Learning to Ski that Deep Utah Powder

Falling down a mountain…with style

An East Coast skier finally learns how to handle the deep, fluffy powder skiing at Utah’s Alta and Snowbird

Challenge level Physical ** Cultural *

It doesn’t really hurt to fall down a mountain. Of course, it helps if the mountain in question is covered in two feet of Utah powder. Certainly it helped this poor sap, who grew up skiing the icy nubs that pass for slopes in the Poconos, where the only powder was on the doughnuts at the lodge.

See, powder—that fabled dry, airy, fluffy species of snow that blesses the Utah slopes each winter—turns out to be a wonderfully soft thing on which to land. This is key, since, if you’ve never been privileged to ski powder before, you’ll likely spend your first day doing what I did, which is fall down. A lot.

The Skills

Skiing powder comes down to an issue of trust between you and the mountain. A suspension of disbelief in the laws of physics also helps.

There’s really only one rule: point your skis down the steepest cliff you can find, ignore the self-preservation alarms clanging in the primeval portions of your brain, and jump off the cliff.The rest is just technique. Problem is, the technique for skiing powder is pretty much the opposite of what I learned.

A lifetime of sliding down manmade, packed snow back East has left me with several bad habits. One is a tendency to ski tentatively, always ready for that telltale crunchy slip of the skis that means I’ve hit an icy spot.

In powder, you’ve got to throw your body wholeheartedly into the act, leaning fully into the downhill and trusting the mass of snow itself to keep your speed in check (and its fluffiness to be forgiving if you do lose control). Lean back in your bindings even a bit, and you fall.

I’ve also always executed turns by the outdated method of edging my skis, a problem exacerbated by the fact that I only recent switched to parabolics. (Going from old-school straight sticks to shaped skis is like trading in your tractor for a Porche with power steering.)

In powder, on shaped skis, there are two ways to turn. By merely shifting your weight from one ski to the other you describe long, graceful arcs. By pole-planting and jump-twisting you can change direction quickly to navigate tight spots and gnarly bumps.

Try to edge your skis, and you fall.

The Payoff

I spent a lot of time falling, that morning at Alta and Snowbird (the two resorts share a ridgeline; a pass lets you ski both). And even though the landings were soft, it stopped being fun after a while. The frustration that, after 20 years on the slopes, it felt like I was back in kindergarten didn’t help. Neither did the fact that, through I rarely have trouble with altitude, for some reason this weekend at 10,000 feet had me clawing for breath (and gave me trouble sleeping).

After an aggravating morning, I abandoned Snowbird—where you need wits (and skills) to tackle the huge, open bowls—and switched back to Alta, where fewer people were skiing the powder off and there were pretty patches of evergreens (I’ve always loved glade skiing).

It was easier going, but I still spent most of my time face-plowing down hillsides, tumbling down slopes, and feeling entirely sapped of energy as I fought the mountain.

By lunch I was miserable, but warm food and hot cocoa at the mid-mountain Collins Grill lifted my spirits. I decided on a new plan: ski some easier runs over and over again, concentrating on technique.

I did turn after turn until my thighs screamed, then kept going until they felt nothing at all. I focused on shifting my weight smoothly and planting my poles precisely. It wasn’t until I’d executed several hundred slow turns in a row without falling that I finally kicked the habit of edging my skis.

It felt right, it felt comfortable, and though I was still jonseing for an oxygen bottle, it felt like I’d finally gotten the hang of skiing powder. I’d learned to trust the skills, now I needed to trust the mountain.

Skiing powder

With the afternoon light fading and a light snow falling, I found a powder-covered cliff, pointed my skis down it, and jumped off.

As the powder pressed against my legs and belly to slow my descent, I leaned into it and suddenly seemed to float downhill. As I shifted my weight through turn after fluid turn I knew—I just knew—that there was a rooster tale of powder arcing in to the sky behind me.

I did not fall once.

When You Go…

Fly into Salt Lake City, a short drive away.

To increase the chances of getting first crack at fresh powder, stay up at the mountain; the road up into Little Cottonwood Canyon often gets blocked by excellent big snowfalls, leaving would-be skiers down in Salt Lake Valley gnashing their teeth behind a plow all morning.

I like no-frills Alta Peruvian Lodge: simple and comfy, with no TV or phones in the tiny rooms but free WiFi, a pool, hot tub, free movies at night, and a bar packed with hard-core, raccoon-tanned ski bums (800-453-8488, www.altaperuvian.com, $101-$276).

Lift tickets at Alta (www.alta.com) and Snowbird (www.snowbird.com) run $66–$69 per day. The AltaSnowbird combo pass covering both mountains is $88–$93 for one day, $181 for two days.

Both resorts sell stay-and-ski packages; depending on the season, three nights’ lodging, two days’ skiing, and airport transfers start at $96 per person per day at Alta, $99 per person per day at Snowbird.

Even better, www.ski.com sells packages at Snowbird that include lodging, lift tickets, and a rental SUV from $112 per person per day.