Top 10 North American Ski Resorts

The uninitiated need only to remember that the Panoramic Gondola will take you all the way to the very top, from where you should tack right to the Upper Bowl and a series of plunging drops fanning into a wider bowl. If you make it that far, you'll have some time to catch your breath and reconsider your recklessness.

Mammoth's signature siren-of-the-steeps is Hangman's Hollow, a chute bordered by snarling rocks that leaves room for only one perfect turn -- or one mistake. It's not just the elevator-shaft steepness, too; it's the mandatory air required to get into it in the first place. Even the local wackos won't try Hangman's unless there's a foot or more of new snow, guaranteeing a pillowy landing.

SNOWBIRD SKI RESORT (ALTA), UTAH

By Alistair Wearmouth

Price: $$ Number of Runs: 89 Number of Lifts: 13 Terrain: 27% beginner, 38% intermediate, 35% advanced Skiable Acreage: 2,500 Vertical Rise: 3,240 feet Season: Mid-November to Mid-May Annual Snowfall: 500 inches Web Site: http://www.snowbird.com/

Snowbird's Aerial Tram ploughs into the early morning mist, packed to the hilt with lucky skiers, mountain rescue crews, and liftees, all expectantly awaiting just one thing: first tracks down the slopes of one of North America's top-rated resorts.

And even though the scenery remains shrouded in a thick blanket as we reach the top of 11,000-foot Hidden Peak, the run home certainly doesn't disappoint, with a gleeful (if not always graceful) glide down blues, blacks, cat tracks, and steep bowls that ends all too swiftly. Good thing, then, there's time to squeeze in one re-run before the tram's official 9 a.m. opening....

Utah's "Bird" has everything going in its favor, including pages of good press and the perfect location. Just 29 miles from Salt Lake City airport and its hundreds of daily domestic and international flights, the big selling point here is you can fly and ski on the same day to max out long-weekend slope time.

Tucked up in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Snowbird's geographic aspect performs a meteorological trick known as the "Lake Effect" to bestow dumps of dry, fluffy powder on the steep canyon sides. Indeed, the quantities are epic, including a record 633 inches for the 2004-05 season that astonishingly kept skiers on the slopes until the July 4th weekend.

Eighty-nine runs lace a monumental 2,500 acres, with the mountain's front face brimming with double-black chutes and long black-diamond runs that will appeal to intermediate skiers and hucksters alike. For a slightly less demanding time, drop over the back into 500-acre Mineral Basin, with a more open aspect and some easier cruisers to loosen things up.

The lower mountain's Gad Valley area proffers a decent number of greens and blues, plus several well-constructed terrain parks to up the action quotient. Beginners who have a burning thirst to conquer the Bird should try the meandering 2.5-mile Chip's Run off the top of Hidden Peak, a fun, blue-rated descent that takes in Snowbird from top to bottom. It intersects a grid of straighter, steeper blacks, so be sure to stay on track if you're just in it for the scenery!

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