WITH the help of a former mayor of Salt Lake City, Roger Cox discovers one of the best-kept secrets in world skiing
The best way to explore a new ski resort is with a local who knows it inside out, and over the years I’ve been very lucky in this regard, skiing Heavenly on the California/Nevada border with hellraising, Mohawk-sporting freeskier Glen Plake, and Sun Peaks in British Columbia with record-breaking Olympian-turned-Canadian Senator Nancy Green.
About halfway through my tour of the Canyons resort in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, however, I decide that Ted Wilson is my most interesting and entertaining celebrity ski host to date.
Wilson was the Democrat mayor of Salt Lake City from 1976 to 1985, but long before he got into politics he was a mountaineer, spending time in the Alps with – among others – the legendary Scottish climber Dougal Haston. The pair made an attempt on the North Face of the Tour d’Ai in Switzerland in 1965 and, Ted remembers, they had a bit of a disagreement halfway up. As darkness fell, Haston was keen to bivvy overnight and finish the climb the following day; Wilson, however, was keen to get back to his warm apartment and his new wife. Haston used all his powers of persuasion, but it was no good. Wilson got his way, the pair descended in the dark, and Haston eventually completed the climb four days later with Bob Boucher, the pair of them very nearly freezing to death in the process.
Stories like this flow thick and fast as we cruise around the mountain – although, come to think of it, “cruise” isn’t really the right word. Ted may be in his mid-70s, but he’s still happy to tackle pretty much anything going. After spending a few minutes taking in the spellbinding views from the highest peak in the resort, Ninety-Nine 90 (so called because its elevation is 9,990 feet) he elects to take us down a double black diamond called Red Pine Chutes. It’s not ridiculously steep, but it’s steep enough, and full of tricksy, choppy-looking powder – a fall at the top could easily result in an uncontrollable rag-doll for a couple of hundred feet. No country for old men, in other words, but fortunately Ted is a very youthful septuagenarian, and after a couple of tentative turns at the top he quickly finds his mojo and zips down the fall line with the style of a man, well, a third of his age. I drop in on the skier’s left of the gully, and soon discover that the snow is nowhere near as chopped up as it looked from above; in fact, even though it’s the middle of the afternoon, Red Pine Chutes has hardly been skied at all – and this isn’t the only time I’ll be surprised to find myself riding on-piste powder at what must surely be one of the best-kept secrets in world skiing.
Canyons is one of three ski resorts in the hills above the atmospheric former mining town of Park City, which, each January, plays host to the Sundance Film Festival. Naturally, all the movie stars, moviemakers and assorted hangers-on who attend Robert Redford’s annual shindig require luxurious accommodation in which to primp and preen for their red carpet photocalls, and so Park City has more than its fair share of ritzy hotels. If money’s no object, you can take your pick from The Forbes Five-Star, AAA Five Diamond Stein Eriksen Lodge, which feels like an exclusive, Hamptons-style golf club; the impressive St Regis Deer Valley, with its slopeside swimming pool, climate change-denying fire garden and James Bond-like private funicular; and the achingly tasteful Montage Deer Valley, billed as “a refined mountain craftsman retreat”, although I’m not sure how many craftsmen can afford to stay there, refined or otherwise.
Back in the real world, meanwhile, the Silverado Lodge offers convenient slopeside accommodation at a reasonable price, and the Park City Peaks Hotel, just a short hopper bus ride away from the resort, has a pleasant, laid-back atmosphere and – critically – an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, for those who plan on skipping lunch in order to maximise their skiing time.
Canyons is now the largest ski resort in Utah, with over 4,000 acres of terrain, and it has been voted one of the ten best resorts in North America by readers of SKI magazine for the last two winters. Until relatively recently, however, it was an obscure little ski hill mostly frequented by people who couldn’t afford a lift pass for the more exclusive neighbouring resorts of Deer Valley (skiers only please – snowboarders are vulgar) and Park City Mountain Resort.
Things changed in a big way in 2008, when Canyons was snapped up by Talisker Corp (nothing to do with Talisker whisky). They made massive upgrades to the lift system, installing two new high-speed quad chairlifts and opening up hundreds of acres of new terrain. In May 2013, it was announced that Colorado-based Vail Resorts would be taking over Canyons, which, given their already dominant position in the market, would suggest that the resort’s infrastructure will continue to improve and evolve.
For the time being, though, Canyons still feels like a bit of a secret, and for anyone used to skiing in Europe, or even at some of the better-known resorts elsewhere in North America, the lack of crowds and lift lines will come as a pleasant surprise – as will all the untracked, in-bounds powder.
When I meet Ted for breakfast on the second day of my stay, I can’t figure out why he’s so relaxed about getting onto the hill. It’s snowed about six inches overnight, the sun is out and pretty much every fibre in my being is screaming,“What the hell are we doing sitting here eating muffins?” I needn’t have worried though – even after a long, leisurely chat that takes us agonisingly close to 11am, our first few runs are almost entirely devoid of other skiers. And then, incredibly, just as we’re starting to think about lunch, we find an entire piste that doesn’t appear to have been skied at all. After winding our way down a picturesque blue run called Upper Lookout Ridge, we stop to examine a black diamond called Badlands, branching off to skier’s left. The upper section looks a little icy, having been scoured by the wind – perhaps that’s what’s been putting people off – but lower down there seems to be a huge blank canvas of fresh powder just begging for somebody to come along and apply the first brush strokes of the day.
Ted, ever the gent, gestures for me to go first. As we’d suspected it’s a bit scratchy at the top, but as soon as I drop over the ridge the roar of steel edge on ice is replaced by a barely audible hiss, as I plunge into a forgiving duvet of finest Utah fluff.
The people at Vail Resorts are renowned for their aggressive approach to selling lift tickets, so if you like the idea of a huge, uncrowded ski area with an average annual snowfall of 355ins, get booking fast. Them thur Canyons ain’t gonna stay empty for long.
• Ski Safari (01273 224 060, www.skisafari.com) offer seven nights B&B at the four star Silverado Lodge from £1,225 per person based on two sharing, or seven nights B&B at the three+ star Park City Peaks from £1135 per person based on two sharing, including flights from Edinburgh to Salt Lake City with Air France/Delta and resort transfers. For further resort information visit www.canyonsresort.com/www.visitparkcity.com