Alta is the home of powder skiing. Speculation is the deserts surrounding the Wasatch Mountains deposit salt crystals in storms. The salt sucks the moisture from the clouds resulting in low moisture snow (density) that falls to the ground as fluffy light powder. Whether it’s salt crystals, lake effect snow, or a good geographic location for gathering storms, Alta gets lots of snow. Over 550 inches a year. The quality is legendary. The State has trademarked “The Greatest Snow on Earth.”
Alta is one of America’s first ski areas. The first chair was installed in 1938, just two years after Sun Valley installed the World’s first chairlift. Its creation was driven by two storied skiers: Alf Engen and Dick Durrance. Alf was the Salt Lake City resident who hiked the terrain that would become known as Alta and persuaded anyone that would listen that the area would be great for skiing. Dick Durrance was America’s first great alpine ski racer who operated the lodge at Alta Lodge and the ski school for few years in the early 1940’s.
The famous Alta ski instructor, Alf Engen, is credited with developing some of the earliest powder ski techniques. If you’ve ever wondered if you can ski powder on narrow skis, take a look at the video below.
It shows old video footage of Alf Engen at Alta and early powder skiing techniques. Dick Durrance would go on to help start Aspen and run the 1960’s Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley.
Alta’s an expert’s mountain. No snowboarders are allowed. Good or bad, no boarders usually means old school. And old school almost always means fewer capital investments. In other words, when you exclude half of your market you shouldn’t expect Gondolas, covered chairs or fancy restaurants. If you’re a hardcore skier Hallelujah. Although upgraded, the lift configurations at Alta have been fixed since 1981. This has made Alta is a traversers mountain. You will hike and traverse a lot to find the best expert runs. Traversing gets you to thousands of lines, often untracked. Everywhere you look are expert runs. If you don’t like traversing, go to Snowbird.
On my Great North American Ski Adventure (GNASA), Alta and Snowbird were base camp. My first-day skiing of the adventure was at Alta, and it was a powder day, bam. No chance for warm-ups; too much powder. That’s Alta.
Alta is part of Mecca. Religious experiences occur regularly. Conversions are assured. If you don’t understand this or haven’t investigated the Wasatch’s, please read this description here.
This particular morning, The Wasatch Snow Report said 3-5 with another foot or more on the way. So it begins. Trip highlights at Alta included rope drops under Supreme lift for first tracks into Catherines area and Mineral Basin (Alta’s entrance to Snowbird). Monster dumps were frequent.
Getting to Alta is a drive through the high-cliffed little Cottonwood canyon. As you reach the top of the canyon, Alta appears. A glacially cut high angle fault area that left behind a diversity of challenging formations. The area is a geographically complex creating an almost infinite array of challenging runs. You can easily spend a lifetime skiing Alta. It’s that good.
There are two base areas where you can park. The first you reach is Wildcat, the second Albion. At Wildcat as you reach the base in front of Collins Chair you see High Rustler of your left and Wildcat on your right.
On your left is a U shaped mountain. What you see slightly to your left is West Rustler, the point is Alf’s High Rustler, and the side you can’t see is the Greely areas (called the Back Side).
There are short drops off West Rustler, but the great stuff stats on the U with Stone Crusher, Lone Pine, and the famous Alf’s High Rustler. There are two ways to get to the Greely areas (hike up from Collins, or the high traverse). Either one brings you to the back of what you’re looking at (left side of the U). On the back side, you can ski Gunsight, High Greely, and Eddies High Nowhere. If you pay attention, you’ll see a steady stream of skiers traversing across West Rustler. Many of them are instructors.
Expert Skiing at Alta
Alf High Rustler
Alf’s High Rustler is a signature run at Alta. It’s Northern facing and holds snow. High Boy is the top and is extremely steep and can be a bit lean on snow at times. But there are usually lines in and once 20 yards in; the snow is usually great.
Mount Baldy / Ballroom
On Collins Chair, after the turn on your right is Baldy Mountain. Main Chute is chute starting just lookers right from the top of Baldy. It’s steep and opens into Ballroom, a wide cirque. Many people will chase powder by continuing to traverse across Ballroom into the Baldy Shoulder area. Super experts hike to the Baldy Chutes. Aspiring experts can traverse over to Ballroom and ski below the traverse.
Below Sugarloaf Chair
You wouldn’t expect great skiing off of Sugarloaf Lift. Its usually crowded and the lift serves as top of the hill for intermediate skiing and a way to get back to the Wildcat Side of the resort. But a few hundred yards down, below the chair, to the left of the lift, is Running Dog Nose, Keyhole Gulch, and Yellow Trail Area. All face slightly different angles, but anyone of these areas can have fresh powder. It’s mellow expert skiing but I’ve found lots of fun times in these areas. Its visible from Sugarloaf chair so look to your left when riding up and if you see some untracked terrain go have some fun.
I didn’t really explore Catherine’s area until I had been to Alta a few times. That was stupid. Catherine’s Area would make a great resort in and of itself. Under the Chair is an area labeled as Piney Glade. It’s a steep mountain face, with glades between rocky cliffs. Its all navigable but takes courage and precision. Traversing skiers right just opens up hundreds of skiable acres and is rarely overly tracked. You can spend days chasing lines in this area.
Tucked away in the right corner of Alta is WildCat Chair. Another WOW! Smaller than Catherine’s Area but no less fun or magical. Riding up, on your right is a wide variety of expert terrain including chutes, gullies, bowls, and glades. Wildcat is also access to the “keyholes,” entrances to Snowbird, that are relatively unskied and untracked. There are hundreds of lines running over a myriad of terrain. Gullys, bowls, and chutes seem endless. This is also where you can access Snowbird. Access points include Keyhole and a lower entrance at the top of Westwood Ho. When either of these access points is open its worth exploring. These access point offer some great chute, bowl and glade skiing. Its so good, that there are dedicated Keyhole lappers that will take WildCat to Keyhole and then ski across toward Snowbird and down to the Bypass Road, jump on the Bus back to WildCat. Perhaps the best “In-Between Country” skiing available.
On those rare days when the mountain has not been recently refreshed with snow, you can hunt North facing slopes all over the mountain. Check out Greely Bowl or Wildcat.
Insider Tips at Alta
As of 2016/2017 lockers are 50 cents at Wildcat base.