by Gabe Glosband | photograph by Lee Cohen
When ski resorts announce that they're expanding terrain, they traditionally make a major media push to grab as much attention as possible and attract more skiers. But generating hype wasn't exactly the goal with Zone 5. Unbeknownst to most skiers—even locals—Snowbird quietly opened this formerly permanently closed and unmapped section of chutes, hidden faces, and rollover glades this past season.
The area sits on the boundary between Alta and Snowbird on one of America's crown jewels of skiing: Mount Baldy. Baldy is home to some of the best expert skiing in the Lower 48, and Zone 5, tucked away on the northwest aspect, is the final piece to open. The skiing is eminently worthy—approximately 1,200 vertical feet at an average pitch of 40 degrees. And it would seem long overdue to get this piece of the Baldy puzzle opened. But due to the seriousness of the terrain and the high risk of avalanches, historically the U.S. Forest Service and Snowbird management never even planned to open any terrain on Baldy, let alone the precipitous and exposed Zone 5. "Their thinking was that opening Baldy would be a lot of risk with little reward," remembers Jimmy Collinson, Snowbird's assistant director of snow safety.
Snowbird opened for skiing in 1971, but it wasn't until 1985 that skiers could access parts of west and northwest Baldy. Other expansions came in 1990, and 1998. Now they've finished the job with Zone 5. It wasn't as easy as it sounds. Collinson, who lives in Snowbird's employee housing directly below Zone 5, has been staring at the terrain for more than 30 years. He made it his mission to open the area. It was Collinson, along with Snowbird's Director of Winter Operations Peter "Mongo" Schory, who came up with a novel approach to avalanche control: snow compaction from skier traffic. Thanks to rockered fat skis and the ever-growing population of powder skiers, it's simply easier to get that kind of skier compaction these days. By sending skiers out onto the terrain you're constantly mixing layers and pounding out and sluffing down the unconsolidated snow. "The high level of riders at Snowbird and the avalanche control benefits drawn from rider compaction has allowed us to open Zone 5. The idea is to turn it into moguls from the dirt up," says Collinson.
The Mountain magazine crew got a tour last winter just prior to our Snowbird ski test. As advertised, we dropped into waist deep, but stable, snow in what the locals call the Comma Chute. It felt like we were way out of bounds but in reality we were just above the bypass road. After 40 years of drooling, the locals are thrilled: "Dropping into the steepest terrain available without going out of bounds and then being allowed to ski Snowbird for the rest of the day is insane," says local pro Sam Cohen (pictured).
From Early Winter 2011