“You first,” says Alex fleet, my instructor, as he adjusts his goggles. I’m perched on a snowy ridge high in the Wasatch Range, 60 kilometres east of Salt Lake City. Behind me is backcountry territory; before me, the Red Pine Bowl funnels a few hundred metres to a cluster of pines in less windswept terrain. And way below, the town of Park City. “I’ll follow and pick up the pieces,” he jabs, clearly having sussed out my skiing style. I drop into the dry, knee-deep powder – a novelty for this skier accustomed to the icy corduroy of Quebec slopes – and string together nine, 10, a dozen turns until I get ahead of my skis, bury a tip and cartwheel downhill. I land on my feet; the bowl is so steep you can stand upright and still feel like you’re lying down. “You’ve got room to go wider and control your speed before each turn,” yells Fleet, arriving with my skis. Control has always been an issue.
As the son of a ski-school instructor myself, I find Fleet’s lessons comforting. Truth is, my last run was a few years ago and I’m grateful to not have to take on this 3,000-metre-high monster alone. Park City Mountain Resort was twinned with adjacent Canyons Resort in 2014 to create the largest ski area in the United States. And with an annual snowfall of nine metres – which some claim is the best in the west, falling light, deep and dry in the desert air – Park City is a great place to be finding my ski legs again.
With a deeper history than most ski resorts, Park City is a prime spot for exploration, too. After silver was discovered nearby in 1869, these parts saw the richest silver mining operation that ever was. By the time the blasting stopped a century later, US$11-billion worth of silver, gold and other ores had been pulled from the mines. (The Hearst fortune, among others, was struck here.) The leftovers of the mining days are there to see on the mountain and in the frontier ski town at the bottom. The peaked cottages stacked on sloped streets were once prospectors’ homes; general stores and grimy saloons filled the low brick buildings on Main Street. The cascading wooden staircases that sub for cross streets hearken back to when snow or rain would turn hillsides into mudslides. Even the chairlift that whisks skiers from Main Street to the slopes above traces the path of a defunct aerial tram from mining days.
The Sundance Film Festival, which rolls through town this month, is another draw here. Fortunes are also staked on the new mega-resort created when Vail Resorts acquired Park City Mountain. Capacity and expectations may be on the rise, but the town’s charms are anchored in the rock.
On the hill the next day, I get more sense of what lies beneath. In the clearing near the top of the Town Lift, volunteer guide Jon Wright laser-points his ski pole at a large building off to the side. “One of the last processing sites on the mountain, where they crushed the raw ore sent up from the mines.” And just below the clearing there’s another dilapidated structure built onto the hill. After a few more slopeside stops – a crumbling 115-year-old building, two stout wooden water tanks, an elevator that descends 500 metres into the ground – I’m visualizing a 3-D model of all the shafts and tunnels under my skis, and there are an incredible 1,600 kilometres of these. I ski up and down a rock pile behind a disused conveyor, and touch wood at an ore bin hewn from rough timber on the side of the trail.
Most mining buildings are found on the slopes reached from the Pioneer, Thaynes, Bonanza and Silverlode lifts. As we board Bonanza back to the top, Wright points out a squat, snowbound hut with a green door: It’s the safe from a rooming house, saloon and brothel that once stood here. They’ve since dragged that old building half a kilometre uphill and turned it into the Mid-Mountain Lodge, but the safe was just too heavy to move. Over hot chocolate in the repurposed brothel, Wright tells me he and his wife retired to Park City from Maryland in 2013. They came for the skiing, but he’s obviously a history buff, too. He points out the lodge’s original post-and-beam construction, with a central space and smaller rooms to each side and dormer windows upstairs. “In the 1890s, the men who roomed in town used to hike up to work and ski back down after their shift,” he says. “Even pioneers understood first tracks.” Wright leads us down a series of trails with names out of mining lore – Quicksilver, PayDay, Widowmaker, Glory Hole, Motherlode – each with its own piece of archaeological pay dirt in the wings.
When it’s time to punch out, I glide down Quit’N Time to what may be the world’s only ski-in, ski-out saloon. In a wooden, false-fronted former livery on Park Avenue, the High West Distillery makes whisky, vodka, and barrel-aged cocktails. I snap out of my skis and rumble through the wood-panelled barroom to order a Campfire, the special house blend of scotch, rye and bourbon. Scoping the crowd, a mix of locals and ski-trippers seated at varnished wood tables, I find the sweet and smoky libation perfectly pairs with the soundtrack of vintage country ballads.
A walk up Park Avenue takes me past prime-location wooden cottages, and a careening wooden staircase brings me down to the shops, hotels and saloons of Main Street, snow piled high by each door. In the basement of the Park City Museum – housed in the old fire hall, police station and jail – I find one car of the Skier Subway. In the 1960s, this Epcot-style train carried skiers deep into a mining tunnel, where they’d board an elevator to the surface, 500 metres up. (The tunnel still exists, its entrance behind a locked gate in a parking lot.) I get stuck on a charming video loop of interviews with Park City old-timers. “In the 1950s,” one says, “if you told someone you were from Park City, they’da thought you were a bum!” Then, around a false wall at the back of the gallery, I find my 3-D vision brought to life: It’s a Plexiglas scale model of Park City Mountain containing a bird’s nest of neon tubes. Press a button and one subterranean network lights up; press a few more and the model glows like geologic op art.
It’s supper hour and Main Street is busy with townsfolk coming to and from the post office and diners rushing to reservations. I weave through a passageway and down Swede Alley to Handle, a latecomer lighting up the Park City dining scene. I strike it rich with a can of Breaking Trail pale ale (brewed one block away and served in a branded cozy) and refuel on hearty yet refreshing dishes like the Buffalo hot wing cauliflower, a tart beet salad and fried chicken served with pickled roots and nuoc cham dipping sauce. Walking home along a brook, I swear I can see figures wading with their gold pans.
On my last day, I hop into a pickup truck with Scott House of local outfitters White Pine Touring. A Michigan native who moved to Park City in 2004, House is taking me to flatter terrain for a spin on fatbikes. It’s the kind of crisp, clear winter morning you wish they all could be, and Round Valley on the edge of town is a side of Utah high country I haven’t seen until now. Tall grass pokes up through the snow and the gently rolling hills are backdropped by the not-too-distant peaks. The snow squeaks under our wheels as we ride past dog walkers and cross-country skiers. With a wry smile, House tells me it’s just as beautiful in summer. “One great thing about living up above 2,000 metres is there are no bugs, and only a few snakes.”
I ask House about a bumper sticker I noticed earlier: “Utahns for Colorado.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek movement in reference to neighbours who gloat about the height of their peaks and the quality of their snow. With six ski areas peaking over 3,000 metres, and all covered in that puffy, dusty powder, you can see why some Utahns would want their state to remain a well-kept secret. House slams shut the gate of his pickup and flashes me a big grin: “They can have it all, and their long lift lines, too.”
It’s true, I haven’t seen a lift line anywhere, and there’s still time for a few more runs with Alex Fleet. We ascend to the edges of the Canyons Resort, and this time he goes first, leading me down a narrow gully with high walls to turn on and downed trees to duck under. It’s more challenging than anything I’ve ever skied, but I remember my lessons, keeping my weight over my skis and making calculated turns. I emerge exhausted, exhilarated and unscathed five minutes later onto a groomer partway down the mountain. Fleet just smiles and glances at his watch: If we’re quick about it, we can squeeze in one more.
We get on a chairlift to the top with a young ski patroller and his two-year-old Lab, Aly, a search-and-rescue dog in training. After two minutes, Aly starts to whine: She wants off, but we’re 25 metres up in the air. “See, she’s just like us,” the proud patroller beams. “All she wants is to be on the snow.” Or maybe she’s on to gold.