'I'm peering over the edge of a 9,289-foot peak in Utah's Wasatch Mountains on a brisk winter day, watching expert skiers drop as naturally as snow over a ridge that stretches starkly downward. As they hop over the slope, their citrus-colored jackets are eclipsed by swirling clouds.
It's a 74 percent slope, says my guide, Justin Rowland, pointing to the 2002 Olympics men's downhill ski run at Snowbasin resort. "This is going to be one of the most challenging downhill courses," he says. "It's a lot steeper, it's a lot harder. There's no time to relax."
I imagine Olympic skiers dropping over the side with gusto. Then I try to picture myself doing the same, zipping past the finish line into a tidal wave of cheers. But reality intervenes: I'm a novice skier trained on man-made Midwestern molehills on a mission to tackle Western runs - and I'm grateful my feet are firmly planted.
That breathtaking view marked the beginning of my winter Olympics preview tour with eight other writers, caravaning from resort to resort within an hour's drive of Salt Lake City to check out the "powdaahh," as the ski regulars say.
We planned to survey resorts hosting Olympic events, as well as nearby slopes not directly tied to the Games but emblematic of Utah's ski scene.
With the Olympics, which run Feb. 8 to 24, less than 40 days away, Utah has taken center stage in the skiing world. But with the two-week flurry of lights, athletes, and medals comes the perception of massive crowds and roped-off ski runs that's predicted to keep some tourists at bay. In fact, resorts are seeing a 25 to 40 percent drop in traffic.
While it's true the Games will attract hundreds of thousands of visitors, only 2 percent of Utah's ski terrain will be used for events, and just three of Utah's 14 mountain resorts - Snowbasin, Park City Mountain Resort, and Deer Valley - are actually involved.
So it turns out that it may be a good winter to visit Utah, because ski lodges are offering deals of up to 40 percent off lift tickets and hotel rooms.
The downhill run at Snowbasin is just one Olympic adventure travelers can try firsthand. Visitors are allowed to hop over the Olympic moguls at Deer Valley, ride the snowboard half-pipe or ski the giant slalom course at Park City Mountain Resort, and zip around the Olympic track on a luge at 60 miles per hour - before or after the Games.
After watching the expert skiers - some as young as 10 - negotiate the men's downhill run at Snowbasin, I took the gondola back to the base lodge. The ride felt like an airplane descent, and as we dipped below the clouds, rugged ivory peaks snapped into view. (Tourists who don't want to ski the men's or women's Olympic runs can take the gondola up to see them.)
At the base, I met my ski instructor, Jack Lowery, for a lesson in parallel technique. It was a beautiful day, so we ditched our jackets and headed for the bunny slopes - which, by Utah standards, appeared practically equivalent to the blue runs I remembered in the Midwest.
Jack laughed at my goal of learning the parallel "in just one lesson." But after a few hours of twists, turns, falls, and hops, balance prevailed over gawkiness. "What makes this mountain unique," he says, "is that we [offer] everything from the beginning to the extreme [runs]."
The resort, at 6,400 feet, is known for its long slopes for a range of skiers and has the international ski federation's only approved downhill course in Utah. Snowbasin is also hosting slalom competitions. It recently built three new lodges and will spend $30 million on snowmaking alone to keep terrain groomed for Olympians. Of 3,300 skiable acres, 2,500 will be accessible during the Games.
The slides and hops I learned were put to good practice the next day at Deer Valley in Park City, 45 minutes from Salt Lake. The resort will host the men's and women's slalom races, the freestyle aerial events, and the mogul competitions.
Deer Valley visitors hand over their car keys and many of skiing's hassles when they drive up. The customer service rivals that of the Ritz-Carlton.
So it was no surprise to discover Deer Valley's slope grooming resembled white corduroy fabric. Skiing on it is like sliding your feet over fine carpet, and the texture - a balance of powder and firmness - is nationally renowned.
Utah as a whole is praised for its dry, fluffy snow, caused by meteorological effects from the west and the Great Salt Lake. Up to 500 inches fall annually over the Wasatch Mountains.
With 1,750 skiable acres, Deer Valley has a base elevation of 6,570 feet and peaks as high as 9,570. According to the trail map, there's a pretty even mix of easy, more difficult, and expert runs. An intermediate skier can slide all the way down from the peaks.
I stuck to the easy green runs, one of which winds past the Stein Eriksen Lodge, where I enjoyed a feast worthy of a gold medalist and a brief encounter with 1952 Olympic slalomist Stein Eriksen himself.
"We'll burn this all off on the slopes," fellow skiers remarked throughout the day as we dined there and at Deer Valley Lodge on eggs Benedict, gourmet turkey chili, freshly baked double-chocolate cookies, and a seafood dinner buffet finale. Deer Valley employs top-notch chefs and is known for its gourmet cuisine.
After several days of hearty eating, downhill skiing, snowboarding, and a little cross-country practice at Solitude Resort's Nordic Center, we headed out on a back-country ski tour. Our guide, Oslo native Tom Cammermeyer, told us that his Norwegian ancestors were among the first to strap skis to their soles to get around.
Mr. Cammermeyer, co-founder of the Norwegian Outdoor Exploration Center in Park City, greeted us - and every awkward moment - with a wisecrack about his heritage. "It's good to be able to laugh at yourself," he said with a titter.
That proved true on many occasions. After packing lunches, we drove an hour to the Beaver Creek Trail in the Uinta Mountains and started off slowly, gliding over broken-in trails. We then cut away into three feet of fresh powder and got a lesson on how to fall - as if this were a challenge. I plunged into a featherbed of waist-deep snow, but wallowed for an embarrassing five minutes trying to make a cross with my poles before pushing back up. Eventually we all caught on.
Cross-country skiing is like hiking in the winter. In the serenity of the forest, we could smell the evergreen trees. There are hundreds of isolated ski trails winding through the Wasatch Mountains. The Norwegian Outdoor Exploration Center offers year-round tours that range from moderate to extreme, including snowshoeing, hiking, and educational and corporate training excursions.
Later that day, I learned from guide Sally Elliott about the area's history. More than 1,800 miles of tunnels - primarily silver mines - wind under Park City's resorts and the nearby area. Ore was discovered in the 1860s, but the silver now costs more to acquire than it's worth, so the mines have been abandoned.
Scandinavian loggers working for the mines first introduced skiing in Park City as a mode of transportation. In the 1930s, tourists arrived from Ogden and Salt Lake to try the wooden skis. They hiked up the slopes with their gear until a machinist built the first lifts there in the 1940s. An industry was born, and Park City was transformed from a mining town into a city in which most residents are skiers and techies (or "modem cowboys" as locals call them).
I wrapped up my adventures in Utah at the rugged alpine Snowbird Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon, where I spent the day on a snowboard. At this point, we were feeling trained for the Olympics, hip to the vernacular, tossing around with abandon terms such as wedge, grade, and, in my case, snowplow.
Snowbird's slopes are mostly for expert skiers, though we managed to angle down the smaller runs. The resort isn't hosting an Olympic sport and could provide a respite from the Games for travelers who want to avoid them. There are eight or nine such resorts within an hour of Salt Lake City and Park City, says Nathan Rafferty of the Utah Ski and Snowboard Association.
"You could go to an event in the morning, then ski in the afternoon .... where you won't even know the Olympics are going on," he suggests. "Or you could come ski the Olympic downhill courses, then watch the Olympics...."
Maybe I'll be good enough to tackle those courses next year.
Thinking of going to see the Games? Even as the torch winds its way over a 13,500-mile route from Atlanta to Salt Lake City, you may still have a chance to buy tickets.
The popular figure-skating and snowboarding events - and the final gold-medal rounds for most events - are gone. But expensive seats and tickets offered through various online auctions might still be available, according to the 2002 Olympic Games website.
You may be able to obtain tickets for the opening and closing ceremonies, ski jumping, curling, and speed skating, especially if you're willing to pay from $300 on up per ticket. Reservations and inquiries on availability can be made at 866-566-4428, 800-842-5387, or at www.Salt lake2002.com.
Organizers expect to rake in more than $180 million in ticket sales, at least double the $80 million at the 1998 Nagano (Japan) Games, according to published reports.
Hotel rooms in and near Salt Lake are mostly sold out, but there are likely to be cancellations. Some package deals that include rooms and tickets are still available.
Olympic competitions are scheduled for seven sports and 78 medal events at 10 indoor and outdoor venues in Salt Lake City and the outlying areas of Park City, Soldier Hollow, and Kearns.
"We are the highest and largest city to ever host the [Winter] Olympic Games," says Mitt Romney, chairman of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. Because Salt Lake City is at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet above sea level, its ice is denser ice, the air thinner, and therefore skating and skiing are faster. Records are likely to be broken.
To prepare for the 2002 Games, the state spent $69 million, but the total cost will top $1 billion. "We've added six hockey rinks to the Salt Lake City area, a ski-jump facility, the bobsled track, a curling facility, and more," Mr. Romney says. Ski resorts have spent millions in renovations on lodges and slope preparation. (See main story.)
Visitors without Olympic tickets can still explore the three resorts hosting events (Snowbasin, Deer Valley, and Park City); see the Salt Lake Ice Center, which will host figure skating; and tour the Olympic Park, which will host luge, bobsled, and ski-jumping events. Visitors can ride the bobsled for $175 per person and a lesson.
Close to 3 billion people will watch the Olympics on TV worldwide, according to Romney, and there will be anywhere from 75,000 to 100,000 extra people per night in Utah during the Games.
"I think people will be struck by our mountains," he says. "They will find a warm, hospitable population that in many ways characterizes the American West. That will place a mark on this Olympics."
For more information on Olympic venues, tickets, schedules, and resorts, see www.saltlake2002.com or www.visitsalt lake.com/reservations, or call the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-847-5810.
For information about Utah ski resorts, visit the Utah Ski and Snowboard Association's website, www.skiutah.com or call (801) 534-1779.
Contact information for some resorts:
Deer Valley Resort www.deervalley.com or 800-424-3337.
Snowbasin www.snowbasin.com or (801) 399-1135.
Snowbird www.snowbird.com or (801) 933-2222.
Alta www.altaskiarea.com or (801) 359-1078.
Norwegian Outdoor Exploration Center www.xmission.com/~nature or (435) 649-5322.
Solitude Mountain Resort www.ski solitude.com or (435) 649-8400.