ALTA, Utah — 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."