No tubing, no discos at Alta — just no-frills skiing

Manager keeps focus on the skiers

Published: Thursday, March 3 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

Alta general manager Onno Wieringa takes the Collins Lift, a new high-speed quad, during his morning runs before the resort opens.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

The first time he said it, it slipped by as casual conversation, like mention of the weather outside or a good meal. The second time, Onno Wieringa stopped midsentence to make certain the meaning wasn't lost: "Alta is for skiers."

But then, why else would a ski area exist if it weren't there for skiers?

"No," Wieringa, the resort's general manager, went on, "Alta is for skiers . . . and it's fodder for a lot of discussions around here. It goes back to the philosophical discussion of whether we are selling lift tickets or ski tickets.

"We call it a lift ticket, but I contend that what skiers are buying is skiing. The lift is just something to get them to what they are really buying — skiing."

Which means in Alta's case, no tubing hills, no ice rinks, no sleigh rides, no live entertainment at the disco next door.

Almost from day one, and even before, when Alf Engen walked into Albion Basin back in 1936 and into what he called a "dust bowl" of cut timber and dismantled buildings and saw "an area with great (skiing) potential," skiing has been the main commodity on the shelf.

No-frills skiing is what Alta is all about and what Wieringa is intent on delivering — "I've had good teachers, supportive owners and I have a great mountain." At times, however, it hasn't been easy.

Many of those in Alta's yearbook of returning customers want nothing changed. Then there are those who come looking for a Disneyland at a ski resort.

"People who ski here like us for what we are . . . a ski area. And that's all we want to be," he said.

And it's his job to make sure Alta stays a ski area first and foremost.

Wieringa was raised in Montana and worked as a ski patrolman at Bridger Bowl outside Bozeman. Upon graduation from Montana State University, he went in search of a break between school and full-time employment in the business world.

"Everyone was headed for Big Sky (ski area in Montana), which was about to open. I saw it as just another freezing, cold ski area. I called a friend who was working at Alta and asked if this was a good place. He talked me into coming to Utah," he recalled.

"I drove into the parking lot in the fall of 1972. The ski patrol director met me and asked, 'Well, what do you think of Alta?' All I could see was High Rustlers, and I told him I thought it was going to be bigger. Wow, I can't believe I said that. I soon learned there was a lot more to Alta."

He arrived on Nov. 1 and remembered it started snowing heavily on Nov. 9. "We opened and I thought, wow, you drive in, it snows like crazy and you have all this wonderful powder skiing. This is great," he recalled.

One winter turned into two, then three, and after six years on the ski patrol he became one of the first members of Alta's avalanche control team after the ski area took over duties from the U.S. Forest Service. He would later become head of snow safety at the resort.

"Those were great days," he remembered. "We pioneered all sorts of things here that hadn't been done to make a modern ski area safe. We were given all the latitude we needed to make it work."

He worked in snow safety for 10 years and was then brought into the front office by Chick Morton, who was at the time president/general manager, and was among the early legends in skiing who had made Alta home.

Eventually, Wieringa was made general manager when Morton retired.

Over the years, he'd come in contact with many of the greats in skiing who were bonded to Alta, including Morton, Engen and Joe Quinney, one of the founders of Alta.