By Erme Catino
Pumping my skis along Alta’s High Traverse, I scoot by the entrance to West Rustler. The broader Central Wasatch peaks come into view as the morning light casts a glow on Mount Superior and the Emma ridgeline. Avalanche bombs echoing throughout the canyons are Pavlov’s bells for skiers, provoking a not-so-dissimilar response.
Behind me, I know the chaos is mounting. The High-T, which is the narrow track from the top of the Collins lift to the steep pow-choked chutes of High Rustler and Eagle’s Nest, provokes some of the most aggressive competition I’ve ever seen on skis. But the first few skiers on a powder day are rewarded with tranquillity. This feeling is difficult to describe—the sound of your fat skis schussing across the undisturbed traverse is hypnotic as you plan your run. For me, it’s synonymous with a powder day at Alta, and no matter how many times I’ve experienced it, it still feels special.
Visiting skiers are usually overwhelmed by Western traverses—and the High-T at Alta is a perfect example. The High-T’s open landscape and vulnerability to wind and whiteout can be humbling, especially when you have a giant pack of ski bums on your ass. Rush-hour pileups are inevitable. And so, then, there are complaints.
I, however, love the High-T. Traverses and sidesteps preserve powder. They allow a mountain to be skied without a lift up every damn sub-peak. You can also argue that they teach mountain sense. Undershoot the traverse and you’ll miss the top entrance of your run, losing precious turns. They teach you how to find the fall line, a skill that is especially useful—and exceptionally evident when it’s not acquired—in the backcountry. When used properly, traverses and sidesteps become a game of finding the smoothest route, be it through rocks or awkward-size moguls. They also provide great entertainment for parents, who can watch their groms air major sections, working their way from jump to jump.
But there are unwritten rules and etiquette, and to properly experience the flow and benefits of the traverse, the skier must abide by them. Showing up and acting like a greenhorn will get you heckled at best and injured at worst. Even the seasoned vet can get bucked. There have been times I’ve sped through Piss-Pass—the nickname for the end corner of the High-T—and a wind gust launched me towards Eagle’s Nest. And there was the time a Joey and his family decided to stop around the same corner, and I had to throw the brakes on so hard, my buddy behind me nearly cut up my face with his ski edge. Stopping on the traverse is the biggest crime of all.
A longtime Alta patroller once told me there should be a guidebook so people can properly use the High-T. In reality it’s basic common sense. Maintain your speed. Merge and exit as if it’s a freeway. Don’t stop! The sound of a pole tap means heads up behind you. Never take off your skis on a sidestep. Learn to use your edges and stay out of the back seat. Embrace it—it’s the path to good skiing. Go fast.
Last and most important, don’t bitch about it. Appreciate that the resort didn’t add another lift, preserving the mountain experience—and the powder.
Erme Catino is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City. Originally from the East Coast, he’s now a committed Alta powder junkie.