SUN VALLEY, Idaho — It was 75 years ago skiers first enjoyed the comfort and convenience of an uphill chair ride.
Seeing the benefits, more than 400 resorts have since followed Sun Valley with groomed runs and chairlifts and hot lunches here in the United States. The first in line was Alta — 73 years ago.
While Sun Valley was the first to introduce a chair lift, Alta was the second … a single chair fashioned after a system used to unload bananas from a boat.
That was not Sun Valley's only tie with Utah in the beginning.
Resort founder Averell Harriman, who introduced to skiing in Europe, enlisted the help of Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch to find the perfect location for America's first destination ski resort.
Schaffgotsch would search the mountains in all the snow states in the West.
And, since he was less than an accomplished skier, Harriman hired skiing legend Alf Engen, the director of the Alf Engen Ski School at Alta for 40 years, as his guide. Engen passed away in 1997.
Engen would guide the Count through the Wasatch Mountains in 1935 and 1936. Tours included areas in both Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. Schaffgotsch liked the mountains and the snow, but believed the areas were too close to the populated Salt Lake City.
Harriman also sought help of early skiing greats, including Engen, to help design ski runs at Sun Valley. Engen would later become a ski instructor at Sun Valley prior to his tenure at Alta.
It would be years later when Utah and Sun Valley would have their strongest bond. Earl Holding, owner of Little America and Grand America, among other things, bought Sun Valley in 1977. In 1984, Holding bought Snowbasin near Ogden and would later name it Snowbasin - A Sun Valley Resort.
(Holding will be inducted into the Ski Hall of Fame this summer along with Paralympic medalist Muffy Davis, a Sun Valley product. Ceremonies will be held in Sun Valley.)
Being the country's first destination resort and having the first chair lift were not the only firsts for the Idaho resort.
Sun Valley was the first to introduce large-scale, computerized snowmaking. It currently has one of the most sophisticated snow making systems in the country able to cover 640 acres, using 575 snowguns on Bald Mountain and a new system with sufficient snowguns on Dollar Mountain.
"We consider it a great insurance policy," said Jack Sibbach, director of marketing and public relations for Sun Valley. "It guarantees that we will have a great product. Our motto at Sun Valley is and always has been 100 percent guest satisfaction. We invested in snow making in order to offer a great product no matter what Mother Nature does. It's enabled us to open by Thanksgiving eight out of 10 years and have good quality snow right up to and through the third week in April."
Sun Valley was the first resort in the Intermountain area to introduce a high-speed chair lift. Solitude and Brighton followed.
It was the first to supply skiing guests with exemplary customer services, which includes such things as tissues at loading stations for cleaning glass, goggles and noses.
It was the first resort in the world to introduce a year-round, outdoor ice skating rink. Its ice skating programs have, in fact, drawn the finest skaters in the world.
And, Sun Valley was the first to have an Austrian-based ski school in the U.S. Austrians, at the time, were the leaders in teaching skiing techniques.
While the resort has entered the 21st century on a wave of upgrades and improvements, there are still reminders of the early Sun Valley. In the main lodge, for example, there is a "hall of fame" depicting photos of noted celebrities and residents from the early years.
On the mountain is the Roundhouse, built by Harriman in 1939 with money left over after installing the first lifts on Bald Mountain. It remains almost as it was, with its four-sided fireplace and spoke-wheel timber beams.
Because of the popularity of the Roundhouse, Sibbach said a lift was replaced by a gondola for the winter of 2009-10 to not only carry skiers but foot passengers up for lunches and dinners.
Today, skiers and snowboarders find it easy to see what Schaffgotsch saw in the Idaho mountains 75 years ago. Runs from the top of Bald Mountain are long, the longest running 3,100 vertical feet, and a bit steeper than most visitors are used to.
"We're not talking double black diamond runs, but long runs with a constant pitch," said Sibbach. "It's a mountain that makes better skiers and snowboarders because they are always on an edge."
To maintain consistency on the runs, he said extra attention is paid to grooming. Beginner runs are groomed nightly as are some of the more popular runs. Two grooming shifts each night will smooth and manicure more than 400 acres on Bald Mountain and most of the runs on Dollar Mountain.
Day lodges on the mountain and at the base of Warm Springs and River Run were a pet project for Holding between 1993 and 1996. Those lodges, in fact, would become mirror reflections of those Holding would build at Snowbasin.
On the mountains, the resort has 90 runs served by 16 lifts, including nine high-speed quads, a gondola and two people movers at the base of River Run and Dollar.
It also has a nordic center near the resort and an indoor and outdoor skating rink adjacent to the main lodge.
Along with winter improvements, Holding also made plans for summer activities. In 2008, he built a $40 million entertainment pavilion and a new nordic center that will double as golf shop. The resort currently offer 27 holes to golfers, with plans for an addition nine.
Three-quarters of a century ago, Schaffgotsch found what he believed was the perfect area for a ski resort. Today, few can argue with his choice.
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