Seventy years ago, in the depths of the last Great Depression, Americans discovered skiing.
Well, of course, we didn’t discover it. The Norwegians discovered sliding on slats 4,000 years ago, and the Austrians perfected the downhill turn 3,900 years later. But in the 1930s Americans flocked to the sport in the hundreds of thousands – by train and car and rope tow and the world’s first chairlift at Sun Valley, Idaho, 1936.
The country’s second chairlift carried single riders (chairlift love had not yet been invented) up the logged-off slopes of Collins Gulch at Alta, Utah, early in the winter of 1938-39. A lift ticket cost $1.50. Then as now, the high box end of Little Cottonwood Canyon filled with snow. Alta was an instant hit.
It still is. Seventy years on, we can see why. It was the perfect terrain in a perfect micro-climate developed by profoundly democratic visionaries. And all of those pesky trees had been removed by 19th century silver miners. (Virtually all of the trees you see at Alta today were planted in a CCC reforestation effort.)
One of the young men working in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps was a Norwegian immigrant named Alf Engen. Alf was arguably the greatest four-event skier of all time, a jumper who set hill records everywhere he went and a gate skier who would have represented the U.S. in the 1940 Olympics except for the fact that his visage had long before appeared on Wheaties boxes.
Alf was out scouting potential ski hills, over Catherine Pass from Brighton and Park City, when he spotted the alpine slopes of Collins Gulch. Now there’s a ski area, he reported.
At the same time, a civic-minded lawyer named Joe Quinney was organizing the Salt Lake Winter Sports Association. Together, Quinney, Engen and the United States Forest Service – which had the crazy idea it wanted to get into the public-lands recreation business – along with a handful of other key payers, built an avalanche-proof stone shelter, scavenged parts from an old mine tram, side-stepped the hill so the public wouldn’t have to battle all that deep powder, and opened Alta.
Alta, the high place, the top. When the Salt Lake Valley isn’t filled with inversion smog, you can see the city, spread out like a map, at the bottom of the canyon. It may be budding spring in Temple Square and snowing two inches an hour up at Alta. It snowed so much, Alf had to invent powder-skiing technique.
In the beginning he and his buddies had to ski super fast to get their long, stiff skis to float in the deep. “By gosh, they were just planks then. We had to go 150 feet to get where we were comfortable in it. I never worried a great deal about speed.” Alf told me, on the occasion of Alta’s 50th anniversary in 1988, that they hand-planed their hickory boards dangerously thin in order to get them to bend. Then metal and finally fiberglass skis came along, and they could at last slow down.
These days Alta is crawling with hot young skiers ripping around at really high speeds on really big skis. Full circle. Do you think they know about Alf and Sverre and Dick Durrance and Junior Bounous?
For a long time Alta had a retro reputation. Old lifts. A tiny number of lodge beds. No nightlife. People who knew the place just smiled at the bad rap. No, Alta was not Vail or Deer Valley, and thank goodness. There were only five lodges because those were the only five spots off the road that were safe from avalanches. And there was no high-speed lift because it, as Alf told me, “Rooooons the skiing. We’d just as soon have a lift line if it will mean better skiing on the mountain.”
Things have changed in the last decade under general manager Onno Wieringa, who started at Alta as a teenager on the patrol. Alta has a couple of quads now. They take credit cards, and they have a child’s ticket. (Previous general manager Chick Morton used to say: “We don’t sell a children’s ticket because [at Alta] everybody pays children’s prices.”
That 50th birthday year, the ticket price got bumped up to $18/day. Now it’s nosed up into the $60 range – still 50 percent less than the “big boys.” Alf and Joe Quinney meant for Alta to remain a people’s playground, affordable, and profitable on ticket sales (not real estate sales) alone. And so it has remained. Joe Quinney’s final words were: “Take what you need to make a living, but keep the price down.”
Happy Birthday, Alta. You always make me feel like a kid.