High Value, Low Glitz : UTAH : Alta's Old-Time Allure

Korologos is a public relations executive and free-lance travel and ski writer based in Salt Lake City. He also is a member of The Wild Old Bunch .

A great bulwark of tradition has crumbled here.

The Alta Ski Lift Co., which manages the ski mountain and lifts at this storied resort, began accepting credit cards for the first time this season.

To more fully understand the significance of this change of policy, consider the following facts:

--With ski lift tickets at comparable resorts costing between $34 and $40, Alta apologetically charges $21 because that's all it needs to operate at a profit.

--When other resorts install triple and quadruple chairlifts to get more skiers on the mountain quicker, Alta runs its eight double-chair lifts below capacity to keep skiers spread out.

--While other resorts shell out megabucks for advertising campaigns, Alta doesn't have an advertising budget because it says it doesn't need one.

--While corporate board members and shareholders at comparable resorts receive handsome stipends and dividends, Alta Ski Lifts Co. rarely pays any because, frankly, nobody requests them.

--Other resorts fill promotional brochures with photos of pulsating discos and high-volume imbiberies, but at Alta, night life may be an oxymoron. Besides, you can get all you want at Snowbird, one mile down the canyon.

--While some ski areas thrive on condominium construction and multimillion-dollar chalets, the town of Alta has stifled development and limited its lodge accommodations to about 1,200 to 1,500 pillows.

And although it buckled under to skier demand and allowed the purchase of lift tickets by credit card, the lift company is holding firm on another controversial front: It bans snowboards because they don't mesh well with the clientele, many of whom antedate the yuppie set by a generation.

On the other hand, if the mountain did have an advertising budget, its copywriters would undoubtedly point out that:

--Snow conditions, including a reliable average of 500 annual inches, make Alta the Gucci of powder skiing. It is where today's powder-skiing techniques were developed.

--Its ski fare ranges from curl-your-toes chutes to lava-like flows of great white ways, some as long as 3 1/2 miles sweeping down from 10,055-foot Wasatch Mountain peaks.

--It's only 30 minutes from downtown Salt Lake City and 45 minutes from the Salt Lake International Airport, which services some 30 flights daily--including four charters--to and from Los Angeles International, Burbank, Ontario, Palm Springs, Orange County's John Wayne Airport and San Diego's Lindbergh Field.

This accessibility has spawned a fondness for quickie, no-reservation weekend vacations on the part of West Coast skiers, who can be skiing Utah's touted slopes the same morning they leave home.

The impulsive California ski traveler can fly to Salt Lake City after work Friday afternoon, partake of some fine dining, opera, perhaps an NBA game, live theater, a symphony or ballet that night, drive to Alta for two full days of skiing Saturday and Sunday, then return home, bedecked in ski togs, Sunday night.

Such unplanned odysseys are facilitated by the fact that most Salt Lake hotels, unlike resorts, do not require long-range reservations.

However, you definitely need long-term reservations if you plan to stay at Alta or the neighboring resorts of Snowbird, Brighton, Solitude, Park City, ParkWest and Deer Valley. That is particularly true if you plan to visit between mid-December and year's end, and mid-January through March.

April, one of the most pleasant times to ski the place, is relatively quiet, except for the "waaa-whoooos" of exhilaration you'll hear from skiers wearing little more than sunscreen and bota bags as they carve fresh snow during annual rites of spring skiing. A knapsack with a loaf of French bread, Greek olives, a jug of wine and some Provolone is the menu of the day. But spring skiing is another story.

Alta's story line may best be summed up by the bumper sticker "ALTA IS FOR SKIERS" on the cars of employees and the Salt Lake City locals who ski it so often that they could get their mail there.

"Alta is a comfort zone, a time-warp, a respite the likes of which you'll not find anywhere else," says longtime Alta enthusiast Jack Holt, a Salt Lake computer scientist. "It's like your grandmother's rocking chair--it's a little worn, a little old fashioned, but it's reliable and predictable. It oozes with warmth and comfort and you're always welcome."

It should be noted that Alta's policy of restricting lift capacity in order to provide a "quality" ski experience sometimes translates into long lift lines that draw the wrath of unknowing visitors. On this issue, lifts General Manager Onno Wieringa says, "A skier doesn't want to be looking over his shoulder all the time, fearing for life and limb, worried that he's going to be steamrollered by a horde on his way down the mountain. We eliminate or greatly reduce that fear by operating the lifts in such a manner that allows only so many skiers on the slopes at one time, the others being in lift lines. That's the trade-off."

Holt and a group of some 50 graying Alta fanatics belong to a group known as The Wild Old Bunch, who serve as ragtag and unofficial good-will ambassadors, taking visitors to the hidden powder caches "so they can enjoy a little of what we enjoy every day." Look for their smiley-face red, white and blue parka patches and tag along--they don't charge.

They'll tell you the best time to take a lunch break to avoid the crowds at the mid-mountain Watson Shelter and Alpenglow eateries. (Chic's Place upstairs at the Watson is very rewarding to your weary bones, and the Watsonburgers at the Alpenglow put burgers in another dimension.) And listen carefully when they tell you to "follow the sun," a locals-only trick of skiing runs such as Sugarloaf or Ballroom in the morning and Supreme and Sunspot in the afternoon, thus maximizing your exposure to rays.

Some members of the bunch may even bend your ear during a chairlift ride about the area's mining days in the late 1870s, when the town of Alta had 6,000 inhabitants, 100 buildings, 26 saloons and 5 breweries, and averaged a murder a night.

While it appears to have been touched quixotically by history, Alta has been blessed by nature.

The town of 350 permanent inhabitants is cradled in the brash cleavage of Little Cottonwood Canyon, 25 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. The glacial-cut schism in the granite mountains, where Mormon pioneers cut rock for their Salt Lake City Temple in the 1890s, also encloses Snowbird. What Alta lacks in apres -ski bars, restaurants, boutiques and private clubs, Snowbird makes up in quantum ways. But Snowbird is another story, too.

In addition to being close to a major metropolitan area, Little Cottonwood Canyon stands plumb in the path of Pacific storms. Wet and heavy as they head eastward from the coast, these storms dump their moisture on the Sierra, dry as they cross the western Utah salt flats, then pick up just enough moisture over the Great Salt Lake to give the western slope of the Rocky Mountains prodigious amounts of white bliss.

Thus the state's motto: The Greatest Snow on Earth.

Wearing this white mantle most prominently are Alta's triumviral peaks: Alf's High Rustler (named after its fabled director of skiing Alf Engen); Mt. Baldy, which provides the waterfall-like runs known as the Baldy Chutes, and Mt. Superior, down canyon on the town's western edge, not skiable but probably the most photographed of all the Alta landmarks.

Wildcat and Collins double chairs climb the western side of Collins Gulch and another chair, Germania, branches off at mid-mountain and ends at the top of a central ridge. Further up the canyon road are the gentler Albion and Sunnyside lifts, popular with beginners and intermediates, but also providing good access to Supreme and Sugarloaf lifts on the resort's east side, which take you to camera-straining vistas that draw hosannas from even the most grizzled visitor. From these mountaintops, your options down are numerous and range from beginner to panic, from glade skiing to hike-and-traverse to back country.

While most resorts have terrain in the shape of a pine cone with lifts carrying skiers to a concentrated peak, Alta offers a massive ridge that spreads out the masses and leaves silent stretches for the hearty to find their solitude, for the steep-and-deep fanatics to match wits with gravity, for the mogul maniacs to bounce on the quilt-like patterns, for the cruisers to breeze over ballroom-like spaciousness, and for the bunnies to build their confidence on Albion Basin.

Two ticket stations, public restaurants and day facilities serve skiers at the base--one near the Collins/Wildcat lifts and one near the Albion/Sunnyside loading ramps. A rope tow links the two main gathering places.

If you're not sure where the best skiing is, do as the resort's congenial concierge, Engen, advises: "Ski where the skiers ski," meaning where there's a well-traveled path. That's the advice he gave on Thanksgiving weekend to one of his most prized students--an 86-year-old man who had never skied before. Engen, called the father of powder skiing here, is 83 and skis every day.

"We're at a great advantage over most ski areas," explains Wieringa, who has been lifts general manager since 1988 after serving as ski patrolman and avalanche control expert since 1971.

"We are only a ski company and all we have to sell is skiing," he said. "We don't have real estate, condos and shops to worry about."

What he didn't say was that condos, shops, lodges, public safety and sanitation are primarily the responsibility of the town of Alta and its mayor, Bill Leavitt.

Leavitt, a nattily dressed one-time Eastern film maker and self-proclaimed "failed painter," has owned the Alta Lodge since 1959 and has been mayor since 1970.

"We keep growth at arm's length," Leavitt admits. "We can never keep it out entirely, but the narrow canyon, its delicate environmental balance, our being a watershed for Salt Lake Valley and avalanche routes pretty well dictate our growth. All this results in some pretty good fights in the town council."

Food at Alta is dominated by its five lodges--Alta, Rustler, Alta Peruvian, Goldminer's Daughter and Snowpine, each readily accessible to the base level ski lifts. While their dining rooms cater primarily to lodge guests, they can accommodate a limited number of non-guests with reservations. Goldminer's Daughter and the Rustler and Alta lodges are open daily to the public for lunch as are the day lounges at the Albion Day Lodge and aforementioned Watson Shelter and Alpenglow. The only stand-alone restaurant near the lodges is the Shallow Shaft, which features pizza and full-course dinners.

Best dining bets are the Alta and Rustler. Chef Paul Raddon's salmon dishes and 50-item Sunday brunch at the Alta Lodge elevate dining to an art form.

The major lodges are something of a throwback to the ski haunts of another, less-glittering era, with occasional spontaneous piano bar sing-alongs, and ample opportunities to recap the day's achievements on the slopes over an evening cocktail. (Yes, Utah's liquor laws have been greatly liberalized in recent months!)

In addition to the lodges, a few condo units and private mountain cabin homes are listed with the Alta Reservation Service. If all those plans don't pan out, you may consider paying $250,000 for a studio condo in the Blackjack complex, just outside the city limits. And there's always the palatial Snowbird, where prices range from $100 per person for an off-season room to $749 per night for a two-bedroom suite during high season.

This sobering information may cause one to think again of Alta--where the ghosts of the past wouldn't feel out of place except, maybe, for the credit cards.

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