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Playgrounds: Ski The Wasatch Like the Collinsons

With over one million people in the Salt Lake City metropolitan area, the surrounding mountains aren’t exactly a well-kept secret. But if you’re looking for variety, easy access, and challenging terrain, the Wasatch is hard to beat. Alta, Snowbird, Brighton, Solitude, Park City, Canyons, and Deer Valley are all under an hour from Salt Lake City. Up your commute by 30 minutes and you can add Sundance, Snowbasin, and Powder Mountain to the mix. 

Towering peaks in the backcountry and steep, technical in-bounds terrain have made the Wasatch the ultimate training ground for more than a few professional skiers. Alta and Snowbird are where TGR athletes Angel and Johnny Collinson honed the big mountain skills you see on the screen and where you’ll often still see them ripping around during the early season.

“It’s really where we got our first taste of freedom and independence,” Johnny says about their childhood skiing in Little Cottonwood Canyon. “It really felt like we could go anywhere—just like one huge playground.”

Angel gives Johnny a ride in their younger days. Angel Collinson photo. 

Riding Lifts in Little Cottonwood Canyon

When the Collinson siblings say they grew up at Snowbird, they really mean it—the two shared a 5-by-12-foot closet that their parents converted into a bedroom in their home at the top of Snowbird’s Chickadee Lift.

“All we had to do was walk across the road and put our skis on,” Johnny says about the early years. Alta and Snowbird are where Johnny and Angel first learned to ski and ultimately where they discovered their love for freeskiing. Both kids started out in the race program and joined a bunch of different ski programs before deciding what fit.

Although both siblings spend most of their winters on the road filming, they try to spend as much time as possible skiing in their home territory. “There aren’t many resorts that can help you get ready for big mountain lines like Alta and Snowbird can,” Angel says. “It’s something I’ve definitely taken for granted.” Though the Wasatch isn’t huge, it is steep and technical. “There are all these nooks and crannies of really tough terrain. Cliffs, and steep shots. It’s not hard to challenge yourself,” she adds.

If you want to ski Snowbird like the Collinsons, the routine is simple: board the 2,900-foot tram and lap it until your legs give out. “I really only ride the tram at Snowbird,” Johnny admits, “gravity fed all the way down. The Cirque Traverse never gets old.” The Cirque boasts Snowbird’s most iconic chutes, all within a clear line of view from the tram windows. “You can ski a ton of vert by just lapping it all day,” Angel agrees. “It doesn’t take long to wear yourself out.”

If you’re at Alta early season, you’ll likely find the Collinsons lapping the Wildcat lift. It’s an old-school double that rises up to the ridge that divides Alta and Snowbird. It’s a quick lap with steep chutes and gullies that can rattle you up before spitting you back out at the base. “There are tons of cliffs and little features to jump off of,” Johnny says. “It’s easily my favorite spot on the mountain.”

Both skiers look back at fond memories at the epic powder days they used to score growing up in Little Cottonwood Canyon. “It would dump all night so they’d have to close the road,” Johnny remembers. “Then in the morning we’d be interlodged, stuck inside so they could do avalanche control. The roads would be closed for a couple hours after they lifted the interlodge, so anyone who was already up there got free refills all morning without anyone else skiing.”

Road closures are common in Little Cottonwood Canyon after heavy snowfall. In fact, according to the Utah Department of Transportation, the steep, towering walls of Little Cottonwood make for the most avalanche-prone stretch of highway in the country. This is due to the number of slide paths that affect the road and the frequency at which they can be triggered. Utah riders know the “Red Snake” all too well. Skiers heading up from the valley after a big storm are often met by a chain of red tail lights, snaking its way up the canyon. It’s a nightmare for UDOT, but for resort skiers already up there, it’s like striking gold.

The view from the Collinson homestead. Angel Collinson photo. 

Exploring the Backcountry

Outside the resort, it doesn’t take long to get into some seriously big terrain in the backcountry. Flip through Andrew McLean’s  “Chuting Gallery” and you’ll surely find tons of lines any rational mind would deem un-skiable. Spicy chutes, mandatory rappels, and huge slide paths make for tricky terrain management and mind blowing skiing when conditions are right.

RELATED: Andrew McLean on the Shelf Life of Guidebooks in the Digital Age

Utah’s intermountain snowpack provides a little more stability than the dry, continental snowpack in the Colorado Rockies, making some of the bigger lines more attainable in the winter. Short approaches in the Wasatch make it easy to log quite a bit of vert in an afternoon or ski an iconic line as a dawn patrol lap. “At the most it’ll be an all-day mission,” Johnny says of the quick access. “But most of the lines you want to ski make it easy to do a few laps in a day.”

It’s true—the steep nature of Little Cottonwood Canyon pretty much guarantees wherever you start you’ll be flipping up your heel risers almost immediately. Mount Superior is a great example of a classic taste of Wasatch skiing. Right across from Snowbird, the mountain's ominous South Face rises 3,000 feet straight up from the road. Skiers start from the Town of Alta and climb up the aesthetic knife edge ridge that crawls up to the summit from the east. It only takes about two to three hours to top out and rip down the steep, cliff-laden face. Walk back across the road and you can ride lifts for the rest of the afternoon or head back out to ski another line.

The Utah Avalanche Center has a big presence in the valley, one that Johnny says is remarkably hands on and focused on community engagement. Fundraisers, free awareness courses, and weeknight chats with forecasters make it easy for members of the community to get involved and learn about snow safety.

Angel and Johnny’s dad worked for the snow safety program up at Snowbird while they were growing up, so avalanche safety went hand in hand with their childhood. “We got touring setups when we were 11 or 12, but it was a while before we actually went out and used them much,” Johnny recalls. “We spent so much time with ski patrol learning about snow safety that it felt really natural once we got out into the backcountry.”

Backcountry beta is hardly scarce in the Wasatch, something that understandably gets under the skin of longtime Wasatch locals. The Wasatch Backcountry Skiing website highlights over 1,000 backcountry zones and McLean’s Chuting Gallery gives detailed explanations on how to ski some of the most coveted routes in the mountain range. For an outsider, it’s pretty easy to get your bearings and figure out where the best spots are. The Collinsons agree there’s a low chance you’ll be out there on your own.

“The sport is definitely alive and well,” Johnny says, laughing. “It can easily be frustrating when you hop in the line of cars at 6 a.m. but you know, we did this. We spread the word that the shredding is good and people are listening.”

Although the Collinsons have the Wasatch pretty dialed, there are always new ways to look at familiar terrain especially when you’ve got an outsider with you. Johnny filmed a segment for Faction’s “This Is Home” on his home turf two seasons ago, showing his fellow Faction teammate Sam Anthamatten around Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“It’s cool to bring new people to your zones and they see it a whole different way” Johnny says of the project. “Then you go back and see all these new airs and different lines you never noticed before.”

Johnny expects that there’s still more to be discovered in the Wasatch. “As I grow as a skier I’m always seeing the mountain in new ways and learning new things, even if it’s in a zone I’ve been skiing my whole life.There’s always more out there.

From The Column: TGR Playgrounds

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