From Miners to Movie Stars in Park City, Utah

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From Miners to Movie Stars in Park City, Utah
Story and photos by Tim Leffel



Some towns grow over the course of centuries. Park City took mountains full of silver mining shafts and turned snow into money instead, with three elite ski resorts and a celebrity-studded film festival.


ski Park City

I'm skiing down the perfectly groomed "Tycoon" trail at Deer Valley in pursuit of an Olympian. Once the national giant slalom champion, she can probably get down the mountain faster than me while putting on makeup and arranging pickup time for her kids on the phone. I keep my eye on the speck and bring back the muscle memories from when I used to be a younger, more invincible-feeling skier pounding black diamond trails all day. At the bottom we see smiling attendants and tissue dispensers beside the super-short lift line. Another attendant brushes the snow off our seat before we get on. At the top is a staffer standing beside a giant map, answering questions about the trails leading down.

Deer Valley ski

This is not the ski experience I remember from my days of wiping out on icy turns in Vermont while trying to avoid clumps of fallen skiers, the snow blowers turning my beard into a collection of icy globs. Since the sun is shining down on us even in late January, the indoor hot chocolate breaks here are done for pleasure, not out of necessity. When it's time for lunch, the food is beautiful enough for Instagram photos, not cafeteria grub just meant for refueling.

I end up doing 14 runs in two and a half hours with Heidi Voelker, a member of the US Ski Team for a dozen years. Really long runs too. It's the kind of skiing experience I didn't think existed during peak season. Ski down on fine powder. Immediately get on ski lift. Ride up quickly. Repeat.

The one bit of drama comes from a fellow lift rider who starts asking Heidi technical questions about her skis. When she says she's not sure what the turning radius is, he says, "Well I guess they'll work for a girl." If her neck were exposed, I'm sure I could see the hairs stand up on it. I wait for a snappy comeback, but with amazing restraint for someone who has raced for a medal in three Winter Olympics, she lets him sit in ignorance and we ride the rest of the way up in silence.

In the Tracks of Olympians
In the afternoon I join some other visiting adventure writers for an experience that makes me appreciate the inherent perks of a travel writing job: a 60-second thrill that costs paying customers $200. That would be flying down the Olympic Park bobsled course at with 5G of pressure pushing the riders' helmeted heads around. The preamble makes it much longer of course: we need to sign our rights away on a legal form and get a safety orientation. We get tips on how to ride properly and not get hurt, which basically comes down to this: shrug shoulders up, tuck the chin in, brace the arms against the side. On a ski lift ride earlier in the day, I'd gotten advice to pay attention to these instructions. The man telling me had done it the previous year and had to be lifted out of the bobsled when he was immobilized for a few minutes after the ride.

Olympic Park bobsled

Our helmeted heads still end up banging into each other as we zoom down the track in our "Winter Comet" car. It starts off like a good water slide, turns into one of those water slides that are way too steep, then feels like a rocket engine has gone off in the back and we're hurtling toward a crashing end. In a flash though, we hit the flat part, slow down, and that's it. Time on the scoreboard: 58 seconds.

Apparently this is the easiest sport to get into if you have dreams of being in the Olympics but no particular skills. The contestants simply push off really hard, jump in one at a time, then lean into turns on the way down. It's a different story for the ski and snowboard tricksters. They work on their moves all year, joining the other competitors at a high school on the grounds. There's an aerated swimming pool here with artificial turf ramps. The trainees ride down the ramps on skis or snowbards and land in the pool after their twists and flips. The ski jumpers train on progressively higher jumps before graduating to the monster one you see on TV. As part of the public tour of where the 2002 Olympics were held, we stand at the top of that ski jump, looking down the very scary track to the landing point below.

Ski jump Utah

That night I join my bobsled mates at Fireside Dining in one of Deer Valley's lodges. As if to make the distinction clear that this resort takes its cuisine cues from Europe, the roaring fireplaces are the backdrop to a Swiss raclete restaurant. The namesake cheese drips onto plates beside a fireplace, while in an adjoining room meat stews bubble in pots licked by the flames. With glasses of red wine and a whole room full of desserts to choose from, we follow a day of adrenaline with Olmpic eating. Afterwards, we wrap up in blankets in a one-horse open sleigh and glide across the snow.

150 Years of Booms and Busts
It's hard to think of Utah and not think about the Mormons. It's been this way since the late 1860s, when Abraham Lincoln sent soldiers out to keep an eye on them. A few of those bored soldiers discovered silver in the mountains around what is now Park City. In 1870 the town only had 164 inhabitants, but when an especially rich silver vein was discovered, a boom town atmosphere started.

George Hearst, the father of future publishing kingpin William Randoph Hearst, bought the richest mine for $27,000. That was a lot of money in 1872, but the mine went on to generate more than $50 million in earnings.

Park City Museum
Mine shaft map in the Park City History Museum

Skiing started in the 1920s in this area in part because the mines made it possible. Some workers would go into a tunnel, ride a shaft train to the top of one mountain and ski down. In was an insiders' sport or one for spectators for decades though. Ski jumpers would draw a crowd launching themselves into the air and jumping pioneer Alf Engen set five world records at Ecker Hill.

After many mines shut down in the 1950s, the population dwindled down to a shade above 1,000 and the mine owners applied for a federal redevelopment loan to start a ski resort with four lifts. Thanks to this government assistance, what is now Park City Mountain Resort was born. As I glide past multi-million-dollar slopeside mansions, some surely owned by "severely conservative" small government voters, the irony is almost too much to bear.




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