As a New Englander, I have the least experience in the group skiing in powder, so I let everyone else go first and study their moves, then hop and swoosh my way across an open field and down a sharply graded slope, trying to avoid the aspens along the way. We soon cross Guardman's Pass Road, a groomed route used by snowmobilers.
Upon reentering the deep powder, fellow skier Harriot does a "dinner roll," taking an impressive plunge that leaves her embedded in several feet of snow with her feet well above her head.
I help Harriot to her feet and then we spend the next hour hop-turning and dinner-rolling down the valley. At the end of our long backcountry descent, we arrive at the base of Solitude Mountain Resort. From here, we catch several lifts--jumping into the ski-school lines to avoid the crowds--and shoot over to Brighton for several runs before returning to Solitude for lunch.
At the Last Chance Mining Camp, we kick off our boots and fill up on much-needed burgers, chili and hot chocolate. Rested and warm, we make our way to the top of the Summit chair, slip past another "out of bounds" sign, and prepare for our journey across the Highway to Heaven, a dramatic 1,500-foot traverse along the back side of Solitude's Davenport Peak.
"For some people, this is the white-knuckle part of the tour," says Keller.
With a grade of between 32 and 40 percent, this is prime avalanche territory. It's so steep I can reach out and touch the mountain with my right hand. To my left, the slope sweeps down to the Twin Lakes and a small dam. Keller and Menlove wouldn't let us on the slope if they weren't confident we would be safe. Still, they tell us to keep at least 100 feet of space between us and as we're about to embark Menlove adds, "Also, you don't want to fall here."
There's no chance we'd tumble down to the frozen lakes at the bottom of the basin. The challenge, if one falls here, is that the snow is so deep it's virtually impossible to get up on your own. Jason, another skier in our group, finds this out the hard way, halfway along the route, when he loses his balance, tips over and spends a frustrating few minutes trying to get up, until our guide helps him.
It takes almost an hour to get across the Highway to Heaven, and we all flop down in the snow atop Twin Lakes Pass to catch our breath and survey the route we've just tackled. Then we drop into Little Cottonwood Canyon and make another long descent to Alta ski area--some of us taking the forested route, others sticking to open spaces with sweeping views of the valley. We linger in Alta--a collective favorite--and then shoot over to Snowbird for several final runs of the day before a van picks us up to bring us back to Park City.
After nearly seven hours of skiing through large forests, in deep powder and on steep slopes, we're all feeling a lot more confident with our backcountry skills. We agree that you need a healthy sense of adventure and strong alpine skills to do this trip, not to mention a curiosity for exploring what's on the other side of the ropes.
Skiers on the Interconnect tour stop for lunch and a rest at Solitude. The resort's Stone Haus village store is a good place to grab a quick sandwich, cup of soup or hot chocolate--just watch out for melting snow. Solitude gets an average of 42 feet of snow each year. As we're returning our avalanche beacons to Menlove, we also agree that it's great having two guides to show us the way, be there when we need help and teach us about backcountry travel as we go--plus offer pointers that will keep the "dinner rolls" to a minimum.
Tours depart Deer Valley on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, and include Park City, Solitude, Brighton, Alta and Snowbird. A circular tour leaves Snowbird on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, taking skiers to Alta, Brighton and Solitude, and then returning to Snowbird via a different route. The cost for either tour--$250 per person--includes guide service, lift access, lunch, use of an avalanche beacon, and transportation back to the starting point. For information and reservations, contact Ski Utah at 801-534-1907 or http://www.skiutah.com/interconnect/