uTAH Very Much - In Search of the Greatest Snow on Earth

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Taken from Whitelines Issue 91 October 2010
Words: Mike Austin Photos: Russ Shea

We are feeling geeky, so each caption will be random fact about Utah. The name Utah comes from the Native American ‘Ute’ tribe and means ‘people of the mountains.’

Some time back in November, veteran UK snapper Russ Shea suggested I get involved with a trip to North America he was cooking up. Utah was the mission, freeriding the goal. My only knowledge of Utah before then was that JP Walker was from there and… well, that was pretty much it. A quick look at Google Earth revealed a lot of flat-looking desert surrounding the capital of Salt Lake City. Park City was close by, which is (or was) JP’s stomping ground. I had visions of endless parks full of jib-able junk and rails… But no, powder it was, and having located the resort Russ mentioned, Brian Head, I realised we were heading way down south – about six hours from Salt Lake.

We flew out in February. At Chicago airport, awaiting our connection, we got our first taste of US culture at a small diner style burger joint with a sports bar attached. We were all pretty wired. Dom shouted in the beers (after the obligatory I.D check) and we monged out for about an hour, hogging the seats.

It was one of the most awe inspiring, powder-filled runs I’ve ever experienced. Massive rock formations of red sandstone towered above us on either side.

“What’s Chicago famous for?” someone asked.

“Buck Rogers?” I said. Why that’s the only thing that came into my head I don’t know. But neither Russ nor Dom had anything to add. So that was Chicago.

At Salt Lake City we were met by the Kern brothers, Seb and Nate, who had
driven all the way over from their winter base in neighbouring Colorado. We loaded up and set out for the final leg to Brian Head, buzzing with that familiar ‘start-of-trip’ anticipation. At about midnight, as we sped through the dark desert, I suddenly noticed a suspicious smell in the air.

“Is ganja legal in Utah then? Smells like there’s some kind of plantation around here.”

“That’ll be skunk,” replied Seb.

“So it’s legal?”

“No, it’s probably a skunk. Someone will have hit it with their car.”

Did you know that’s why some weed is called ‘skunk’? It was news to me!

Day 1 – In at the Deep End

Seb Kern is going pretty fast down this face, but not as fast as the cars on Bonneville Salt Flats – an ancient Utah lakebed home to many a world landspeed record.

On the first morning we were greeted by our mountain guides, Nate and Trevor, plus the local tourism reps Bonnie and Rebecca. They led us down the road to pick up four snowmobiles to use for the day. Seb and Nate Kern had brought two of their own, which meant that between eight people we had six sleds! I tried to keep calm as I was shown to my very own snowmobile, but my excitement was soon given away by some heavy use of the accelerator and a lack of use of the brake.

We were led to a picturesque backcountry area called Falls Creek, about 10 miles south of Brian Head resort. Our guides first dug a trial pit to test for avalanche danger, and after giving the slope the thumbs up we left the sleds and rode down one of the most awe inspiring, powder-filled runs I’ve ever experienced. Massive rock formations of red sandstone towered above us on either side, the chasm opening up into a series of cliff drops from 10 to 50ft high. It was a standard run for our local guides but an epic and memorable opportunity for us, so that’s where we started our photo shoot.

Waiting at the bottom was a 15 seat Dodge van, in which Bonnie and Rebecca sat armed with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, drinks and cookies. They then drove us back to the top to repeat the process. How good is that?! We’d left a few of the skidoo’s at the end of the tarmac, and these we used to shuttle us, two by two, back up the trail to the summit. I jumped straight on the first and took Russ on the back. Having only recently discovered a passion for going fast on a snowmobile I was naturally very exited to share it with my friend. So, with the wind bellowing through our visors and the throttle rammed to the handle grip, I went hell for leather up the winding, bumpy trail through the trees. A few minutes later, short of breath, full of adrenaline and smiling from ear to ear, I cut the engine and heard a whimper from behind me. I turned around to see Russ hunched over clutching his sides.

The lifts were dead and the buildings deserted. Looking up at an entire ski area engulfed in fresh, deep untouched powder, we knew we were about to have a very rare and privileged amount of fun.

“You &*^%, my ribs! I was shouting to slow down!” (Russ had broken two ribs a few weeks before). My apologies fell on similarly deaf ears and he later told one of the guys he’s never getting on a sled with me again.

I clearly hadn’t learnt my lesson because soon afterwards I had a 40mph near miss with a couple of trees (due to a sticky brake lever – honest). Then, as the group set off in convoy back to Brian Head, I heard an engine throttle max out and cut off. Russ – for obvious reasons – had opted to ride with Dom this time, and I turned to see the pair of them stuck beneath their capsized skidoo on a snow bank. Thankfully my reactions instantly kicked in, and I filmed it… shortly before going to help. Russ was again doubled over in agony, although this time lost for words. Funny as it was to the rest of us, it was not Russ’s day.

That evening, over a slap-up meal with our hosts in the Grand Lodge Hotel, we discovered that Mormon is the preferred religion of 60 percent of Utah’s adult population, including Bonnie our resort Rep. We made a few cautious jokes (although some not so cautious by Russ) but luckily they were open to our British banter and we all had a great time. After some top notch food, some beer, tequila and a game of pool, we finally sloped off full of jet-lag to recharge for another epic day.


Day 2 – Digging for Gold

Something to ponder when you’re next building a kicker: Rainbow Bridge, at the edge of Utah’s Lake Powell, is the world’s largest natural-rock span. Formed of solid sandstone, It stands 278 feet wide and 309 feet high.

Keen to build a powder kicker, our group was introduced to a new guide, Seth, who took us up the main chair at Brian Head. We scanned the near and far terrain, looking for that perfect spot featuring a nice run-in, table top and 30+ degree landing. We reached the top and aimed higher still. At the edge of the piste was a fence marking the start of the uncontrolled backcountry. The terrain here was tempting – steep and undulating – but the snow was windblown and clearly prone to avalanche. We decided to heed the sign saying ‘Proceed at your own risk’ and returned to a spot Seth had scoped near the chair. It was a hip style jump, framed by a band of trees (ideal for photos) and which would be easy enough build. After a brief discussion on the plan of attack we got straight to work.

An insight into kicker building if you don’t already partake: To build a decent sized wedge – one that provides magazine-worthy airtime – is a painstaking and time-consuming process. Think about those giant booters you see in the movies; digging out blocks of snow and packing them all down into a 10ft high cheese wedge takes time. Thanks to this spot’s natural transition and Seb’s keen eye, though, we were able to carve out the take-off rather than build the thing from scratch, saving us some major time. We then spent the next four or five hours having a great session, pausing only when Russ – crouched happily behind his lens – told us to wait for a gap in the cloud. Nate was throwing down the smoothest cab 5′s all day, showing the experience he’s picked up over all those seasons in Colorado. Meanwhile his brother Seb was ignoring a back injury to kick out some huge stylish 180’s, and not to be outdone, Dom capped off an insane variety of tricks with a double back flip.

Hats off to our guide Seth – he knew exactly what we were aiming for, helped us build the kicker, filmed with our camera and even fenced the jump off at the end of the day in case we wanted to return (he’d already turned away some local riders who were lurking around hopefully).

The Sundance FilmMike Austin will no doubt be turning up for the Sundance Film Festival takes place at Park City, Utah. turn up between 21st and 31st January 2011.

Day 3 – Into the White Room

The light in the room the next morning had a definite greyish tinge to it – not exactly a warm, welcoming dawn. Russ raised his head to the window, where horizontal flakes belted across the glass.

“It’s a white out,” he said. And lay back down.

About half an hour later Dom knocked on, eager to find out the plan. After the double attack from Dom and myself it was clear Russ’s ribs had some serious healing to do, so he was going nowhere. Seb was also glad of an excuse to rest his old back injury. Nate then rustled in, fully suited and booted, followed by his friend Shelby who had come to ride with us for the day.

“We’re going to take the sleds and check it out if you’re up for it?”

Dom and I glanced sceptically toward the window, then at each other, then back at them. But the thought of riding the sleds again had already planted itself in my mind, and shortly afterwards we found ourselves out in the car park unloading the snowmobiles – squinting against the ice droplets which whipped against our hoods and shouting at each other above the wind. Dom and I took Nate’s faithful old sled ‘Rambo’ (once painted pink, now a peeling camo colour) and two-by-two we set out down the barely visible track to the lift station.

After a couple of dodgy moments we arrived at the blanketed car park. The lifts were dead and the buildings deserted. Looking up at an entire ski area engulfed in fresh, deep untouched powder, we knew we were about to have a very rare and privileged amount of fun.

Word of warning: if you accidentally hit a busy highway, sleds have a turning circle similar to a cross channel ferry.

Nate checked the fuel levels and pulled out the tow rope. Then, two up with two towed behind, we powered our way up the lift line. As if we hadn’t struck it lucky already, a window opened in the heavens, revealing a vivid blue sky and lighting up the smooth white contours of the slope. Holding Dom’s ‘GoPro’ camera, I set off through dry, knee-deep pow which had only fallen in the last few hours. At times our boards completely disappeared beneath the surface but it didn’t slow us down at all – the snow was so light it just brushed past our legs. Every turn threw up a vast cloud of cold smoke. This was the champagne pow for which Utah is famous – a quirk of its desert climate and inland location.

Following Dom was great: I was getting a close-up view of his relaxed riding style, trusting his skills enough to bomb along only a meter or so behind, occasionally bursting through his rooster tail and emerging into the sunlight with a big grin (and a ton of snow!) plastered to my face. We lapped the mountain for what seemed like hours, taking it in turns to drive the sled while the other three would ride down. As we finally wound our way back to the hotel (Dom and I having great fun bumping each other off Rambo) I realised it would be hard to break the news to Russ and Seb that they’d just missed out on possibly the best powder day of their lives.

Dom is fond of telling anyone whol’ll listen that in 1857, the President of the USA was so pissed off with the mormon’s polygamous way that he sent an army to subdue them.

Day 4 – Off the Grid

With blue sky and untouched powder everywhere, it was unanimously decided that our last day would be a freeride adventure day. We were out early and took the main lift straight to the top, then took it in turns to put a line down in front of Russ’s camera, kicking out turns, popping butters and generally doing the thing we know best. Once past the big man we would re-group and tear off down the rest of the run to take the lift back up.

Eventually the call was made to move on. Trevor, our latest guide, had a treat planned for us. We followed his lead, traversing away from the main ski area; judging by the freshly pisted corduroy and the lack of tracks, this could only be good. Suddenly we were joined by a couple of ski patrollers. They looked experienced and obviously knew the area well, and we all had the feeling we were being led to a definite ‘locals’ spot. A chairlift on the far side of the resort sat silent as we approached. Only when Trevor got close enough to speak to the liftie did the motor fire up and the gates open. Whether this had been especially reserved for us I don’t know, but the hospitality we’d enjoyed at Brian Head so far suggested that it was. So… just us and a couple of ski patrol guys getting the first lift towards a high peak laden with fresh pow and some nicely spaced pine trees to blat through. Does life get any better?

A small hike at the top had us all out of breath. Trevor pointed out that Utah’s peaks are, on average, over 11,200 feet – the tallest in the country – hence the lack of oxygen. Strangely enough, though, it didn’t feel like we were very high up: the terrain here is mostly rolling hills, with no jagged horizons or snow-covered crags like the Alps. Millions of years ago the mountains would have looked more dramatic, but eons of weathering had settled the landscape into the gentler scenery that lay before us (including those red sandstone formations we’d ridden through on the first day). Next to these mountains, the Alps are relatively young, still being pushed up by the continental plates.

All of this was academic as Trevor took the lead through the trees, showing us what the far side of the resort had to offer. We had epic fun dropping off wind-lips and charging through forests and pow fields. I guess in some ways the experience was similar to freeriding in Europe, but what set this place apart was that the powder was so light. Not for nothing do the number plates round here say ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’.

Nate Kern well knows that the ‘Amped’ computer games were designed by a Utah team, and feature many famous local spots. The soundtrack also includes several local bands.

On the run home, finally running out of energy, we spotted a freestyle park. For a resort which boasts such a large and varied freeride area, you could forgive them a slightly half-assed approach to freestyle. But no, the park we saw looked well maintained and full of cool obstacles like converted trucks, rainbow rails, boxes and gas pipes. I guess this is America, where they cater for everyone and everything – even young rippers in tight jeans and bandanas. (Later that week I visited Park City for work, and when it comes to freestyle that place topped the lot: I found myself just standing there, staring up at a line of four pristine kickers, an immense rail run and a halfpipe twice the length of anything I’d seen in Europe. Nearby was a set of five even bigger kickers – the pro line, judging by the air time some of the tiny black specks were getting. This was JP and Jibbing Jeremy’s home turf, after all – what else would you expect?)

So that was it. For me, a keen freestyler though no stranger to powder, the trip opened my eyes to more of what the backcountry can offer. Utah’s Wasatch Mountains might not have been as steep and dramatic as the Alps, but there were hidden gems to be found in the spread-out terrain, and the adventure of finding them added to the buzz (the infamous ‘Chad’s Gap’, I heard, takes a whole day to get to by snowmobile). Sledding – illegal in much of Europe – also opens up a whole other side to snowboarding. You could argue that the pollution, noise, blah blah… whatever. But the way I see it, a few snowmobiles shouldn’t be picked on when you consider how many cars there are in the world. Snowmobiles are fun! Having spent most of my time in France, though, the biggest thing which stood out was the outstanding friendliness of the locals and the welcoming atmosphere. There was no language barrier, all the great food you could eat, cool cars, and of course – snowmobiles! Utah is definitely on my list of places to go back to… Did I mention snowmobiles?!

The Mormons

In 1830, a guy called Joseph Smith founded the ‘Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints’, also known as the Mormon Church, in New York. He claimed to have had visions in which an angel visited him, and to have been shown the location of two gold plates. According to the text inscribed on these plates, Jesus visited America shortly after his resurrection. Smith wrote this chronicle down and inserted it into the Bible as an extra testament, the ‘Book of Mormon’.

So far, so wacky. Having gathered a group of followers together Smith then moved further and further inland in search of somewhere to settle (basically, his crew were constantly being driven out of town – accused, amongst other things, of polygamy). Eventually an armed mob assassinated Smith in 1844, and under the guidance of a new ‘prophet’, Brigham Young, the Mormons marched on, finally settling in a barren-looking desert way out west. Utah.

Today, approximately 60 percent of Utah’s residents are Mormon. Salt Lake City is host to over 100 temples which form the geographical basis for the city’s grid system (roads are called ‘east’ ‘west’ etc. in relation to their nearest temple – pretty confusing to less godly visitors!). Other Mormon quirks include abstaining from caffeine and R-rated movies, and not shitting on a Sunday.*

Famous Mormon shredders include Jibbing Jeremy Jones (whose Burton graphic once featured ‘Samuel the Lamanite’) and Australian Torah Bright, who recently married fellow snowboarder Jake Welch in Salt Lake. Torah claims never to have drunk or smoked, and shunned sex before marriage. As local rider Ezra Jacobson puts it: “Hot mormon chicks are a tease.”

* Some of these facts may be made up.

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