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January 14, 2007 — It was already 10 a.m., and as my friend Dan Davis and I unsteadily boarded the cabriolet people mover (a sort of open-air gondola) at the Canyons Resort near Park City, Utah, we had already violated a slew of rules critical to the survival of serious powder poachers.
First off, even though it was snowing hard the night before, we’d stayed up way too late drinking, shooting pool and loudly pontificating on world problems in our plush three-bedroom ResortQuest condo overlooking the slopes of Deer Valley. Then we got to the Canyons too late to hook up with our guides for the day, a group of local riders and videographers we planned to shoot some stills with.
By the time we woozily dragged our gear onto the cabriolet, those guys had already headed straight into the then-new expansion terrain called DreamCatcher, which incidentally will see even more glading for the coming ski season.
Guideless, hung over and exploring a new mountain for the first time after a 10-inch dump, we were utterly clueless about our destination. Should we try to catch up with our ski models? Should just pick a point on the trail map and hope for the best? Or should we just bag it all and head into the lodge for a big breakfast?
Vail Resorts likes its ski areas big … especially if they’re surrounded by plenty of prime real estate.
The ski company already owns the largest resorts by skiable acreage in Colorado and California: Vail (5,289) and Heavenly (4,800). And now Vail Resorts has gone to court to try to take over the largest ski area in Utah: The Canyons Resort near Park City (3,625 acres).
Vail Resorts filed a lawsuit in Denver District Court in late July of 2007, requesting an injunction to halt the sale of the Canyons by American Skiing Company to Toronto-based Talisker Corp. for $100 million.
Vail also requested a jury trial alleging Talisker conspired with the real estate company Peninsula Advisors to “poach” the sale of the Canyons in direct violation of an exclusivity deal.
Vail Resorts upped its offer for the resort to $110 million, claiming it was close to closing the deal at the same $100 million price tag ASC later agreed to accept from Talisker, and then VR on Sept. 11 upped its bid even more – offering ASC or its successors up to 30 percent of the net proceeds from any future real estate development at the Canyons (potentially $650 million through 2020, according to VR). Clearly, the stakes in the legal tangle are big.
Not only is the Canyons the largest resort in Utah – with 17 lifts, five bowls and two terrain parks – but it’s in the top five in the United States. And it’s encircled by private land ripe for development.
“Significantly, the Canyons is sited on, and surrounded by, private land, rather than United States Forest Service Land, which provides one of the most unique development opportunities in the United States,” the Vail Resorts complaint reads. “The Canyons, however, has been historically underdeveloped and underutilized in comparison to peer mountain resort properties.
“No other similar property development opportunity exists in North America, and it is rare in the mountain resort industry for such properties to come on the market, let alone property with build-out value estimated in the billions of dollars.”
While the legal wrangling plays out, there is a sense of anticipation that the sale of the Canyons by the struggling American Skiing Company will provide a boost of capital to make much-needed infrastructure improvements.
“There’s a lot of business as usual, plus an upbeat feeling as far as this is great that Talisker has a lot of interest in making some massive changes,” said Canyons spokeswoman Elizabeth Dowd. “There are a lot of changes that are needed here and Talisker is the kind of group that would come in here and get them done. There’s a lot of excitement.”
One thing on the wish list, Dowd said, is an alternative lift up from the base to the mid-mountain area, currently only served by the Flight of the Canyons Gondola. Other improvements are needed in food service and basic infrastructure upgrades such as bathrooms, lifts and snowcats, she said.
American Ski Company resorts have a history of languishing while waiting for capital improvements that never come from the cash-strapped ski company. Colorado’s Steamboat ski area experienced the same state of limbo for years before finally selling to Intrawest earlier this year.
It was mid January last ski season (2006-07) and Davis and I had had an inauspicious beginning to a week-long ski junket to Utah. The first day we’d spent poking around the trees at Deer Valley, enjoying ourselves but not overwhelmed by anything you’d remotely deem epic.
Then we tried to catch some World Cup freestyle aerial action that evening under the lights but had been driven inside by mind-numbingly cold temperatures. Utah was in the midst of one of its lowest snow years in recent memory but at least the frigid air was keeping what little snow there was fresh and smoky.
Then we started getting the phone calls from friends back home in the Vail Valley. It seems the storm that had largely missed Utah, dumping a mere (by Utah standards) seven inches at Deer Valley, had plastered Vail and Beaver Creek with up to two feet of snow. Our buddies were making sure we knew exactly what we had missed.
Our consolation prize? A 10-inch powder day at The Canyons the next day, but as I’ve mentioned, we were already blowing it. We decided to take the man’s way out, pick the nastiest looking point on the map (even if it was already skied out) and try to redeem ourselves with something steep and at least somewhat deep.
We settled on the Ninety-nine Nine Express lift and headed straight for it. By the time we got to the top terminal (at 9,990 feet) patrol was just opening the backcountry access gate, and suddenly, all was right with the world.
High in the Wasatch Mountains, with Big Cottonwood Canyon (home to Solitude and Brighton ski areas) yawning expansively to the north, we were awed by the backcountry possibilities. We opted for about a 20 minute hike east along the ridge, snapping some nice scenics along the way before diving into an unnamed (on the trail map anyway) bowl that feeds back into the ski area. Our reward was 40 or 50 fresh turns in an open, moderately steep bowl,
Utah is more renowned than Colorado for its backcountry leniency, basically putting up gates warning you of the possibility of death or dismemberment and letting you be as stupid as you want to be. When I later mentioned the sweet backcountry turns out the gate off of Ninety-nine Ninety to a resort spokeswoman, I could almost hear her grinding her teeth over the phone.
Acknowledging backcountry opportunities is not something one does “in the litigious society that we live in today,” admitted Canyons spokeswoman Elizabeth Dowd. “You get the family of four from Illinois going back there and you can have problems.”
True, just because you rode a lift to get there should not absolve you of responsibility. Dan and I proceeded with caution even though the bowls opening up off of Ninety-nine Ninety appeared to have been skied fairly hard all year, packing out a seemingly solid base.
We had such a nice run we cycled back around for another hike, and while things were getting fairly tracked up the second time around, it was still worth the effort. Then it was off to the new DreamCatcher area in hopes of hooking up with the film crew and ski models.
We never found them but we did discover some very worthy tree shots in the beautifully gladed new terrain lower on the mountain. It opened for the 2006-07 season with a new high-speed quad chairlift and more than 200 acres of tree skiing, and they’re clearing even more room for turns this season.
In the end, powder day transgressions aside, we wound up with a very solid day on a surprisingly challenging mountain. We had expected the meat of our trip to come later in the week in Little Cottonwood Canyon at the legendary areas of Alta and Snowbird.
“It’s a hidden gem,” Dowd said of the Canyons. “It’s here, the locals know about it, but a lot of destination skiers don’t know enough about us. Even the Alta-Bird snobs, if you could just get them to come here for one day and show them around Ninety-nine Ninety, it’s almost comparable. Alta-Bird is another situation, but we certainly have enough of a buffet for the extreme skier to be able to fill their day.”
As Dan and I wearily loaded our gear onto the cabriolet that afternoon, the sun sinking and the temperatures plummeting, we definitely had to agree.
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