Second of a historical series by contributors Patricia and Robert Foulke
ALTA, Utah-As mid-season approaches for skiers in the Northeast, many of them dream of capping their ski year in the West. Alta has changed very little in more than five decades since we first skied there in the late
And that remains Alta's special charm. People come back to Alta Lodge year after year, often making reservations for the next year as they check out. Bill Buckley met two friends there every year, saying, "It is quite another world, and that is probably why we've had reunions there." He described walking down and up the 63 steps to Alta Lodge laden with gear, knowing there would never be an elevator-even at an altitude of 8,300 feet. There still is no TV in guest rooms, no glitz anywhere.
Bill Levitt (1917-2009), legendary owner of Alta Lodge for half a century, got hooked on skiing at Big Bromley in Vermont and soon wanted to try Western slopes. Headed for some early season skiing in 1954, Levitt and his wife ended up at Alta and fell in love with the place. "I had to make a choice, buy United Airlines so I could afford to continue coming to Alta on a frequent basis or purchase the Alta Lodge." He made that choice in 1959, was elected "president" of the town in 1971and then the first Mayor in 1975, a post he held for 34 years.
To preserve skiing pleasure, Alta limits tour buses and even closes the road to skiers arriving by car when the lifts reach capacity on busy weekends. Snow boards are not allowed at Alta, so there are no halfpipes to carve and maintain. Alta did create a terrain park for skiers, "but we were astonished to discover that many more of our skiers preferred to use the natural terrain features, on our 2200 Acres, as their 'park'."
Long before miners or skiers arrived, Indians used Little Cottonwood Canyon as a hunting ground. White trappers passed through, and the Mormons came in 1847. In 1864 General Patrick Connor's wife, while on a picnic and mapping exploration with her husband, picked up silver-bearing galena ore. Within a year the miners followed. The Columbia Mine opened in 1865 and Emma in 1868, prospering for a few years until the shafts hit a blank rock wall.
But by then the first boom had created a town. In 1872 there were 200 houses and businesses, including four hotels, six sawmills, 26 saloons, a courthouse with a jail, stores and a school. The Bucket of Blood saloon had a tunnel to the cemetery at the foot of Rustler Mountain to take care of shootings and avalanche victims.
One man, George H. Watson, was responsible for the second boom. In 1903 he acquired 34 abandoned and little-used mines and merged them into a single company, Alta United Mines. He finally deeded his holdings to the U.S. Forest Service, which later called on Alf Engen's expertise to survey the most promising areas for skiing development in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
Quietly, in this second mining era, the transition to skiing had begun. The miners held informal ski competitions on St. Patrick's Day, with participants climbing to various mine entrances. Later the Alta ski barge used to pull 12 to 18 skiers uphill. Watson wrote, "Skiing at the turn of the century in Alta was much different than it is now. In those days, our 'flipflops,' now skis, were not quite so fast but we could â€˜yump'."
In an unlikely era, the closing years of the Great Depression, money was scarce and reaching Little Cottonwood Canyon faced many obstacles. They included the steep uphill road, avalanches, and lack of shelters for skiers, yet development of Alta began. Joe Quinney and others in the Salt Lake City Winter Sports Association decided that building a chair lift at Alta would lay the foundation for a major ski area.
Alta's third boom started in 1937 with a new highway up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Under the direction of the Forest Service, the CCC planted trees on denuded slopes to replace those cut for mine timbers, and the WPA rebuilt the old Alta general store as a shelter for skiers, now the Snowpine Lodge. By the fall of 1938 Alta had built the Collins chairlift, and after many engineering difficulties it became operational on January 15, 1939.
Alf Engen had come to the Wasatch mountains in 1929 after leaving Norway, where he was a Nordic champion and a famous ski jumper. In 1925 he had set a jumping record at age 16. The three Engen brothers, Alf, Sverre and Corey, went to a ski-jumping tournament in the Wasatch Mountains. The stunning scenery reminded them of Norway and they moved to the area.
Alf became the father of deep-powder snow skiing and was dubbed "the King of the Mountain," reflecting his competitive and ski teaching abilities. In teamwork with his wife Evelyn, who managed the business end of his competitive years and the ski school, he was director of the Alta Ski School from 1948 to 1989. The worldwide focus on Alta as a ski paradise was largely the creation of this American skiing legend.
Not many modern ski areas can survive on a reputation for magnificent dry powder runs alone, without constant expansion and investment in larger, faster lifts and more luxurious base lodges. Alta has. No gondolas. Seven chair lifts, only three of them high-speed, and three surface lifts do the uphill job. No snowboards or manicured halfpipes. Just an average of 500 inches of dry powder spread over 2200 skiable acres--and that's enough.