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Sking in Alta, Utah

Raymond Patrick

Photo: Raymond Patrick

Buffered by its sentinel firs and snowbanks, Alta is Utah's desert island at 8,600 feet. There are no high-rises, no tour buses, and no glitz. Pleasures are simple, attitudes unpretentious; families return season after season. Lodge life is tribelike for the kids. Part of Alta's charm is its situation at the end of a steep canyon road: when you arrive, you forget about ever having—or wanting—somewhere else to go.

I learned to ski at Alta when I was a babe (reckon that as you like) and have been coming back ever since—for the past decade with my extended family. We've briefly considered going elsewhere "for a change," but have concluded that we adore Alta precisely because it's a place where nothing essential changes. That isn't to say the Alta landscape is static. The incomparable quality (and quantity) of the powder always creates new challenges. By now we know the staff at the Alf Engen Ski School intimately; they are gifted teachers who have guided us and our kids (ages 4 to 12) from the Albion bunny slopes to the back bowls and beyond. My first instructor at Alta was Alf himself, from whom I learned that downhill skiing has some great truths to teach about surrender and control. Lesson one: "You have to be willing to let go of the mountain."

Once a year, at Christmas (which is always white) or for a week in February, our family convenes at the Alta Lodge from both coasts. My brother-in-law brings the wine, my sister-in-law the ice packs, my ex-husband (we're an ultra-modern extended family) the prescription-strength ibuprofen. One year, he also lugged along a seven-foot wooden toboggan, then left it on permanent loan at the lodge, as a token of our commitment. That wasn't necessary, since we always rebook our rooms on the day we leave.

A week into the post-Alta year, as an antidote to the post-Alta blues, I repack our ski clothes in our Alta duffels. Our wardrobes don't vary much (as the kids grow, they inherit hand-me-downs from their cousins), because at Alta one is indifferent to fashion, gossip, celebrity, and every other form of one-upmanship. There are no valets to tote your skis from the parking lot to the lifts (you don't need a car) and no nightlife to speak of. An Alta mogul is a big, white hump, not a short, rich chump. And the experience—like the faces at the lodge and the depth of the base—is blissfully predictable from year to year.

What to do at Alta?One of our favorite instructors puts it succinctly: "Ski 'n' be." We all ski and be (asleep) by 10 o'clock. We try to be the first through the gate to ski the fresh powder at Ballroom, and test our nerve on the high traverse and Devil's Castle. We drink champagne on the deck at sunset and mug for the camera. At least once a stay, we organize an intergenerational slalom contest on the Race Course. Last year, all of us who participated—ages 12 to 50—lost to a buff 80-year-old grande dame (as much a fixture at our lodge as we are) who was training for the Senior Olympics.

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