The atmosphere was jovial, almost like a cocktail party. Gone was the usual stress-infused tedium that accompanies the boarding process on an overbooked plane. Instead, an electric energy buzzed throughout the cabin on the day-before-Sundance flight from New York to Salt Lake City.
Stepping onto the plane, I maneuvered past a clutch of three people talking animatedly in the bulkhead. Across the aisle, a man with a trim, salt-and-pepper beard jotted notes in a leather notebook as he listened intently to a woman who bore a remarkable resemblance to Edna Mode, the chic fashion designer in Pixar’s "The Incredibles." All around me people were greeting one another, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, trading smartphone contacts.
As I struggled toward my seat, a woman sitting on the aisle glanced at the heavy boots strapped to my backpack and raised her eyebrows.
“Are you going to ski?” she asked. Before I could answer she turned to her seatmate and said, “I think we skied once, didn’t we?”
“Possibly,” said the man, looking thoughtful. “When was that? Four, five years ago?”
“No idea,” she said, “but we should do it again.” Turning to look back up at me she smiled and added, “I remember that it was beautiful, though.”
The Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford’s annual fete of independent movies and Hollywood heavies, drew nearly 125,000 visitors to Utah in 2018, yet the majority of those never set ski or board to the state’s legendary slopes. During the 10-day celebration, furs and heels replace parkas and snow boots along Park City’s snowy sidewalks and the laid-back, western ski town takes on a glitzy sheen that has nothing to do with its mining history.
As someone whose knowledge of pop-culture is, in my teenage daughters’ opinions, embarrassingly sub par, the idea of attending Sundance has never held any appeal. Each year when the Oscar nominations are released I vow to catch up on my movie watching but never actually do. And other than the Sundance Kid himself I doubt I’d recognize most Hollywood stars if I ran into them on Park City’s Main Street.
But when a friend put a bug in my ear that I’d have the slopes to myself if I headed west during the festival, I was intrigued. I also heard tell from those in the proverbial know that Sundance always brings a snowstorm. Empty mountains and fresh powder? It sounded like the recipe for an excellent few days. I was in.
Despite signs instructing “No Sundance Parking,” cars packed the lot on my first morning at Park City Mountain Resort, causing me to fret that I’d been given a bum tip, but I needn’t have worried. At the base plaza, there wasn’t a lift line in sight and my friend Paul and I rode up the Payday Express admiring virginal lines of corduroy on the trails below, still pristine even at 10 a.m.
Park City Resort opened in 1963 as Treasure Mountain, a nod to the town’s silver mining past. We spent the morning skiing past industry relics — ore bins, mine sites, counterweights — that still dotted the mountain landscape, cruising down trails with names like Prospector, Silver Queen, Powder Keg, and Claimjumper. Ten inches of snow had fallen two days earlier and even though it was a weekend, the powder remained abundant, not surprising given how few other skiers we encountered. The only signs of bustle were near the Summit House, where three lifts meet to create a hub of sorts, and at lunchtime at the Cloud Dine lodge over at the mountain’s Canyons side.
It wasn’t easy to drag myself away from that blissful brand of mountain solitude, but Main Street beckoned and I wanted to catch a glimpse of the infamous Sundance hullaballoo. After a few more post-lunch runs I headed to the Town Lift, an old-school triple that delivers skiers up to the slopes from Main Street and back down again at the end of the day.
From my vantage point high above snow-laden evergreens, I caught my first glimpse of Park City’s brightly hued, wooden houses and old-west facades. The chair dropped me at Town Lift Plaza, which, in stark contrast to the mountain’s serene slopes, was awash in the glow of Sundance limelight.
Feeling like the lift had transported me into another dimension, I clunked along Main Street where festival-goers sporting animal print Lycra, puffy metallic jackets, and inappropriate footwear shot me strange looks as I passed by in my ski boots. A writer friend of mine saw I was in town and suggested via social media that I play her Sundance drinking game. The rules sounded dangerous — drink whenever you see someone with any of the following in their outfit: sequins, fur, stilettos; slam your entire drink when you see all three in one outfit. I might have given it a try if I’d managed to get within shouting distance of a bartender.
Doing so proved a challenge, however, as Main Street was congested with people queued up outside restaurants, bars, and festival venues. Meanwhile, amateur paparazzi swarmed en-masse in phalanx-like formations whenever it seemed like a star sighting might have been made. I struck out in my attempts to procure an après-cocktail at Park City favorites like High West Distillery and Old Town Cellars — both of which were closed for private parties. Further along Main Street, No Name Saloon was welcoming the unanointed, but by that time my phone had begun lighting up with texts from Paul, who was parked and waiting for me on a side street in the getaway car. On our way out of town we skirted past the famous Eccles Theater, where a line for the 3:30 film was already snaking around the building.
I sought refuge from the cinematic chaos on the backside of the Wasatch Mountains, 18 miles east of Park City in Heber Valley, where cows far outnumber celebrities. Broad meadows, mountain lakes, and rolling farmland characterize the region and Mount Timpanogas, also called “the Sleeping Princess” for the way its cragged peaks form the shape of a reclining figure, presides over the Valley’s two sleepy towns, Midway and Heber City.
The main obstacle for anyone other than locals wanting to hit the Park City area’s uncrowded terrain during Sundance is that lodging becomes extremely scarce at festival time — and places that do have availability tend to be prohibitively expensive. In Heber Valley, however, affordable rooms are easier to score than movie tickets.
I’m not sure how long it will be before someone lets the cat out of the bag — like I’m doing now — and Valley hotels undergo a full on Hollywood blitz. Still, despite thousands of acres of nearby slopes, Heber Valley is best know for its warm-weather outdoor adventures with winter considered the quiet season. At the same time, Sundancers usually bunk down in Salt Lake when Park City hits capacity. So for now, Heber Valley remains the undiscovered star of the region.
My digs for the next few days were at Zermatt Utah, a plush, Swiss-inspired resort in Midway tucked at the base of the Wasatch Range with gorgeous mountain views. Though I didn’t manage to score a beer in Park City, a far more unique après-ski diversion waited for me across the street from the Zermatt and I headed over as soon as I dropped my bags.
There are dozens of active hot springs around Midway, but none as impressive as the Homestead Crater, a 65-foot-deep geothermal pool hidden inside a towering, beehive-shaped limestone formation. The amniotic warmth of the mineral-rich waters massaged my ski-sore muscles as I floated on my back, natural light filtering into the limestone chamber from a lens-like aperture high overhead. The voices of other bathers echoed off the cavern walls, but I could mute them by sinking my head slightly below the surface. Draping my arms over the blue, foam swim noodle, steam rising up around me, I envisioned the spectacle taking place a few miles yet worlds away in Park City and smiled, confident that the bar at the Zermatt wouldn’t have a guest list.
A mantle of fog cloaked the ground early the next morning as I made my way from Zermatt to Deer Valley Resort. Horses traipsing across the snowy landscape puffed clouds of breath while a throng of dairy cows nibbled at bits of grass poking up from the frozen earth. I think I could have spent the whole day taking pictures of the scenery, but the mountain was calling and there was skiing to be done.
One of the perks of putting down roots in Heber Valley is the proximity to Deer Valley’s Deer Crest entrance and Jordanelle gondola. Those in the know consider Deer Crest the resort’s best-kept secret, especially during the festival, as its location, just a short hop from Highway 40’s Mayflower exit, means not having to negotiate the Sundance circus in Park City to access Deer Valley’s famously impeccable trails.
I booted up beneath the warmth of overhead heat lamps in the lodge and one of Deer Valley’s smiling valets relieved me of my skis as I climbed into the gondola bound for the top of Little Baldy. From there it was a cinch to ski over to Snow Park Lodge and the main base area.
This was my first time at Deer Valley and I fell instantly in love. Despite its swank reputation — a friend had joked that the lift attendants will wipe your nose for you when you ski up to the chair — a mellow, unassuming vibe prevails. The resort is also spectacularly pretty, with 101 tree-lined trails leading skiers — and skiers only — through soft, corduroy lines and enchanting glades across six mountain peaks.
I confess: I was kind hoping for a celebrity sighting. If the rich and famous were hitting the slopes, they’d likely be doing so here. But trying to determine the stardom of folks clad in ski helmets and goggles proved futile. Instead I focused my energies on cruising down a smooth, blue groomer called Sidewinder, trying my luck through an uncharted glade known as Anchor Trees, and playing in the soft powder bumps left over from the weekend’s storm on Argus. And though the mountain wasn’t packed with movie stars, it wasn’t packed with anyone else, either.
Clouds moved in to shroud the sun that had warmed the mountain for much of the day and the subsequent late-day chill conspired with my weary quads to send me to the bar at the St. Regis. The scene was in full swing compared to the quietude outside and I nabbed one of the few empty seats, next to two 40-something guys drinking a couple of pretty fab looking Bloody Marys. Amidst the chic crowd, I was the only one in snow pants. I ordered a local pilsner from the bartender, who, after a quick introduction, called me by my first name the whole time I was there, and caught the eye of the guy sitting next to me.
“You skied today?” he asked, nodding at the helmet I’d hung from the back of the chair.
“Yup,” I said. “Yesterday, too.”
“Looks great out there,” he said, glancing toward the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the terrace and the slopes. “I skied during the festival once. I need to do that again.”
“Yup,” I said again, taking a sip of my beer and reflecting on the mellow mountain magic I’d experienced over the past couple of days. “You totally do.”