Snowbasin, Utah: Snow, Solitude and Steeps

Snowbasin, Utah: Snow, Solitude and Steeps

This story originally ran in the January 2009 issue of Freeskier (V11.5). Words and photos by Tom Winter.

The snow comes down hard. On each lift ride, it collects on our laps, another two inches deep, as the wind screams across the ridges and the blizzard obscures our vision. The chairlift dumps us into the heart of the storm. We can’t see a thing, but by now, halfway through the day, we know which way is down. When we drop off the top into the trees, the snow is bottomless, impossibly light and completely untracked.

You’d expect to find epic storm days like this at the legendary Utah resorts on the Wasatch front (except for the untracked part.) But to sample the best that the Beehive state has to offer, without the crowds, it’s worth heading a bit farther north. And, truth be told, you don’t have to travel far. Just start north out of Salt Lake on Interstate 15, cut through the mountains to the Ogden Valley and set up camp. For it’s here that you’ll find a resort called Snowbasin.

Snowbasin exploded into prominence during the 2002 Winter Olympics when the resort hosted the Downhill and Super-G events. The resort’s ownership invested heavily in infrastructure, replacing old lifts with high-speed quads and installing two gondolas as well as a tram which accessed the highest ridge of the mountain. The investment, totaling several million dollars, coupled with the relentless spin of the Olympic media machine, seemed poised to put the mountain on the map.

But, just as quickly as Snowbasin gained notoriety, it vanished from skiing’s collective consciousness. As the Olympic hype faded, the mountain’s challenging terrain and untracked snow was left for the small collection of Ogden locals to plunder for themselves.

We took advantage of the resort’s emptiness for a week. The storms piled in with a vengeance and our group, which included pro athletes Charlotte Moats and Jeff Annetts, was continually amazed by the lack of people. By the end of the week, we’d skied more untracked lines than in the prior two months combined, and it wasn’t like the same storms weren’t pounding our home resorts also.

The catch is that Snowbasin is, really, all about the skiing. While the mountain’s infrastructure is as sophisticated as you’ll find anywhere in the world and the bathrooms are the nicest on the planet — seriously — there’s no base village at the ski area, lodging is sparse and nightlife is non-existent unless you’re willing to drive the 17 miles to Ogden.

During most of our stay, we focused on the terrain off of the Jon Paul lift. Part of the Olympic upgrade, this high-speed quad departs directly from the base area and spits you out on top of the best that the mountain has to offer. The goods are visible (when it isn’t snowing too hard to see) directly under the lift. Steep tree lines, tight chutes and weedy gullies dominate this sector of the mountain. To the skier’s left of the lift, the No Name and Pyramids sectors of the mountain have more of the same, with a few rocky outcroppings for air. Head even farther north and it’s possible to exit the resort’s boundaries through a backcountry access gate to Hell’s Canyon for even more steep and deep powder intensity. The lines here dump you out at a lower parking lot (a favorite of locals who tap into powder turns down to their cars at the end of the day).

But while the Jon Paul lift serves up the most obvious bang for your buck, the resort is full of other hidden faces. Off the tram (which was built primarily to serve the start of the Olympic Downhill courses) there’s the hike-to terrain of 9,750-foot Mount Ogden complimented by the similarly hike-accessed Strawberry Peak (9,265 foot), which sits on the opposite side of the resort. Both hang ominously above the resort, and propel Snowbasin into the company of other steep and scary places like Jackson, Squaw, Taos and, yes, nearby Snowbird and Alta.

Though the resort remains as untracked as Little Cottonwood is tracked, it is inevitable that Snowbasin will eventually change. Hosting the Olympics was controversial among Snowbasin’s faithful, and “old timers” — some of whom aren’t old at all — bemoan the fact that the word is out and tracks are becoming more commonplace.

There’s more of that to come. The base of the resort will eventually be developed, with both high-density condos and luxurious million-dollar homes and the associated crowds – and prices – that accompany ski area base villages. Ogden will continue to build upon efforts to make the city – already home to Salomon and DNA – a ski and outdoor industry hub, increasing the intensity level for first chair. Meanwhile, locals are currently debating the merits of a new ski area and associated development on the backside of the resort above Ogden. Current plans for that project include a gondola from the town to the top of Mount Ogden, accessing it all. Can a revolving restaurant be far behind?

While an uncertain future looms for the resort, there’s no doubt that the window of opportunity for global powder nomads to appreciate the unique charms of Snowbasin is still wide open.

As we wrap up our final, epic day on the mountain, we’re all tempted to imagine moving here. Jeff and Charlotte are growing tired of Jackson’s feeding frenzy on powder days and I’m thinking of the empty backcountry off of Strawberry. The mountain’s unique combination of terrain, snow, first-rate infrastructure and emptiness is seductive. But for how long, nobody knows.

Snowbasin, Utah

[https://www.snowbasin.com snowbasin.com]
Average Annual Snowfall: 400 inches
Total Lifts: 12 (1 tram, 2 gondolas, 1 quad, 4 triples, 1 double, 1 magic carpet, 2 handle tows)
Skiable Acreage: 2,820
Vertical Drop: 2,959 feet
Total Runs: 104
Terrain Parks: 3 + 1 superpipe

Sleep: Lakeside Resort ([https://lakesideresortproperties.com]) has self-catering condos as close to the slopes as you can get (10 minute drive)
Eat: You can’t go wrong with a Star Burger at the oldest continuously open bar in utah, the Shooting Star Saloon.
Drink: Order a beer to go with that burger. Or BYOB back to the condo. The Ogden Valley is rural Utah at its finest.

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