Skiing At Alta.

Up through my graduate school days, I had not done much skiing, except for cross-country skiing. But I had more income as faculty and began to combine conference travel with weekend ski trips out west. I also began to be invited to give talks at various Universities, and these provided for an opportunity to also visit ski areas in the days just before or after the talks.


During my spring break in 1983 I was invited to give a talk at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, which paid for the flight and a couple of nights at a hotel at Salt Lake City. I had wanted to go skiing in Utah, but I did not feel I had enough money to afford a hotel at the lodges there, so I decided to bring a pack with winter camping gear with me and to winter camp at the base of one of the skiing areas. My destination was Alta ski area at Little Cottonwood Canyon, a place of legendary deep powder snow. But there was so much snow that the road up Little Cottonwood Canyon was closed. So after my talk, I went for one day to Park City, and found wonderful powder skiing at Jupiter Bowl. I never went back to ski at Park City, though. On the following day, I caught a bus up Little Cottonwood Canyon and skied my first and very memorable powder day at Alta. At the end of the day I took my winter camping gear on a chair lift, and then skied down to a densely gladed part of Alta between the High Rustler and the Eagle Nest ski runs. There I tried to make an ice cave, but it collapsed in the loose, light powder snow. So I simply made a deep hole in the snow that was difficult to see at the snow surface level, and in it I placed my tent. I slept well and skied the entire next day as well. Toward the end of my second day of skiing at Alta, I discovered the Westward Ho portion of the Mountain, which overlooks the Alta Peruvian Lodge. That Lodge has a very inviting outside pool and hot tub, which I viewed from the top of Westward Ho, and found irresistible. So that evening I visited the Alta Peruvian Lodge hot tub quite anonymously, or so I thought. But in the hot tub a young fellow who worked at the lodge recognized me. It happened that he had been camping at the same beach (Vai) on the eastern portion of island of Crete in Greece where I had been that summer, and where I had been traveling on the way to a conference in Israel that summer. So he arranged with the owner to have me as a guest worker for that week. I had only to cook for two to three hours in the evenings in exchange for room and board. (However on future trips, I always came as a paying guest.) I had just taken a gourmet cooking class in Cambridge, so I was well prepared for the work. During that week, the snow came down almost without a stop, dropping well over a total of four feet of snow. When I finally retrieved my tent, it had collapsed under the snow load.


Part of the magic of Alta is that it has all sorts of amazing places to hike and traverse to, above and beyond its few ski lifts. These lead to powder bowls and steep gladed ravines often laden with untracked snow. The workers of that Lodge showed me many of the approaches to many of these places.


The complexities of the terrain at Alta are in many ways similar to the maze of research paths that are presented in the type of research I do. The is a wonderful rush resulting from discovering a new mathematical result or algorithm similar to a taking a steep, challenging ski run through deep uncut powder.


While still a graduate student, I had met Jim Storer. He had grown up in Lexington while I grew up in Wellesley, and had both done some programming at Lexington High School and also skied TuckermanŐs -- a rather surprising coincidence.  He got his PhD degree at Princeton University, and is now a Professor at Brandeis University. We started writing some papers together on computational geometry and data compression and skiing at Alta (and staying at the Alta Peruvian Lodge there, where I still frequently stay). To provide ourselves a professional excuse to go out there, we started a large computer science conference known as DCC held every year in late March at the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird, which is next to Alta. Jim Storer and I later co-owned a company that built at that time massively parallel data compression hardware, so we had lots to discuss on the chair lifts there.


I have skied many of the major ski areas in the east and west, but I have found Alta to have the best snow conditions, with an average of over 500 inches a year. After experiencing a dump of a few feet of new powder snow at Alta - I have now experienced this many times - it was inevitable that I became hopelessly addicted to skiing there. In mid winter, there is generally unskied deep powder snow to be found (for those that know the right places) even after a week since the last snowfall. Alta has some especially steep slopes at the Baldy Chutes, which are mostly skied in the spring due in part to persistent avalanches. I ski these a few times every year.

Skiing Mnt Baldy's Main Chute at Alta, Utah in 1980s



There are also a great amount of historical lore and tradition at Alta, for example mining stories from the late 1800s and ski stories dating to the 1940s. I have been collecting those, and perhaps sometime will write a novel based on Alta. The adjoining Snowbird, ski area has similar ski conditions, but is considerably more built up.

Skiing Deep Powder at Bookends in Snowbird, Utah (2009)



I ski both places, but Alta is the one I love.The only downside of either area is the avalanches. The Alta Peruvian Lodge at Alta took a direct hit by an avalanche in 2002 when I was there, destroying some rooms and five cars in the parking lot. But due to an extremely able ski patrol, Alta has very few uncontrolled avalanches. In my experience, the adjoining Snowbird ski area seems to have more uncontrolled avalanches: some years ago I was skiing in the Gad Chutes at Snowbird and kicked off a major avalanche below me, and five years ago another avalanche hit near the Cliff Lodge when I was there, destroying a parking lot with 40 or so cars.


I travel other places quite a bit - usually to give an invited talk at some conference or University – but I also do the travel for the adventure of seeing things in this world and meeting people and that I find always amazing.