Sons have a special bond with their mothers. Well, at least when they are little since when most kids enter high school they are embarrassed to be seen with their parents. I remember begging my mother to park down the street when she picked me up from school so I didn’t have to be seen getting in the car with….gasp…my mother. She refused, of course. I dreaded the time when my kids didn’t want to be seen with me.
It didn’t happen in high school with my youngest son, Rick (now 23). He seemed to actually like having me around. In fact, he would even dangle his arm over my shoulder at…gasp….the mall! I thought we had bypassed the “my mom is embarrassing” stage until he came home from college saying things like “You aren’t going to wear THAT, are you?” I guess certain things are unavoidable in life.
We came full circle recently when he came to visit. He is now a college graduate and a contributing member of society. He is also a snowboarder but wanted to switch it up and ski with me at Deer Valley. His last memory of me skiing was not a good one – it was well over a year ago when we first moved here and before all my lessons! He even took embarrassing photos of me traversing back and forth across the run and falling since my technique was so poor. He and his brothers ditched me after one run. Who could blame them?
This time was different. He was on skis instead of his board and I had been practicing, taking lessons and attending clinics. He started off on the Wide West run using the “magic carpet” people mover to get his “ski legs” since it had been 12 years since he had been on skis. Once he had the basics down, we headed up the Carpenter Express chairlift to Success.
I planned on taking the Rosebud cut off since it would be a bit easier for him for his first run. He didn’t see me and stayed on Success where the bottom is a tad steeper. I caught up with him and as anticipated, he had some initial challenges and stopped halfway down.
This was my opportunity – one that rarely comes and I wasn’t going to lose it. You see, Rick is a good athlete, and I knew he would quickly pass me up. I wanted to show off my hard work and newly found mad ski skills. So I did what any self respecting mom would do — I executed a controlled sideways slide then an abrupt hockey stop spraying him in the process.
With a straight face, I said, “Let’s face it, I am better than you.”
Then I took off.
We had a great laugh as he told the story to family and friends at Snow Park Lodge. Rick and I skied the rest of the afternoon with my friend Michelle and in no time, he was skiing beautiful turns, enjoying himself and waving at me as he passed me by. His wave, however, was one of respect.
It takes hard work and determination to learn to ski especially when you start after age 50. To be able to spend the day skiing with my son and have him dangle his arm over my shoulder again is a wonderful feeling and definitely worth the effort.
In any skier’s typical day, each chairlift or gondola ride always involves a Lift Operator. This key employee is constantly making sure that everyone is safe and well cared for. The constant interaction between Lift Operators and skiers has perked up my curiosity and prompted me to know more, and understand better, what motivates these seemingly tireless mountain workers.
Late this season, one early morning, just before his shift, Kevin Combs, one of the many Deer Valley’s Lift Operators, took the time to listen to my questions and shone a rather enthusiastic light on his daily life:
JF: How long have you been a lift operator? Kevin:This actually is my first year.
JF:What was your occupation before that? Kevin: I was a machinist, back east, in Massachusetts. I moved to Utah in November.
JF: How do you like working with Deer Valley Resort? Kevin: It’s fun. It’s a great experience being here, lots of great people to work with, everyone has a smile on their face and always ready to serve our guests and makes sure everyone has a great experience, whether we’re talking about guests or fellow employees.
JF: Were you a skier before you came here? Kevin: Oh, yes! I have been skiing since I was 12 years old.
JF: So, I guess you learned and skied in New England? Kevin: Oh yeah, I skied the ice, which is something you have to learn on the East Coast. I can guarantee that it makes a good technical skier out of anyone who learns over there!
JF: How often to you get to ski? Kevin: That’s what makes the job so exciting: I get to ski every day; whenever I get a break, I ski, it’s great!
JF: Even on your days off? Kevin: You bet, I ski every day that I can, I wouldn’t miss a beat!
JF: Where, on the mountain, do you work? Kevin: I am working out of Empire Canyon. I either work on Empire or Ruby Express chairlifts. I also help around on the mountain when another lift is short of people. I’ll rotate as needed.
JF: Since this was your first season, have you visited other Utah resorts? Kevin: I’ve almost skied them all; the only ones I think I haven’t skied yet are Solitude, Powder Mountain and Snowbasin.
JF: When you’re skiing Deer Valley, what’s your favorite run? Kevin: I’m into extreme skiing so I love to ski a lot around Lady Morgan, because of its great tree skiing and its cliffs. I’m particularly fond of Centennial Trees, and of course, I ski off Empire Express in places like Daly Bowl and all the surrounding Daly Chutes. When I happen to find an untouched area, I just “drop-in…”
JF: Are you skiing alone or with buddies? Kevin: I do a lot of skiing by myself. This said, I have a lot of friends who ski with me; I do my own things in the morning, and then I hang with them in the afternoon because sometimes they can’t quite follow me. But I like to ski with everybody and together, we always have a great time; I guess that’s what skiing is all about!
JF: What would you say are the skills required to do your job well? Kevin: Before anything, you need to be a great people person. You need to be concerned about skiers’ safety and comfort, especially those who are less advanced and aren’t always familiar with riding lifts. Sure, it also helps to know a little about things mechanical, the lift itself, because it’s a big piece of machinery. For instance I pay attention to noises that may come from the lift; with my mechanical background, I can alert Maintenance to a problem if there seems to be one. Of course, the job also demands that one is a decent skier so you can ski to and from work, can relate well to our guests and have a wonderful interaction with them.
JF: Does a healthy passion for skiing help? Kevin: Oh yes, most definitely! If you work as a Lift Operator and are not really here for skiing, you miss out a lot. Of course you can take the job just for the love of the mountains, but a passion for skiing shows and makes all the difference. Working no longer feels like work!
JF:What would be your next professional goal with Deer Valley Resort? Kevin: I’d probably love to move up to Ski Patrol, because I like to help people and be on skis. For me, being outside and helping people are the two main reasons why I love with my life at Deer Valley!
JF: If people reading this blog were interested in a position like yours, what kind of advice would you give them? Kevin: Don’t be scared by the responsibilities and by all the impressive machinery; the work is totally doable. The training Deer Valley provides is great, everything is fluid, all the kinks have been purged, and of course, there’s all the skiing!
JF: What will you do this summer? Kevin: I’m planning to get a job with an online sport equipment supplier in the Salt Lake Valley. During my spare time, I also plan to mountain bike a lot here and around Moab!
JF: Sounds exciting! So, you’re looking forward to another winter season with Deer Valley Resort? Kevin: I think so; I’m now convinced Deer Valley is the place to be. It’s a lot of fun here. We’re surrounded with lots of great, helpful people all the time. I’ve never had a bad day here, which is simply… amazing!
As this winter season ended, we wanted to try one more great snow activity: a snowshoe tour at dusk just before a delightful dinner at Fireside Dining at Empire Canyon Lodge! Marrying these two activities is almost like taking a trip through nature that miraculously leads directly to some old-world mountain setting.
Because of the changing snow density, spring season snowshoeing always entails more workout than during mid-winter and after a strenuous trek all the way to the bottom of the Daly Chutes, we returned to the Empire Lodge where a true “mountain feast” was awaiting us at Fireside. I have a soft spot for Raclette and took full advantage of this high-energy, Swiss delicacy while reminiscing the good old days when I still was living in the Alps.
After one generous serving of Raclette and its delectable accompaniments, the beef medallions was definitely my favorite main entree, along with a nice serving of “haricots verts” (these fine French green beans, sauteed the Gallic way…) This wonderful dinner was crowned by some tantalizing desserts inundated with melted caramel, white and black chocolate. These wonderful dishes made us forget the effort we had just produced while strapped to our snowshoes and almost succeeded in restoring us to full strength, ready for another round of snowshoeing under a moonlit sky!
That first – and only – snowshoe tour of the day was led by Justin, who works for All Seasons Adventure, Dear Valley’s on-site, independent activity provider. Before dinner, I spent a few moments chatting with Justin and here’s what he had to share about snowshoeing at Deer Valley Resort.
How long have been guiding snowshoeing tours?
I’ve been guiding for 4 1/2 years, snow-shoeing the whole time and guiding in a number of other activities.
What kind of special skills – if any – are required to snowshoe?
Nothing in particular; just go out and do it. We cater to any fitness and skill levels. From beginners to the most advanced and ambitious snowshoers.
What’s a good time to go snowshoeing?
You can do it during the day, morning, afternoon, dusk or evening, by star-light. We can organize a dinner snowshoe like tonight at Fireside, or hike over to Silver Lake Lodge and go to the Mariposa, Royal Street Cafe, Glittertind or Goldener Hirsch.
Do you provide lights for these evening outings?
We do. A lot of time we don’t need them, as the moonlight or even starlight is usually sufficient, but we have lights in case there’s some cloud cover.
What happens if your guests are into stargazing or astronomy?
We actually have a device that you can point at the stars and that uses a laser and GPS locator which can tell you what star you are looking at.
How long does a typical snowshoe tour last?
Usually one hour and forty-five minutes to two hours, but we can do them as brief as 45 minutes or as long as four hours.
Can guests cancel the outing when snow is falling hard and there’s too much snow?
If it’s snowing, it’s generally a wonderful time to be out snowshoeing. If the snow fall is significant, we make sure our guide stays ahead of the participants to pack down the snow. If the weather is simply too harsh, the outing maybe canceled and there’s no-cancellation fee to the guest.
Where are you taking your guests?
It depends a lot on what they like. Often times the trails are through the trees but we can go off-trail, through powder or just stay on the packed trails. A lot of our trails offer a wonderful diversity, so we’ll just pick an itinerary based upon our guests’ needs and desires. Our main concern is to keep everyone safe within the constraints of avalanche conditions…
Is snowshoeing a family activity?
Absolutely! Younger kids may have a harder time with it, but it works perfectly for anyone from about six or seven years old up until … indefinitely. We have had octogenarians take a tour with us!
Do you have gear to fit everyone?
Yes, we offer a full range of sizes in snowshoes and poles.
How should people dress?
We normally recommend that people wear snow-pants, dress in layers on top, have sunglasses, gloves, a hat and wear sunscreen on sunny days. We can provide over-boots which are like a Cordura gaiter that cover the whole foot in the case guests don’t have good shoes and can cover their tennis shoes to keep their feet dry.
How long in advance do we have to book a tour?
During the busy season, like Christmas, Sundance Film Festival, Presidents’ Day week-end, 48-hours in advance is recommended. Other times, we can get people out with just two or three hours notice!
Can special event be combined with your snowshoe tours?
Definitely. We can cater to our guest’s needs to create a custom tour however they’d like it. We’ve done anything from a 50year old birthday party to even marriage proposals; you name it!
How can we reach you and where are you located at Deer Valley Resort?
We have a desk at the Snow Park Lodge that is staffed from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. everyday during the ski season. If you need to contact us on the web our address is allseasonsadventures.com or you can reach us by phone at 435-649-9619.
**Snowshoe tours and Fireside Dining will start again in December 2013. Please call to make reservations after Labor Day.
One late evening recently, I spent a couple of hours with Brian Johnson, Lead Groomer at Deer Valley Resort. Brian took me for a ride in his snow cat and I while doing that, I learned quite a few things about weaving white corduroy during the hours the slopes have been temporarily deserted by skiers…
JF: How long have you been a snow groomer?
Brian: Twenty-five years; it’s amazing how time flies when you’re having fun!
JF: What do you do in the summer?
Brian: I work in construction, operating heavy equipment.
JF: Are you a skier?
Brian: Yes, I grew up in the Bay Area, but I learned to ski in the Sierras and began as an alpine and freestyle competitor before discovering Deer Valley.
JF: Does it help to be a skier in order to drive a cat like this?
Brian: Definitely! It helps understand what skiers need and want in terms of slope preparation and give us a much better understanding of how the snow feels, performs and the way it changes over time.
JF: Are all the other groomers skiers?
Brian: Yes, even though some of them no longer ski for a variety of reasons, most do. We pretty much have people who love the mountain environment, the snow and the ski industry. People who work with us have been doing it for a very long time and seem to come back to work with us, season after season. That means most of them have lots of experience, and still enjoy both skiing and grooming slopes. As a result, we rarely have to train new drivers and our new recruits are few. Most of them learn the job and generally stay with us, which is really good.
JF: How do you recruit and train your drivers?
Brian: Some have experience when they start at Deer Valley and others don’t. In both cases we train them to do the work, or if they already have experience, we train them to Deer Valley’s specific procedures and quality standards. It does take a long time to get very good and proficient at that work and training plays an important role.
JF: What makes a great snow groomer?
Brian: Experience and lots of it! Consider this: groomers can only do that type of work for about 22 weeks per year. With most professional trades it typically takes three to four years to become proficient. For a snow groomer, that translates into a full decade of work before one becomes perfectly skilled. That’s the technique then comes the art, when you consider an elusive material like snow. That’s right, snow is an amazing creation, it’s constantly changing, it never stays the same from the time it falls out of the sky; it remains in constant state of change and I guess that’s part of what keeps the job interesting.
JF: So there’s also an art in addition to a grooming technique?
Brian: That’s right. A groomer must understand where the snow is, where to find it during lean years, have a good eye for what needs to be fixed and so on. For a first-time groomer it’s essential to understand how the runs are laid out, especially at night. We never let new people groom alone during their first season, they always work with an experienced groomer.
JF: I see other snow cats working along with yours; do you always work in teams?
Brian: We’ll work in groups depending on the project and at Deer Valley, two cats working together is about the norm.
JF: How many drivers are needed for grooming all of Deer Valley runs?
Brian: To cover both shifts and days off requires about 30 people. We need a fair amount of personnel because we cover a lot of runs. Then, since conditions are everything and constantly changing, they always dictate how we will conduct grooming on any given night.
JF: Are there female drivers?
Brian: Yes, we currently have three female drivers with one of them being a Lead Driver on the graveyard shift
JF: In a typical night, how many runs does the team groom?
Brian: About 45 to 50, which is about half of the total number of marked trails at Deer Valley. We’re responsible for certain runs on swing shift because we want them to set longer overnight. We want the runs more durable during the day, especially on our high traffic runs. This applies to Bald and Flagstaff Mountains then our graveyard shift will complete the work and take care of all the lower runs and any other runs we can’t get to on the first shift.
JF: What do you mean by “setting longer overnight?”
Brian: It means letting the snow “rest” for a longer period; it makes for a much more durable skiing surface, which skiers really like. They feel more comfortable on a snow that’s consistent from top to bottom and get more enjoyment out of it. We call this “setup time” or “curing time,” from late afternoon until the next morning when the sun and skiers begin softening the snow surface and we start the whole process over again.
JF: How hard is it to drive a snow groomer?
Brian: First and foremost, it demands lots of attention. It takes time and experience to drive a snow cat. You must be looking everywhere, constantly. I look in my mirrors to see how the grooming is coming out of the back, I check my side-mirrors to make sure I have clearance on both sides; I look across at all of my front plates, how I’m cutting the surface in front of me. Your eyes are constantly looking in all places and behind you after you groom for a fair amount of times; it comes automatically. You’re just looking everywhere to avoid objects, to make sure your sidelining looks good and to see what needs to be adjusted as you go along.
JF: Do you run into wildlife when you work at night?
Brian: We see lots of it. Of course, it depends on the type of winter or snow fall patterns we’re having. Some animal will stay at different altitude depending on the snow conditions. We often see deer, moose, and many different birds, like owls. We have our fair share of coyote and occasionally we’ll see a fox.
JF: Over the years, how has grooming equipment evolved?
Brian: It has come a very long way. It’s been the result, I guess, of constant interaction between us, (the groomers) and the machine manufacturers. The manufacturers often come to see us, ride with us, and ask us how their equipment performs. We both interact and see how we can improve things. Manufacturers also come here to test their new products because they value our reputation, the way we work and the product quality we want to provide to our guests. In turns it helps them in refining their product, from cabin comfort, to overall reliability of the machines and grooming performance.
JF: What’s steepest run that you groom?
Brian: That would be Stein’s Way, is has an 88% grade! Generally groomers from other resorts that visit us never fail to be impressed by how steep the runs we groom are!
JF: How does a fresh snow fall impact your work?
Brian: Just like when you ski, new powder makes the work much more fun! We look forward to grooming when it’s snowing. Of course, the snow cats won’t climb or descend as well in new snow. We must be particularly careful when we’re going down: The machine can slide and the operator needs to control that slide. I find it to make our job much more challenging and fun!
JF: Have you told us all the secrets behind Deer Valley’s legendary “corduroy?”
Brian: Almost, I guess. But don’t forget that the best part of the story is to come out and experience it!
In this blog, a few seasons ago, I shared an obsession of mine to rack up as much ski vertical as I possibly could. I’ve since gotten over it, and this season, I’ll be focusing instead on a new challenge a friend of mine suggested we try to accomplish: ski as many runs at Deer Valley Resort as we possibly could, in just one day. When I heard about the idea, I liked it a lot, thought it was a great way to further my knowledge of the resort. So, I immediately began researching the subject.
With 100 designated ski runs at Deer Valley and six open bowls, I would have my work cut out for me! At first, I was not quite sure how to go about defining the project. What originally was intended to be a team event ended up becoming my sole responsibility as my friend and his busy calendar couldn’t join me within the dates we had originally targeted.
So here I was, on my own and compelled to design the project from scratch. Being one’s own boss isn’t that terrible though; I would be able to make my own rules and fashion them so the contest would be as user-friendly and as convenient as I wanted it be. With that in mind and since there was no one to watch over my shoulder, I also committed to follow my rules to the letter.
I began by deciding that I would only focus on marked ski runs with perhaps one exception: I like some of the kid’s runs. I’m particularly fond of Bucky’s Backyard, a whimsical bumpy run off the Bandana ski run. I would also leave the resort’s six bowls out, as the infinite variations they offered might complicate things and be subject to endless interpretations. I would also allow myself to conveniently count one small run that would be close to a larger one so I could score an extra run without having to take the same lift one extra time for just completing a tiny trail. For example, Trump is a sub-set of Ontario, and I assumed that going through Trump, while skiing the remaining balance of Ontario should count for two runs.
With that in mind, I began by inventorying all the marked trails that I could see on the official Deer Valley Resort map and tried to organized my findings in a sequential order that I felt, would maximize the number of runs I could cover during the time most lifts were open, that is from 9 a.m. until just after 4 p.m.
For each trail, I estimated the time it would take me to ride up the lift, plus the necessary time to safely ski down to my next lift or run, and I added everything as I went through the Deer Valley trail map. I came up with a total number close to one hundred and figured it would take me more than twelve hours to navigate the whole itinerary. With the lifts being opened just seven hours, I would not be able to ski all the runs in the space of one day, but would do my best to ski as many trails as humanly possible.
They were, of course, a few unknowns like the possibility for some bad weather and, if that were the case, perhaps some wind-hold during which certain lifts could be temporarily stopped. In addition there was also the likelihood of fairly large crowds as I wanted to run my experiment during the Spring Break holidays. More skiers would demand more attention and reduced speed while skiing down the hills. Any significant delay would have a detrimental impact on the total number of runs. At first, I had considered taking a break for lunch, but that possibility quickly appeared to be a luxury I could hardly afford if I wanted to rack up the highest possible number of runs.
I could also have tried to optimize my course so I would hit only those runs or lifts that provided me with the best return on my time and efforts, but I decided against it. I had in mind that I would begin with the Little Baldy Peak area then move to Bald Mountain, Empire, return to Flagstaff and conclude the day around Bald Eagle Mountain. Finally, I was asked by some why I wouldn’t use a smart phone app to account for my day, but I must say that I didn’t want to take any chance and suffer any breakdown due to failing technology, so I planned to keep the running tally by hand.
Shortly, I will let you know how the project went and how many runs I was able to cover in just one day of skiing. Of course you don’t have to wait for these results; you can try tomorrow if you feel like it and discover what a typical ski day at Deer Valley Resort can be worth in terms of total ski trails visited. Modify or change some of my rules if you have to and please, ski safely!
Last year during my Max 4 lessons, my instructor gave me some poignant advice. While trying to keep up with the two guys in my group, I fell. He counseled, “Nancy, skiing is an individual sport; always ski at your own pace. We will wait for you at the bottom.” Since then, I have not had a problem skiing alone. I often grab my equipment and ski for a couple of hours by myself.
The truth is, you are never alone at Deer Valley. The skiers are very warm and friendly. After my New Year’s ski day with my neighbor, I decided to go up by myself to practice what he’d taught me. It was going to be an “intermediate” day for me and my plan was to warm up on a couple of green runs and then hit the blue runs on Flagstaff Mountain. At the bottom of Blue Bell, my day took an unexpected turn for the better.
Standing in the single line waiting for the chair, the lift operator asked, “Do you know Ron?” I smiled though no one could see the smile since I was covered completely with a scarf, face mask and helmet. He went on to tease that Ron always buys you a latte if you ride the lift with him. I mentioned I would hold him to it as Ron and his son, Paul, visiting from Chicago, and I took our places on the chair lift.
With the latte as an icebreaker, we chatted it up. When they found I was skiing alone, they invited me to ski with them. Turns out, Ron was someone I wanted to meet anyway since he is a ski technician in the Rossignol Demo Ski Yurt near Empire Canyon Lodge. You can try before you buy so you know what you like when you are ready to make a purchase. “Sure I’ll ski a few runs with you guys,” was my answer.
So off I went to all the intermediate runs on Flagstaff with my new buds. I followed them all over the mountain – cutting through the trees between the runs. We took a break at Silver Lake Lodge, where a latte was placed in front of me. There plans were hatched. You see, I had never been to the top of Bald Mountain (in winter) at 9400 ft., since I was too nervous to go by myself.
It became their mission to take me. So we got on the Sterling Express chair lift and headed up. They warned me that Bird’s Eye was a little steep at the top but wasn’t any more challenging than the runs we had just done on Flagstaff. The views were amazing at the top of the mountain and the guys watched me traverse the top of the run with super slow methodical (but safe) turns until it evened out. At the bottom of the hill, I embarrassed myself and ran into the ropes while queuing up at Homestake chair lift. They teased me saying, I was supposed to be fast at the top and slow at the bottom of the hill, not the opposite!
My new friends skied all the way to Snow Park with me to “walk me home” and as we said goodbye, they said, “It’s good that you were slow since it’s Paul’s first day out and you helped him to pace himself.” They were being kind, of course, but their gesture was appreciated.
Speed is relative, you know. Little did these guys know that this was the absolute fastest ski day ever for me. Fast or slow, the truth is you never truly ski alone at Deer Valley.
Somewhere up in the snow, along a ridgeline outside of Park City, a group of skiers move through the blue on white Wasatch landscape. The squeaky crunch of a chalky snowpack and heavy breathing are interrupted by quick conversation and casual observations. A day trip to some lower angle snowfields has yielded good turns and spirits are high. Apparent stability has everyone eyeing steeper terrain. One by one they ascend a minor looking slope, each focused on the turns waiting above. The first sign of trouble is word passed down the track that something slid around the turn. Everyone moves quickly to see what happened. The seemingly small slope they were headed too broke away with the first skier; a large debris field lies below them.
At Deer Valley, in the Bald Eagle Patrol shack, a German Short Haired Pointer/Lab named Ninja is enjoying a sun-warmed spot on a Naugahyde bench.
With a half raised head he sees his friend and teacher Sue listening to her radio as she grabs her pack. A skier is missing in the backcountry; a frantic phone call from the scene reports beacon searches unsuccessful. The urgency of her movements flips a switch in Ninja and he is immediately at the door. Sometimes it’s a chairlift or snowmobile to shuttle them to a scene. Today they hurry to a landing zone as a chopper beats out a steady cadence, coming in low and fast. In seconds Sue and Ninja are airborne and banking hard out beyond the ski areas boundary.
Once on scene the rescuers begin collecting and assessing information while Ninja surveys the half-acre field of avalanche debris. Without ever having met the person he knows they are out there somewhere. He wouldn’t be there if they weren’t. While the people around him are visually inspecting the area Ninja has his nose in the air, sorting and remembering various smells. The young dog jerks with anticipation as Sue kneels close, one hand on his back. “O.K. Ninja,” Sue whispers, his body trembling uncontrollably with anticipation, “SEARCH!”
Ninja was nearly two months old when Sue had come to see his litter. She had already been to see over forty puppies at that point, trusting standard tests and her own intuition to pass on all of them. Now, with Ninja and three of his siblings sitting in the half lean puppies tend to have, Sue started the tests again. The first was simple. Pots and pans banged together caused the puppy to Ninja’s right to jump back startled and wary. She knew he would not work. Avalanche dogs are often around loud and sudden noises and can’t be easily distracted or frightened. One by one she rolled the remaining pups on their backs. Ninja and his sister worked against her hand with moderate effort, unsure that total dominance suited them. The third lay frozen in complete submission. While a good avi dog must listen and perform it must also be able to push back on the handler when it senses it is being led away from it’s proper training. Removing the passive puppy she inspected the remaining two. Standing up and walking away Sue looked back to see if either dog had followed. The sister remained seated while Ninja was happily trotting behind her, only stopping when reached her feet. Sues search seemed to be over. After administering a few more tests such as squeezing between his toes to establish pain tolerance (he did not care at all, good for a dog that will work outside a lot), holding him in the air (think future chairlift rides, and he was indifferent), and playing tug (never had and loved it!) Sue was confident that she had found Deer Valley’s newest trainee.
There was a final and substantial hurdle for Ninja to overcome. Lila, a full Lab, was the most senior and experienced avalanche dog, with thirteen years on the Deer Valley Ski Patrol. She was known to be particular about her coworkers. With a few sniffs and a lick Ninja was deemed worthy to begin training. Training that would take more than a year and lead to the focused and determined dog that was now searching the snow for the missing skier. An animal with a nose thousands of time more sensitive than ours and indomitable spirit that will not let him quit.
At the scene of the avalanche time is on every single persons mind, raising even the most experienced professionals level of anxiety. Except Ninja. With no concept of the “golden hour” the young avalanche dog moved rapidly back and forth across the debris, ducking and weaving as every scent except the one he was looking for swirled around him. After several passes with no success his training kicked in and he stopped, turn to Sue, and sat. “Ninja, search!” she says with a flick of her arm. Assured that he is doing right he immediately resumes a pattern reminiscent of a bumblebee, his nose leading him. Within seconds Ninjas demeanor changes from “searching” to “found” and he starts frantically digging through snow that is setting up like concrete. Rescuers move in with probes and shovels, quickly finding a ski boot attached to the missing skier, nearly thirty inches under the surface. Resuscitation efforts begin and the skier is loaded into an air ambulance for the flight to the hospital, only time and circumstances to decide recovery. To the side Ninja is receiving his reward for doing his job – an exuberant game of tug with Sue, punctuated by loud praise and hearty body hugs.
The story is fiction, but the dog, the trainer, and the jobs they do are very real. Deer Valley ski area and its employees put great effort into being ready for a call to action like the one described. Here are some thoughts on how to approach and treat a working dog like Ninja.
Always ask the handler before approaching the dog. When not busy they can often let the animals under their care meet new friends.
Keep in mind they may be on their way to help someone or training. Now might not be the best moment for introductions.
These animals are highly trained athletes and their diets are tailored for their work. Treats may harm the animal or impact its ability to perform when needed.
Your ski edges will cut their paws and it can happen before you know it. If an Avi dog runs up to you try not to move around unless you are sure their legs and paws are clear of your skis. A good sniff and they usually bounce away.
Give them nothing to do but train and lay in sunny warm spots. Be prepared when entering the backcountry, even within sight of the ski areas. Chose your days and your lines with care.
Day after day, the whole day through — Wherever my road inclined — Four-feet said, “I am coming with you!” And trotted along behind.
– Excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s “Four Feet”
As I write this, it is -18 on a Monday morning. It’s a one-ski-run kind of day, but there are deadlines to be met, so, I won’t get that run. (“Wait,” you say. “One run? How about no-run? Who in their right mind will go out in sub-zero temps in order to ski?” Um, who said anything about being in my right mind?).
But I want to thank you for all the amazing runs you let me have, yesterday. While my children were in their first day of Children’s Sunday Ski Experience (appropriately layered and covered: 2 sets of base layers, each, plus face masks, toe and hand warmer packs, etc., along with promises from instructors of frequent warm-up breaks), my friend Mel and I were crushing it.
I should add these were my inaugural “grown-up” turns of the season. We’ve had at least a half-dozen family ski days since the resort opened, but neither Jeff nor I had taken a single run without the kids. I’m not complaining—these family ski days have been nothing but a blast. But I hadn’t tested my mojo yet, and I wondered if I still had it. I needn’t have worried. Mel and I took our well-layered selves for a full day of carving and bumps—all over the resort, and had mojo to spare. Our boot heaters were turned on (though mine lost ground around the end of the second hour, then caught up during lunch and held up fine through day’s end), and we pulled our hands into fists inside our gloves and around our warmer packs on every lift ride. And with every run we completed, we congratulated ourselves for having the good sense to come out and enjoy the snow.
It was a glorious bluebird day—we kept our body temperature up in the morning by taking our first three runs on Hidden Treasure. The fact that you have to skate-ski through a giant meadow before reaching the top of the trail is not only a great lower-body workout, but a smart way to keep warm. And then, there’s the sweet reward: The view from the top. I should note that it was too cold to take pictures—but this one was worth the cold hand.
After the third run, we took off for Lost Boulder—though I immediately detoured onto Lucky Star, only to be richly rewarded with yet another empty trail of sweet, soft snow.
Mel is a former nationally-ranked competitive mogul skier, so I knew just skiing behind her on the bumps would help me up my game. When we saw, from our perch on the Northside Express chairlift, that the moguls on skier’s left of Lost Boulder had some nice texture, we decided to ski down Lost Boulder to test them out. Spoiled by the pristine conditions of the other trails, we sniffed at a couple of scratchy spots on the Boulder and then dropped into the bumps. Afterward, I told Mel, “I need to do it again, since I stayed in a squat for most of that run, rather than standing up properly over my skis.” She chuckled her agreement, and we scoped out an entry point from the trees on Lucky Star, since we far preferred the conditions on that trail to the top of Lost Boulder. We found our connection and floated through some delicious powder to the moguls. I stood tall and did a better job of picking my line a few turns ahead. Thus acquitted, we moved on to Blue Bell- Silver Buck-Star Gazer-Gemini. Gemini greeted us with layers of un-groomed powder, before we connected to the bottom of Silver Buck to ride the Silver Strike lift. By now, we had to admit that we were rather cold. “Let’s take an early lunch,” I suggested. Mel agreed, and we skied the same loop, but took the cat track toward Viking lift, and noticed that it was already noon: proof positive we’d been having way too much fun. We made our way inside to Silver Lake Lodge, which had only short lines at high noon—fellow hungry skiers sporting snow-eating grins. We were in on a shared secret—there was killer skiing to be had.
We took a longer lunch than usual, treated ourselves to a shared plate of fries with our sensible entrees, reveling in our morning—and the opportunity to enjoy each other’s company for an entire day. We mused about our shared love of our Volkl Kenja skis, and our stubborn insistence on keeping a one-ski quiver. I received a scolding call from an instructor friend of mine, insisting that I wasn’t taking frequent-enough breaks for the cold temps—all based on a (correct) hunch. I boasted, via text, to Jeff, who was trying to conceal his envy. And, noting that we had 90 minutes before we needed to meet the boys at ski-school pickup, we headed back out.
Funny enough, the conversation drifted to warm-climate vacations—even as we zoomed down Kimberly to check out the new high-speed quad lift, Mountaineer Express overlooking the Jordanelle Reservoir. We bantered about how best to spend a beach vacation, fantasized about Hawaii and Mexico, all the while carving our way along Navigator toward Deer Hollow. The new lift was a bona fide treat—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: the merits of a detachable high-speed lift cannot be overstated, particularly when temps dip, and you want to keep your sitting-down time to a minimum.
We gobbled up soft, sweet snow on Fairview—which made for a more-than-pleasant cruiser run. The next run was utility-minded: Deer Hollow to Little Stick to Carpenter—Little Baldy needed our attention. We picked up Little Bell at the top of Success, and enjoyed the piles of crud and moguls it offered up. And then, cutting across Success from Solid Muldoon, we approached Dew Drop. And there, friends, was the reason I must thank you: Fresh, untracked corduroy. It seemed only a handful of folks had made turns on this trail—and it was nearly 3:00! After zooming down Little Kate, we started to notice the cold again. Still, we weren’t ready to stop—“Let’s just do a bunch of runs on Wide West,” Mel called out, gamely. So, we did—and on this sunny, protected stretch of snow, we felt warmer and satisfied that we hadn’t wasted a minute of skiing. Also, it took my mind off the fact that some of my fellow “mommy spies” had witnessed my older son’s “lawyer skills,” as he tried to convince his instructor to call off the lesson after the first hour. I could only speculate on the disgruntlement that awaited me. I needn’t have worried—two beaming kids arrived moments later, begging to ski a few more runs.
So, my fair weather skier friends, while I realize this post may be self-defeating, I wish to thank you for letting us have the mountain (nearly) to ourselves. Fear not, we took a few extra runs with you in mind. Help yourself to the bragging rights. You’re welcome!
Six. That is the most layers my friend Brian Kahn has worn to work in his role as Mountain Host at Deer Valley. But, he says, it’s worth the extra effort to share his love for the resort with guests. “I don’t take for granted living in wonderful Park City,” he told me. “Helping a guest to have a great ski and vacation experience is fulfilling; I am proud to live here and love to show off Park City’s wonderful attributes.”
Mountain Host fits Brian in another way—it’s a job title that comes with many hats: tour guide, concierge, first-chair aficionado. Off the hill he wears even more hats: Husband to Jessica, father to Shane, age three. Portfolio Manager for Responsible Asset Management; principal at Jupiter Peak Financial, his business consulting firm. But whether he’s standing by a trail map offering advice, or leading a First Tracks tour, Brian says the three and a half days per week that he spends on the hill are something he “craves.”
What drew you to the mountain host position? Deer Valley Resort. I have degrees in Tourism Management and Marketing from the University of Colorado, Boulder and studied resorts and hotels that were/are at the top of their game. Working for Deer Valley—which has always been at the top of the game—isn’t a dream anymore, it is a reality!
What is your secret to staying warm as you stand in the cold for hours at a time? Paying attention to temperature and wind speeds, mentally preparing and wearing a lot of layers.
Morning view during First Tracks-Dec 31, 2012
What is First Tracks? First Tracks is a small part of our overall role, but it is very, very enjoyable. Guests pay for a private tour experience just before the lifts open to the public. Riding the lift with a small group of guests as the sun is rising over the Uintas is magical. We are ‘pace setters’ and also on the lookout for our guests’ safety as First Tracks takes place while we are still prepping the mountain.
What other tours are available to guests? We lead four complimentary mountain tours per day, meeting at Snow Park and Silver Lake Lodges. In the morning and afternoon, we have one expert tour and one intermediate tour leaving from both locations. We quickly assess the guests ability and take them to terrain they are going to enjoy and act as concierges on skis – answering questions, telling the history of the mountain, the mining history of Park City. And once our guests take tours, they get hooked. (For more information about Deer Valley’s complimentary Mountain Host tours, including times, please visit our website.)
Some guests want to ski with others that are at their same ability. Some are looking for dates that they can ski with! Some are out alone on business or their spouse is in a lesson, and they feel more comfortable skiing with a host and others of their same ability than skiing alone. They end up coming back to skiing again with us because we know their ability, the terrain, where to avoid lines (if any) and we keep them moving. We can cater to their questions, too – where to go for a family meal, where to go for upscale dining and what other activities are in town such as the Utah Olympic Park, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and more.
What makes Deer Valley family-friendly for your family? The fact that there are so many choices for ski school is a big deal. Because Shane is so little—he’s three—we set him up for success with lessons on Friday afternoons—because it’s generally warmer on the hill in the afternoon. We are looking forward to sharing quality time together in a sport his mother and father love—and to teaching him to be a safe and responsible skier.
Describe your perfect DV ski day: This year, I’m having a lot of fun skiing with my wife, Jessica. Now that Shane, is starting ski school, she’s getting back into skiing more frequently—I just bought her some great powder skis and she’s rocking them!
Honestly, my perfect ski day starts the night before— I start to get antsy, especially before a powder day. It annoys my wife, because I make sure her clothes are out and there’s no wasted time so we’re out the door with plenty of time to make first chair. I like to head out to Lady Morgan because it’s the most bang for your buck—you take 6 runs, and you are thrashed. Then, I move over to Empire, I always go high up in elevation where the snow is lightest. I’m not eating until I’m pretty much exhausted, and then I take a break in the restaurant and relax and get a bowl of chili wherever we are on the mountain.
My friend Stella, age two and a half, was a little intimidated. She came to Stein Eriksen Lodge for a gingerbread adventure. To tell you the truth, I was there for the exact same reason. I met her and her Nana in the lobby to check out the huge Whoville gingerbread creation and to participate in the gingerbread house making class to bring one home to my family.
When we walked in the room, we noticed lots of kids, moms and aunties all eager to play with the cake, candies and icing. In front of each chair were gingerbread walls and a roof as well as bags of candy for decoration. Stella sat down in her chair and Executive Chef Zane Holmquist greeted her with a big smile and asked her how old she was. She looked up at the chef in the Santa hat, and around the room at the pastry chefs and the other kids and suddenly was unsure of herself. She was not even three years old so when all this attention was focused on her, her lips started to quiver like she was just on the cusp of starting to cry.
Chef knew just what to do. He gently sat down next to her and started to work on the base of her gingerbread house. He asked her to put her finger on top of the wall to hold it while he set another in place. She did comply but with a little apprehension. Once the walls were up and roof on, he did something I found very interesting. He let her lead. He simply asked her to point to where she wanted him to place the candy to decorate her house. She didn’t have to talk: it wasn’t a complex transaction. She just needed to point.
And point she did. When she pointed to the side of the house, he placed a candy in that exact spot and she was hooked! This lasted until the house had a candy corn hedge against the frame, snowmen candies adorning the house and ribbon candy shingles on the roof. He didn’t miss a beat when she wanted him to double stack candy on candy. The head chef from this Forbes Five Star, AAA Five Diamond hotel sat with this tiny girl and helped her build the house just the way she wanted to.
When they were done, and he went on to help the next child, she was beaming. She talked a mile a minute to everyone and literally danced around the room. When she got home, she talked non-stop about her gingerbread adventure as she proudly showed off her creation.
It took Chef Zane and a team of a dozen pastry chefs three months to build the Whoville gingerbread house which decorates the lobby of the Stein Eriksen Lodge. It is complete with the Grinch’s mountain hideaway (the Grinch with his little dog looking on) and dozens of marzipan Whoville figures surrounding Christmas tree in the center of their town. It only took him a half an hour to win over a little girl who will now be a lifelong gingerbread house fan.
I wish I had thought to ask him of which accomplishment he is the most proud.