The good thing about skiing in a ghost town is that you have the slopes—and the bar—to yourself. And the bad would be obvious…if you believe in ghosts. Well, I don’t. But one day last spring, I found myself wondering.
I’d been in Little Cottonwood Canyon Utah for all of three days in April, which sounds late for ski season only if you’ve never skied in Utah. Fact is, April can be prime time here, well after Spring Break but before the snow goes away for good. This is a canyon from Hellgate to Salt Lake City filled with a half dozen ski areas (including Alta and Snowbird) built atop what was once a warren of mineshafts and whisky traps, and at night in late April, in Snowbird at least, eeriness pervades.
Snow does, too. Sometimes when the spring clouds roll in and hit the Wasatch Mountains soaring straight skyward at the edge of town, avalanches rip down the canyon walls and close the roads, stranding skiers overnight. The local hotels often just let the refugees camp out for a fresh tracks slumber party. My housemate at the time and I had ventured out from NYC to try our luck with the calendar, and weren’t disappointed. Soon after we arrived the sky was puffing white, and while the base areas were slushy, we were soon feasting on powder in Snowbird’s higher bowls, like those accessed off of Cirque Traverse, a double black diamond crescent of steeps that seemed to shelter snow as dry and light as crumbled Styrofoam.
But there was definitely something strange going on. For one, our hotel was dead empty and stone silent. We’d been hoping for some aprés-ski tomfoolery, but the bars sat near-empty. Scenes from ‘The Shining’ kept running through my mind. After skiing on day one, as we stood outside the Tram bar, a subterranean watering hole with a widescreen view of the steel wheels that send Snowbird’s tram skyward every day, we listened as a beer-soaked local told us about Big Bertha, a local “entertainer” who’d pleasured many a miner but died unhappily in a slide. Or something. We chuckled. Sure man. Woo, scary. Have another.
Two days later it hadn’t stopped snowing. We’d skied our way around the mountain, having a blast—powder on top, corn at midmountain—and had one more chance to rip fresh tracks in the good stuff before making our flight home to NYC. For some reason I thought of Bertha as we dropped into an upper bowl, carving big GS turns in over-the-knee powder, whooping as we went.
Then I hit a submerged ice block with my left ski, pinwheeled ass-over-teakettle, and glimpsed a streak of color out of the corner of my eye as my now-released ski soared like a javelin. Sideways, I was sure. Had anyone been near me—my roommate was out of range—they’d have been diving for cover. I didn’t see where the ski landed, but I came to rest about 50’ below the icechunk.
“You OK?” Jimmy shouted up from hundreds of feet below. I was, but my ski was AWOL. G-o-n-e. Not a trace. I started bootpacking around using my pole for a probe, and searched for 15 minutes in an ever-widening square. Then I kept searching. And searching. The ski was nowhere. Here it was our last day on the slopes, the powder had arrived, and I was spending it searching for my damn ski. Over an hour passed and I’d searched an area about the size of a basketball court. Jimmy finally hiked up. “Man, you’re going to have to go down on one ski,” he said. These were rental randoneé skis from REI, a nice pair of K2 Mount Bakers, and I winced imagining how I’d tell the guy where I’d left his gear.
Jimmy was standing below me a few meters. I’d reached both the bottom limit of my search area and my patience, sweat-soaked and angry. We were at least 75 feet from the spot I’d lost the ski. The morning was shot. Jimmy eyed me with pity and plunged his pole into the snow.
Whack. There it was. He hit it on his first jab. “No way…”
I clicked in. We had just enough time to bomb to the bottom, check out, and fly home. Thanks for the memories Bertha, we’ll miss you, too. —Christian DeBenedetti