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SNOWCAT OPENS BACKCOUNTRY TO ADVENTURE SKIING

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Skiers load every hour on the hour. Skis stored, poles in hand, boots clipped but not locked . . . anticipation high.

The ride into the backcountry takes about 20 minutes. A ride into some untracked backcountry where trees, for some reason, seem taller and the slopes more remote.All this within eyesight of the groomed runs and log builders of the Deer Valley Resort.

In January, Deer Valley began offering previews of lifts and runs to come. A custom snowcat carry skiers, in the comfort of cushioned seats and a scenic ride, into Empire Canyon, which is located a little to the northwest of current facilities.

The canyon is the next planned expansion area of the resort. Plans are that during the summer of 1997, three triple chairlift will be built in the canyon. This will be followed the next summer with three more triples.

"For now," says Coleen Reardon, communications director for the resort, "we just want to introduce people to the new area, and to give them a chance to enjoy a very unique experience. It's funny, but you are so close to the area, but you feel like you are way back in the remote areas of the mountain."Empire Canyon is located between Deer Valley's Flagstaff Mountain and Park City's McConkey Bowl.

Reardon says it open up more than 600 acres of new skiing.

"This area will give us some of the terrain we need - the advanced intermediate and expert. We sometimes have people tell us we need more expert runs. There are some excellent experts runs in this new area. Some of the chutes are very steep and challenging. The new area will give us real balance in the type of skiing we offer."

There are no reservations. Skiers signup at Cushing's Cabin on top of Flagstaff Mountain and purchase a ticket - $5 per ride (Skiers also need to have a regular lift ticket for the day) - and wait for the ride. The snowcat can hold 12 skiers, along with a ski host and mountain guide. Trips leave on the hour between 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Tours are run on Wednesdays through Sundays.

Because of the available terrain, skiers must be of advanced skiing ability.

"We don't take reservations for this," says Reardon, "because we want as any people as possible to experience this skiing.

"So far the response has been very good. We've received a lot of positive feedback. It's something a lot of skiers haven't had the opportunity to do, especially after a fresh snow when all of the untracked runs are open."

The ride to the top of the canyon takes about 20 minutes. Following the ridge in places, skiers get a high-altitude view of the Heber Valley to the southeast and the backside of the Brighton Ski Area to the west.

The guide and host lead skiers down planned runs, eventually ending up back at the resort.

Usually, adds Readon, "We tell people to plan on the one run taking about one hour. It can be shorter, it just depends on the level of the skiers in the group."

To ensure the safety of the skiers, snowmobile traffic is not allowed in the area.

The trip has become especially popular during snowy times, when skiers are able to get away into the backcountry and enjoy some untracked powder without having to climb and hike for miles.

Plans are to continue the service through this year and into next, up until the time new lifts are built and accessible.