Ski Utah's "Interconnect Adventure Tour" takes skiers into the heart of the Wasatch mountain wilderness. In a day, we'll cover 20 miles as we ski between and through five different resort--Park City, Solitude, Brighton, Alta and Snowbird--stopping to do a few runs at each ski area. A sixth resort, Deer Valley, has been added to the Interconnect lineup for the 2004-2005 season, which runs from mid December to late April, weather and conditions permitting.
Adds Mark Menlove, another guide leading our tour, "We are also the only group that has permission from the US Forest Service to ski out of bounds in the Wasatch Range."
The trip is geared to advanced alpine skiers who may or may not have experience exploring the backcountry. Skiers use the lifts at each resort to gain altitude, so there's minimal climbing and traversing along the Interconnect route. However, participants must be in good physical condition, since most of the tour takes place between 8,000 and 11,000 feet. They must also be able to handle a variety of snow conditions, which can include deep powder, crud and crust.
Menlove calms our nerves by giving us a run-down on safety issues and an overview on how to use our beacons and survive an avalanche--all skills we hope we won't have to use.
"Our first line of defense is to stay out of areas that can be dangerous," says Menlove, as he checks to make sure our avalanche transmitters are on.
"Ready to drop in?" Keller asks, as the sun beats down on eight inches of fresh snow.
"Let's go!" someone says, and we slip past the "Area Closed" sign and the resort's ski patrol shack.
Single file, we make our way along a trail that cuts through pine forest and shoots us out several hundred yards later in Big Cottonwood Canyon, a large snow bowl dotted with aspen and fir trees, plus fresh untracked powder that buries our skis.
As a New Englander, I have the least experience in the group skiing in powder, so I let everyone else go first and study their moves, then hop and swoosh my way across an open field and down a sharply graded slope, trying to avoid the aspens along the way. We soon cross Guardman's Pass Road, a groomed route used by snowmobilers. Upon reentering the deep powder, fellow skier Harriot does a "dinner roll," taking an impressive plunge that leaves her embedded in several feet of snow with her feet well above her head.
At the Last Chance Mining Camp, we kick off our boots and fill up on much-needed burgers, chili and hot chocolate. Rested and warm, we make our way to the top of the Summit chair, slip past another "out of bounds" sign, and prepare for our journey across the Highway to Heaven, a dramatic 1,500-foot traverse along the back side of Solitude's Davenport Peak.
"For some people, this is the white-knuckle part of the tour," says Keller.
With a grade of between 32 and 40 percent, this is prime avalanche territory. It's so steep I can reach out and touch the mountain with my right hand. To my left, the slope sweeps down to the Twin Lakes and a small dam. Keller and Menlove wouldn't let us on the slope if they weren't confident we would be safe. Still, they tell us to keep at least 100 feet of space between us.
As we're about to embark, Menlove adds, "Also, you don't want to fall here."
It takes almost an hour to get across the Highway to Heaven, and we all flop down in the snow atop Twin Lakes Pass to catch our breath and survey the route we've just tackled. Then we drop into Little Cottonwood Canyon and make another long descent to Alta ski area--some of us taking the forested route, others sticking to open spaces with sweeping views of the valley. We linger in Alta--a collective favorite--and then shoot over to Snowbird for several final runs of the day, before a van picks us up to bring us back to Park City.
After nearly seven hours of skiing through large forests, in deep powder and on steep slopes, we're all feeling a lot more confident with our backcountry skills. We agree that you need a healthy sense of adventure and strong alpine skills to do this trip, not to mention a curiosity for exploring what's on the other side of the ropes.
Ski Utah's Interconnect Adventure Tour
Tours depart Deer Valley on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, and include Park City, Solitude, Brighton, Alta and Snowbird. A circular tour leaves Snowbird on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, taking skiers to Alta, Brighton and Solitude, and then returning to Snowbird via a different route. The cost for either tour--$150 per person--includes two guides, lift access, lunch, use of an avalanche beacon, and transportation back to the starting point. Tours run with a minimum of three and a maximum of 12 people.
For information and reservations, contact Ski Utah at 801-534-1907 or www.skiutah.com.
Kari Bodnarchuk grew up skiing in New England, but is still mastering her deep-powder moves. She has written about outdoor adventures, people and equipment for magazines (Outside, Sports Illustrated, Islands, Backpacker and Hooked on the Outdoors) and newspapers (The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, St. Petersburg Times, Denver Post and Christian Science Monitor).