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Ski Resort Life

The Survey Is Wrong

Mountain Life

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Am I alone in finding the annual SKI Magazine Reader Resort Survey profoundly unsatisfying? Every year it’s Whistler, Vail; Vail, Whistler. With Sun Valley and Deer Valley filling out the top four.

Either the survey is flawed or—how to put this delicately—the results say more about the choosers than the chosen. Probably some of each. You, dear reader, filled out the forms, and I don’t mean to impugn your judgment. But what’s up with this: While in 2000 Vail reclaimed the top spot, Alta—linchpin of the state with the greatest snow on earth, revered icon, powder-besotted Alta—slipped from 29th to 32nd. Dropped completely off the Top 30 chart.

Does this mean that, given a choice, you would rather drive two hours of truck-choked freeway, park in a concrete cave, pay 60 bucks to ride ubiquitous and indistinguishable highspeed chairs with 20,000 of your closest friends only to slide back down on snow eternally groomed to within an inch of its life?

Are you skidding me?

OK, let’s break this down and compare the realities separating resorts No. 1 and No. 32. Let’s start with Value—a gimme, not even fair. Vail ranks 80th, close to last on the expanded list. Alta is the perennial No. 1. Parking is free. Lift tickets remain in the low 30s. The food is hearty and reasonable. And, I would hope, readers recognize the inherent value of time spent in Alta’s rarefied alpine setting, not to mention the continuity and joy the place exudes.

How about the categories that SKI’s readers handicapped above all others in the survey: Snow, Terrain and Challenge? Snow: Vail No. 19; Alta No. 2 behind Grand Targhee, Wyo., and that really is a toss up. Terrain: Vail No. 5; Alta No. 4. Vail is vast, no question. But there’s nothing very steep and much of the frontside has been boulevarded. Tell me again about that run on Avanti, or was it Born Free?

Or…Columbine? Alta is 2,200 acres of complex natural shapes, a rock-and-snow origami with facets and secrets that reward exploration at all skill levels.

Challenge: Vail No. 16; Alta No. 7. Ditto the above. Challenge is what makes skiers out of wannabes, what keeps them hooked for life.Weather: Vail No. 12; Alta No. 6. Accessibility: Vail No. 16; Alta No. 8. Five of the top nine areas for ease of access are within a 45-minute drive of Salt Lake City’s airport. To get to Vail, you either take the shuttle from Kansas, née Denver International Airport, through the Eisenhower Tunnel (which may or may not be closed if it’s snowing), over Vail Pass (which may or may not be splayed with jackknifed semis) or you take another plane to Gypsum, Colo., and drive 45 minutes up to Vail.

Scenery: Vail No. 27; Alta No. 11. Arguing aesthetics is, of course, a slippery slope, but I believe the alpenglow box end of Little Cottonwood Canyon does edge out the I-70 corridor by a smidge.So where, sage reader, does Alta fall short and Vail make up such prodigious ground? The answer, according to the survey, is in all of the things that don’t really have to do with skiing. Stuff like Lifts, Service, Lodging, Après-Ski and Family.

Lifts matter, certainly, but these numbers are crazy: Vail No. 6; Alta No. 81. Second-to-last?! Vail has a gondola and a zillion high-speed quads. Alta efficiently accesses its terrain with fixed-grip triple and double chairs. These are not relics like Mad River Glen’s lovingly preserved single, but regularly upgraded, comfortable, modern chairs. The bottom line here is philosophical. A quad puts four times as many bodies on the hill as does a traditional double.

Alta’s management believes that is too many. The ski experience, on the ground, is what matters most, and if Alta suffers an occasional liftline, well, that’s the tradeoff, gladly accepted by Alta regulars, for untrammeled snow and the freedom to soar.

Service: Vail No. 7; Alta No. 65. Oh come now. Alta’s employees may fall into a certain gruff honesty, born of living with avalanches and skiing a legend every day, but don’t teell me the service at the Deep Powder House ski shop or the Shallow Shaft restaurant is 58 places worse than that at similar establishments in the greater Vail Valley.Vail boasts any number of excellent lodgings and smokes Alta on this score: No. 8 to No. 63. But again I think the gap is unreasonably disparate. Alta has but five lodges tucked into safe zones between slide paths. Stay in one and you’re part of the most exclusive, slopeside tribe in the world. Or stay 20 minutes away down in the city for prices that would make Jack Benny smile.

Après-Ski: Vail No. 4; Alta No. 80. What more, really, do you need after a day of skiing than a Wasatch Ale in a deep chair at the Rustler Lodge with an orange sun going down behind the Great Salt Lake 7,000 feet below?

And finally, Family. This really burns my shorts. The vote says: Vail No. 3; Alta No. 79. What the…? By this do you mean that Alta doesn’t regularly display Britney Spears in concert? Doesn’t dress cartoon characters for the slopes? Isn’t ripe with exploding video arcades? Over the years, Alta and the lodges and the Alf Engen Ski School just may have created more skiers, more multi-generational skiing families than Vail with all its minions. Last winter I skied with the grandson of a man Alf had taught to ski in the Forties. In the Sixties, he taught the father, and 20 years later, this boy. The young man, on his way to Brown, skied like the wind and proffered respectful thanks to the current director of skiing, Alf’s son, Alan Engen.

Yes, and what about history, and soul, the things that make a person feel a part of the great family of skiers, that ensure he comes back year after year to the source of that belonging? Where do we cast those votes? And how do we weight them?

With apologies to my friends at Vail, and Vail is a great place—they do World Alpine Championships better than anybody on the planet—but no way is Vail 31 spots better than Alta: the Shrine, the Dipsey Doodle, the Alta Start, Devil’s Castle and Alf’s High Rustler.

The irony is that Alta people really could care less where they come out on the annual list. “There is,” as Alta loyalist William F. Buckley, Jr., has written, “not a whiff of commercial jingoism about the place.” Alta doesn’t need to advertise.

So, yes. By all means, go ski the No. 1 resort. Yes. Now that I think about it, go there and to the other top resorts and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…I mean…pay no attention to any hill over No. 30. Yes, that’s right. Perhaps the resort survey will be useful after all.

Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Montrose, Colo. Contact him at, or check out his previous columns at