To get to Gad Bowl, just under the Twin Peaks on Snowbird’s north face, you have to hike in. You take the tram to the mountain’s summit, traverse about half a mile across Regulator Johnson, the main black diamond, or expert run, off the top, and then must negotiate a sheer cliff of exposed rocks, with a tiny trail only a foot wide at points, to the steep bowl beyond, where snow slides are common. The rewards, however, are obvious, even to the distant onlooker: 50 yards of waist-deep, uncut powder, or about 20 seconds of unalloyed joy. I didn’t doubt that if I could just get to the bowl I could ski it. The Cirque, a drop-off from the mountain’s ridge and accessible by tram, is no less steep. And to ski such slopes, you want the powder: The weight of the snow serves to slow you down, allowing you to point your skis straight down hill and to make a series of S-turns without picking up too much speed. (Once you learn to ski powder, such slopes are not nearly as terrifying as they look.) But in the past, I’d only made it as far as the cliffs, where I’d always been scared off by the sign warning of avalanche danger and double-diamond terrain. Plus, I could never get anyone to go with me.
Today, however, I found myself at the base of Gad Bowl with five guys whom I’d only met this morning, after we’d all taken a couple of dawn runs with the ski patrol before the mountain officially opened. I had been planning to snowboard instead. I took my first lessons last year and found that on ordinary days, surprising myself, I would rather ride than ski, a turn of events that I never could have predicted. But this wasn’t an ordinary day. More than two and half feet of snow had fallen over the last week—not unusual for Snowbird, which gets twice the annual snowfall of Aspen or Vail—and I wasn’t going to forgo the pleasures of the deep to bust my butt on the bunny slope.
The ski patrol run had been arranged by my godfather, Dick Bass, who owns Snowbird. No, not the Dick Bass of the Bass family in Fort Worth. But yes, the Dick Bass whom Krakauer blames (unfairly, in my opinion) for starting the Everest craze in Into Thin Air. Bass and my father went to college together, and strangely to me, became fast friends. There could not be two more different men on the planet. Dick was the first man to climb the highest mountain on every continent. My dad once told me that if he had his life to live over again, he would have been a tax lawyer.
Since the time I was 6, when Dick used to invite us over to his house in Dallas to see blurry home movies of the mountain he dreamed of turning into a ski resort, I have been almost as obsessed with Snowbird as he is. I sometimes feel like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I could sculpt every slope of the mountain from memory out of mashed potatoes. When I was a teen-ager and used to come here every spring break with a group of the same high-school friends, I used to annoy them with what they regarded as my A-type behavior: the way I always woke them up every morning, before the avalanche cannons even sounded, because I had to be the first person on the mountain.
Most of the time they wouldn’t even ski with me, which is how I’ve come, over the years, to always find myself skiing with a bunch of guys. My friends were with me again this trip—a reunion we’d planned after nearly 20 years—and I had already reverted to type: I’d woken them up this morning as I fumbled for my socks in the dark getting ready for the ski-patrol run.
My new companions—among them a surfer from Long Beach, a maritime lawyer from London, and a guy who worked for a tugboat company in Manhattan—hadn’t led me over the rocky ridge, though I probably would have stupidly followed if they had, but they’d gotten me closer to Gad Bowl than I’d ever been before. We’d traversed just below the cliffs—it took us about half an hour to get there—and I could now literally reach out and touch the slope I’d always dreamed of skiing. We even thought of hiking up into it, but were afraid of starting a slide. And the guys, alas, were more into bumps than powder and I think had only gone this far to humor me. But below us was the bottom half of the bowl, and it was fantastic enough. A steep slope of shin-deep snow, a little chopped up, but with plenty of room still to carve some tracks. A slope like this, if you don’t fall, lasts about 30 seconds, but it becomes part of a longer tape loop of moments—the early morning run in waist-deep powder off Regulator, that run in the trees on the upper half of Black Jack, the day on Ajax in Aspen when you skied the Bell Mountain for the first time—that play the rest of your life in your head. We were up at about 11,000 feet, and although the light was poor—there was fog in the valley—the clouds had momentarily parted. I could see all the way to the Great Salt Lake. I couldn’t remember when I’d last been so happy.