ALTA, Utah — "It's all pretty bulletproof," our guide, Bob Bailey, assured us with a grin after he'd explained what our next five hours of largely back-country skiing would be like.
But our small band of intrepid skiers gathered at 8,500 feet at Alta in Utah's Rocky Mountains simply stared back nervously. There was the odd bravado remark as we eight shifted back and forth in place from ski to ski. Nothing too convincing, though.
It had a lot to do with John Page, our second guide, who was circulating among us, outfitting us with "peeps," tiny radio transmitters designed to save our powder-suited selves should we become lost, fallen or covered with snow.
The word "avalanche" was never uttered.
We had assembled this fine March morning at Alta to ski Utah's Interconnect, which links the Wasatch Range resorts of Snowbird, Alta, Solitude, Brighton and Park City through virtually untracked back country by using lifts that connect common ridges.
Don't get the comforting notion, however, that one merely rides up to the top of a ridge and glides down into the next ski resort. Instead, think work. There is plenty of tough traversing and uphill trudging on skis.
Interconnect was an idea formulated as a combination blueprint of future Utah skiing (ski five of the world's great resorts in a single day!) and reaction to U.S. Forest Service concern over illegal and risky out-of-bounds skiing. It's an area that is certifiably remote and receives more snow than almost anywhere skiable on the planet.
"Safety was our real motivation," says Mark (Nick) Nicholson, who has served on the boards of Ski Utah and the Utah Ski Assn. "Interconnect really is a result of the liability bugaboo."
The Interconnect became a reality for the 1982-83 season with the completion of Alta's Point Supreme and Solitude's Summit lifts, but fewer than 75 skiers, most of them locals, skied any portion of it that season.
Last season the number who shared the adventure jumped to 700. This season, estimates Bailey of Ski Utah, the cooperative that markets the Interconnect experience, 800 skiers, the maximum under current conditions, will ski it.
Possibly before the decade is over, lifts will serve all parts of the Interconnect, trails will be marked and ski patrols will be in evidence. The full plan calls for the linking of eight resorts (Deer Valley, Park West and the proposed White Pine area added to the original five) in a complex that would be North America's largest. That is the dream.
But for the near future, this experience in remote terrain will be available only to skiers with solid skills (advanced intermediates and higher) and enviable stamina who sign up for the Interconnect guided tour.
You have three choices:
The complete five-area tour begins at Park City, ends at Snowbird, takes a full day and costs $80. It operates on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. As with all Interconnect tours, lunch is provided at Solitude, along with specially permitted guides and transportation back to the starting point.
The four-area tour begins at Snowbird, includes Alta, Brighton and Solitude, takes a good six hours and is priced at $65. It departs on Tuesday and Thursday.
The three-area excursion begins at Alta, takes skiers to Brighton and Solitude, is about five hours long and costs $45. Saturdays only.
Groups of 6 to 14 skiers are assembled by Ski Utah from reservations (a very good idea) and last-minute adds, but all must prove they are of sufficient ability and able to handle the varied and ungroomed conditions they will encounter.
Understandably, too, the departure of each tour is subject to weather and snow conditions. Reservations: Ski Utah, 307 West 200 South, Suite 5005, Salt Lake City, Utah 84101, or phone (801) 534-1779.
Last March the Interconnect Eight found everything much as advertised. The scenery was, well, breathtaking (this is the pristine region in which Robert Redford's "Jeremiah Johnson" was filmed, and it's still untouched). We encountered only one other human being between resorts, a lone Nordic skier happily making his way toward a personal Valhalla.
We wolfed down lunch at Solitude, stunned by contact with civilization and surrounded by half the teen-age population of Salt Lake City.
While Bob Bailey was accurate in predicting that the adventure would be bulletproof (nothing went wrong despite several spectacular plops into nose-deep powder and masses of ominously overhanging snow), it was hard. There was more than enough climbing and traversing, some of it at 10,000 feet.
This is something for good skiers in top condition. It is about the physical equivalent of aerobics on skis at elevations that reach above 10,000 feet. It is exhausting, particularly for flatlanders in their first couple of days at altitude.
Do not take Interconnect lightly, no matter how good a skier you may be on politely groomed runs. Nevertheless, says Bob Bailey, a "gutsy intermediate with stamina" can do it.
Back at Alta, we exulted in taming the Interconnect the way only those physically whipped can do. Everyone bought beer. Wasn't Twin Lakes Pass something? How about Highway to Heaven on the way back to Alta?
Bulletproof, Bob, bulletproof.