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Oct 02, 2014

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Good snow, good beer

By Gregg Smith

There's an unfortunate myth that expert skiers and rad 'boarders don't mix on the slopes. It props up an image of them never seeing eye to eye, but these mad bombers have a lot more in common than often acknowledged. The best of both lots have almost identical winter priority lists. They like short lines, quick lifts, virgin trails, challenging terrain, uncrowded slopes, big verticals. Most of all they like a cold frosty beer afterwards to help recount the day's rush from conquering the steeps, weaving a path through the trees, and the glory of catching big air. What better way to relive exploits on the slope than with a fresh brew?

Although other resorts may grab more attention than those of Salt Lake and Jackson Hole, and the hardcore shredders hope it stays that way, these two areas would be the uncontested national skiing magnet if there were such a thing. In any rating possible they would come out near the top of the pile when the hardcore's priority list is used as an evaluation device. And they do it by going against the grain, providing big substance over polished image.

Jackson Hole is the more flashy of the two. But both ski areas show their best face as soon as your aircraft drops out of the clouds. A short gaze out the window reveals sharp towering peaks seemingly just off the wing tips. True, the runway in Jackson is a little closer to the peaks, but both are equally impressive. In either it's a relatively short ride to the mountain and lodging, but there things diverge a bit.

Jackson Hole almost seems a study in contrast. The resort is, after all, something of a playground for the wealthy, but the locals cling to the old western way of life, and their insistence on maintaining the area's casual and friendly way of doing things makes the less affluent skier welcome. In many resorts the hospitality lasts about as long as it takes them to figure out how much is in your wallet. But in Jackson things are more genuine, and the same friendliness extended to buffed out movie stars goes to the powder-junkie clad in practical raggedness. What draws both sets here is the mountain, which from the 10,450 foot summit drops off for a vertical of 4,139 - the largest in the US.

Standing at the base the mountain may appear rather tame, most do from the bottom. The 2,000 skiable acres beckon with an annual snow fall which usually piles up around 500 inches. If you're an intermediate the area to the right "Apres Vous" is the place to head. It has a respectable view of "the hole" from which the Tetons spring and the National Elk Range that sits in "the hole".

The Tram to the top is for those who can burn up the slopes, the resort sells "I survived the Tram" ski pins and not as a mere adornment. Over half the resort is marked as black diamond or above, and these are no wimpy diamond trails - they're killer. From the tram the peak of rendezvous mountain offers more chutes, bumps, cliffs and steeps than you can imagine. It's nothing short of a set for a vertical extreme film. The tram also provides access to at least six bowls and the unfortunate intermediate skier who takes the tram in harms way must carefully pick a path along the edges of these to reach a safe haven. But for the extreme skier it's an opportunity to kick up your heels for nearly the entire drop, with very little boring runout at the bottom.

After a day of burning out your knees the locals and others with a passion for the gnarly can be seen in any variety of hangouts. At the base lodge is the Mangy Moose serving an acceptable variety of refreshments, but this is more for those with color coordinated ski outfits who've spent the day on "Apres Ski" (the disparaging name for the groomed blue and greens). In town, and away from the lodge, action is found in any number of places and the beers of Otto Brothers Brewing are a favorite. They're available in 22oz bottles but locals like to head for one of the "Growler filling stations" in which you can grab a gallon for a low price and take it to whichever party you've heard about. The brewery is located just down the road from the ski area in Wilson and either Charlie Otto or Don Frank will spend some time with you talking about their beers or the mountains, your choice. Take time to look at the brewery, it may be one of the most compact you've ever seen.

In Jackson proper there's the new brewpub Snake River Brewing, close to the alternate (bail out) ski area of Snow King. Their Zonkers Stout won a silver at the 1994 Great American Beer Festival. Is it a coincidence that the brewer "Chip" Holland honed his skills at another ski area brewery - Breckenridge, Colorado?

For an out of the way escape, travel up the road to Moose, Wyoming. A couple miles past the Jackson Airport take a left then the first right to the facility called Dornans. Go past all the buildings to the last one on the right and there you'll find a bar featuring near a hundred micro brews, and the picture window behind the bar has the best view of the Tetons and the ski slopes in the entire region. Don't be surprised if your visit puts you in more contact with Cowboys than skiers. The area still preserves its roots and its a nice change from the plastic atmosphere of some of the bigger name resorts in Colorado.

A couple hours south of Jackson lays the city of Salt Lake. Scorned by many for its lack of night life, bypassing Utah ski areas in fear of the Mormons antiquated drinking laws is one of the biggest mistakes you could ever make.

The region is similar to Jackson in a couple of ways. The locals at the slopes are genuinely friendly. And you shouldn't fear they'll try to convert you to some weird religious cult. In addition, the Wasatch Front (the name of the mountain range) challenges the Jackson region in both quality and quantity of snow. In fact at night the great Salt Lake turns into one giant snow making machine.

The difference is in Salt Lake you actually stay in the downtown of a city. There are accommodations at the slopes, but staying in the city puts you well within an hour of any one of seven ski areas. Once, you've tried them all you'll most likely come to the conclusion that: 1.Snow Basin is a bit far away; 2.Park City's slopes are too much of a Vail wanna be; 3.Solitude and Brighton are too tame; and 4.Deer Valley is too expensive.

This leaves the two excellent areas of Alta and Snowbird. Alta and Snowbird are both great and provide plenty of the steeps, bumps and chutes you liked in Jackson. There's not as much vertical at either but that's made up for in the quality of the snow. Boarding your thing? If so you'll love the way the chutes are set up at both places, there's ample opportunity to snag a ride full of air. If you're an extreme skier, and not afraid to walk a bit, forego the gondola pass at Snow Bird, the lifts will take you to the top of one jammin' mogully-ass bowl, and within striking distance of the peak while it saves you a few of bucks

Use the money you saved to score some after 4 p.m. beers. Boarders in Utah are of above average friendliness and it's easy to latch onto the party scene. Unfortunately, the beer in most outlets is limited to 3.2 (even from the big brewers) and wanting a bigger bang than that requires a trip to the local "state" liquor store. This inconvenience aside it's amazing how good a beer the brewers can make working around the low alcohol restrictions.

You can pick up the Schriff beers from the Park City Brewery at most grocery stores. For brewpub action try the downtown area which has two within a block of each other. At 254 South 200 West try the new kid in town "Red Rock" just around the corner from Squatters, the Salt Lake brewing company. They're both limited to 3.2 but not in taste. In fact, Squatters won a medal for their porter at the great American Beer Festival. There's good reason for these brewers to go with the lower level beer, it allows their brewpubs to stay open longer in the evening. Of course the alternative is to buy one of the cheap "memberships" available at private clubs where the hours are longer and the beers more potent. For the "private club" experience try the one downstairs at the Peery Hotel.

If Salt Lake really wants to host the 2002 Winter Olympics they better rethink their outdated, church driven, alcohol laws. It doesn't seem to make sense; weren't churches the original brewers? And it's funny how they don't mind making money off selling beers. But try to overlook the oddities of the church,it's actually pretty easy, besides at altitude the 3.2 beers do the same job with half the intake. Once you concentrate on the mountains instead of the laws you'll realize this may indeed be the greatest snow on earth.

So go a little farther west for skiing which will save you a bit of money, help you avoid the crowds, and put you in with the beers and company you've been seeking. Try Jackson and Salt Lake for gnarly slopes and thigh deep powder.

Gregg Smith

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