Lee Benson, Deseret News
SANDY — He came here three decades ago, stopping in a dead-end canyon with just the ski parka on his back and whatever cartons of instant noodles could fit in his Volkswagen.
And now? Now he's sitting in an Einstein Bros. bagel shop at the bottom of that no-way-out canyon with proof that it wasn't all just a self-indulgent lark.
The book he's holding in his hands explains why he did what he did, why the diploma he got from the State University of New York/Brockport was allowed to gather dust on the floor of that Veedub, why he's never left.
The book's title: "Alta Magic."
"I wanted to capture the specialness we all feel about Alta," says Lee Cohen, the book's creator, financier, marketer and sales staff. "Why we came. Why we stayed."
Virtually from the day it opened in 1939 at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, the Alta Ski Area has attracted pilgrims, folks who hear the clarion call of deep powder snow and flock to its base. Some stay for a day, some for a year, some for a lifetime. Lee Cohen is one of those.
His story is as typical as it is unique. He was a college sophomore in upstate New York in 1978 when he and a friend decided to take the year off to go out West and ski. They settled at Arapahoe Basin in Colorado. Their lodging costs were nominal. They slept in a tent. Days, they skied. Toward the end of the winter, they drove to San Francisco to decompress, where the camera Lee had "borrowed" from his brother was stolen out of their car. A significant detail because it meant that when the vagabonds came to Utah and Alta for some late spring powder, a man who would eventually make his living as a photographer at Alta didn't have a thing to shoot with.
After that, fantasy gave way to reality, as Lee returned to State U/Brockport and got his degree in business with a specialty in finance. But the grip Alta had on him never relented, and on the very day he graduated in December 1981, he was off again, his Volkswagen "filled with all my junk." After a detour to visit a friend in Tennessee, he headed straight for the Rockies, not stopping till he arrived at Alta.
His goals? Very minimal. He found a cheap place to stay at a trailer park in Sandy at the mouth of the canyon, skied every day the rest of the winter, and when summer came found work as a roofer and carpenter, saving just enough so when the snows returned he could do it all over again.
"Back then you could be a ski bum for practically zero," says Lee. "I lived on the cheap and caught what I call mad pow disease."
He adds, completely unnecessarily, "Alta plays a huge role in afflicting people with mad pow disease."
Cohen, who will be 55 on his next birthday, still smiles when he talks about Alta powder and the hold it has on certain kinds of people, him in particular.
"Does skiing the deep change people's lives?" he writes in his book. "The answer is yes. It's all about the snow. It's about the zone you enter when you're skiing bottomless light and dry, the moment that stretches into your subconscious and grants you a feeling of eternal oneness until you get to the bottom."
And of course, there is no bottom.
There are worse things than being a ski zealot. In Lee Cohen's case, he turned his obsession into his profession. Early on, he started taking pictures of friends skiing the powder – this time with his own camera. That quickly morphed into a job: shopping the pictures to magazines. Eventually, Powder Magazine bit. They've been biting ever since, along with assorted other publications and companies.
After nine years of skiing and shooting the deep, Lee even settled down. He fell in love, married a fellow skier named Robin, and they had a son, Sam, that the three of them — Lee, Robin and Alta — raised.
On pages 48 and 49 of "Alta Magic," Sam, now 20, writes about having Alta as a baby sitter.
The book is full of Lee's spectacular photographs shot over the past 30 years plus 60 different essays from various Alta "locals" equally as addicted as he is. The words and pictures capture the aura of Utah's ski mecca about as well as you're ever going to find it captured.
"Alta Magic" is available at leecohen.com, various locations at Alta and at Dolly's in Park City.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday.
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