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Why Utah Skiing is So Fabulous

Alta and Snowbird Ski Resorts are consistently rated among the top resorts in America . Everyone agrees they have the best snow, the best runs, and the people who ski there love it with a cult-like following. But, there is actually science behind this phenomenon.

Brian Jones, Geologist, Alta Ski Instructor and member of the Alta Historical Society, has been collecting pictures and uncovering facts about the area for the last decade. "The Wasatch Mountains are a result of millions of year's worth of uplift along the Wasatch Fault, one of the most dramatic high-angle, mountain forming faults in the world", he said . (A "fault" is a fracture in the earth's crust where two or more tectonic plates butt against each other.) The Wasatch Fault lies on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley , right at the base of where the mountains begin to rise up from the valley floor. " Over geologic history the fault has elevated the mountain range about one inch every ten years, which is good news for your next trip to Alta," said Jones. "High Rustler might be a little bit higher."

"South of the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, the fault has sheared-off ridge lines, producing unusual triangle shapes called ‘triangular facets," said Jones. "This is the actual plane of the Wasatch Fault and is easily visible by looking southeast from Granite Park located at 10,000 S. and 2700 E ."

Sixteen thousand years ago the valleys of these mountains were filled with enormous glaciers. The movement of these fault plates, combined with rock carving movement of glaciated snow has created the distinctive terrain that makes up our mountains - broad U-shaped valleys, dramatic headwalls, hanging valleys and steep gulleys.

Limestone formations such as the rocks found in Devil's Castle are the major cliff formers at Alta. "These limestones were formed in shallow, crystal clear water in the tropics, a good image to keep in mind on a windy winter day on the Sugarloaf chair," said Jones.

Jones has been active in passing on his geologic knowledge about how this terrain and the phenomenon of the Wasatch's awesome snow combines to make these areas the best places on earth for skiing. He gives presentations at various locations on the geology story and how it relates to the ski experience. His knowledge is vast (he has both a bachelors and masters degree in geology and has worked in the field of geology for over 25 years ) and his enthusiasm for sharing it is evident. "I discovered a number of unique geologic characteristics at Alta that were directly applicable to people on the mountain", said Jones. "I can tell them something [in a presentation] and then take them onto the hill [during a ski school session] and show them where it is. It's fun."

Besides the amazing terrain in these parts, geology also contributes to why we get the Greatest Snow on Earth." Today the Wasatch Mountains are the first major barrier to storms east of the Sierra Nevada Range ," said Jones. "As Pacific storms cross the high desert of Nevada they grow colder and release their moisture as light, fluffy powder on the glacier-groomed slopes of Alta Ski Area, producing some of the finest skiing in the world. The geometry of Little Cottonwood Canyon with Alta at the mountain divide captures every possible flake of snow from passing storms and the "lake effect" of the Great Salt Lake adds to snow totals. The steep north-facing glacial headwalls of Mt. Baldy , Devils Castle and Sugarloaf Peak shade much of the area from sunshine preserving snow quality through much of the winter. All of these features combine to make the foundation of the totally unique Alta experience."

To delve more into the science of geology's gift to skiing, check out Jones' write-ups at and see how geology has contributed to 20 favorite runs at Alta.

Backroads of Utah
by Theresa A. Husarik

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