Peter Shelton

Brand Loyalty: Alta at 75

Posted in Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on December 13, 2012

The Telluride ski area turns 40 this winter. I’m sure there will be celebrations. And how lucky to have a few of the founders still around to celebrate. Resort progenitor Joe Zoline is no longer with us, and Emile Allais, who consulted on the initial layout, died at age 100 this October. But Senior Mahoney is still kicking, along with relative youngster Johnny Stevens and a small but significant cadre of original ski patrollers from 1972-73, some of whom have not yet reached their sell-by date.

As a ski resort, Telluride is, of course, a relative youngster. Two winters ago, I attended Sun Valley’s 75th shindig, and this year Alta, Utah – builder of the West’s second-ever chairlift  – celebrates its 75th. None of Alta’s many fathers is still alive, but in significant ways the area remains a creature of those visions from the 1930s.

I’ve just read Kim Morton’s book, Wooden Skis, about her father Chic Morton and the early days at Alta. Kim was raised in Alta and is now a ski instructor and life coach in Durango. Chic was Alta Ski Lifts’ second general manager. In the 1940s he rode his horse up the Cottonwood Canyons to ski. There have been only three general managers in 75 years; that’s part of Alta’s secret.

A trio of Alta icons died, coincidentally, in 1997. Chic Morton was one. Alf Engen was another. Alf was already in Utah, a Norwegian-born champion ski jumper, when, in 1935 the U.S. Forest Service asked him to scout locations for a public-lands ski area. Alf toured over Catherine’s Pass from Big Cottonwood Canyon and beheld at the head of the next drainage Alta’s near-treeless Alpine shapes.

The trees were gone because the silver miners had cut them all for mine timbers. Like Telluride, Alta was born in a boom of precious metals. The boom didn’t last long, with the demonetization of silver in 1893 and the repeated leveling of the town by avalanches, slides that were exacerbated by the denuded slopes. Newspaper accounts recorded 74 miners killed by snow slide between 1872 and 1911.

Except for the absence of trees, Alf thought the place was perfect. His assessment coincided with the vision of one Joe Quinney, a community-minded Salt Lake City lawyer who jumpstarted the Salt Lake Winter Sports Association in 1936. The SLWSA negotiated a deal with the Forest Service to build a lift, but not before everyone had to deal with Mayor George Watson.

There was only one guy living in Alta then, and he had elected himself mayor. Mayor Watson had been buying up mining claims since the bust. He made his living ferrying tourists up and down the narrow-gauge Alta Scenic Railway, and he owned much of the land Quinney and Engen wanted for skiing. He also owed a lot of back taxes. So, a deal was struck: The Forest Service got the private land, and Watson was forgiven 20 years of delinquent tax.

The third Alta giant to die in 1997 was James Laughlin, the money behind that first chair lift. Laughlin was a steel heir from Pennsylvania, a wealthy man who did wonderful things with his money. A poet himself, he started New Directions, which published William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Elizabeth Bishop and E.E. Cummings. New Directions also had a hit with the cult classic Siddhartha, which allowed Laughlin, a gifted athlete and life-long skier, to remain Alta’s majority stockholder until his death.

Laughlin famously wanted to keep Alta from over-development, over-commercialization. (It wasn’t terribly hard; the five lodges there sit on the only five spots that are relatively avalanche-free.) He told The New Yorker in 1992: “You’ve got to keep some places like God made them. If you overdo it, you’ll destroy Alta.”

Alf, too, was concerned about growth. His thing was the quality of the experience underfoot, the feel of Alta’s famous powder snow. (Alf invented much of modern powder skiing technique, beginning with the Double Dipsy.) That snow quality was threatened by too many skiers crowding the slopes. So Alf lobbied – and Morton and Laughlin agreed – to limit the area’s uphill capacity, to not build the high-speed lifts other areas were building, lifts that quadrupled the number of skiers on the hill at any given time. “Roons the skiing,” Alf said in his Norwegian lilt. “We’d rather have them standing in line for a while, or hanging from the cable, than crowding the slopes.”

The current general manager, Onno Wieringa, a Montanan who started on the ski patrol at age 22 and has been GM since 1988, has overseen changes in the last decade that would probably have upset Engen and Laughlin and Morton. He authorized the building of two new quads and the demolition of the ancient and much-loved Watson’s Shelter. But the quads didn’t open new terrain; they replaced decrepit older chairs, and satisfied modern skiers’ desire for more vertical in a day. (Watson’s was moldering into the ground; the new shelter is an appropriately low-key stone-and-steel beauty.)

The Alta ethos remains: It’s a place devoted to skiing, not real estate sales, or nightlife, or shopping – just skiing. At the lowest ticket price possible. Joe Quinney’s last words were reputed to be: “Take what you need, but keep the price down.”

Onno has kept the faith on another Alta tradition: no snowboards. The area would certainly attract them. And they’d help with the bottom line. But polls of Alta’s customers, some of whom have been making the trek for four and five generations, consistently say no.

As Chic once said, “Alta is for skiers.” The formula’s worked for three-quarters of a century.

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