Powder on slopes packs in skiers, lifting Utah's image

A century ago, more than $400 million in silver from the mountains outside Salt Lake helped finance such empires as the Hearst newspaper chain.

Today, the mountains near the old mining town of Park City are helping bankroll a new empire - skiing.

Almost a dozen of the country's best ski resorts lie less than an hour's drive from the center of Salt Lake City, and new ones are being carved out of the wilderness almost every year.

Utah slopes today can transport 58,000 skiers a hour on the dozens of chair, T-bar, and gondola lifts. But planned development of new slopes gives a projected capacity of 94,000 skiers an hour by the 1990s.

''This is the only area in the country with so many resorts so close together ,'' says Raivo Puusemp, president of Ski Utah Inc., the association of the state's ski resorts. The triple resorts in Park City are second only to Aspen in number of skiers hauled up the mountain per hour.

And if a few more chairlifts are built across the mountaintops - as now proposed - almost all the resorts would be connected, creating the largest skiing area in the United States, and perhaps the world.

All this grand expansion rests on one thing - the excellence of the powderlike snow in Utah's unusual climate, where ski season can last into May.

The state ski boom began in the mid-1970s. Park City, the largest of Utah's ski vacation spots and the fastest-growing municipality in the state, carries the mystical touch of an old Wild West mining town, a colorful backdrop to the cranes and bulldozers furiously constructing several hundred new time-share condomiums a year. A few old miners still live here, but now they work the silvery slopes instead of the silver veins.

Perhaps nothing has done more to change Salt Lake's Mormons-only image in the last 10 years than the popularity of its skiing, local officials say. Several companies have transplanted themselves here after their chief executives were introduced to Salt Lake on a skiing holiday. Ironically, the last major migration of non-Mormons to the Salt Lake area was in the 1800s - during the mining boom.

In some ways, Utah's ski resorts are considered a secret among the locals, who remain the slopes' main users:

* Nine years ago, in an attempt to preserve the quality of skiing, the state turned down a bid to become a site for the Winter Olympics.

* Most resorts discourage professional or amateur racing, which tends to distract pleasure skiers.

* An experiment in exclusivity is the latest ski resort, Deer Valley, which opened this year next to Park City. The luxury resort tried to limit skiers on its well-groomed slopes by asking skiers to make reservations, thus keeping waiting times at lifts down to less than 10 minutes.

But Salt Lakers resented the move. The owners, the Royal Street Company of New Orleans, were forced to back off the idea.

Deer Valley reflects the new push in Utah to match high-quality resorts with the equally good skiing. By 1993, Royal Street plans a $300 million development for 10,000 guests and 15 lifts. It has enlisted Stein Eriksen, the 1952 Olympic gold-medal skier, as its director of skiing. Only the best ski equipment is rented. French-trained chefs prepare exquisite meals at the lodges, which are sumptuously appointed with Douglas fir pillars, Alaska cedar floors, and oak tables. And the slopes are given a five-hour, predawn grooming to smooth out moguls for a preferred over-35-year-old crowd.

''Our slopes forgive a skier's mistakes,'' says Deer Valley's Judy Root. ''We call it 'ego skiing.' ''

Another comer on the ski scene is an expansion of Snowbasin, a sleeper of a slope since the 1940s. Only 45 miles north of Salt Lake, Snowbasin is being developed by Peter Seibert of Ogden, who helped build Vail. Chairlifts will be increased from 6 to 16 under a $50 million project for the next few years.

Many local skiers still prefer the nearby Cottonwood Canyon resorts of Brighton and Solitude. And Alta, the granddaddy of Utah slopes, pioneered the area's famous powder skiing more than 75 years ago. But the landowners in that majestic but small valley have limited its growth. Despite its spectacular setting, the lift ticket is only $10, compared with $35 at Deer Valley.

Park City has seen the installation of two golf courses (designed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, respectively), a convention center, and other facilities to give the area a summer appeal. During the winter, Spanish can often be heard on the slopes - oil-enriched Mexicans and Venezuelans have discovered Utah ski condominiums as a safe, out-of-the-country investment.

Park City would be the hub of what has become known as ''interconnect'' - the linking of eight major ski areas just by construction of four more lifts. It is now possible to ski up Snowbird, over to Alta, then to Brighten, and down Solitude.

''The interconnect would draw more visitors into the area,'' says Laura Thomas of Park City Corporation.

The idea has been kicked around for years, says Ski Utah's Raivo Puusemp, but he believes enough of the ski area owners will now support it.

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