Before making tracks for California, Pingu investigates a couple of Utah's most beloved resorts. Illustrations by Kieron Black.The story of Park City and Canyons is one which takes in silver mining, economic depression and regeneration, a film festival, the Greatest Show On Earth(TM), a fractious legal dispute, and some really sick green rails.
As such, it is a tale which can barely be squeezed into a millenial-attention-span-friendly web format, but one which bears writing, because this little corner of Mormon-defying Utah has lived many fascinating lives already - but I suspect the best is yet to come.
Park City, like Breckenridge, was originally built by Victorian prospectors in search of mineral wealth. However, in this case it was Silver (not the Colorado Gold) which crossed the palms of those hardy folk who wielded a pick-axe and struck it into the oxygen-deprived mountainous landscape here in Utah.
"Here is a resort which has twenty three art galleries, multiple high-end dining experiences, fur emporia and luxury cowboy boot shops"
The wealth generated by their toil catalysed and supported a thriving community at the end of the last century, and the homes, business premises and saloons they built created the foundations for what is now one of the most picturesque mountain resorts that I have ever seen.
Whilst the architecture of Park City’s Main Street harks back the frontier-spirit era of gun-totin’, tobacco-spittin’ and saloon bar-frequentin’, it is now infinitely more refined (and also self consciously “pretty") than might be suggested by that depiction.
Here is a resort which has twenty three (oui monsieur, vignt-trois) art galleries, multiple high-end dining experiences, fur emporia and luxury cowboy boot shops - all of which you would be doing well to leave without dropping a couple of grand (so are generally best avoided unless you also have a T6 snowboard, rock carbon-fibre highbacks and drive to the mountains for the weekend with your rig strapped to the top of a Porsche Carrera S).
Ironically, the civilising force for Park City has not been the ultra-conservative caffeine, booze and fags-avoiding Mormon faith (which is practiced by two-thirds of the population in Utah), but rather the very un-Mormon-like Sundance festival. The independent movie showcase/hob-nobbing opportunity for Hollywood deal-doers was created by Robert Redford, and takes the name of his renegade character from the legendary Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid movie.
The festival, which consumes the resort for a fortnight at the end of January and brings with it (to quote Pauline Calf) “a galaxy of glittering stars" has elevated Park City from being just another decent ski resort into… well, the kind of place where you might find 23 art galleries along a single 500m stretch of road. It makes Val D’Isere look like a scruffy Butlins by comparison.
Had you walked down Main Street in the 1950s, when the silver mining industry had collapsed, the population was rapidly declining, and before a $1.2m dollar Federal rural regeneration loan catalysed the creation of the Treasure Mountain ski resort (which subsequently became Park City), that would all have seemed highly improbable.
"Park City’s freestyle set-up is floodlit - you could theoretically not get up until mid-day, having spent the previous night getting hammered in O’Shucks on Main Street, and still rack up the equivalent of a full day’s shred"
Even more improbable at that time would have been the notion that the area would one day play host to the almighty corporate sponsorship-accumulating vehicle that is the Winter Olympics. In 2002, four years after snowboarding had been assimilated into the FIS machine for the first time, Park City’s halfpipe spawned a clean sweep of medals for the USA. Ross Powers taking gold, Danny Kass taking silver and Jarret “JJ" Thomas taking bronze (and also eventually winning the prize for ‘least effective exploitation of new-found fame’ over the subsequent decade). Kelly Clark walked away with the gold in the women's comp, enabling America to feel properly smug about its shredding dominance in the early part of this millennium. Plus ca change.
The men’s halfpipe competition is however probably better remembered for the boo-ya near-footlong mohawk sported by Heikki Sorsa. His follicular radness demonstrated to the masses that our sport had already mastered doublethink - being capable of both resenting and exploiting the Olympics at the same time. His figurative V-flicking to the establishment remains one of the more impressive acts of subversion that our sport has seen on a grand stage.
The legacy of those games (in addition to the unimaginatively named “Legacy Lodge" in the resort village) is Park City’s close relationship with snowboarding, which lives on strong today and is encapsulated by the strapline “I Ride Park City", and the associated webisodes which showcase some of our sport’s greatest heroes making fun on the multiplicity of green features and jumps that are scattered liberally around the base of the resort.
As evidence that this conscious coupling with sideways-sliding creates the perfect breeding ground for radness, Sage Kotsenburg - who officially saved snowboarding in Sochi 2014, not with a crazy hair-do but by dislocating his shoulders to pull off a Holy Crail with lots of spins in the slopestyle - lives and shreds here.
It has to be said (cf. Sage’s double-jointed brilliance) that the freestyle set up in Park City is excellent. In addition to the superpipe, some of the best kickers I have had the pleasure to hit (almost as good as Breck), and the umpteen green rails / boxes / wrecking balls / other random bits of metal for sliding on…there is Neff Land - which is a candy-themed terrain park, and perfectly set up for kids and/or those wanting to be childishly playful. The mini-shred features are great for dicking about in a low risk environment, and even better for groms wanting to step up their freestyle schnizzle.
What is particularly bodacious about Park City’s freestyle set-up is that (with the exception of Neff Land) it is all open until 8pm at night, under floodlights. So you could theoretically not get up until mid-day, having spent the previous night getting hammered in O’Shucks on Main Street, and still rack up the equivalent of a full day’s shred. Or you could spend all day cajoling, coercing and cosseting your kids, and then (with a spousal accomplice granting you leave of absence) spend a couple of hours of “me-time" busting out some jumps. Or you could spend all day building a mountain out of mashed potato and playing tunes on a Casio keyboard, and then still go snowboarding for a few hours - all options are open.
What is less bodacious, if you have young kids or (as my wife does) an issue with heights, is the lift system which services (some of) the base of the mountain and the freestyle terrain in Park City.
Now, as a qualification to what follows, there is a different vibe in the USA when it comes to the issue of the safety bar on a chair lift. In Europe, you will literally get the lifties swearing and pelting you with ripe fromage if you haven't got the bar down within three seconds of planting your buttocks onto the seat. Stateside, people generally seem to think you are being a dick if you want to put the safety bar down. This isn't just too-cool-for-school park rats, but middle-aged mums, retired accountants and (even more weirdly) some ski instructors I encountered.
"it is clear from observing the topology of the area that when it dumps, Park City and Canyons will present an incredible array of options"
On dozens of occasions over the last month, I have had other chairlift passengers indignantly retort “Oh, really?!" when I asked to put down the safety bar (I prefer to rest my foot on a lift, rather than have the weight of my board dangling on my ankle for ten minutes. Go on - call me a dick why don't you).
So with this prevailing attitude, the complete absence of a safety bar on a lift is probably no big deal for most Yanks. But when you have kids, particularly young wriggly kids with low-friction salopettes who have no concept of plunging to their death from a chairlift if they keep sliding about, it makes for a very uncomfortable experience. In any other circumstance, if you regularly let your kid sit on a narrow ledge, twenty metres up, in high winds, with nothing to stop them from falling off, you would almost certainly have your children taken into care and likely be featured in a double page spread in the Daily Mail. In Park City however, this is a requirement for getting up to several areas of the hill (via Town Lift and Eagle Lift), or for accessing the freestyle terrain (Three Kings for the main park, Eaglet for Neff Land).
Juxtaposed with the splattering of lawyer-sponsored “GO SLOW" signs and the prevailing tut-tut attitude of many Americans to breaking the rules (my groms kept being told off in Park City for holding onto the ropes in the lift queue, or entering the queue through the “fast lane" when they weren't actually in a lesson - even though no-one else was around), this lack of basic safety seems all the more bonkers. For my beloved spouse, it made for a genuinely stressful situation, which massively tarnished her enjoyment of the resort. Her mild vertigo went into full-blown raging “the kids are going to die" mode each time she got onto one of these lifts.
It’s almost as if the resort hasn't wanted to invest in new infrastructure, knowing that a transformative deal was about to happen…
Which, by co-incidence, it has.
Park City and Canyons are about to become a combined resort - following Park City’s $180m acquisition by Vail Resorts. (Vail Resorts own / lease lots of resorts that aren't just in Vail). Canyons, just over the hill from Park City is already part of the Vail family, so Vail are spending another $50m to link the resorts with a gondola, upgrade some of the resort restaurants and improve some of the high-volume lifts.
"The lifties make you feel like you are the Fonz crossed with JP Solberg just for managing to get your ass onto a chairlift and not looking like a total dork"
Annoyingly for vertigo suffers and parents of young children, none of the $50m will be spent on safety bars for Town Lift, Eagle, Eaglet or Three Kings. So you will still need to invest in carabiners to attach your kids to you, and you to the lift if you want peace of mind when heading up the hill on those chairs.
It will however create one hell of a resort. Even if lots of the Park City staff are really grumpy about it.
There is a really interesting back-story to the takeover of Park City by Vail Resorts, which with some basic Googling you can read all about. To boil it down, the previous (and long-term) owners of the right to exploit Park City as a ski resort literally forgot to extend their lease one year, so Vail went and whipped it from under their noses and paid for it instead. People sued, counter-sued, sued again about the suing…and eventually they settled - enabling Vail to officially take over Park City from 2014/15.
As a dad to snowboarding kids and as a husband to a wife who loves getting compliments, I think this is great. Why? From my experience thus far, I can see that Vail Resorts have imbued into their staff at some key principles:
- Be incredibly friendly to everyone and smile loads, ask if they have had a good day.
- Be very helpful to anyone with kids, especially when they are getting onto chairlifts.
- Pay people huge compliments the whole time about their steez.
The experience of getting on a lift in Canyons (or any of the other Vail Resorts) is like getting a sugar coated high-five which then rolls into a fist bump of ‘nuff respec’ which then rolls into a back rub which then could possibly end in something sexy if you were ten years younger. They make you feel like you are the Fonz crossed with JP Solberg (or Jane Fonda crossed with Jamie Anderson if you are lady) just for managing to get your ass onto a chairlift and not looking like a total dork.
In Park City however, most of the lifties were disinterested in doing anything other than moaning about you not conforming to lift line protocols, or preferably avoiding eye contact at all costs. It was almost as if they were sulking about being taken over by the really cheerful people at Canyons. Like a goth hating the preppy cheerleaders who keep getting the A Grades and love bites.
So it will be interesting to see whether next year, Park City’s culture has been subsumed into the more user-friendly version as practised by Canyons, or whether the quite obvious friction between the employees of the two resorts will still be manifest.
Whether or not you find yourself being excessively complimented by lifties in 2016, from the perspective of riding, the combined resort of Park City and Canyons will be absolutely massive (at 8000 acres the largest in North America), but more importantly, will be blessed with incredibly shreddable terrain.
Canyons has a decent cluster of terrain parks, which I would consider more than adequate for the typical punter like me with groms in tow, but which couldn’t claim to present anything spectacular or unique. However, the broader combined terrain - with its undulating tree lined runs, high speed groomers, back-country bowls and glades will be quite spectacular in its variety, not just in its volume.
Unfortunately I have to use my imagination to foresee what the off-piste terrain will be like, given the crappy snow conditions that afflicted this part of Utah during my visit (all the snow, as has been well documented, ended up in Boston). Even with my limited star-gazing faculties, though, it is clear from observing the topology of the area that when it dumps, Park City and Canyons will present an incredible array of options for someone looking to get some use out of their Camel Toe or Hovercraft.
Neither resort can truly claim to have Chamonix-esque high-mountain alpine type terrain - which is true for many US resorts, but I think the majority of us would probably prefer a fairly steep black run peppered with pow-laden glades trees than having to bust out crampons and carry an ice axe when we drop in. So no great shame there - and again, if riding with kids, the absence of cliffs and gnarly couloirs greatly improves your mental wellbeing.
"In Park City, people generally seem to think you are being a dick if you want to put the safety bar down"
One final point to make: Park City stares across the mountain at Deer Valley, one of the few remaining places in the world which bans snowboarding. If you, like the multi-millionaire owner of SkullCandy (who lives in Park City) are feeling particularly provocative, you could rock up with your splitboard and try to snaffle some sideways lines in order to thumb your nose at the old guard.
However, I don't have a splitboard, and I am in fact incredibly grateful to Deer Valley for ensuring that the bigoted, grumpy skiers are in one place (all other types of skiers can of course make great friends), and not cluttering up the slopes in Park City. Keep up the good work, Deer Valley – we snowboarders love what you are doing.
So, in summary…
Park City Main Street is great - and despite all the art gallery ponciness, there are plenty of places to get an honest beer and a burger. Just follow your nose, and avoid anywhere with starched linen tablecloths or lots of old people in. O’Shucks (a self proclaimed “dive bar") has the closest thing to a seasonaire-endorsed euro resort bar vibe.
The combined terrain of Park City and Canyons will be incredible, and almost certainly leave you wanting more time to explore, even if you are here for a fortnight (presuming the north American snowfall patterns return to normality next year and thus open up the full range of possibilities).
If you are a park rat, you will be beside yourself with the options available to you, and will almost certainly improve your skills on the floodlit green features or in Neff Land. Canyons’ orange-painted park features will be less compelling, but definitely worth a visit.
And finally, if you find yourself making out with one of the lift staff in Park City, you know the new customer service training has really gone well over the summer.