Vintage ski tale, from February 2009, updated in 2018.
By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
Standing on the lip of Bishop’s Bowl at the top of Robert Redford’s Sundance Mountain ski resort, watching the pair ascending slowly on the Arrowhead Lift, I couldn’t resist turning to my skiing sidekick Wally and delivering the line, “Who are those guys?”
Certainly not Butch and Sundance. Chuck and Jack were a couple of retirees on a day trip from Salt Lake City. They are more typical of the characters found on the slopes of Sundance than the movie stars one might hope to encounter.
At $80 (2018 price), the lift ticket is considerably cheaper than those at the big, glitzy ski resorts around nearby Park City, Utah (Park City Mountain is $145 for a day pass). That explained the abundance of young snowboarders and fixed-income bargain hunters on a sunny February morning.
It is the paradox and charm of Robert Redford’s slice of paradise at the base of Mount Timpanogos. Though world-renowned because of its owner, film festival and other cultural events, Sundance never went Hollywood. Though its rustically elegant lodging is pricy (standard rooms and suites range from $400 to $700 a night in ski season; the mountain loft tops $800), it never priced regular folks like Chuck and Jack off the mountain.
Chuck latched onto us in the parking lot and seemed intent on being our tour guide for the day. On the long ride to the summit, he pointed out various attractions, such as a cabin that had been knocked off its foundation by an avalanche, was rebuilt with a concrete V-shape barrier to protect it, yet got carried away by another avalanche.
Sundance is the sort of place where time stands still, and you feel it on the creeping quad lift that delivers you to the base of the back mountain after making two stops, and the equally tedious triple that follows to reach the best skiing.
You have time to sketch the stunning scenery along the way or listen to Chuck’s array of tales that often started promising, tended to lose direction, but occasionally produced a surprising punch line. Such as when I asked if he’d ever encountered Redford on the slopes.
“Never saw Redford,” he said. “My sister-in-law is a big Redford fan. We were coming up here for dinner one time and I said, ‘I hope we don’t see him.’ She said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘I’d hate to see you have an instant orgasm.’ ”
By the time we finally got our skis facing downhill, we were convinced we were in good hands. Chuck had detailed his experiences in the ski patrol. “I’ll lead off,” he said, and proceeded to take the most comical slow-motion tumble down the first slope.
It’s no wonder Chuck never ran into Redford. Mr. Downhill Racer is said to frequent the resort’s steepest runs, accessible from Bishop’s Bowl. One of them, Shauna’s Secret, is named for his daughter.
Run the sheer face of Shauna’s through a pine glade, then take a hard right down Pipeline, a long, narrow canyon that leaves you breathless and turns your legs to jelly before it spits you out in the most quiet and peaceful corner of Sundance. It seems an ideal outlet for Butch and Sundance to make a dramatic escape from Joe Lefors’ posse.
Sundance does feel more like an outlaw’s ruggedly beautiful hideout than a ski resort. Or like the perfect hideaway from the mobs at the major resorts. Though small, with 500 skiable acres, it is easy to lose oneself, and to avoid other skiers.
Surprising when you consider there are only five lifts.
“You may wonder how it will satisfy you. But the vastness of the terrain is tremendous, everything from intermediate to World Cup-expert. It may only be 500 acres, but it’s 500 acres of my favorite terrain,” says Jerry Warren, director of skiing and mountain operations.
Warren was working at the small ski operation known as Timphaven when Redford bought the property in 1969, around the time he starred as a national ski team hotshot in Downhill Racer. Warren left twice, including a 17-year stint to run the ski school at Snowbird, Utah, but he kept returning to Sundance and isn’t thinking about leaving again.
Not only does the skiing measure up to the best Warren has experienced, from Utah to Austria, the resort operation has remained true to the place. Give Redford credit for that, above all. He has always put preservation ahead of profit.
The buildings blend unobtrusively into the surroundings, all dwarfed by the stunning presence of Mount Timpanogos, second highest peak in Utah’s Wasatch Range. One dining room was built around a pine tree that Redford refused to have removed – hence, the Tree Room. Somehow, all the movie producers and directors, famous authors, artists and musicians who converge on Sundance for various cultural events, blend in as well.
“A mix of primitive and sophisticated, like art itself,” is the way Redford characterizes Sundance in a narrative on the resort website.
“If I look at the pictures way back when it used to be the little resort of Timphaven, my goodness, it’s more natural now than it was then,” Warren says. “It’s not being grazed with sheep and cattle now. The growth has come back. You have to look to find the buildings.
“It’s one reason I’m still here. I don’t like feeling pressure and the fast pace of other areas. One thing, all of us who work here, we feel it’s our home. And Bob – that’s what we call Mr. Redford — wants us to feel that way.”
If Sundance is more natural now than ever, what of the Natural, himself? Warren knows better than anyone. He is the owner’s ski guru.
“As a skier, he’s technically better than he was when I met him,” Warren says. “He’s a real student of the sport. Even with all he’s achieved, he still wants to get better. In fact, he is getting better.”
So it’s not unusual to encounter Redford on the slopes. He and Warren like to head to the back of the mountain in the morning and make a sweeping tour of the terrain back to the base.
This day in February there was no sign of the Sundance Kid, but we did find evidence of Butch Cassidy in the cozy Owl Bar. The rosewood bar was built in Ireland for Robert LeRoy Parker, the real Butch Cassidy. Redford found it in Thermopolis, Wyo., had it restored and moved it to Sundance.
Chris, the bartender from New York, gave up a $40,000 job as manager at an Outback Steakhouse to tend Butch’s bar for a lot less.
“I’m going to school, and I like it here,” he says. “A lot of the time you look up at the mountain and say, this is a pretty nice place to be working.”
If You Go: Sundance Resort, Utah
Getting there: It’s an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City, about 30 miles from Park City.
Ski resort: Much smaller than the glitzy Park City resorts, Sundance has 42 trails spread over 500 acres accessible from five slow-moving lifts. Most challenging skiing can be found in the steep bowls and narrow chutes at the far side of the resort. Lift tickets are $80 for adults, $40 for night skiing on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Lodging: Rustic mountain cabins range from about $400 a night for standard rooms to more than $800 for 900-square-foot suites with loft.
Dining: The Foundry Grill is Robert Redford’s favorite for lunch. The Tree Room offers fine dining in a room built around a tree.
Apres Ski: Unwind at the Owl Bar, where your boots have the resonance of a real cowboy saloon and he bar itself belonged to the real Butch Cassidy. Redford found it in Wyoming.
What’s so special: Sundance is as much about promoting the arts and preserving the environment as it is about skiing. Redford bought the property in 1969 and has stayed true to that vision, stressing conservation before it was fashionable, keeping the emphasis on preserving the place over profits, while nearby mega-resorts like Deer Valley and Park City Mountain Resort have thrived nearby. Situated next to 12,000-foot Mount Timpanogos, the scenery is spectacular.
Film festival: The resort is a hub of activity during the Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 21-31), but it’s actually a good time to ski. Lots of celebs around, not many skiers.
More information: Sundanceresort.com