I wrote this piece awhile back as a guest blogger when Connie Marshall was still running the big show up at Alta. It was published on their blog at this link http://www.alta.com/blog/a-brief-and-colorful-history-of-alta-ski-area-and-the-bright-future-ahead but for some reason the full story doesn’t load.

Honestly, I am just reposting it here because occasionally people ask for writing samples, and this was one of my pieces that I don’t hate so much. Enjoy:

Keepers of the Frozen Flame

Alta is for skiers. Let’s not debate this. The definition of what it means to be a skier in the purest form has nothing to do with how many boards you are standing on and how wide they are. It has even less to do with spa treatments, sushi, or swanky accommodations. In the purest form, It involves a passion for a sport that depends greatly on a frozen fire that burns deep in the soul, respect for the mountains that were meant to be skied by skiers, a reverence for the snow that fills those mountains up with its bounty, and appreciation for the stewards of the resources required to preserve this tradition and pass it down to the next generation.

Alta is for skiers, and back in 1935, it was a skier of all skiers who helped make the case to the Forest Service that the mountains surrounding the mining town of Alta, Utah had the potential to be a magical place for people to ski. A pioneer of powder, Alf Engen hiked and toured and arced through the precious weightless commodity that was piled up above the surface of the earth, unlike the riches that were once sought deep down below. A few years later, in 1939, the first single chair lift ferried skiers up into the clouds in search of those same goods.

Alta is for skiers, and if you ask some of the folks have have been working and skiing there their entire careers and lives, they would say there are a few reasons why the owners and staff have been able to stay focused on their simple brand promise and the overdelivery of the pure skiing experience. At the top of the list of qualities is independence. Somehow managing to remain independent and privately owned in an industry where speculation, boom-to-bust master planning, foreclosures, corporate acquisitions, litigation, in essence all of the rocky and treacherous things that seem to make up the business that lies lurking beneath the blankets of untracked powder and ready to rip the edges off your skis, has allowed Alta to focus on just the skiing. Because Alta has never really been through the all too common cycle of new owners bringing in new people to replace the old people, you won’t find a lot of change-for-change sake here, and longevity has become a very powerful lever for those committed to keeping Alta true to its heritage and tradition.

Alta is for skiers, and occasionally some feathers can get ruffled. Let’s have a conversation about this. Not long ago, a grown-up group of snowboarders with law degrees decided they had a strong case to go after Alta on grounds that by not allowing snowboarders, they were discriminating against a group and preventing them from using public lands. Let us remember back in the mid to late 1930’s, when the Quinneys and the Laughlins got together with the Forest Service people, and invested the time, money, and passion to establish the first Alta Ski Lifts, their efforts were pure and simple: to provide a way to move skiers up the mountain so that in return, by skiing down, they could truly be moved. This was the only promise made to anybody back then. There was no exclusivity clause back then, and there is none today. Perhaps during this costly and time consuming modern day discussion, some may have thought the Alta tradition was at risk, but when traditions are strong and pure they seem to endure.

Alta is for skiers, and even among those who call themselves skiers who are not convinced by the science behind the notion that our planet is getting warmer (the 3 of you should get together for a few beers in the Sitzmark after a day of skiing laps on High Rustler and discuss this, while you still have a chance of being convinced otherwise), it is hard to imagine the prospects that the thrill of sliding down plastic mats is anywhere near the thrill of chewing on a mouthful of blower pow shooting at you in the face from the tips of your Super 7s. The management team and staff at Alta believes in being accountable and responsible and doing everything they can to give their tradition a snowball’s chance in hell that it will last beyond the century mark, and they quietly have invested in some noteworthy efforts. For example, you wouldn’t think a resort based in its own microclimate that consistently receives over 500 inches of the lightest and driest snow needs to augment itself by pumping and spraying compressed air and water all over the place, but improving their snowmaking infrastructure and coverage in an ecologically responsible way has proven to be less of a hedge against impending doom, and more of an improvement that skiers over the past few years have noticed and appreciated. Sustainability in Alta’s corporate culture is a practice, not a preaching, and you will more likely find people doing things, rather than talking about them. The Alta Environmental Center founded in 2008 is an example of how a passionate group of people can combine the job of running a profitable business while also finding new ways to help ensure that business is viable for future generations.

Alta is for skiers, and while many other ski resorts busy themselves trying to get the word out about what’s new and how many millions of dollars are being spent in the annual arms race to attract market share, Alta knows you can’t ski on dollar bills, nor would you want to. Most of the capital improvements on the mountain have come over time, and only when the management deems them necessary to improve upon the skier experience. “The owners and management team here have been historically conservative when it comes to capital improvements,” says Connie Marshall, Director of Marketing and PR. “We’ve never really built anything we couldn’t afford.” Not beholden to creditors and financiers, the only debts are to the loyalists who keep coming back. There are always small improvements on offer, like a recent upgrade to RFID tickets and passes, modernizing lifts when the time is right, and introducing new ski school programs.

Alta is for skiers, and in no way should this be interpreted as intimidating or cautionary or meant to scare you away if you are questioning or searching for strands of the skier’s DNA in your genetic code. It’s not about how skilled or accomplished you are, but if you consider yourself skilled and accomplished, you will be tested. Alta’s trademark steep terrain stands proud and tall with the best the Wasatch has to offer, but in fact over two thirds of the skiable terrain is rated intermediate and beginner. Alta is and has always been family-centric, and a high percentage of loyal Alta skiers will have to dig deep into the well of childhood memories if you ask them to recall the first time they skied here. This means the fire burned before, and the fire still burns today, and there is a good chance the fire will burn again tomorrow. And that bodes well, because Alta will always be for skiers.

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I originally wrote this piece as a recap of my one and only attempt at the Wild Horse Gravel Race in Utah’s Cedar Mountains, at the request of the promoter Chris Magerl, who was going to submit it to Cycling Utah, or whatever they call themselves these days. I don’t think it ever got published*, so I thought I might as well post it here, in case anyone is looking for beta on that ride. Here goes:

May 8, 2018:

Although this was my first Wild Horse, it had always been on my radar as a ride I wanted to do. I would say it delivered on my expectations of being bumpy, sandy, windy, and at times lonely, which means it was a perfect gravel experience! The views on the backside were pretty spectacular, and I had good company in my riding partner, Mark Currie, as we made our way around the Cedar Mountains. Ironically, we rode together for almost 4 hours, but probably only chatted for a total of 4 minutes. The pace we were riding wasn’t a real chatty pace.

As far as how the race unfolded, the first few miles seemed a little nervous in the group, as everyone was bouncing around looking for the smoothest line. This is often the challenge in gravel racing; wanting to be near the front but not on the front. It’s a trade between the road racing mentality of being glued to someone else’s wheel to catch a draft, versus not being able to see the sharp rocks that might quickly end the day. After a few miles, it seemed like riding side by side with Mark at the front was the best deal, and we half wheeled each other into a pretty big gap at the base of the first climb. That was the last time I saw another rider until we started catching some of the Little Wild Horse riders on the way back.

Our riding styles complemented each other fairly well. I drifted ahead on the climbs, mistakenly thinking I was going hard enough to challenge for the KOM (turns out I didn’t go quite hard enough). Mark was much better on the downhill and turny segments, the net result was a pace that kept us in front. We made a really quick stop at the 2nd feed, barely enough time to slam back a half of a Coke and fill a water bottle. Both of us had hydration packs, so we didn’t linger more than a minute before we were back on course. As confident as I was on the climbs, the last climb at about mile 65 was where the lights went out for me. I went from having a small lead that I thought I could stretch out to the finish to getting passed by Mark’s steady pace all the way to the top, and then watching him recede into the horizon while it seemed I was going backwards. The last 3 miles for me seemed like a bad dream as I hemorrhaged time and motivation and the only thing that kept me going was the old mantra of “the slower you go, the longer it takes.”

As far as equipment goes, I rode the same rig I rode in last year’s Dirty Kanza 200 (206, actually), Crusher, and RPI: an Open UPPER with a single front chainring. A little bird who raced last year, who may or may not be named Jamey Driscoll told me to run my 650b wheels with fat tires, which was good advice that I ignored. Instead, I rode Gravel King 700c x 43c tires with waaaaay too much pressure. I should have stopped to let some out, but I doubt the winner would have waited for me!

*Correction: apparently it did get published, but I still can’t find the link!

Thomas Cooke riding an OPEN U.P.P.P.E.R. during the 2018 Wild Horse gravel bike race in Utah's West Desert.

Photo by Pete Vordenberg, who was the only person standing at the top of KOM 1.

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“If man is five, if man is five, if man is five
Then the devil is six, then the devil is six
The devil is six, the devil is six and if the devil is six
Then God is seven , then God is seven, the God is seven”
–The Pixies

I’ve spent the last 7 years obsessing over the perfect tires for the Col De Crush descent. I have 7 pair of Incredisocks with the Crusher mountain goat logo, to get mixed up in my sock drawer so I never have a matching pair. I have 7 different event t-shirts with signature Crusher themed artwork (The “Rush” logo is still my fave). They say 7 is a lucky number, so I was feeling good about my form and experience, and was hoping to better my PR time of 4 hours and 38 minutes from 2015. 2016 was a rather unlucky year for me, having flatted a front tubular that just wouldn’t seal up with sealant and CO2. Then again, some people think 13 is an unlucky number, and I camped in Little Cottonwood campsite number 13. Little Cottonwood campground is, you guessed it, 7 miles up canyon from the starting line in downtown Beaver. I obsess over the numbers, sometimes looking for meaning where there is none.

While we are on the topic of numbers, here are some straight-up numbers relative to the bike that I rode for year number 7. I rode an Assos Limited Edition Open UPPER, almost exactly the setup I used at my first DK200 this year, where I finished 13th.

40: number of teeth on Easton EC90 SL front chainring
9: number of teeth on bottom cog of the e*thirteen cogset
11: number of cogs on e*thirteen rear cassette
46: number of teeth on largest cog
0: number of times I planned on using the largest cog
175: length in mm of the Easton EC90 carbon cranks
70: capacity in ounces of Cotopaxi hydration pack I wore
27.5: diameter of DT Spline wheels
2.1: width of Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires, front and rear
24: pressure in psi, front and rear
16.5: weight in pounds of bike as described with Crank Bros Candy 11 pedals, but without seat pack and bottles.

Pre-ride up to Kents Lake the night before the Crusher. Calm.

Pre-ride up to Kents Lake the night before the Crusher. Calm.

The group of riders who have towed the line at every Crusher since the first gets smaller every year. I am sure it will be shrink again, as we approach the Hateful 8, but I’m also pretty sure I’ll be part of that group.

Photo by my main moto man Chris See. This was on the first climb, before I started sucking.

Photo by my main moto man Chris See. This was on the first climb, before I started sucking.

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