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In Utah, a family explores new terrain

Different skiing personalities find common ground

Email|Print| Text size + By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / November 12, 2006

PARK CITY, Utah -- Crammed into a rented Subaru Legacy wagon for the 40-minute drive to Alta with my mother, father, sister, and her fiance , I knew our first family vacation in five years had all the makings of an uncomfortable experience.

My mother later admitted to thinking the trip either would be a lot of fun or "a week from hell" as we went up the winding access road to the resort.

Past family vacations had been far from relaxing. Ever been in the first car to pull into the parking lot at Epcot Center? My family has. So, there were serious concerns about 7 a.m. wake-up calls and plans to be among the first on the slopes. After all, we were five independent-minded adults with different ideas of a good time, not to mention four skiers of different abilities and one non skier. A week where almost every waking hour would be spent together was a frightening prospect.

When we arrived at Alta to find chairlifts without safety bars, it seemed oddly appropriate.

But as a party of four, we were a perfect fit for the quad lifts, allowing my acrophobic father and me to take seats on the far left and right and employ death grips on the chairs.

Skiers at Alta tend to be singular in purpose and not very particular about how they reach the intermediate- to expert-level terrain or what accommodations await at the base. That became even clearer on the final day we skied there , when almost a foot of fresh powder proved a popular draw.

Just one hitch. A three-alarm fire had burned down a condo complex at the resort base overnight. The building continued to smolder in the morning. Officials simply re routed traffic to the resort. Undeterred by the smoke, skiers went off as usual.

Alta is clearly for the adventure-minded. My sister, her fiance , Dave, and I found ourselves taking off our skis and hiking off-trail to areas that carried avalanche warnings. This was something we did not tell my parents until after the trip.

Therein lies one of the secrets to a successful family vacation with adult children, or at least what saved our trip from disaster. We picked an activity where everyone could be together and still do his or her own thing. Sometimes we skied as a group. Sometimes we paired off. Sometimes Dave, my sister, and I went together. We dropped into the lodge occasionally to check on my non skiing mother and always met for lunch. It also helped that a full day of skiing left us so exhausted we wanted only to eat and sleep by the time we returned to our condo each evening.

My family liked Alta enough to visit twice, choosing it over closer resorts in Deer Valley and Park City. But that decision did not come without some debate at the breakfast table. Meals together provided the best time to discuss what we liked about the different resorts and plan for the next day. Within a couple of days, we knew generally what everyone liked and disliked.

My father, who had not skied in more than a decade, is a blue-square kind of guy. He likes his trails challenging, but not overly taxing. My sister and I will go down anything, but not always with grace and style. Dave, an expert who had never before skied outside New England , enjoyed hikes to off-piste territory. All my mother needed was a quiet place to read a good book, preferably near a roaring fireplace on an overstuffed chair. With some careful study of trail maps, some Internet exploring, and a healthy spirit of compromise, it was easier than we thought to make everybody happy.

Deer Valley Resort was my parents' clear favorite, with its think-of-everything approach to hosting skiers that extended even to the parking lot. We piled out of the Subaru, put on our ski boots, and grabbed the rest of our equipment for the 20-yard walk to the tram, an open-air vehicle with bench seating that whisked us the quarter-mile to the lodge. Inside, there was a picture-perfect fireplace surrounded by comfortable chairs. Just about everything at Deer Valley is picture-perfect from the natural wood throughout the main lodge to the boxes of tissues at the end of lift lines to the view of Jordanelle Reservoir from atop Bald Mountain to the always-smiling staff.

My family joked that Deer Valley employees would lose their jobs if they didn't ask "How are you doing?" at least a half dozen times before we boarded the chairlifts. The mountain hosts stationed at the top of each chairlift beside billboard-sized trail maps proved invaluable. As staff members who knew the resort well and had clearly tested trails earlier that day, the mountain hosts provided helpful recommendations and tips to reach each of the five peaks at Deer Valley.

After tiring of trails off the Silver Lake Express lift, my father told the mountain hosts what he had skied , then asked for similar terrain in a different area. My sister, Dave, and I sought out less-traveled territory. We were never steered wrong. One mountain host directed us to the Ontario Bowl, a hidden cluster of mogul-filled expert trails we thoroughly enjoyed, but would have missed without her explicit directions.

The cafeteria at Snow Park Lodge was a find. Did I mention that four of us eat out vegetarian? That was no problem at Deer Valley, which had plenty of appetizing, yet expensive, options from soups to veggie burgers to a first-rate salad bar. Every resort we visited had a veggie burger option, but none was as tasty as the one at Deer Valley.

Park City Mountain Resort finished a distant third in the family voting, even though it was the closest to our condo. After snowboard-free skiing at Alta and Deer Valley, it was a shock to the system to be among teenage boarders at Park City. My father did find a pleasing variety of intermediate trails off the King Con high -speed quad, and Dave enjoyed the double-diamond -laden Jupiter Bowl. Park City won points with my father for posting signs that indicated the "easiest way down." My sister and I took repeated runs down the single-diamond Glory Hole, trying not to embarrass ourselves when the lift passed overhead. I'm happy to report we were successful more often than not.

While Park City offered a satisfactory ski experience and a comfortable seat in the Legacy Lodge with a view of the slopes for my mother, nothing made our day there particularly memorable. Just like at Deer Valley, Park City posted mountain hosts at the top of some lifts and highlighted trails that were used for training and competition in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Those trails were fun to try and gave me a renewed appreciation of what world-class athletes can do. But by the end of the day, my sister, Dave, and I were eager to return to Alta, where we made our own way and on occasion were the first and sometimes only skiers down a trail.

By going to Utah shortly after Christmas break and leaving just before the Sundance Film Festival, we avoided crowds. Waits in lift lines never lasted more than five minutes, even on weekends. Every day we knew there would be ample time to ski, even if we were not first on the slopes. My father thought that led to a more relaxed week than expected.

Despite my mother's initial concerns, we had a lot of fun. Not surprisingly, we handled difficulties and disagreements like adults. The biggest challenge of the trip proved packing all of us plus luggage into the Subaru for the drive back to the airport.

Contact Shira Springer at springer@globe.com.

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