The ski area at Alta peaks out in an 11,000 foot high mound of rock called Baldy. Four ridges, forming bowls between them, meet at its apex. Separating Alta from Snowbird is Peruvian ridge; its west side faces the incoming storms, which scour the snow from its face, leaving this bowl perennially bald (hence the name), and dump all their snow into Alta. The backside of Baldy, facing south, is skied only by back country fanatics, as the only way out is twelve miles downhill towards Heber City. The two remaining bowls dominate the entire Alta ski area. In the winter, they are separated into several snow-filled gullies, avalanche chutes, really, by minor rock ridges which cover the upper half of Baldy proper.
The top of Baldy is accessible only by climbing one of the four ridges. During snowstorms, and sometimes for a day or two after, access to these ridges is blocked by the Alta and Snowbird ski patrols, due to high avalanche danger, As it snows about forty percent of the the time in Little Cottonwood canyon, and since the chutes usually have insufficient snow cover before late January, at the earliest, there are probably no more than ten or fifteen days a year when it is possible to make first tracks down this pinnacle of the powder skiing capital of the world. And unlike more easily reached powder runs, tracks made there will usually be distinctly visible all day; the arduous 45 minutes climb deters all but the most determined. Anyone riding up, or disembarking from the Sugarloaf, Germania, Collins, or Wildcat lifts has a distinct view of at least part of the chutes. One of the big entertainments at Alta, on the first sunny day after a big dump, is to watch the fanatics coming down the chutes. The other big entertainment on such days is doing it yourself.
One Monday in late February, Ann and I were riding up Sugarloaf on a crystal clear day. The canyon had received at least seven feet of snow that week; the road up had been closed all of Friday while the plows fought back at the avalanches blasted down following a 3 foot dump the night before. The storms petered out by Sunday, but the chutes remained closed. Despite a flat tire on our VW bus just before we left the Avenues above downtown Salt Lake, we made it to the lifts just as they opened. The sky was cloudless, the temperature about to climb to 50 F. Cresting the ridge over Extrovert, the lift brought us to our first view of Baldy's east face. Shorter then the north side, it has a perfect contour for a powder bowl. Incredibly steep at the top, the slope gradually lessens as it gunbarrels down, encouraging a constant speed and thus unchanging rhythm from top to bottom.
"Look at the people climbing up Baldy," I said, pointing. The lead hiker, the first of twelve, was sidestepping half-way up the ridge. As we watched, he took off his skies, and sunk up to his hips. Back into his bindings, he continued to blaze the route. "Poor guy; I'm glad he's breaking trail, and not me. What d'ya think - should I go up there and ski that? Geez! Look at the Chutes!" They were a pure marshmallow mound, untracked, punctuated only by the vertical ridge outcroppings defining them. "I'd sure like to do that today. I wonder if I should climb up there?" I said as we slid off the chairs at the top of the lift.
"I guess I really have do it," I said. This would probably be my last day skiing in Utah that year. That evening, I would fly to Seattle, and didn't know if I'd get back again before April. I had a real job now, not like the year before, when my job was skiing, every day, at Snowbird. I was a professional, an adult, no longer free to fly across the face of Baldy any time I wanted. There really wasn't a question; I needed a valedictory to my two winters in Little Cottonwood canyon.
I had only skied the chutes one other time, the year before. It was May 1st, the last day of skiing at Snowbird; Alta had closed the day before. There had been no snow for two weeks, and all of the high terrain back country was beginning to corn up. So many people were heading out of bounds, you practically had to take a number and wait your turn to go down the pipe line off Twin Peaks into Gad Valley.On my second tram up, I saw Randy Rosenthal, a 30 year old neo-surrealistic painter from Long Island by way of surfing in Santa Barbara, where my wife had first met him.He had arrived in Salt Lake City three winters before, a total novice at skiing. In the evenings he checked IDs at the Tram Bar; by day, he learned to ski. In the summers, he painted moody pictures of the ocean and mountains, where the waves or the moguls were built up from thousands of tiny, stylized human figures.
We got to talking, and he mentioned he was going over to ski the Baldy Chutes.
"Have you ever done 'em before?" I asked.
"no, but there won't be a better time this season, will there?" he said with his sly grin.
"Guess not. How do we get there?"
"Just ski down this ridge, " he said, pointing to the shoulder above Chip's Run, "then climb on up to the top, I guess."
"Why not? I'm with you!"
Two weeks of sun and cool nights had compacted the snow well. and it was an easy walk up to the bare rocks of the wind-blown west face of Baldy. The top was a gentle rolling snowfield that seemed to drop off abruptly over a cliff. We inched our way along a five foot cornice, seeking the best drop. We were about seven-eights of the way up; to go higher would only take above a near vertical rock face. own the slope, to our right was another rock wall; these two outcroppings V'ed in below us to form a gap two ski widths wide about 100 yards down. Beyond that was wide-open terrain leading into a totally deserted Alta ski area, the lifts dead and barren, the moguls wet and brown from the start of spring melt.
Randy seemed a bit hesitant, so I stomped once on the cornice to test its stability, then dropped in at its lowest point.
"A real elevator drop," I shouted as I windshield wipered down the inch-thick corn nuggets, stopping at the base of the V. Randy scooted up behind me, spraying me up to the shoulders with tiny surface granules, loosened from the night's icy entrapment. We studied the lonely vista below us. Incredibly, in his three years of working at Snowbird, Randy had never been over Peruvian Ridge to ski at Alta. I pointed out the Watson shelter, the Germania, Collins, and Wildcat lifts. Then we headed down, my Haute Routes riding high in the ever thickening spring slush. A satisfying run, intense and totally personal. Absolutely no spectators.
These thoughts filled my mind as I walked past the patrol hut above Sugarloaf lift. Gliding along the shoulder above Baldy's lower east face, I loosened the buckle on my Superlights [ed. note: boots of the time, fragile because incredibly light, held together with only one buckle]. I had my black powder suit on that day, heating me up as it absorbed the intense high altitude rays. Off came the hat, mittens, and goggles; down came the zipper, but still I sweated. Reaching the steeper portion of the ridge, I began side-stepping up. staring south into the sun at the Heber Valley. Soon, I took my skis off, hoisted them rifle style onto my shoulders, and dragged my boots into and out of the three-foot deeps pits left by the earlier hikers. The snow steps lasted only a short while, and I switched back to a skis-on side step, right foot leading. The temptation was great to cut over at this point, just below the gully, skipping the steep upper third of the hill. But the face above was still clean, and no way was I going to traverse across someone's potential tracks, despite my wet armpits and shaky thighs.
After stopping three times to let three faster climbers by (and passing three others myself), I left the main route heading on up to the north face chutes, and cut over to the highest of the east face gullies. Totally exhausted as I reached the crest, I plopped down on a drift to watch someone drop over the blind entry. As I replaced my goggles and mittens, and zipped up the front of my suit, I watched him tentatively find his line with his first three or four turns, and smoothly settle into the subtle rhythmic weight changes of untracked deep powder skiing. I felt a stir of trepidation, the first I'd experienced in my skiing for a long time.
It was not a fear of injury. I think it was at Mammoth Mountain that I lost all my worries about ending a run in an ultimate, unstoppable, spine-wrenching, life-draining fall. I was just beginning to explore the whole mountain, still afraid of some runs. Especially after riding up the gondola and watching, directly beneath me on Climax, someone fall at the start of the run and go head first, all the way to the bottom, narrowly skirting the deadly rocks between Climax and Cornice. We docked before tat person stopped falling, and I was in a somber mood as I traversed the ridge to the far left, towards Dave's Run. Once, there, I meet a wind howling at 40 miles an hour; the snow had been ripped from a rock hard, glass smooth base. For some reason, I associate successfully completing the run down that ice rink with my final loss of physical fear in skiing. No matter how sharply I turned, the steepened of the slope forced an acceleration as my edges released. But reaching out to the ice with my pole tips, and gripping the slippery surface anew with my uphill edges consistently, I was able to calm my fears, and remain standing until the end of the run. Since then, I have implicitly trusted my body, and realised that it knows much better than how to ski than my conscious mind does. After all, it's the nerves and muscles that do all the work; why not let them run the show, rather then some ephemeral evolutionary anomaly like consciousness, created by an overactive and at times unnecessary cerebral cortex? My most enjoyable moments skiing seem to come why my mind is just part of the audience.
The audience! Yes, that was my trepidation on this day at the summit of Alta. I knew, although I couldn't see them yet, that once over the lip into the chute, I would be a single object of attention for all those coming off the Germania and Sugarloaf lifts. People standing around, idly wondering which run to take, casually adjusting buckles, gloves, and goggles, would look up and be forced to follow my every move. As my predecessor finished his run, invisible below me, I actually heard applause and whistles. In a way, I hoped it wasn't for him, for that would mean people were warming up to the show, and I was the next one down.
At these times in skiing, it is important to clear one's mind, to say one's mantra, whatever it is. Some ski freaks will shout at this point, screeching like some psychedelic cowboy or crazed Swiss yodeler. I prefer to simply repeat to myself the obvious truth that, at this point, there is only one way to go, and that is DOWN.
Storming into the head of the chute, my mind empty at last, I fight a few turns through the spray left by the previous three skiers, and then lock onto a virgin track right in the middle, heading straight down. I am dimly aware the, yes, I actually can ski this stuff, and then the exhilaration starts to build as I focus on the incredible feel of the snow beneath, no, around my feet. Not dry and fluffy Utah powder, but fresh and buoyant nonetheless; my Routers sink in ankle deep, the tips riding free on the surface. Knees locked, feet together, arms pumping, hips rising and falling, I imagine that I am skiing through something incredibly dense and yet quite fluid, like mercury. My body is working perfectly, my mind is totally free to feel the luscious endless depth underneath me. And, just as on that other day in the Baldy chutes, I am totally alone, with the entire mountain deserted completely mine.
Too soon, too soon, the Sugarloaf-to-Germania traverse appears below me, signaling the start of the flats, and thus the end of my run. Usually, I don't feel a burning need to look at my tracks, but in this case I know I have to. Leaning forward on my poles, I look back up. To me, the line seems perfect, completely symmetrical. If you're gonna put on a show, I say to myself, you might as well do it right. I rest a minute, trying to freeze the feel of the snow and the sight of my tracks into my memory forever. A transcendent moment, putting me utterly at peace.