This resort guide is maintained by EpicSki Ambassador:Altanaut
An Unofficial Guide to Skiing Alta
The Alta website says it plainly: Alta is for Skiers. This motto is at the core of the Alta experience. The focus of this mountain, less than one hour from the Salt Lake City Airport, is the actual skiing experience. Not the sale of real estate. Not the wild and crazy nightlife. Alta is all about putting on your (preferably fat) skis and sliding down the mountain.
Alta does not allow snowboarding. It’s for skiers, remember? This policy borders on a religious issue for some and will not be addressed here.
With its location at the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) on the windward side of the Wasatch Mountains, Alta is favored by copious snowfall. The 2010-2011 season, through April, brought 723 inches of fluff. The quantity of the snow is matched by its quality. LCC is blessed with some of the lightest powder anywhere. This makes it a powder skier’s paradise.
Despite its reputation as a mountain for advanced skiers, Alta offers excitement for every level. Skiing Alta is about exploration of its 2,200 acres. It’s a real “ski what you see” mountain.
This guide was written for skiers who are visiting Alta for the first time. Please keep in mind that the color rating system is relative rather than absolute. If you are not accustomed to skiing in the western U.S. you may want to work your way up in difficulty of terrain.
Overview of the Mountain
In-bounds skiing at Alta begins from one of two bases: Wildcat (sometimes referred to as Collins) and Albion. Both are located along the main road up the canyon, SR-210/Little Cottonwood Canyon Road. Skiers can take a rope tow (dubbed “Horizontal Harry” by a friend) between the two bases. Note that going uphill on Horizontal Harry (i.e., Wildcat to Albion) is considerably more arduous than heading down.
Taking a high level view, Alta can be divided into five areas. Moving from East to West (roughly up canyon to down canyon) they are:
- Sugarloaf/East Baldy
The area serviced by the Supreme Lift features some nicely groomed & ungroomed blue terrain, challenging blacks and a hike-to in-bounds area that feels like the backcountry. It is arguably the most beautiful part of the mountain.
Beginners and unsure intermediates should start out from the Albion Base. The Albion and Sunnyside Lifts take skiers to the gentlest Green terrain, builds towards Blue and even includes a relatively mellow Black area.
The mid-mountain Sugarloaf Lift accesses intermediate and advanced terrain, Snowbird’s Mineral Basin, and the Wildcat Base via the East Baldy Traverse (a.k.a. EBT, or Collins Return).
More advanced and/or confident skiers tend to start from the Wildcat Base, using the Collins or Wildcat lifts. Together they access some of the toughest terrain at Alta as well as many fun blue areas. Both sides of the ridge separating the Wildcat & Albion bases are accessed from the Collins Lift, most via the High Traverse (Hi-T).
As you can garner from above, Alta is spread out rather than monolithic. Could this be why ALTA is said to stand for “Another Long Traverse Again”? Yes, much of the most outstanding terrain can be reached only by hiking or traversing. For this reason, being in good physical shape is perhaps more important than your skiing skills to get the goods around here.
The more advanced areas – almost always ungroomed – are often accessed through gates or large openings in rope lines. Some of these ropes are there to protect lower level skiers from too much excitement. Many of them are for avalanche control and are clearly labeled. If you ignore avalanche control restrictions, you are making a big mistake. You are not only putting yourself in danger, but are also endangering patrollers who may have to follow your tracks to get you out (and confiscate your pass).
One last word about the mountain. You will note that the Alta trail map shows Green, Blue and Black terrain. There are no “Double Blacks” here. This does not mean that all blacks are equivalent! Some (Vail Ridge in the Albion area) are one notch harder than a steep ungroomed blue run. Others, like the chutes above Supreme Bowl, are tough and can be downright dangerous if you are not careful. (Unlike at Snowbird, it’s difficult to get “cliffed out” at Alta. If it’s going to happen, however, it’s likely to be in the Supreme Bowl area.) So unless you are an expert skier, talk to someone who is familiar with the area before you venture into unknown Black terrain. The Ski Patrol is a good source for this information if you don’t know any locals.
Suggestions for Beginners
At the Albion Base you will find everything you need: ticket office, ski school, cafeteria, locker room, bathrooms. And let’s not forget Alta Java, a great place to get your caffeine fix. If it’s very cold out, take your drink upstairs and sit in the cafeteria. You may see some members of the Wild Old Bunch there. This is Alta’s wild old bunch, some of whom have been skiing Alta for longer than you’ve been alive. Strike up a conversation!
Albion features a tiny “slope” for absolute beginners to skiers’ left of the ticket office building. A beginner’s lesson is strongly recommended for “never-evers.”
For everyone who has been on skis before, start on the Sunnyside Lift and try out Crooked Mile and Patsey Marley. These are very pretty runs and usually good even if visibility is not great. (Hint: try to ski along the edges of the run, close to the trees – the shadows will help you see better.) The less attractive route is Dipsy Doodle to Home Run, the latter of which is quite wide and used by more advanced skiers passing through. If you are tired of the Sunnyside Lift you can take Dipsy Doodle to the Cecret Lift and try out Rabbit and Sweet N’ Easy. Again, these are very pretty tree-lined runs. Just be aware that you will be sharing them with more advanced skiers on their way elsewhere. Tired of the Greens? Start your Blue Period off Sunnyside by taking Blue Bell and Race Arena. Be sure to ask if they have been groomed. If not, you can choose to have your first all-powder experience here.
You will know when you are ready to try powder when you find yourself drawn to the side of a run and want to try the fluffy stuff beyond the groomed snow. This will give you a taste of powder and perhaps an inkling of why skiers love it so much.
Just one word of caution. Keep in mind that the transition from groomed to ungroomed snow involves a speed adjustment; deeper snow will slow your skis down. Generally speaking, the deeper the snow the more you will be slowed.
Let’s say you are beginning to feel more confident on a steeper part of a green run or an easier blue. You pick up a little speed, you ski to the side of the run and put one ski in the powder while the other stays on the groomed… And you wipe out magnificently. One ski suddenly went slower while the one remaining on the groomed snow did not. If you do this too quickly, you can hurt yourself. But don’t dwell on this – as a beginner your main problem will probably be getting up in powder on flat terrain. Challenging!
In short, if you are going to be moving from groomed to ungroomed snow at moderate speed, do it with both skis. I am amazed at how often even very skilled skiers fail to keep this in mind and go splat.
Suggestions for Intermediates
The following is recommended for solid intermediate-and-up skiers. If you’re not sure about your ability level, try starting at Albion Base and working your way up from there until you are comfortable with all blue terrain on this mountain.
1) Mountain Tour
If it’s your first visit to Alta, it’s fun to start off with a tour of the mountain. Use this as an opportunity to line up areas that you’d like to explore after the once-over tour. Look at the trail map first and plan to ski the yellow-highlighted (easiest way down) runs in this lift order:
- Take Wildcat Lift up and ski down to the Collins Lift.
- Take Collins Lift and ski down the front side (i.e., back to the base of Collins.)
- Take Collins Lift up again. At the top, go past the Ski Patrol cabin and take a left into the Backside/Sugarloaf area.
- Take Sugarloaf Lift up. About two thirds of the way down Devil’s Elbow look for a sign on the right saying Supreme Access. Take it. [Note: This connecting run is not highlighted yellow but is neither steep nor overly narrow. It does have an uphill component, so keep as much speed as you feel comfortable with when you make the turnoff.] To avoid the possibility of walking uphill you can instead follow signs to the Cecret Lift, a short yet slow two-seater.
- Follow the signs to the Supreme Lift and take it up. Ski down past Alf’s Restaurant to the Albion Base.
- At the bottom, take the Sunnyside Lift up and come down skier’s right of the lift on Crooked Mile and Patsey Marley. (Again, these are not highlighted yellow, but they are Green!)
- When you see the Albion Base area ahead, stay to the left, going below the Albion and Sunnyside lifts and take the Transfer Tow back to Wildcat Base.
2) Powder Intro
Alta is all about powder, so you should try venturing off the groomed if conditions look good. Avoid going into areas that are so flat that you may get stuck in the fluff and have to trudge your way out. Ballroom is a good ungroomed intermediate run to try. It is a wide-open bowl accessed from the top of Collins. In poor visibility, skip Ballroom and other wide bowls until you are familiar with the terrain.
When you get off the Collins Lift, go straight ahead on the cat track until you see a groomed run on your right. Looking down and beyond that run you will see a fence with two entry points, a higher (Baldy Shoulder/Ballroom) and a lower (Ballroom) gate. To start, go into the lower gate. Traverse (go across rather than down the mountain) on the obvious track through the trees until you’re in the bowl. Pick a line that looks good and ski it down to the groomed run below. That’s it. If you are happy with the experience, you can try different pitches off the traverse and entering via the upper gate. Using the upper gate will extend the length of your run and will put you on a slightly steeper pitch to start. Unfortunately, the traverse may also be quite a bit bumpier. [Hint: if you want to do laps in Ballroom and it’s after 11 am, try loading at the Collins midway station.]
3) Backwoods Adventure
I’m going to take some flack for including this here (it’s a SECRET!), but this is a really fun and non-scary powder adventure for intermediate skiers.
Find Supreme Access on a trail map. The target area is a roughly triangular treed zone bordered by Supreme Access, Devil’s Elbow and the Cecret lift line. Once inside you will find gentle slopes, fairly well spaced trees, several cabins, a creek, and a distinctly “backwoods” feel. It is quiet and beautiful, and really feels like you’re going to grandmother’s house.
To access this area you take a left off Supreme Access. There are many possible ways in and out, and no signs. On your first time in try following existing tracks and then return to explore on your own. Be aware, though, that if you get unlucky you may have to walk a bit – some parts are flatter than others and can be tedious if you get stuck in them. In general, it’s also a good idea to steer clear of the creek bed.
Suggestions for Advanced Skiers
1) Catherine's Area
Advanced and upper intermediate skiers familiar with powder skiing will enjoy Catherine’s Area at the top of the Supreme Lift. Catherine’s has a backcountry, natural and quiet feel. Most of it is not steep but none of it is usually groomed.
The downside is the short walk required to get into the area. It really is short in distance – but you will walk on (usually packed) snow between 5 and 15 minutes carrying your skis. Your time obviously depends on your conditioning and acclimatization to the 10,000+ ft. altitude. Still, everyone I’ve taken there thinks it’s easily worth the walk. Just keep in mind that it’s not a race up the hill, and that you will be passed by some young & fit skiers who are better looking than you.
2) Alf's High Rustler, a.k.a., High Boy
Unless it hasn’t snowed in a long time and/or conditions are unusually icy, confident advanced skiers should ski High Boy. It is the quintessential Alta run -- a bit hard to get to, steep and long. It’s also clearly visible from the Wildcat Base.
The toughest part of High Boy is getting there. Try to find a guide to show you the way. This is not optional for anyone not quite sure they can ski comfortably anywhere on the mountain. You’ve been warned.
If you’re up for it, take the Hi-T to the end (the Carpet, or Piss Pass); go to skier’s left along the ridge top above Greeley Bowl, staying high. If you see people side-stepping up a steep slope right in front of you, they are probably taking the high entry into Alf’s. This can be sketchy and/or rocky and is not recommended for first-timers. Instead, traverse around to the right (a very short traverse) and, soon, about 10-20 feet down you will see tracks curving around toward the front of the mountain, i.e., to the side facing the base. The track will disappear between tight trees. This is the final traverse to High Boy. It also can get a bit gnarly, but should be doable by confident advanced skiers. When the terrain opens up a bit and you can see Wildcat Base, you are ready to ski down. Enjoy!
1) Traversing Basics
Ballroom, the run named above for intermediate powder beginners, is a great place to experience your first traverse, an important tool in your skiing arsenal and the gateway to more advanced Alta terrain.
Rule number one about traversing is to never ever stop on a traverse line. In most high intermediate to advanced areas, the traverse will be single file. Forcing those behind you stop simply because you want to stop will not yield positive results – trust me. If you want to stop, pulling up above the traverse is preferred, if not always possible. Those stopping below may find it hard to get back on the traverse and may end up skiing an earlier line than expected. If someone is close behind you, try to signal your intention to pull off so you don’t surprise them.
Another thing to recognize about traverses is that they can be bumpy. The bumps are called many things, “whoop-dee-doos” being the kindest and most common name. In places where your speed is a bit higher and/or there are several whoop-dee-doos in a row, it’s important to avoid getting launched into the air. Think of absorbing them with your legs while your upper body remains relatively quiet. Bump skiers and those from Colorado will have no problem with this.
Lastly, if there is room to do so, traverses tend to expand downhill. In other words, extra traverse lines usually develop parallel to and below the original. Creating new traverse lines is really frowned upon, as it spoils the ride of anyone skiing down the fall line at that point. Nevertheless, if you see multiple lines already in place, the lowest are likely to be newer and thus less bumpy. Just make sure it’s high enough to get where you’re going!
2) The Goods, Trials and Tribulations of the High Traverse (Hi-T)
The Hi-T is a right of passage for intermediate skiers who wish to venture into black terrain. It's also an Italian expressway for expert skiers. The Hi-T leads you to the joys of West Rustler, the iconic Alf's High Rustler and the many advanced lines found on the Greeley side.
Here are a few words of advice for the Hi-T virgin.
- Don't stop on the traverse line.
Yes, what was noted as the most important thing for traversing in general is especially important on the Hi-T. People use the Hi-T to reach their desired advanced or expert terrain. Some are in a major hurry. Stopping must be done mindfully. Try to let anyone immediately around you know your intentions, then pull above or drift below the track.
Part of the Hi-T spreads out into multiple traverse lines. If you need to stop in this area (to find a friend, work on your goggles, or gape) pull off the established tracks. Make sure that you are visible to oncoming traffic, and that you are easy to avoid. You may hear a grumble here or there, but tough nuggies.
Avoid the Hi-T early on powder mornings unless you know what you’re doing and where you’re going.
The absolute worst time to try the Hi-T for the first time is on a powder morning, especially if visibility is poor. You will not be happy as people who know where they are going (and some who don’t) zoom by you. Etiquette on these mornings is at a low-point, and some people can be downright obnoxious.
There are multiple ways to get to it.
To get to the Hi-T, make an immediate U-turn to your right after getting off the Collins Lift. Straight ahead you will see two entrance gates to the traverse: one that heads a bit up before curving away on the right and a more or less straight ahead one to the left. If you plan to do a little hiking, say to Eddie’s or second or third entry to Greeley, you must take the rightmost entrance. (You’ll have to take the uphill fork when the time comes.) If your plans do not include immediate climbing, both entrances get you to the same place, i.e., to the Hi-T roughly above the Sunspot run. Given that there are ultimately many traverse lines for the central part of the Hi-T, the lower entrance tends to be a better choice.
There is another. If you go left (downhill) immediately before the two aforementioned entrance gates, you will see a gate along the right side of the rope. A sign tells you this is a way into the Hi-T. With the exceptions listed above (if you take the “Hi-Hi,”) the three entrances take you to the multiple track part of the Hi-T. On powder mornings this lowest track is sometimes cut by the dimwitted and ends up too low to connect to the multiple track part. This can lead to extreme sadness, so is better avoided until a bit later in the day.
Rocks can be exposed even late in the season, so be watchful and respond appropriately.
Interested skiers may purchase a combined Alta/Snowbird pass, which will allow them to ski both areas in one day. The 2012-2013 cost of this ticket is a steep $104, or $99 for those who already have an Alta Card. You can find more than enough skiing at either area to ski all day and not be bored, so don’t feel compelled to try this. It is, however, really interesting and strange to ski at Alta for a couple of hours and then descend into Snowbird’s Mineral Basin. It will feel like you have moved into a parallel universe -- an enjoyable but distinctly different universe.
Unique & Free Special Programs
Alta is rich in both skiing and cultural programs. Here are some particularly worthy free ones:
Ski With The Girls
Ski With A Ranger
Ski Free After Three
Skiers who come to Alta from away, especially from the East, often ask whether it’s worth it for them to rent powder skis. My advice to friends with this question is this. If you have any intention of skiing off-piste (i.e., in ungroomed areas) or even just dipping a figurative toe into powder, rent some fat(ter) skis! True experts may not mind working a little more to keep going in powder, but anyone (including experts) will benefit from and use much less energy on wider skis. Whether to rent rockered skis or traditional camber is a question of preference, but wider skis will make your life easier in powder.
Snowboarders at Alta -- Full Disclosure
In fact, snowboarders do occasionally come over to Alta from Snowbird. They usually do so from the top of the Tram or Mineral Basin Lift, riding down to the Wildcat Base through Baldy Shoulder. This may elicit some snide remarks from skiers, but does not (as far as I have seen) cause the Ski Patrol to take chase. The boarders simply are not allowed to board a lift uphill again and have to find their way back to a Snowbird lift.
The Power Hound’s Guide to Skiing Alta, by Brad Asmus, Four Mile Press. Available from amazon.com and at The Alta Store. The exhaustive guide to (almost) every line at Alta. It is a bit dated, but not in ways that really matter.
This unofficial guide was written by Altanaut, a skier with no affiliation to Alta other than as a season pass holder.
Please report any errors, suggestions or comments on this guide to Altanaut.
Alta's Rustler Lodge
|This lodge offers 85 rooms, wireless high-speed Internet in all rooms and a Business Center. They have an outdoor heated pool, indoor jacuzzi, steam room, fitness center and a full service Day Spa. Complimentary shuttle to Snowbird is provided.
Extra person charges may apply
$149 and up
The lodge has 57 rooms and offers a full breakfast, afternoon tea and four course dinner are included. Convenient on-mountain location allows guests to ski right to Alta's lifts. In addition the Lodge offers free wireless internet, saunas, hot pools, and the classic Sitzmark Club bar. Complimentary Kids' Program.
Extra person charges may apply
$109 and up
Homewood Suites by Hilton, Midvale
|This all suites property offers 98 suites with complimentary Suite Start hot breakfast every morning and a Welcome Home reception serving a light dinner and beverages each Monday through Thursday evening. Amenities including in door heated swimming poo and whirlpool, membership to a full service gym, business center, meeting room, public transportation, wireless high speed Internet access.
Extra person charges may apply
$109 and up