“I feel like a better skier here,” says the stranger at the other end of the chair as we ride the Collins lift at Alta Ski Area. And I immediately understand what he means.
Alta — the resort at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon — is known for having some of the best snow in the state. In subpar snow years, Alta gets more visitors than in good snow years because skiers can always rely on snow at Alta’s elevation.
Alta also feeds the spirit of adventure in its visitors. There aren’t many specified runs marked with signs. Instead, there are more general areas to ski, which require traversing across slopes to tree runs or long bowls covered in fluffy powder. Traversing is so fundamental to the Alta experience that the resort provides a how-to for traversing on its website.
“Everything you see is open for skiing,” Andria Huskinson, Alta’s communications manager, tells me as we look over the resort. She explains that areas inaccessible from the lifts are safe to ski if you’re willing to hike, side-step or traverse. Alta even offers private guides to skiers who have $900 to burn and want to explore every corner of the off-trail terrain.
It’s a bucket-list destination for skiers, and when people come to Alta, they come to ski, Huskinson says — not for the nightlife, which is nonexistent in the tiny town of Alta, and not to drink and party like they might at other ski destinations. Just to ski and to ski hard.
Alta is also a resort that rewards repeat visits, with seemingly unlimited secret runs to be found. Huskinson has been skiing on the mountain for more than 30 years and only recently discovered a run she’d heard about from colleagues.
For these reasons, Alta has a cult-like following among skiers. But only skiers. Alta started as a skier’s mountain and has stayed that way.
Some joke that Alta stands for “A long traverse ahead,” Huskinson tells me, which is not a problem for skiers, but unsuitable for the board crowd.
All the traversing, side-stepping and the long mogul runs at the end of the hiking work up an appetite, and so Huskinson meets my husband and I at the Collins Grill on the third floor of the Watson Shelter.
The hostess encourages us to remove our ski boots and put on slippers from the tidy stack they have in the waiting area. Then she escorts us to our table in the corner that overlooks a mountainscape punctuated by a cloudless blue sky.
We start with salted bread and hummus while our waiter explains the menu, which is presented on a chalkboard that the waitstaff moves from table to table. The food is seasonally and locally sourced, Huskinson explains, so the menu can change daily. We order the jalapeño poppers, Maine scallops and butternut latkes to share, and I order the arugula poached egg salad with Utah trout.
The jalapeño poppers, wrapped in bacon and filled with cream cheese, are spicy enough to wake up the most fatigued diner, but not painful. The scallops, served in a pool of butter and served with toasted bread, were both rich and delicate, and the latkes were fried to just the right crispiness. My salad was the perfect blend of peppery arugula, runny yolk and buttery trout.
We relish a leisurely hour chatting, eating, sipping soda and enjoying the views before we strap our boots back on and head back out for another couple of hours of exploring the runs beyond the trails.
I end the day exhausted but exhilarated. Like my lift mate from my first ride of the day, I, too, feel that Alta has made me a better skier. My only regret is that my children are learning to snowboard and won’t be able to enjoy what I just did.
So maybe we’ll switch to skis next year.