Skihad BCE: Alta vs. Snowbird

This is the third episode of Skihad BCE. The first is here; the second is here and another related story, written well before our lives took a sharp turn into lockdown, is here. It looks like there are about three more.

My divider between CE (Coronavirus Era) and BCE (Before the Coronavirus Era) is March 15, 2020, two or three weeks after today’s story.

The second half of February was more or less equally divided between Alta and Snowbird. The President’s Weekend storm got us off to a good snow start but, after that, it fizzled and the 500 plus annual inches that fall on Little Cottonwood Canyon chose to fall elsewhere or perhaps not at all.

Alta and Snowbird without powder snow are like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing in sneakers. They are still really good at it, but it is not quite the same.

These are two of the premiere ski destinations in the world, but neither was able to show its best stuff this year. On the other hand, the weather was lovely, and the crowds were light.

Inevitably, those who converse politely at cocktail parties, even when they think one’s behavior a bit odd – and Skihad is far worse than odd — ask which place you liked the best. In general, answering such questions has a tendency to make more enemies than friends so I prefer to duck them.

Besides, when comparing the crème de la crème, what difference does it make?

There is one group that never gets to find out the differences between the two. Snowboarders are not allowed at Alta and they take out their resentments by posting signs at Snowbird.

My son-in-law is a snowboarder so the entire first week was at Snowbird, where one of the lifts tunnels through the mountain to provide access to vast bowls on the other side.

Week two moved a couple of miles from Snowbird to Alta, but resort life at the Iron Blosam Lodge (named for a local mine discovered by someone who didn’t spell good) was swapped for an Airbnb down the valley in Draper, which seems like the southern part of Salt Lake City. My host, called Brix, was an entrepreneurial Texan who favored paragliding.

I was invited to try it and there were rigs set up for an experienced flyer and a terrified first-time passenger, but I didn’t even ask the price.

Alta is one of the grizzled veterans of American skiing and the contrast with the much newer Snowbird is a reminder of how much has changed in eight or nine decades. It seems more dependent on fresh powder and forays into more treacherous terrain that might (emphasis added) be in my skill set in the best of times, but not under the conditions prevailing while I was there.

The best day of the week was spent with three far younger (the aggregate age difference between me and each of them was about a century) and far faster fellow Washingtonians who graciously put up with me. I proposed an “unusual profession” story to one of the three, an architect who specializes in designing restaurants. Little did I know, his clients would be among the hardest hit only a few weeks later.

During my time in Utah,

  • the CDC released a covid-19 “Hospital Preparedness Tool” designed to help hospitals prepare for an anticipated onslaught of Coronavirus patients;
  • various Asian airlines stopped serving some cities in China;
  • the CDC advised all states that only symptomatic patients who had been to mainland China were to be tested;
  • and, finally, the CDC announced that containment was no longer possible,  the virus would spread throughout the United States and that mitigation programs would be necessary.

Late in the second week, the President, who was in India at the time, announced at a press conference that the Coronavirus outbreak “is very well under control in our country.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 25,400 on the day I left. It had dropped 13% in two weeks.

8 Responses to “Skihad BCE: Alta vs. Snowbird”

GARRARD GLENN, May 11, 2020 at 1:01 pm said:

We always loved Alta the best. It had a rope tow, didn’t allow snowboarders, and had its own micro-climate and would somtimes be snowier than all the rest. Alta uber alles.


Haven Pell, May 11, 2020 at 6:35 pm said:

Thanks for leading the voting. Isn’t it great to have such worthy candidates in contrast with …


Peter W. Bragdon, May 11, 2020 at 1:47 pm said:

All this is fascinating reading for me, Haven. Dottie has skied out west — I have never ventured beyond Eastern resorts iin Vermont, NH and Maine — Cannon, Cranmore, Wildcat and so forth. My introduction to skiing was during WWII and the immediate aftermath by way of the Hans Scneider Ski School in North Conway, NH — Instructor Schneider created a chaotic future for me with the much-repeated statement, “Eet ees not necessary to fall down!” He was emphatic, harsh and effective. My family took the “ski train” which came through Lawrence, MA, on the way to NH. So, narrow trails and limited vistas have formed my fate. My last run was at Loon Mountain in 1984 — stopped because of major angina — it was a beautiful day — about forty degrees, bright sunshine and packed powder. That descent on an easy intermediate trail will be with me forever.


Haven Pell, May 11, 2020 at 6:31 pm said:

“Eet ees not necessary to fall down!” is definitely not the way you or any good coach would teach people today. You’d never create a timid defensive athlete. But… it does translate easily into “ski to ski another day,” which is great for older skiers and is my ongoing mantra. Though I know it will come, I would hate to think any run was my last one. Though if that did have to happen, the extra run when the others had stopped as a nonstop Limelight to Grayhawk in Sun Valley might not be all bad. But I am getting ahead of myself.


Dianne Warner, May 11, 2020 at 3:39 pm said:

Apples, oranges, or somewhat overripe bananas: it sounds amazing. In light of the murky ‘forecast’ (‘under control’ (Ha!) ) be thankful for these memories; you somehow managed to just slip under the radar.


Haven Pell, May 11, 2020 at 6:33 pm said:

for this year…. I hope I don’t have to wait too long for another.


Sandy Faison, May 18, 2020 at 5:48 pm said:

I’ll take Alta any day. If you are willing to hike 5-20 minutes, you can find fresh powder 2/3 days after a snowfall. My recollection of Snowbird is that it gets boarded and skied out very quickly, as most of the terrain is very accessible from the lifts. Maybe that’s changed, but I love the absence of snowboarders.


Haven Pell, May 18, 2020 at 6:34 pm said:

Your theory makes sense and it will give me something to try next year. You exposed me to the idea two years ago in Vail. A memorable day.


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