still has the feel of a college dorm. Indeed, all the lodges offer dormitory accommodation, most have only share bathrooms and two of the lodges (Alta and The Peruvian) don’t offer televisions in guestrooms. But the crash-pad style of accommodation just encourages guests to spend time in the convivial loungerooms, outdoor pools and spas and bars. The Peruvian’s bar has a roadside diner decor of heritage ski equipment, wall-mounted game and a sign used by a local hitchhiker that reads: “Need a Ride to Alta. I won’t kill you.”
Snowpine Lodge is the most intimate of the properties at Alta with just 22 guestrooms and, after a 2012 renovation, has a hot tub with a view, a drying room and cuisine that’s a cut above its competitors. At the base of the ski lift area is Goldminer’s Daughter Lodge, which opened in 1962 on the site of a miner’s saloon and now offers 90 guestrooms, including dormitories. Its glass-clad dining and lounge areas offer great views of skiers on their last runs and snow storms coming in from down the valley. Locals say Alta’s snow season is better than other parts of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains because the storms arrive first in their canyon. It’s a snow wrangler, they say, and usually 1.3m of snow is wrangled every winter.
But for visiting skiers, the beauty of the ski area is most memorable. The pines, spruce and aspens look as though they’ve been scattered around the valley by an artist and provide the perfect combination of tree cover and open spaces for skiers. And with little new development to jar the eye, the views are the same as those seen by the intrepid skiers who strapped on wooden skies in their lodges at the end of World War II.
The ease of skiing is enhanced by the combination of runs, of which 40 per cent are intermediate; the opportunity for advanced skiers to climb off-piste areas; and the fact all lodges, except The Peruvian, have their own lifts to access the ski terrain.
There are two challenges to staying at Alta. One is the altitude, both of the lodges and the highest points of the mountain. Those who haven’t acclimatised at, say, nearby resorts might get altitude sickness. The other challenge comes when heavy snowfalls or avalanches spark alerts and guests are forced to stay in their lodges for hours or even a day or more. But for many, these alerts are a delight because they get to stay longer and they’re first out on the slopes to ski the powder.
Alta is in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, in Salt Lake County, about 40 minutes by road from Salt Lake City airport.