Deep Devotion - Ski Mag

Deep Devotion

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At Alta, there is only Alta...and then there is everything else.

Consider this snowy morning in February. It's after 9 a.m., and the Collins lift still isn't loading passengers. That's typical—just one of the quirks of this legendary Utah resort. A newcomer: "I don't think there's anyplace else in North America that opens as late as 9:15."

"Why?" retorts a longtime Alta skier. "When do the others open?" There's condescension in his ignorance, the challenge in his question obvious: Why would anywhere do it differently?

"See?" says another longtime Altaholic, grinning. "He doesn't even know."

There are people — more than a few, many more — who love this place so much that to them the rest of the ski world scarcely exists. As they peer down from the tip-top of Little Cottonwood Canyon as from Olympus, the ski universe is sensibly Aristotelean, with Alta shining at the center and the minor lights of skidom — the Vails, the Whistlers, the Chamonixes—spinning in its orbit. "How could it be any different? they would ask — would, if the question weren't too obvious even to contemplate. After the first time you drive up that long canyon until it palms the blue sky at this place where the normal rules of meteorology seem suspended, how could you go anywhere else?

So they don't. For 50, 60 years sometimes, they don't.

Alta may have the most loyal clientele of any ski area on earth, drawn, at least initially, by the mountain's magazine-cover snows and mettle-testing couloirs. But, for the truly faithful, a large part of Alta's appeal lies in its five quirky lodges, which are far more than simply shelter — and utterly unlike most anything else in ski country. There's no quaint mountain town promenade strung with white lights at Alta. No nightclub row. No ice-skating rink for the striplings. At Alta, there's only the skiing and the lodges.

These aren't your beige, millennial peeled-pine-and-fractional-ownership slopeside hotels. Unconnnected to each other by sidewalk, path or snow tunnel, each lodge over the decades has progressed and developed in its own fashion, like a fragile alpine flower left to its own haphazard evolution. Over countless winters, each has become its own city-state, with its own fiercely dedicated followers, lore and distinct character — as knowable as an accent. They are special places, essential to the Alta mystique. Herewith, a guide.

Alta Lodge
Here's what you need to understand about Alta Lodge: In each guestroom are two cards. The first reminds guests to rebook early, because the lodge has a return rate of 80 percent. The second is a comment card, perhaps the only one of its kind in the nation. It asks guests to tell management what they don't want to see changed at Alta Lodge.

The list is long.

Alta's most august and celebrated accommodations don't have a grand entryway or even a grandish one. What they do have is a mineshaft drop of 62 seesawed wooden steps glazed with spindrift, plunging to a lobby decorated with furniture that wouldn't have looked out of place in a dermatologist's waiting room 20 years ago. The rooms are better, if hardly extravagant — distinguished by a Bauhausian chilliness of cinderblock, straight lines and large windows.

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Every lodge has its vibe, and Alta Lodge's is decidedly East Coast enclave, subtly patrician, Old Money. It feels like the clubhouse of a country club whose members are so comfortable with who they are that they no longer have anything to prove. "The lodge here reminds me of a Vermont lodge, or old Adirondack lodges, where families would come back year after year. And they weren't fancy, but they had this camaraderie and social interaction, and people could enjoy their outdoor experience, says David Davenport, who has a unique perspective from behind his counter at the Alta Store, a cubbyhole of a general store in the basement of the Alta Lodge. Davenport did well in internatnal finance before falling in love with Alta, and he's likely the only general store owner anywhere who wears a paisley ascot as he sells antifungal cream.

But there's a difference between people who go to Alta and, say, Aspen, Davenport says. "It's a private refuge," he says. You go to a place like Aspen and "you're taking it with you" — the social artifice, the pressures, the parties. People who come to Alta, and to the Alta Lodge, want the anonymity. John-John slept here. Milton Friedman, the economist and Nobel laureate, and conservative icon Bill Buckley liked to visit in January. (Buckley's hair would be so wild when he came down to breakfast, longtime guest Zeke Woolley recalls how they once left him a comb on his breakfast plate.) Alta Lodge feels smart, Ivy League. One afternoon there's a guy in the lobby reading a doorstop called Factional Conflict and Foreign Policy. A book club meets Wednesday nights at 8:30.

Wealthy folks like this could go anywhere, stay anywhere, a longtime Alta Lodge observer told me. But they like the place because it's easy. They make decisions every day. Here they just wake up, pad down the hall, eat. Step outside and ski. The constancy is cherished. Change is threatening. Tradition is good. "They notice when the seatcovers change in this place," says Dan Withey, the longtime bartender at the upstairs Sitzmark Club.

One evening — continuing the embraced Alta Lodge tradition of dining with strangers and making new friends — I sit with a group that includes Tom Ruppert, 68, a retired structural engineer from Chicago with a gold pinkie ring and gold bracelet who's been coming to Alta Lodge since 1972. The group is an Alta phenomenon: "Alta friends, who've met here and now plan to see each other every winter. They tell the legendary Alta Lodge tale of another friend, Ed Becker, who worked for M&M Mars for many years, a bruin of a man who loved Alta and who used to come down to breakfast on his birthday in his nightcap and sleeping gown, tossing M&Ms into everyone's eggs. When he died, a big group went up on a ridge and tossed the ashes. Too bad it was a windy day — "the goddamn ashes went right back into our faces," recalls Ruppert. Becker loved a good martini. "With the last of the ashes that weren't cast into the wind, we dug a little hole and buried a martini glass full of olives and M&Ms."

There were more ashes?

"He was a big man — there was a helluva lot of ashes."

The subject turns to change, including the booths in the dining room that interfere with those cherished group meals. Ruppert's face turns roughly the shade of a turnip. He will never sit in a booth, he swears. "It's not proper to eat at Alta Lodge in a booth!" he nearly yells, putting a fist to the table.

The booths were installed six years ago. God knows what Ruppert will do when he sees last summer's revamp of the lobby.

The Goldminer's Daughter
Just downhill from the Alta Lodge, adjacent to the Collins lift, sits the Goldminer's Daughter Lodge, the GMD. Its four dormlike buildings, arranged in a squashed star shape, are covered in the pebbled caddis-shell exterior that was popular in the early '60s with libraries and large life-insurers. The overall feeling is of a postwar Midwest Lutheran women's college, with a Denny's stuck to it: a big glass atrium/public cafeteria/polyp that's the closest thing Alta has to a base lodge. Upstairs are the kind of of-an-era rooms where the headboards are bolted to the wall, and the bathrooms have those orangey heat lamps.

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If Alta Lodge is more East Coast blueblood, the GMD, with its big après-ski bar and its après-ski music, is embracingly democratic, more welcomingly middlebrow. The kind of place a group of Brits in their 60s invades for three weeks each winter and throws "gin parties" that are so much fun that other guests now plan their vacations to coincide with them. There aren't many copies of The New York Times being read at the GMD, but in the atrium can usually be seen Alta's most outré skiwear, including, last February, a man with a goatee and balaclava, trailing a leopard-print cape from his savannah-colored one-piece, like some gone-to-seed superhero. His wife was dressed like a zebra. You won't see that up at Alta Lodge.

What is nearly the same, however, is the loyalty. Guests here are so loyal that, like guests at most other lodges, they request the same rooms year after year. "I've never stayed at the Alta Lodge, the Rustler or the Peruvian, says Rick Danielson (Room 207), who, like many others at Alta, is almost fraternally loyal to his lodging and proudly ignorant of the others. Danielson, a 58-year-old lumber sales manager from Graham, Wash., with a silvery pushbroom mustache, has been skiing the GMD since 2000, making two trips a winter — one with grown daughter Leslie, one with friends. "I like the no-frills, show-up-in-the-dining-room-in-
whatever-you-feel-good-in vibe," he says on the lift one day.

If the GMD has its share of mellow Rick Danielsons, it's also got its share of Rob Rowleys.

"The crabcake," Rowley says at dinner one night, sucking his teeth. "That's new."

Rowley should know. He's skied 35 days at Alta this year, "and I usually get between 55 and 70. But last year I hit a tree going 55 miles an hour and broke 22 bones, 40-plus fractures, and punctured both lungs, collapsed both lungs, got Life Flighted." There's not a little pride in it.

Rowley's in a T-shirt, with a glass bauble on a leather thong around his neck. His dark brown hair touches the tops of his ears.

"I'm always first chair on a powder day at Alta," he continues. This wouldn't be so notable, except that Rowley lives on his family's 200-acre farm in rural Virginia. "I've gotten 11 out of 17 first chairs during my stay."

A waiter comes by. Recognizes Rowley. "What's up, man?" the waiter says.

Rowley (room number? Yeah, right. "He'll stay in a closet if that's all we have for him," the reservations manager tells me) orders and is on to the next thing. "One thing I'll tell you — I ski in Spademan bindings." Spademans? Those ancient bindings that have no toe-piece? "They've only prereleased once, in 1977," Rowley says, enjoying my shock. He's got eight pairs in reserve in his closet, he says. In a nod to modernity, though, he's bolted his ancient bindings onto a fat pair of Fischer Big Stix.

Why the GMD? "I stayed at the P-Dog once, years and years ago," he says, referring to the Peruvian Lodge. It was OK, he says. But then his face seems to brighten. "If you watch me tomorrow, you'll see me sprint to the chair when the Interlodge lifts." Interlodges are the townwide lockdowns that keep people safe from the canyon's sweeping avalanches. "And there's no one that can beat me. I'm 47, and these kids, I guess they're not paying attention."

So, primo access, eh — that's why you love the GMD?

"That's it," Rowley says.

"I'm a legend," he says.

The next morning the weather is full-blown Scottish—banshee winds, stinging snow, the timpani thump of explosives rippling down the canyon. Still, at 7:37a.m., when the Interlodge lifts, Rowley's out the door, to stand for more than an hour and a half to catch first chair.

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The Rustler
Alta's Rustler Lodge is the kind of place where you can ask for, and get, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice in your greyhound. Judged by the major room renovation and expansion in the late 1990s, or the aquarium full of flat fish, or the little chairlift — as opposed to a tawdry ropetow — that returns guests to the lodge, the Rustler is the nicest of Alta's digs. "We took some grief about it for awhile," Tom Pollard, the Rustler's general manager and Alta's mayor, says of the upgrades. "But it was a stroke of genius to do this renovation. We're a step ahead of evn't many copies of The New York Times being read at the GMD, but in the atrium can usually be seen Alta's most outré skiwear, including, last February, a man with a goatee and balaclava, trailing a leopard-print cape from his savannah-colored one-piece, like some gone-to-seed superhero. His wife was dressed like a zebra. You won't see that up at Alta Lodge.

What is nearly the same, however, is the loyalty. Guests here are so loyal that, like guests at most other lodges, they request the same rooms year after year. "I've never stayed at the Alta Lodge, the Rustler or the Peruvian, says Rick Danielson (Room 207), who, like many others at Alta, is almost fraternally loyal to his lodging and proudly ignorant of the others. Danielson, a 58-year-old lumber sales manager from Graham, Wash., with a silvery pushbroom mustache, has been skiing the GMD since 2000, making two trips a winter — one with grown daughter Leslie, one with friends. "I like the no-frills, show-up-in-the-dining-room-in-
whatever-you-feel-good-in vibe," he says on the lift one day.

If the GMD has its share of mellow Rick Danielsons, it's also got its share of Rob Rowleys.

"The crabcake," Rowley says at dinner one night, sucking his teeth. "That's new."

Rowley should know. He's skied 35 days at Alta this year, "and I usually get between 55 and 70. But last year I hit a tree going 55 miles an hour and broke 22 bones, 40-plus fractures, and punctured both lungs, collapsed both lungs, got Life Flighted." There's not a little pride in it.

Rowley's in a T-shirt, with a glass bauble on a leather thong around his neck. His dark brown hair touches the tops of his ears.

"I'm always first chair on a powder day at Alta," he continues. This wouldn't be so notable, except that Rowley lives on his family's 200-acre farm in rural Virginia. "I've gotten 11 out of 17 first chairs during my stay."

A waiter comes by. Recognizes Rowley. "What's up, man?" the waiter says.

Rowley (room number? Yeah, right. "He'll stay in a closet if that's all we have for him," the reservations manager tells me) orders and is on to the next thing. "One thing I'll tell you — I ski in Spademan bindings." Spademans? Those ancient bindings that have no toe-piece? "They've only prereleased once, in 1977," Rowley says, enjoying my shock. He's got eight pairs in reserve in his closet, he says. In a nod to modernity, though, he's bolted his ancient bindings onto a fat pair of Fischer Big Stix.

Why the GMD? "I stayed at the P-Dog once, years and years ago," he says, referring to the Peruvian Lodge. It was OK, he says. But then his face seems to brighten. "If you watch me tomorrow, you'll see me sprint to the chair when the Interlodge lifts." Interlodges are the townwide lockdowns that keep people safe from the canyon's sweeping avalanches. "And there's no one that can beat me. I'm 47, and these kids, I guess they're not paying attention."

So, primo access, eh — that's why you love the GMD?

"That's it," Rowley says.

"I'm a legend," he says.

The next morning the weather is full-blown Scottish—banshee winds, stinging snow, the timpani thump of explosives rippling down the canyon. Still, at 7:37a.m., when the Interlodge lifts, Rowley's out the door, to stand for more than an hour and a half to catch first chair.

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The Rustler
Alta's Rustler Lodge is the kind of place where you can ask for, and get, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice in your greyhound. Judged by the major room renovation and expansion in the late 1990s, or the aquarium full of flat fish, or the little chairlift — as opposed to a tawdry ropetow — that returns guests to the lodge, the Rustler is the nicest of Alta's digs. "We took some grief about it for awhile," Tom Pollard, the Rustler's general manager and Alta's mayor, says of the upgrades. "But it was a stroke of genius to do this renovation. We're a step ahead of everyone in this canyon."

But if the Rustler's the nicest, it's also perhaps the least interesting lodge, because now it's a little more like, well, a nice millennial ski lodge anywhere else. Strangers don't share tables in the dining room as at the other Alta lodges. The J-shaped granite bar is indeed beautiful — but locals and guests no longer mix there, as in the old bar; now it's often the private ski instructors working their clients after skiing. The Rustler is handsome and competent and — well, just a bit beige. Which is exactly where it wants to be. That's not to say the Rustler is particularly stuffy. Even here, after skiing, men pad around in monogrammed bathrobes, eating potstickers from the après-ski buffet. Even here, arriving cars pull in to an entryway where the garbage is also stored. Even the Rustler still has dorm rooms, like the others.

During my Alta visit I just miss perhaps the Rustler's most frequent guests, Carl and Amy, a retired couple in their 70s — telemarkers! — who stay for a total of about 60 days a winter, usually only leaving during the holidays. They live on the same wing as the staff — the one with the showers down the hall — and wander into the kitchen to retrieve their special coffee mugs for breakfast.

It's not just these guests who inform the character of the lodges. So do the employees. And like the guests, employees of each lodge tend to stick to one lodge, and stick with their own. "Alta is the biggest cliquey place ever," a cook named Andrew McCloskey tells me one night back at the Sitzmark, where he's holding up the bar, drinking a Cutthroat Ale. "There's not a ton of intermingling — after all, why wander anywhere, when I can wander down the hall?" he goes on. "It's not like I would never hang out with anyone from the GMD — it's just that we don't see those people."

The employees at each lodge work together, ski together, sleep together. The Peruvian's employees tend to be younger and louder. The Rustler tends to demand the more professional and work-serious. The employees even segregate on the hill, says McCloskey. "We look at High Rustler all day, so that's what we love to ski." Alf's — the midmountain restaurant that has its own employee housing — "they're right under the bottom of the Supreme, so that's what they ski. That and Eddie's."

"And Peruvian guys ski (Westward) Ho, 'cause it's right there," chimes in a guy from the kitchen staff.

The Snowpine
From between the Alta Lodge and the Rustler peeks the tiny Snowpine Lodge, buried to its chin in drifts, its name written in a whisper of lowercase letters on its plain brow. Almost every local you meet — locals who've lived here for 10 years, a dozen years — say they've never even set foot in the place (no public bar, apparently). Not once on the slopes do you ever meet anyone who's staying at the Snowpine, nor ever see anyone riding the handle-tow that leads to its mountainside entrance. The lodge is a mystery wrapped in an enigma jammed in a snowbank and, like the locals, you always mean to check it out. Then one day it dawns on you: In the Alta cosmology, the Snowpine's very obscurity is its identity.

The P-Dog
In the oldest photos, the Alta Peruvian Lodge is as peak-roofed as Mt. Superior behind it, stoically Alpine, handsomely utilitarian. Today it's inexplicably mansard-roofed, and a questionable shade of brown, except for happy green shutters adorned with white snowflakes. It looks, to its detriment, like what it used to be — an old hospital barracks dragged up-canyon and banged together into a ski lodge. When the hot tub out back is filled with a dozen après-ski bodies and their beers, which is every afternoon, the tub steams so heavily that from afar the whole place looks as though it might be on fire. The Peruvian is a treasure.

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Unlike the other lodges, at the P-Dog it's pretty hard to discern even half-hearted attempts to spiff up the place. The low-ceilinged great room is a

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