The 2002 Winter Olympics may be Salt Lake's official coming out party, but skiing has been woven into the city's fabric for nearly a century. Organized skiing dates back to the Thirties, when it blossomed under the guidance of ski patriarch Alf Engen. Then in the Forties, the feather-light medium that had placed Alta on the powder-skiing map was put under the microscope by famous avalanche scientists. That research makes driving up the canyons possible today.
Now Utah's combination of snow and steep garners the state 3 million skier visits annually-which isn't much considering its bounty. The entire state does less than half the skier visits of Summit County, Colo. That's good news for Salt Lake locals.
Not a few high-functioning individuals have uprooted their lives after visiting here. Many move to the land of Zion and make skiing at least a part-time job. Photographer Scott Markewitz is a Tahoe transplant who now uses the Wasatch mountains as his canvas. "For a ski photographer, Utah has legendary snow, many bluebird days and easy access to the resorts. It snows so regularly that it's rare to have a day with truly bad conditions. And, with a major airport so close, I can get anywhere I need to go in the world. It's really the perfect setup." Companies such as Black Diamond, Evolution Skis, Voilé and Marker consider the mountains a second office. High-tech, bio-tech and education are big employers, but if you want to be closer to the action, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee is ramping up its full-time staff and needs 18,000 volunteers in 2002.
Eight resorts lie within an hour's drive of downtown Salt Lake, and their approaches generally avoid the 17 miles of Interstate 15 construction-a $1.6 billion commuter nightmare fast-tracked by the Olympics. Time the drive well, and you can get from downtown to the slopes in a short 30 minutes. Because even though there are 575,000 licensed drivers in Salt Lake County-most with Ski Utah! plates-only about 10 percent of them ski. North of Salt Lake is Snowbasin, an underappreciated mountain with vertical big and steep enough for designer Bernhard Russi to imprint his Olympic downhill and super G courses. Southeast of downtown, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Snowbird and Alta attract hardcore devotees. Driving up the canyon can have a weaken-your-knees effect as you crane your neck scouting the craggy peaks, off-piste chutes and hanging bowls.
Snowboarders swear riding doesn't get any sweeter than at Brighton, 30 minutes east of the city in Big Cottonwood Canyon, and neighboring Solitude's blend of the steep and gentle is addictive. A half-hour drive up Interstate 80 is Park City, home to skiing superstars Brant Moles, Picabo Street and Trace Worthington. It's also headquarters for the U.S. Ski Team. Training terrain rings the town in the form of three resorts: Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) and The Canyons, separately owned areas that nearly connect via a network of high-speed lifts. Deer Valley has set the benchmark for ski resort sophistication with service, dining and lodging fit for royalty. PCMR's Jupiter Peak lures adrenaline junkies who know the powder lasts longer on Sundays with the local Mormon population-which hovers around 50 percent-at services. And the recently expanded and revamped Canyons may still be struggling to gain a foothold in the national destination market, but its 3,300 acres and $99 season passes for honor-roll students are earning it a loyal local following.
Wasatch storms are quick and productive. Utahns look to the tube to see if weather forecaster Mark Eubank-nicknamed "Snowbank"-is wearing his white, double-breasted suit, a sign of moisture-loaded easterlies. After the snow settles, the cardiovascularly equipped wake up to Utah Avalanche Forecast Center advisories, pack their climbing skins and beacons and head for the backcountry. By late morning, mouths of popular drainages fill with Subarus and Toyotas. Renowned ski mountaineer Andrew McLean considers the Wasatch ideal training ground for the world's biggest peaks. "It has all the core elements," he says. "You can skin, alpine climb, rappel, ski steep shots or tour mellow drainages and practice your avalanche skills. About the only thing lacking are long, painful approaches."
Salt Lake's backcountry skiers are an organized bunch, and if you're new to town there are groups that can introduce you to the terrain. Hook up with The Utah Nordic Alliance or the 1,400-member Wasatch Mountain Club, both of which offer ski tours from zero-elevation picnics to a 38-mile expedition up 13,528-foot King's Peak. From up here, all the stress of the average work-week seems light years away.