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Snowed in at Snowbird

Published: 02/03/2017
By Michael Kiefer, The Arizona Republic — The sign was not what I expected to see on the way to breakfast:

INTER-LODGE TRAVEL CLOSED

AVALANCHE DANGER

IT IS ILLEGAL TO LEAVE THIS BUILDING

I had heard about foul-weather lockdowns at Snowbird, a ski resort in the Wasatch Mountains just outside Salt Lake City, but they had seemed like cautionary tales.

But it had been snowing for most of the week, and the flakes were flying sideways with no sign of slowing down.

Crews had been out all night trying to blast down the loose snow. You could see the flash of the cannon, hear the boom and sometimes hear the rush of a snow slab sliding down the mountain.

The day before, they had closed the main tram due to high winds, but I could still ride a chairlift to near the summit. Skiing down, at mid-mountain, the spindrift was swirling waist-high and the wind pushed me along, in a scene and sensation that was beautifully eerie despite the white-out.

I’ve had lots of blue-sky days at Snowbird over the years: top-to-bottom cruisers; three-foot powder days when you’d almost fall on purpose just to feel yourself slow to a stop in the cold and white; spring skiing in soft snow through the trees in the big saddle between Snowbird and neighboring Alta Resort that they call Mineral Basin. And forays into Alta on a combined lift ticket that lets you follow or escape the sun and snow conditions from one resort to the other as you see fit.

Regulars would talk about getting snowed in, and it made sense. The resort lies near the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, and the peaks rise steep and suddenly up from the road, like steep roofs pitched to make heavy snow slide off. Consequently, the Cliff Lodge and other resort buildings, though elegant inside, look like concrete bunkers against the threat of avalanche on the outside.

And in the morning, the sign at the exit said: IT IS ILLEGAL TO LEAVE THIS BUILDING.

The road up the canyon was closed. Management hoped it would be open by 10 a.m., then by 11, then 1 p.m., according to the concierge, who was actually the night auditor. He had not been able to get home the night before because of the storm and consequent closure, and so he had worked through the night.

Likewise, the wait staff in the breakfast café on a lower floor was the same that had served the guests the night before in the elegant restaurant on the 10th floor. As for maid service, well, those folks were stuck down in town until the road was clear enough to bus them up, so if you wanted your bed made, you had to do it yourself.

Truth be told, it was delightful, a full-service slumber party with spectacular views. And though the road did open at around 3 p.m., very few new guests, if any, made it up to the Cliff Lodge. Just one of the 10 or so chairlifts was opened on the lower part of the mountain — free of charge — as consolation for those guests who still wanted to brave the storm.

I geared up, but the door was locked from the lodge onto the slope that takes you down to the ski village center where the main lifts originate. The single operating chair was beyond the center, which meant that in order to ski, you had to post-hole downhill to the center, then uphill through deep snow to a catwalk that eased down to the lift. I shouldered my skis and started to walk, then reconsidered the effort, the altitude, the extreme weather.  I stowed the skis and boots back in my locker and headed for the spa.

The Spa at the Cliff Lodge offers massage and pedicures and other services, not to mention stunning views of the mountain. For $25, I got a robe and sandals and a pass for the rooftop pool and hot tub. A number of guests were already in the big tub, their hair coated in snowflakes, their robes and towels collecting white mounds of snow on the hanging pegs at poolside. But cold was not a problem. After a half hour in the tub, everyone had enough ambient body heat to walk wet and uncovered the 40 feet back to the building without feeling the snow. Besides, the eucalyptus-infused steam room was only a few steps farther.

The bar in the Aerie dining room on the top floor was buzzing. Beer was flowing — only 4 percent alcohol, but flowing — the hard liquor was flowing — meticulously metered and rationed by Utah state law, but flowing — and a good time was had by all.

Outside, the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, the avalanche crews worked the slopes and the road through the night, and the storm was still there.

The next morning, it was still snowing, but the road opened early. One airport shuttle driver said there had been 40 slides over the last day or so, and seven had covered the road to some extent. Twenty-seven inches of snow had fallen overnight.

The resort lifts started opening one by one, and the slopes were buried in pristine knee-deep dry Utah powder, the dream snow that we all came to Snowbird for in the first place.
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