A Slippery Slope The 2002 Olympics are beating a path to an out-of-the-way skiers' paradise in Utah. That's good news for the region's resort industry. But Snowbasin will never be the same.

January 11, 1998|By Peter Shelton | Peter Shelton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At dusk on the winding access road to Snowbasin, Utah, mine was the only car. A young moose on toothpick legs tried to get off the roadway and into the woods, but deep snow sent her

scrambling back. I stopped. She stared. We both waited. Finally, haltingly, she came forward and, running now, still eyeing me, she scuttled past and on down the hill.

Up at the A-frame Hillhaus Lodge, since 1962 a retreat for military personnel stationed at nearby Hill Air Force Base and the only overnight accommodations at the mountain, Barbara Manley leaned out from the rich smell of chili fries and said, "Oh, yeah. That's our moose. There's three of 'em, a cow and her yearling twins. They live behind the garage. This is Russ. [Russ waves from the kitchen.] Here's your key. The videos are over there, no charge. Hot tub's outside. The girls saw a big snowshoe hare out there awhile ago. They were sure it was the Easter Bunny's helper."

Hillhaus and its sleepy, '60s ambience are doomed -- as is the unhurried, low-tech ski experience on the mountain above. The Winter Olympics in 2002 and the ambitious plans of Snowbasin's owner, oil magnate Earl Holding, are about to propel this once-neglected corner of Utah into skiing's big time. Call it "Paradise About to Be Lost."

The skiing at Snowbasin has always been a dream: steep, then rolling, then steep again; from white-apron chutes above the tree line to grand meadows ruled by solitary, magisterial firs, to lower-mountain gullies quilted with aspen and oak. Five chairlifts spider-web an expanse bigger than Aspen and Telluride combined. But there are startlingly few sliders, skiers or snowboarders on the slopes. The mountain looks and feels like Alta, Utah's signature ski area, but without the crowds.

In fact, it was Alta's founding father, Alf Engen, who suggested in 1939 that a ski area be built at Snowbasin 19 miles into the mountains east of Utah's third-largest city, Ogden. The landowner, the U.S. Forest Service, agreed. A local ski club and an enthusiastic racing tradition fueled the early years. But with no private property at the lift base for a resort village and attendant lodging and real estate, Snowbasin remained in the slow lane.

Then Utah's 1995 successful Olympic bid pulled back the curtain on a powdered Brigadoon. Alta and her sister areas in the canyons closer to Salt Lake City -- Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude -- were properly deemed off limits as event sites; overuse already threatens their fragile environments. Most of the skiing venues were assigned to Park City and Deer Valley on the back side of the Wasatch Range. The only mountain left with the requisite physical gifts to stage downhills, the glamour events of the Games, was Snowbasin, an area that few skiers outside Utah had even heard of.

Land deals and bitterness

The Olympic imperative helped to fast-track a controversial land swap between Holding, who also owns the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho, and the Forest Service. In exchange for private land yet to be determined or appraised, Holding stands to acquire 1,320 acres at the mountain's base, land that will become the newest, and some say, the last major ski resort in the country. Plans call for Hillhaus to be bulldozed into a parking lot.

"Yes, I'm bitter," says Barbara Manley, drawing a beer with a tug on a ski-tip handle.

Others in the area welcome the coming transfiguration. "Snowbasin was either going to change or die," says Kent Matthews, the area's longtime mountain manager. Matthews grew up in Huntsville, population 580, at the foot of the Snowbasin scarp. On his office wall hangs a blueprint of Phase One and a portrait of his champion team roping horse, Gobo Spade.

"Our little mountain has been not recognized all my life, just about," he says in a voice remarkably like John Wayne's. "Alta and them do 500,000 skier days. We're lucky to see 80,000 to 100,000 skier days a season."

Indeed, when I skied Snowbasin last winter -- weekdays, admittedly -- the average number of lift tickets sold was about 100 a day. It made me giddy. At times there were no other riders visible, ahead or behind, on the chairlift. The powder never got completely tracked out.

This happy emptiness certainly will vanish before 2002.

Phase One of the new development, which began this summer, will focus primarily on the mountain: new lifts, new snow-making equipment, parking, an Olympian stadium, and press and spectator centers. Matthews expects 30,000 to 40,000 ticket holders plus 7,000 to 8,000 press people for each event.

There may be some lodging, but according to general manager Gray Reynolds, "It won't be significant. Olympic visitors will have to drive back down to Ogden or Salt Lake City in the evenings. The big hotels and such will come with Phase Two after the Games."

Tom Leonard, Snowbasin's director of snow safety, sees more work for himself in the coming changes.

"I'll need more patrollers to help control the new terrain," he says. "That John Paul area has some avalanche problems."

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