The irony was too rich to pass up. A ski resort named Solitude was so crowded that its lift line wound down a hill and along the length of the parking lot.
Videos and photos of the scores of skiers and snowboarders piling up Friday and Saturday during the opening weekend at Solitude Mountain Resort and neighboring Brighton not only went viral but were also the source of much head shaking and teeth gnashing.
Crowded resorts and canyon roads have been a point of consternation for skiers and snowboarders at most resorts along the Wasatch front in recent years. And the images flowing across Twitter and Instagram last weekend seemed to project more of the same for this season.
But it may not be as bad as it looked.
Last weekend’s long lift lines and full parking lots were the result of a combination of factors, including few open resorts, limited lifts and terrain, free parking and a clientele that’s been chomping at the bit to get onto the slopes ever since the first storms started dropping a wealth of white stuff in the mountains four weeks ago.
“We’ve seen opening day open sooner,” said Brighton spokesman Jared Winkler, who has been at the resort for 20 years, “but not opening days with this much snow.”
Nearly four feet of snow dropped on both Brighton and Solitude in the last week alone, according to OpenSnow.com. It mixed with another couple of feet from a storm in late October plus perfect conditions for snowmaking. As a result, most of the state’s ski hills found themselves with snow depth and quality rarely seen in the early season.
That has prompted nearly half of Utah’s 14 ski areas open early. Brian Head Resort, the state’s southernmost outpost, stole bragging rights on Nov. 4 as the first to fire up its lifts. Brighton and Solitude followed suit Thursday, with Solitude moving up its opening date by eight days. By next weekend, Park City Mountain (Wednesday), Snowbasin (Friday) and Snowbird (Friday) all expect to be open ahead of schedule. Alta is also targeting Friday for an on-time opening.
Nathan Rafferty, the CEO of Ski Utah, said the addition of those resorts and more terrain should help with spreading skiers out.
“That’s obviously an anomaly,” Rafferty said of last weekend’s throngs. “We had less than a percent of the terrain open in the entire state and all the season passes have been sold. So everybody is hopping in there.”
It certainly looked that way.
The early start at Solitude and Brighton thrilled Salt Lake Valley skiers and snowboarders eager to get fresh tracks without having to hike. And also, in many cases, without having to pay. Both resorts are included on the Ikon Pass, the most popular multi-resort ski pass in the Salt Lake Valley. So, many people with a merely passing interest in experiencing opening weekend could go up for just a couple runs without much risk and with the chance for great rewards. In addition to mid-season-like snow, they’d have dry — though crowded — roads and wouldn’t have to pay for parking (Solitude will start charging for parking in its lots on Friday).
For the resorts, however, getting a jump on the season came with more than a few pitfalls.
Amber Broadaway, Solitude’s president and COO, was frank when she went off-script and called the opening weekend “overwhelming in turnout” in a vlog posted Saturday. She then addressed the some of challenges that opening early created for the ski area. They included operating with a fleet of seasonal workers still undergoing training as well as not having access to advanced terrain that requires avalanche mitigation work. Plus, in a conundrum unique to Solitude — one that Broadaway promised said would be fixed in coming years — the resort can’t open some popular runs because it has snowmaking equipment threaded through the middle of them. The choices, then, were either to keep the runs temporarily off limits or abandon snowmaking for the rest of the season and bury the components. The resort is understandably reluctant to do the latter since Broadaway has said she hopes Solitude will be open well into May.
As a result, Solitude had just two of its shortest lifts running Thursday and Friday: Link for beginners and Moonbeam with slightly more advanced terrain. It added Apex, another lift serving intermediate terrain, to the mix Saturday morning. Broadaway said more lifts, including Eagle Express and upper-mountain terrain, will be online as soon as ski patrol gives it the green light.
“We’re excited to do that,” she said. “We’re eager to get as much of the mountain open for you as possible.”
At Brighton, the only other resort open last weekend, the situation was similar. The line to get onto Majestic Friday morning crawled at least a quarter mile up the hill from the base. But with Snake Creek open since Day 1 and Saturday’s opening of the Crest lift, which also leaves from the base, the crowds quickly dispersed.
Matt Irvin of Cottonwood Heights, whose video of the line spilling out from the Moonbeam lift Saturday at Solitude drew a social media crowd too, wasn’t upset at his situation.
“Line or not, the earliest opening day/weekend in nearly 10 years with mid-season-like conditions?” Irvin, 38, wrote in a text. “I’m not missing that!”
The lack of terrain on opening weekend made for cringe-worthy optics. Yet once the lifts got rolling and people were dispersed across the mountain, the lines seemed to move relatively quickly. At least, that was the experience of Midvale snowboarder Reilly Kelly.
Kelly, 29, met Irvin in the Solitude parking lot at 7:15 a.m. Saturday for breakfast, as is their winter weekend tradition. He said he hadn’t really surveyed the scene around him until about an hour later, after he got on his gear. Then, ….
“I looked up and was like, ‘Holy crap!” he said. “The line for Moonbeam was shocking.”
It was around then that Irvin captured his video.
Both Kelly and Irvin said, however, that the situation looked worse than it actually was. Kelly said they had to wait about 25 minutes to get on the lift. Others reported languishing in line for nearly an hour. But that was the worst of it. The wait for each subsequent ride lasted less than 15 minutes, Kelly estimated, especially after the Apex lift opened. And by the time they headed home around 1 p.m. to get ready for the University of Utah football team’s home finale, they’d gotten in eight runs.
“More than I could have asked for, and the snow was absolutely epic!” Irvin said. “Best opening day I can remember.”
They may not have found solitude, but what does it matter as long as there’s snow?