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

December 09, 1990|MIKE KOROLOGOS | 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 .

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.

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