Eight of us stand at the summit of Jupiter Bowl, where a rope marks the boundary of Utah's Park City Mountain Resort and the backcountry
, an area typically off limits to those with lift tickets. The sign next to us says, "Area closed. Out of bounds," but on this guided trip, the goal is to spend most of our time out of bounds. We will leave behind the ski lifts and groomed trails, and enter a pristine region where we'll blaze our own tracks through knee-deep powder and tune in to the sounds of the wind and the wintering chickadees.
Ski Utah's Interconnect Adventure Tour takes skiers into the heart of the Wasatch mountain wilderness. In a day, we'll cover 20 miles as we ski between and through five different resorts--Park City, Solitude, Brighton, Alta and Snowbird--stopping to do a few runs at each ski area.
"This is the only place in North America where you can ski so many resorts in one day," says Rodd Keller, Interconnect's lead guide and a 30-year veteran of off-piste skiing.
Mark Menlove--another guide leading our tour--adds, "We are also the only group that has permission from the US Forest Service to ski out of bounds in the Wasatch Range."
The trip is geared to advanced alpine skiers who may or may not have experience exploring the backcountry. Skiers use the lifts at each resort to gain altitude, so there's minimal climbing and traversing along the Interconnect route. However, participants must be in good physical condition
, since most of the tour takes place between 8,000 and 11,000 feet. They must also be able to handle a variety of snow conditions, which can include deep powder, crud and crust.
Those of us on this trip range from our mid 20s to 60s, and although we consider ourselves expert skiers, we are all apprehensive about journeying into the wilderness. Skiing off-piste demands specialized equipment such as avalanche beacons and a knowledge of the local terrain and ever-changing snow condition--this is all provided by Interconnect.
A 40-pound pack on Menlove's back contains a radio, cell phone, rope, shovel, avalanche probe, climbing skins, first aid kit, snow-analysis equipment, spare clothes, water, Cliff Bars and chocolate.
Menlove calms our nerves by giving us a run-down on safety issues and an overview on how to use our beacons and survive an avalanche
--all skills we hope we won't have to use.
"Our first line of defense is to stay out of areas that can be dangerous," says Menlove, as he checks to make sure our avalanche transmitters are on.
"Ready to drop in?" Keller asks, as the sun beats down on eight inches of fresh snow.
"Let's go!" someone says, and we slip past the "Area Closed" sign and the resort's ski patrol shack.
Single file, we make our way along a trail that cuts through pine forest and shoots us out several hundred yards later in Big Cottonwood Canyon, a large snow bowl dotted with aspen and fir trees, plus fresh untracked powder that buries our skis.
From the top of the Wasatch crest, the main divide in this region, we can see for 50 miles, including peaks all across the range, the lifts at Solitude and Brighton, and the ridges dividing Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons.