ALTA — Seventy years and who knows how many thousands of lift rides later, the real beauty of the place is still not lost on Bob Murdoch.

"I'm just glad to have a place to ski that isn't a rope tow," Murdoch said Thursday when he joined in the celebration at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon observing the 70th birthday of Alta Ski Resort.

Of the 100 or so in attendance for the typically Alta bash — held early in the morning, before the lifts opened, so as to not interfere with the skiing — Bob was the one man who could say he was there on Jan. 15, 1939, the day the resort opened.

Or close enough.

"I can't say for sure it was the actual first day," he said, refusing to invoke a bit of literary license even if 70 years have blurred the facts and, besides that, he's pretty much outlived anyone who could contradict him.

"All I know is that it was my first day," he added, "and it was great."

Bob was 14 at the time. Born and raised in Salt Lake City, he'd learned to ski at Rasmussen's, a ranch on the east side of Parleys Summit that lured alpine skiers with a metal cable euphemistically called a "rope tow" that slowly hauled them to the top of the hill.

It was better than hiking up, but barely.

"You could wear out a pair of gloves in a day," Murdoch remembered.

When Alta opened with a chairlift, it was like hitching a ride to heaven.

It was the world's second skiers' chairlift. The first was at Sun Valley in Idaho, where in 1936 a Union Pacific engineer named James Curran modified a conveyor belt used to transport bananas in the tropics by attaching seats instead of hooks and putting skiers in them.

When nobody died, the burgeoning Alta resort, its terrain scouted and blessed by ski pioneer Alf Engen and financed by a consortium led by Salt Lake attorney Joe Quinney, decided to follow suit.

A single-chair lift was constructed up Collins Gulch in 1938.

By January 15, 1939, the glitches were worked out enough to put people on it.

"It was so wonderful," said Murdoch. "So much better than a rope tow."

Rides on the Collins Lift were 25 cents for one or $1.50 for the whole day.

Bob had a Deseret News paper route and sold Saturday Evening Posts on the side — he could spring for the whole buck and a half.

He rode the lift at least 30 times that first day.

"It wasn't crowded," he recalled. "You could just ski down and get back on and keep going. We never stopped."

That philosophy more or less sums up Bob's lifetime approach to skiing. He hasn't skied all his life — World War II got in the way for a time and there were several years when his five children were young that he and Alta weren't on a first-name basis — but he's skied most of it.

Twenty years ago, when he retired as a civil engineer, he started getting season passes. About 10 years ago, Alta started giving them to him for free.

He is now officially a member of the Wild Old Bunch, a gang of Alta skiers 70 years and older who congregate at Alf's Restaurant two mornings every week and then spread out to terrorize the slopes.

On Thursday, after officially welcoming Alta itself into the Wild Old Bunch, Bob was once again off to join the gang.

"I think this has helped keep me pretty young," he smiled.

As he headed off in the direction of the chairlift, a 14-year-old kid going on 85, it was hard to argue with that.


Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.