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About Utah: Burns family retains role in ski industry

Published: Sunday, Jan. 13 2013 11:30 p.m. MST

DEER VALLEY -- It's been almost 70 years since his grandfather built the first ski lift in Park City, so it's not every day that someone comes up to Roger Burns and asks him if he's related to Bob Burns.

But when they do ask, he's pleased to answer in the affirmative – and add the fact that the office where he goes to work on a daily basis sits less than a hundred yards from where that first lift used to run.

In Utah's rich and deep skiing history, Roger, who is guest services manager at Deer Valley, is as cutting-edge current as today's snowfall report, but his family ties reach all the way back to a time when you didn't order chairlift parts from some company in Switzerland, you made them yourself.

The year was 1946. The country was throwing off the shackles of World War II. It was time to start playing, and Bob Burns and Otto Carpenter knew just what to do: start their own ski area.

Both of the men worked day jobs for Park City Mines, the company that operated the few claims still functioning in the area's played-out mountains that had once yielded the second largest silver strike in American history. Burns was a machinist, Carpenter a carpenter.

The men loved to ski, but hated to travel. There was a chairlift at Alta, another at Brighton, and still another at Snowbasin, all of them hours away.

So they built their own in their own backyard. Carpenter cut down lodgepole pines and constructed lift towers and chairs. Burns machined the lift parts and the cables and hooked them up to a Ford Model-A engine.

They erected their contraption, first towing a T-bar and then a full-blown chairlift, at the base of a steep mountain east of town where Depression-era workers had cut ski runs in the 1930s.

They called their enterprise the Snow Park Ski Club. Every weekend they opened their doors to the public, where, from an 800-square-foot warming shed next to the lift, Otto's wife LaRue and Bob's wife Rintha served chili and hamburgers that none other than The New York Times called "the largest, most-succulent two-bit hamburgers in the West."

Snow Park operated every weekend for 23 winters until its lease expired in 1969. After that the lift towers deteriorated, the Model-A engine rusted over and the runs lay dormant – until the winter of 1981-82 when businessman Edgar Stern Jr. opened his upscale Deer Valley resort and positioned the lower base of operations precisely where Burns and Carpenter had positioned theirs.

He named his million-dollar lodge Snow Park and his first two lifts Burns and Carpenter.

People naturally assume that Roger Burns got his job because of his name. But the natural assumption is wrong.

He first started working for Deer Valley just after he graduated from Park City High School in 1982, at the start of the resort's second season. He was a busboy, hired, he says, because his sister Colleen, who was a waitress at the Mariposa Restaurant, put in a good word for him.

No one knew he was related to the double chairlift just outside the Snow Park Lodge. He sure didn't drop his grandfather's name.

He then served an LDS mission to Argentina before hiring back on at Deer Valley as a guest services attendant.

Little did he know that superior treatment of guests would be the hook the resort would hang its reputation on – for the past 30 years Deer Valley has consistently rated tops in the industry in guest services – or that he would prove so adept at it.

Today, at 48, he is manager of all of Deer Valley's guest services.

Somewhere, you've got to figure, Bob Burns is beaming. Maybe his Snow Park Ski Club has gone the way of bear trap bindings, but his grandson is head of the best ski services operation in the business.

As for Roger, he's not sure just how his grandfather might react if he were to come back and see the old place now, because he never was one to boast about his place in Utah's ski history.

He tells the story of when he was a teenager and his grandfather, who lived just down the street in old town Park City, mentioned that he thought he'd start skiing again. Bob Burns was in his 70s by then, but he went out and bought some skis and asked his grandson if he'd like to join him for some night skiing at Park City.

"As a little kid I never knew he skied at all, so I thought, 'Oh great, I'll be waiting for him on every run,' " says Roger. "But I'll tell you what, he beat me down the hill every time."

Ski pioneer Bob Burns died in 1982. That was immediately after Deer Valley opened and hired his grandson – ensuring that a Burns would still be there on the mountain to make sure the lifts kept running.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs every Monday.

email: lbenson@desnews.com

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