In Utah, the locals claim to have the 'best snow on Earth'. Winston Aldworth drops in to test their claim.
The driest snow in the world started its life in clouds thousands of metres above the Pacific Ocean. Carried along on westerly winds, it skirts over the Californian coastline, before looking down from on high at the dry, arid lands of Nevada where the rocky geography starts to cast upward shapes at the clouds above.
But it's in Utah that the magic happens. Above the Great Salt Lake that gave the state capital its name, the air gets suddenly colder and drier. The "Lake Effect" produces light, crystal-like snowflakes called dendrites. The storms break over the mountains of Utah, blessing the state's many resorts with light, powdery snow.
And there are many resorts. Within an hour's drive from Salt Lake City Airport, you can reach 11 world-class skifields. Statewide there are more than 1200 ski runs.
Of course, there's more to the great snow than just the dryness instilled by the Great Salt Lake. The sheer volume of the stuff puts Utah on a special level. The state gets 250 days of winter each year, bringing around 40 snowstorms and, on average, 18 "monster dumps" — that's 45cm of snow or more falling within a 24-hour period. To put that in context, Central Otago hit that 45cm mark once last year.
So, the snow's good, and they know it. In the world of tourism, marketing slogans get changed with seasonal regularity (after all, that's how consultants stay employed). In this environment, New Zealand's 100% Pure slogan — nearing its 20th anniversary — is both a triumph and a freak. In Utah, they coined a catchy slogan back in 1962: "The Greatest Snow on Earth." They've stuck with it ever since, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a tourism catchcry that's older, or truer.
So what's it like on the fields?
Park City Resort — the result of a merger between two already massive snowfields, Canyons and Park City Mountain Resort — is the biggest in the United States, with more than 340 trails running off 48 lifts.
The little town at the foot of the resort — perhaps more famous today as home to Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival — started life as a mining haunt. The skifield did too, the first skiers rode up the hill using an old narrow-gauge railway — the original tourist funicular — and today, dotted around the hillside, rusty machinery and some dilapidated buildings are reminders of the mining past.
It's a slick operation now; gone is the narrow-gauge shunt and in its place well-appointed chairlifts and gondolas speed skiers and boarders throughout a mountainside that's carpeted in wide, lush fields. I'm not a great skier, and I could ski comfortably here for days, with enough challenging terrain and enough wide-open space to always be sated. There's enough variety among the runs, with unexpected angles and just-steep-enough drops to keep your day fresh. Higher up the range, there are deep bowls, double-black diamond runs and trees among which the experts can prove their mettle. Happily, near Jupiter's Peak, there are easy blue runs darting through the trees, too. So a skier like me can kid themselves they're really high end.
On the face of it, Park City and Deer Valley are separated by just a rope. But truthfully, the differences between the two run deep. Deer Valley is old school — for a start, there are no snowboarders allowed. Sorry, kids.
A selfish skier can make a compelling case for having no snowboarders around — they clutter the field and make mush out of Utah's lovely snow. But Deer Valley's position on boarders probably has more to do with the skifield wanting to maintain something to a high-end image.
There are family-friendly accommodation options on the mountain, but the place is unashamedly high end. Celebrities take their holidays here — Will Smith, Michael Jordan, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift — alongside tech billionaires whose names we've never heard, but whose pockets we daily line. Bordered by treelines, the houses of the rich and famous are dotted alongside the skifields, visible enough to be cool with the fact that you're looking, private enough to tell you to move along.
The crowd at Deer Valley like the finer things. Your tush can reasonably expect to encounter seat warmers. The snow is beautifully groomed and the pampered personal touches are everywhere. When I picked up my hire gear, the personalised kit adviser talked me through my technique, experience and style, sending me away with the perfect equipment.
It's smaller than Park City but, with a strict limit on the number of daily visitors, Deer Valley is never crowded.
I had probably the best hot chocolate of my life at the five-star Stein Eriksen Lodge.
Slumped into a plush sofa, after a busy morning of exploring the mountain's many runs, I rested my weary legs before the crackling fire.
"I can see why Bieber likes this place," I muttered.
United Airlines flies seasonally from Auckland to Salt Lake City, via San Francisco, with return Economy fares from $1802.
Zermatt Resort offers a handy location, with a 15-minute drive to the nearest of Deer Valley's skilifts.
Staying safe on the slopes
Planning to hit the slopes this season? With the right research and preparation, your winter escape should go off without a hitch.
Before you go: If you're an experienced powder hound, you'll know that careful packing is essential. But first-timers can often get caught out without a few necessary items. For example, an extra pair of insoles for your ski boots can go a long way to keeping you comfortable. So find a good packing list and check it twice.
5 quick tips
1 Always check the classification of the ski run and stick to your limits
– green is usually for beginners, whereas black is better suited to experts
2 Taking a lesson can be a good way to find your snow legs and hone your technique,
even if it's not your first time 3 Remember to stay on piste, otherwise you may not be covered by your travel insurance
4 Read up on snow etiquette, like giving way to people in front and looking uphill before starting off
5 Don't underestimate the altitude –stay hydrated and take regular rest stops
For more great travel tips and advice, visit scti.co.nz.