The powder of one
In Utah, a new 2,443-metre-long gondola creates the largest ski area in the United States by connecting Park City and Canyons Resort
How, I wonder, does one smash a bottle of bubbly against a new gondola?
Swing too hard or wildly and it could crack a window or dent a door. Ease up, and it might not break at all, exposing Park City's new Quicksilver lift to all sorts of negative mojo.
But I needn't have worried. After speeches by top brass, mountain manager Brian Suhadolc bashes a magnum of La Marca Prosecco against one of the gondola's concrete support pillars. There isn't even any cleanup, as the bottle is safely shrouded in a white garbage bag.
It's all rather anticlimactic, but the hundreds of assembled guests cheer lustily anyway. And for good reason: Now that the 2,443-metre-long gondola connects Park City to the neighbouring property formerly known as Canyons Resort, the combined ski area has become the largest in the United States. With a single lift ticket or multiday Epic Pass, visitors to the newly renamed Park City Mountain Resort can access nearly 3,000 hectares of skiable terrain – in North America, it's second only to B.C.'s Whistler Blackcomb – with 41 lifts and 314 marked trails.
A few minutes later, scissors snip through a fat red ribbon and I follow the assembled throng into the adjacent Miners Camp restaurant for sparkling wine and canapés. Along with the new gondola, the vaulted 500-seat dining hall is part of a $50-million (U.S.) spending spree by Vail Resorts Inc., that also encompasses upgrades to snowmaking, various dining facilities and a pair of chairlifts. (The Colorado-based company acquired Park City in 2014, less than a year after leasing Canyons from Canadian property-management firm Talisker Corp.) As I hobnob with ski-industry elite nibbling hors d'oeuvres, I realize I'm enjoying a taste of how the other half skis, so my first Quicksilver ride will have to wait.
But not for long: A flute or two later, I'm gazing out the windows of an eight-passenger gondola cabin as it climbs Pinecone Ridge's gorgeously gladed slopes. It's early in the season and most of this steeper terrain needs more snow to open. (Adding to my disappointment, nearly a metre of snow blankets the resort over the 48 hours immediately following my departure.) A blue-sky view of 3,047-m Jupiter Peak eases my pain, however, as does the knowledge that until now skiers on the Canyons side couldn't admire this terrain, let alone ski it, without a 20-minute drive from base to base.
That may sound familiar to Whistler Blackcomb skiers. Quicksilver plays a role similar to that of the Peak2Peak gondola, which since late 2008 has slashed skier transit times by connecting Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. But that's where the similarities end. Riding Quicksilver, which tops out at 91 m above the ground, is an efficient but unremarkable gondola experience compared with Peak2Peak, which features 28-passenger cabins and holds world records for the longest span between ropeway towers (3.03 kilometres) and highest point (436 m).
And yet, Park City's biggest-in-America status and Olympic legacy invite comparisons. Where Whistler's rocky twin peaks tower over its namesake valley, the newly enlarged Park City sprawls across a 10-kilometre-wide expanse of ridges, chutes, bowls and gullies punctuated by an astonishing 17 summits. It appeals more to intermediate skiers and families than to the double-black-diamond crowd. The rolling Wasatch Range is so well-suited to ski-area development that five other resorts, including Alta and neighbouring Deer Valley, occupy many nearby mountainsides.
Whistler and Park City have more in common when it comes to the trappings of alpine extravagance. Both are home to a vast array of upscale hotels, restaurants, bars, boutiques, galleries and spas. Baffling but inconsequential liquor laws notwithstanding, you'd never guess that Park City is located in the only state with a Mormon majority.
Unlike Whistler's enormous modern resort village, Park City's base area runs right into its historic namesake town, with a ski run and chairlift carrying schussers straight to Main Street. This strip is home to scores of buildings listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, including the Mary G. Steiner Egyptian Theatre – an art-deco staple of the celebrity-strewn Sundance Film Festival – and the turreted town museum. Down a side street, there's some Plexiglas-covered Banksy graffiti, one of three works that appeared alongside the 2010 Sundance premiere of the British-based street artist's Exit Through the Gift Shop documentary. Visitors who wander into the vibrant downtown get liberal doses of history and culture, which makes the resort's hub feel more like a lived-in community than an upscale tourist town.
At Park City, a well-heeled out-of-town clientele has given rise to a finely tuned, and loftily priced, ski-vacation machine. Less than an hour after leaving Salt Lake's airport in a rental car, I'm being fitted for equipment in my luxury hotel's ski suite. The next morning, I head there to retrieve my gear, only to be told it's waiting for me at the bottom of the hotel's dedicated gondola. This whisks me to the base of Canyons Village for a ride in a bubble-domed chairlift with heated seat cushions.
Forget the other half – I'm into 1-per-cent territory now. And I could get used to it.
Douglas Barnes Photography
IF YOU GO
There are daily direct flights to Salt Lake City International from Calgary and Vancouver. Most visitors from Eastern Canada connect through Denver. A wide range of shuttle services cover the 35-minute drive from the airport to the resort, starting at $80 (U.S.) return. slcairport.com
ON THE MOUNTAIN
Adult lift-ticket prices fluctuate between $100 and $120 (U.S.) at the ticket window. A better option: Buying a "hard-card" ticket online, which can knock as much 25 per cent off the window rate. Buying at least seven days in advance allows cards to be shipped to visitors before they arrive. The multiresort Epic Pass, which will go on sale again this spring, offers savings of more than 35 per cent for visitors planning to ski for at least four days. A nifty perk: Epic Pass holders can download the free EpicMix app, which tracks vertical feet, trail grooming, lift-line wait times and more. parkcitymountain.com
WHERE TO STAY
Waldorf Astoria Park City: A short gondola carries guests at this opulent lodge-style hotel to the Canyons base area. There are 175 rooms and suites, a full-service spa, restaurant and courtyard pool complex. Rooms from $499 (U.S.). parkcitywaldorfastoria.com
Washington School House Hotel: This boutique, historic property in the town of Park City offers 12 rooms and suites, a stylish central lounge and a heated pool terraced into the hillside. Rooms from $765 (U.S.). washingtonschoolhouse.com
Park City Lodging: The resort manages a wide range of hotels, ski-in/ski-out condos, private houses and lodges in the area, starting at $149. parkcitymountain.com
Locals claim Park City has more gourmet chefs per capita than Paris, and while that statistic is difficult to prove, the quality of the small-plate dining at Handle, a casually stylish restaurant, reveals some serious culinary skill. handleparkcity.com
The Farm is located in Canyons' central square and here, locally sourced ingredients take centre stage. parkcitymountain.com
Recently opened, Tupelo is a fine-dining option that applies global influences to American cuisine, with Maine crab fritters meeting Aleppo chili, and roasted broccoli tossed in red chilis, coconut milk and toasted pecans. tupeloparkcity.com
High West Distillery & Saloon is dubbed "the world's only ski-in distillery and gastro-saloon." I'll take their word for it. The popular watering hole serves up a range of house-distilled rye whiskies and other spirits. highwest.com
The writer was a guest of Park City Mountain Resort. It did not review or approve the story.