Home»Skiing»Ski Utah’s Interconnect is a Backcountry Link to 6 Wasatch Resorts

Ski Utah’s Interconnect is a Backcountry Link to 6 Wasatch Resorts

A group of skiers on an Interconnect tour through the backcountry of Utah’s Wasatch Range enjoy a break at Alta. Credit Chris Pearson.

 

By Brian E. Clark

Each winter, more than 2.5 million skiers visit the Wasatch Mountain resorts of Deer Valley, Park City, Solitude, Brighton, Snowbird and Alta.

But only a tiny fraction of that number venture off into the backcountry to make fresh tracks in untouched snow.  For good reason, too, because unless you know what you’re doing, a mistake out of bounds can be dangerous – even fatal – because there is no ski patrol to rescue you.

Thanks to Ski Utah’s guided Interconnect (https://www.skiutah.com/explore/the-interconnect-tour) tour, advanced to expert skiers can not only head out of bounds safely but ski six of the Beehive State’s top resorts all in the same day.

I did it last winter with my longtime friend Craig “we’re not getting older, just better” McCarthy and Interconnect guide J.P. Gendron, who grew up in Vermont. Gendron moved to the West at age 20 to finish his studies at the University of Utah – and ski Alta.

“I picked Alta because of the terrain, the ski culture and the sheer amount of snow it gets,” explained Gendron, who also has guided bicycle tours in Europe.  “In some ways, Alta reminds me a lot of Vermont because the heart and soul of skiing is alive there, something I hope never changes.”

Gendron worked as a professional patroller at the Canyons (now part of Park City Mountain Resort) – where he got his first avalanche control training – and began guiding in the backcountry about a decade ago.

He did his first Interconnect tours as a photographer.

 

 

“I was originally asked to come along to document the trips and the beauty of the experience,” said Gendron, who was soon working as a guide on the tour.

“The Interconnect is a wonderful traverse of the Wasatch and something that you can’t really experience anywhere else in North America,” he said. “It’s more of European experience, linking six resorts – each of which has its own personality – in one day through the backcountry.”

McCarthy and I met up early one morning with Gendron at Deer Valley’s Snow Park Lodge, where he gave us a rundown on our route for the day, discussed the snowpack and explained how avalanche beacons are used.

“Safety is utmost on these tours and we try to boil all the essentials down so folks who don’t have much backcountry experience can understand,” he said.

“We attract adventurous skiers, who want to make a leap into the backcountry. At that initial meeting, we try to make it digestible and be forthcoming about the conditions so they will know what they’ve signed up for, which often can often mean powder.”

Soon we were riding the lifts and making turns at Deer Valley, which Gendron described as the “highest-end resort experience you’ll find in North America.

“There’s someone to help you with your skis when you arrive here,” he said. “Moreover, the slope grooming is beautiful and there are luxurious places to stay like the Montage and the Stein Eriksen Lodge. They do everything very well at Deer Valley.”

After we’d warmed up on runs with names like Buckeye and Domingo, we skied out of bounds into what Gendron called a small patch of “no man’s land” that is off-limits except for Interconnect participants.

“It’s all sweetheart trees, totally forbidden fruit that has awesome skiing when it fills it with snow,” Gendron said with a chuckle.

As we popped out onto the black-diamond Tycoon Run at Park City with big grins on our faces, a pair of ski patrollers spied us. One of them knew Gendron and was familiar with the Interconnect tour. But the other puffed up his chest and demanded to see our passes. Only when Gendron’s friend explained things, did he back off.

We rode the Pioneer lift and skied a few laps before working our way over to the Jupiter Bowl lift.

“Park City is a huge resort that has something for everyone and we just barely scratched the surface,” he said. “And if you are looking for a ski-town experience, Park City has it.”

 

Interconnect skiers in backcountry near Alta. Credit  Chris Pearson.

 

At the top of Jupiter Bowl, he checked in with the ski patrol. We left Park City, shuffled through some trees and made our way into Big Cottonwood Canyon and its untracked “pow.”

“We always let the patrol know what we are doing, in part to respect what they do to keep those boundaries secure, as well as get any information they might have on avalanche activity,” he said.

Several times on our way to down to the base of Solitude – the next resort on the tour – we hiked up to get to fresh stashes that Gendron picked out on fun, 30-degree slopes that posed little risk of avalanche.

“Our route really isn’t defined, so we can go lots of places,” he said.  “A lot of it depends on the skill of the participants and what they want to do.”

If conditions allow, we can throw out extra some extra options like a bit of a hike here or some side-stepping there to get a couple hundred more feet of nice powder and some great quality shots.

When we finished milking the Mill F drainage for a few extra turns, we dropped down to Big Cottonwood Road, kicked off our skis and walked into Solitude where we grabbed some coffee and a muffin.

Most groups ski a few laps at Solitude and then drift over to Brighton before coming back to Solitude for lunch at the Roundhouse, where Gendron recommends the curry fries and chicken pot pie.

Gendron described Solitude as a quiet locals resort with few lines and skiing terrain that can challenge the best.

“I skied there in college and it really left an impression,” he said. “Honeycomb Canyon is amazing. And you can find some of the gnarliest inbound resort skiing by climbing Fantasy Ridge.”

He said Brighton is something of a throwback resort with cliff bands and terrain parks that are popular with Salt Lake City skiers and snowboarders. It has an older lodge with a dorm-style hotel with shared bathrooms and a retro tailgate scene with schussers grilling beside snowbanks on sunny days.

 

A skier rips down a (nearly) untracked slope on an Interconnect tour in Utah’s Wasatch Range. Credit Chris Pearson.

 

The crux of the day is the Highway to Heaven (sometimes called the Highway to Hell) crossing that leads from Solitude to Little Cottonwood Canyon and is bombed by the Solitude patrol to knock down potential slides and keep it safe.

We reached the access point off the Summit Chair and waited while Gendron got permission from the patrol.  We rounded a corner and looked out over a bowl with a south-facing, 35-degree slope.  Our route across the bowl dropped down 120 or so feet and then we began climbing – mostly side-stepping – regaining the elevation we’d lost really to reach Twin Lakes Pass at 10,000 feet.

McCarthy and Gendron both dwell above 6,000 feet, so they made it across the bowl with little effort. But I live at around 500 feet, so the side-stepping up the equivalent of 10 floors left me panting. So I passed on tossing my skis on my shoulders and boot packing up another 200-plus feet in Grizzly Gulch to get to some fresh tracks.

Instead, we floated down through more untracked powder and ended up at Alta, where we skied a few laps and had lunch at the Watson Shelter lodge off the Collins lift.

Gendron told us his favorite sections of terrain at Alta include the Eagles Nest, which he found his first week at the resort during his college days.  With 55 percent of the resort’s runs marked as expert, there were plenty of challenging runs to test him.

By the time we left Watson shelter, the sun was beginning to sink behind the peaks. We grabbed a few more laps at Alta and then hightailed it over to Snowbird just before it closed to catch our shuttle back to Deer Valley.

On one of my next trips to Utah, I plan to spend more time at Snowbird, which Gendron said has great skiing off the tram, which rises 3,000 feet from the valley floor to its 11,000-foot summit.

“The feeling at Snowbird is like you are high up in the Alps,” Gendron said. “It’s got tons of amazing terrain and attracts a high level of skier and snowboarders, too.”

For more information on Ski Utah’s Interconnect tour, see https://www.skiutah.com/explore/the-interconnect-tour or call (801) 534-1907. The cost per person is $430 with lunch and transportation included.

 

Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.  A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.

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1 Comment

  1. Alex
    January 9, 2020 at 12:46 pm — Reply

    Super recommendation. After doing preatty muycn the same activities each year, it is always great to hear of new things at Park City.

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