At Alta, the traverse to your line might actually kick your butt.
I was only four-years-old when I was introduced to suffering. It was February 1988. Chicago was in the middle of one it’s snowiest winters and I was in for a blizzard of pain. My mother asked my eldest brother Sean to watch me as she handled changing my sister Kitty’s diaper while simultaneously getting my other brother Brendan ready for a birthday party. Sean took this as an opportunity to try out World Wrestling Federation moves on me, specifically Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka’s Superfly Splash. But rather than a flying body slam, Sean just jumped on me feet first and broke my leg. And then, I, a boy who admittedly cried wolf too often, was told to buck up and forced to walk on my broken leg until my tears got so irritating I was finally taken to the doctor.
I’ve never known such physical and emotional pain, that is, until February of 2021 when I skied Alta for the first time.
I’ve been a fully-fledged ski bum since my early twenties. I’ve skied on resorts and in the backcountry all over Colorado and the rest of the Mountain West. I’ve skied a few times at different European destinations, spent two weeks in Argentina once, and skied the deepest snow of my life in Japan. I’ve slogged on skin tracks that were more tiresome and fear provoking than doing your own taxes, dug endless holes in the heaviest snow on earth as a snowmaker and, as a ski patroller, I’ve found myself in high anxiety-high angle situations so puckering a John Deere couldn’t have pulled a needle out my ass. All this is to say, I’ve put up with plenty of pain to get to the glory of sacred lines and untracked powder. But Alta is a different kind of hurt.
This past February, my gal and I drove from Colorado to Salt Lake City to visit her childhood home, ski with her folks and check out the Little Cottonwood Canyon playgrounds of her youth. Carly’s mom and dad, Patti and Dave, used to patrol at Alta, and Carly spent all of her adolescent winters following them around (until they started to follow her around), so I knew that as a newbie to the area I’d be getting a special kind of tour. I just didn’t realize how exhausting and painful that tour would be.
You can’t really call yourself a skier if you don’t know about Alta. I’d long heard the tales of Little Cottonwood Canyon’s bountiful snow, inspiring terrain and legendary skiers. And I’d heard about the traverses that crisscross the famed mountain. But I didn’t realize their extent or that they are so prominent that they’re actually named and marked on the trail map. I did not know that Alta skiers are gifted with superhuman hip flexors that are actually just Arnold Schwarzenegger bicep clones. I was unaware that my legs would be non-stop pistoning like the skiing version of Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. During one such hyperventilating, gag-inducing traverse, Carly informed me that Alta stands for “Another Long Traverse Again.” I think there should be special emphasis put on “again.”
There is no way to physically prepare for the amount and frequency of side-stepping you’ll do at Alta, except maybe to allow a group of feral children hopped-up on pounds of Pixy Stix to hit you in your hips with framing studs for days on end. And unless you have a recording of the confidence-boosting pep talk your mother gave you before your first dance in junior high, there is really no way to mentally prepare for the emotional torment of an Alta visit either. Are people going to laugh at me? Am I doing this all wrong? Am I coordinated enough to be here? Should I be sweating this much?
But, despite the existential rattling of one’s ski life and the grinding of one’s lower body into quad soup, Alta has a funny way of getting into your heart.
I can’t remember the run we were trying to get to; I think it’s name is just a picture of a grandmother flipping you the middle finger. Carly and I followed her father on the highest of the High Traverse, made our way to a section that had rope bolted into the rock wall to aid in the navigation of a ledge that hovered on a no fall cliff. Nothing like faux-climbing on skis—pretty sure it was a 5.14—to wake you up in the morning. Dave made it through with ease and duck walked up to what was to be the entry to our line, a sketchy looking notch in the ridge. Carly waited for me after following her dad without issue. I was struggling with the crux move on the stony shelf, which was somehow thinner than my desire to be standing on it, when Dave yelled, “Oh jeez, this run is closed.” Before the WHAT THE of my WHAT THE FUCK?! could be said under my breath, Dave pointed his tips downhill and zipped out of sight on the lower, incredibly less terrifying traverse we should have been on all along.
Carly and I were skiing after Dave before any frustration could register though. We had to catch up. And when we did, the exhaustion in my legs and the fear I felt on the rock ledge evaporated. Dave showed us a local’s secret line that held perfect blower snow, fun technical turns, and a giant welcoming apron that the three of us all party skied together, giggling in unison. It was amazing, the kind of ski experience you think about during the summer or when stuck in powder day traffic or when you set an extra early alarm for a dawn patrol mission. Sometimes getting to something great takes more work than you want, work that makes you bark the eff word while you gasp for air and your legs feel like overcooked sausage gravy. But nothing worth a damn was ever easy. Nor should it be. And that, my friends, is Alta.