How a Small Ski Area Reminded Me That Skiers Don’t Need Much

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Brian Head Utah Snow Covered Red Rock Forest Canyon in Winter.Photo: Alex Mesa/Shutterstock

“Wake up Jake! It’s past 6!”

I muttered something unintelligible, possibly rude, and burrowed further into my sleeping bag.

“It’s your birthday!”

Poking my maroon-capped head out of my sleeping bag, just enough to squint and glower at the early-morning sunshine, I surveyed the scene. My girlfriend Rita and I were scrunched into the cab of her CR-V, just where we’d parked it in the russet-colored pullout in the high, southern Utah desert.

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“That means donuts, right?” I asked, groggily finding my glasses underneath the spaghetti-squash quilt, my only remaining defense against the crisp February morning.

It was our last morning in Brian Head, a ski area 4,000 feet above the desert floor, but mere miles from Zion National Park. We’d slept in the valley below because we’d come from the southern California coast and ascending to Utah’s highest ski area from sea level was a recipe for sleepless nights.

Rita and I packed up the sleeping pads and rolled out of the pullout. Our goal this year was to see just how cheaply we could ski out of the relative comfort of an SUV. Once we removed the back seats and crammed all our gear in the front, the back of the car was more than spacious and still small enough to keep the heat in. It was home.

Climbing to the resort through a winding country road, we got to marvel at the geology that makes Brian Head such a joy to ski—here we were, in the heart of red rock country, watching the snow pile high on the roadside as we rounded switchback after switchback. Feeling the anticipation of one last ski day in some of the strangest terrain I knew was enough to shake off any morning grumble.

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We smelled the smoked bacon and old-fashioned crullers long before we saw the life-sized Bigfoot statue that marked Sasquatch Donuts. The tucked-away wooden shed, flanked by cast-iron smokers, was abuzz with early risers looking to fuel up. We grabbed egg sandwiches on croissants and were thankful to have coffee to warm our fingers before we had to wrestle with boot buckles.

It hadn’t snowed in about two weeks, but the bone-dry air had kept the snow chalky and light. As we booted up and walked over to the lift, I could see some light spray flung high and wide as some kids found the zipper line under the Giant Steps chairlift.

As we got into line, I breathed a massive sigh of relief. Despite it being President’s Day weekend, one of the busiest ski holidays of the year, we skated up to a lift line maybe five skiers. This was exactly why we’d come.

Working at a ski area the year before, I’d become jaded to crowds, preferring to ski midweek and avoiding holidays. Somehow, working a job where you can ski all-but-unlimited days had the power to turn me into a grinch. But it was my birthday, and I wanted to go skiing. So, we looked for hidden gems within driving distance of SoCal, and Brian Head floated to the top of the pile.

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Ripping a few fast laps on the Giant Steps chair allowed us to sample a grab-bag of the resort’s terrain. There were long groomers that dropped between benches, enticing sweeping carved turns. There were small pockets of trees with surprisingly steep pitches that linked down to the bumps between the chairs. The slowest chairs climbed to the best and steepest terrain, allowing us to gawk at the red, high desert floor, free of any snow, that stretched the distance in every direction.

The joy we found in hunting for pockets of fresh snow, far away from the crowded mega-areas closer to home gives me hope. Reflecting now from a markedly different world, one in which lift capacities will likely be enforced by lottery and online reservation systems and lodges will only offer takeaway food, places like Brian Head are a reminder that we don’t need miles of vertical drop, high-speed capacities, or anything that glitters. A good day skiing is respite, it is joy, and it will be found without asterisk as long as we have snow to ski and people we love to ski with.

There is solace in knowing that the mountains move slow. They move and they change, but it takes tectonic shifts to make them budge, and skiers too. We don’t know exactly how this season will look, but if it looks in any way at all like skiing sun-warmed bumps; or sitting on a slow chair amid a heavy storm charged with the static electricity of the forthcoming descent; or telling jokes on a skin track to ease our burning lungs in the crisp predawn air, it will be good.

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This article originally appeared on and was republished with permission.

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