SALT LAKE CITY -- Like yesterday's salmon and some house guests, almost everything has a shelf life. That includes stories about skiing in late February.
But there are perks to taking one last altitudinous fling, particularly in the Wasatch Range above Salt Lake City, because here the chutes -- those seemingly vertical rivulets of white slicing through cliffs above ski areas -- have been filling with snow all winter. They are plump, frosted, and, similar to the ski lifts that serve them, all but empty.
In the Wasatch, if the April skies aren't dumping dry powder snow, they are purple-black in the long, orange light of afternoon.
I spent a few days last April in such light, and I came to two conclusions. Chutes are generally not as steep as they look from a distance. And there must be an awful lot of people thinking about planting radishes come spring because they are not here, ripping up some of the best conditions of the year. Although snow totals for this year are running about half of normal, March is historically the heaviest month.
The filmmaker Warren Miller once said that if you don't ski your dreams now, you will be a year older when you do. What follows are descriptions of the four best chutes for spring skiing in the Wasatch. There was neither fairness to the selection process nor total objectivity. Snow conditions, companions, and in one instance, the micro brewed beer sold at the bottom, all carried weight.
But my selections are testament to Miller's sage advice: Ski your dreams. Now.
So I started driving north, staying clear of the canyons. I had left Boston at sunrise. Under a cloudless sky at noon, I was looking out the window of the Needles Express gondola at the Snowbasin resort. More than 2,600 acres of new snow lay below. Very little of it was tracked.
Snowbasin is bigger than Snowbird (2,500 acres) with 930 more vertical feet than Alta (2,020), yet lift lines are, by many accounts, a rarity.
"It's one of the reasons I work here," said Leighan Falley, 25, a member of the ski patrol. A graduate of the University of Colorado, Falley was born in Alaska -- I think on telemark skis, which she was wearing as she led me to the top of Lone Tree Chute. The entrance to Lone Tree, unsurprisingly, is flagged by a solitary, weather-pummeled limber pine. The chute falls away between cliffs of the 9,370-foot -high De Moisy Peak. Lone Tree is, in the local parlance, a "starter chute."
"Fall here," Falley said, "and you just come out at the bottom."
With little fanfare, we dropped into a pitch of perhaps 50 degrees, and almost immediately I made three observations: Not as steep as I feared; Falley was born on telemark skis; and I was taking high sun shots of powder snow to the face on a day that had begun in Boston drizzle.
Bless you, Warren Miller.
This is why I had never gone back country -- until I met the people at Exum Utah Mountain Adventures, a Salt Lake-based touring company that promised the rewards were worth the work.
We were a group of seven intermediate-to-expert skiers. We included lawyers, bankers, and investment advisers. Almost no one had been backcountry. Most importantly, our party included guides Craig Patterson and Eric Gustafson.
We wore our own ski boots, but Exum provided the skis and special bindings. The devices have two settings for climbing varying degrees of steepness, and a third setting for locking heels for skiing.
We applied self-adhering "skins" -- once made of seal fur, now made of synthetics -- to our skis for ascents. At the top of each run, we would peel off and pocket the skins before billowing down untouched powder.
The guides must have shared 100 tips during the trip up, from reading terrain as a safety precaution to applying tricks about climbing, temperature control, and finding the mental zone that can make climbing Zen-like.
The trip had started atop the Supreme chairlift at Alta, and by day's end we had made the first (and only) tracks down two bowls, climbed the East Ridge of Tuscarora Mountain , dabbled in Wolverine cirque, and descended Patsy Marley (named for a noted madame from the silver mining days). What a way to exercise, ski, experience wilderness, and meet new friends.
"I was unprepared for the quietness and the extraordinary country that we had to ourselves," said Emeka Ngwube, a Nigerian-born banker from New York , when our day was over.
So we shared a toast, and then braced for the muscle cramps to set in.
"Eddie, where ya been?" he was frequently asked after prolonged absences.
Hence, Eddie's High Nowhere.
Think black diamond with some hair.
That is where I found myself in company with Doris Oberlander, Joni Dykstra, and Tyler Jackson, all veteran Alta skiers. (Oberlander, a member of the ski patrol, is a Randolph native.)
Our first choice had been the Baldy chutes, which dangle like white dreadlocks down the face of Mount Baldy, Alta's crown-topped sentry. But these chutes are open, on average, just one day in 10 because of avalanche danger, and this was not one of those days. More than 600 inches of snow had fallen on Alta . Conditions can really tie you in knots around here.
So Eddie's it was. One by one, we pushed off, the going tight at the top but the hill quickly turning into "no consequence" steeps where a fall might bruise little more than pride. My companions' clockwork turns were deliberate, steady, safe, confident. Time flew through my "turns." I slid head-first a fair part of the way.
The view from Eddie's -- when the world was not whizzing by -- came to mind that night after reading a passage from "For the Love of Skiing: A Visual History" (Gibbs Smith , 2001), a book written by Alan K. Engen and left in rooms at the Alta Lodge . Engen quotes part of an epitaph to the late Arnold Lund, a skiing pioneer. Lund experienced moments of revelation "when the temporal beauty of the mountains reinforces my faith in the Eternal Beauty which is not subject to decay."
The permanence is there atop Eddie's High Nowhere.
Junior Banous, 82, is to Snowbird what John Singer Sargent is to the Boston Public Library -- the soul of the place. This compact elder with an elfin smile and a penchant for yellow helmets is the patriarch of Snowbird.
He grew up on a farm in nearby Provo, learning to ski on a little hill that happened to have a manure pile at the bottom. On the right. To this day, Banous says he turns better to the left.
Banous ran the ski school for many years at Snowbird, where he is now director of skiing. He skis 120 days a season. Miller once said: "I went out of my way to put [Banous] in films for a long time because he was so much better than anyone else."
He still is.
On a sunny afternoon, Banous chose to take me down a steep narrow alley called North Chute. Snowbird predominantly faces north. Snow sticks around well into the spring and really piles up in drops such as North Chute. On a cold day such as we had, the crystals turn light and powdery.
"Da-DUMP-ti-DUMP . . . da-DUMP-ti-DUMP . . .," Banous chanted, timing his turns to his patter so that miniature avalanches erupted underfoot with each "DUMP." It was clear that this man's greatest challenge may be acting his age.
"Hey," he exclaimed at the bottom of a run he had descended non stop for perhaps 1,000 vertical feet, "Let's do that one again!"
Contact David Arnold, a freelance writer in Milton, at firstname.lastname@example.org.