He was alone when he first saw Alta. Just himself and his cross-country skis. He skied over from the Big Cottonwood side through Catherine Pass and had lunch at the bottom of Albion Basin with the Jacobsen brothers, miners who worked a nearby claim. Then he had a look around.
"Yeah, boy, I sure think this will do," thought Alf Engen to himself as he fully exhausted the snow-capped panoramic vertical view before exiting the mountain valley to the west. He followed gravity and the Little Cottonwood creekbed to the Salt Lake Valley, where he reported to his employer, the U. S. Forest Service, that he suspected he had found just what they had in mind.It was 1935, dead in the middle of the Great Depression, not to mention the winter, and the Forest Service, thanks to the Civilian Conservation Corps, had more men than money. Alf Engen was in charge of a CCC crew working the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City. His assignment: To scout out terrain suitable for a winter sports area.
He knew a ski hill when he saw one. Yeah, boy.
**** In a way, he had been looking for a mountain estate like Alta since he was 10, growing up in his native Norway. That was when his father, Trone Engen, one of Norway's best athletes, a man who hadn't been sick a day in his life, was stricken by the Spanish Flu and died.
Alf and his two younger brothers, Sverre and Correy, and his mother, Martha, were thereupon required to leave the Engen family estate in Mjondalen and return to Martha's family roots in the village of Stenberg. The move was not upward. Whereas the Engen estate was upper class, in Stenberg most of the people worked at separating the timbers as they floated down the river that ran next to the town. Life was more fundamental. Martha Engen sewed to keep her family fed.
It was Alf's plan to come to America, where news of riches and opportunity abounded, and make his fortune, which he would change from dollars to kroner and return to Norway . . . and buy back Engen, his father's estate.
So it was that Alf Engen, at 19, with five dollars and an Ellis Island immigration certificate in his pocket, found himself riding a train into Chicago on the Fourth of July, 1929. He spoke no English, had no family on this side of the Atlantic, had no idea what he was going to do to make his first million dollars, and wondered what the fireworks were all about.
In Norway, he had spent a good deal of his time playing sports, especially soccer and ski jumping. In Chicago, he followed his instincts to a park, found a soccer pitch, and soon enough was playing center-half for a team of Norwegians.
Just a couple of months later, he was playing for a United States national team, comprised of the best league players from Chicago and New York, against a national side from England.
Things had a way of happening like that in his life - rather quickly.
***- That fall, he played for Chicago in a soccer match at Milwaukee. There was a ski jumping hill near the city, which Alf visited. He borrowed a pair of skis, strapped the long thong bindings to his soccer shoes, climbed the scaffold, and jumped.
Word spread quickly. By the time Engen got back to Chicago there was a story in the newspaper about a Norwegian ski jump champion who was living in Chicago and working out in Milwaukee. The story caught the attention of Lars and Anders Haugen, Norwegian brothers who were organizing an American professional ski jumping group. The Haugens lived in Minneapolis. They assumed the Norwegian champion they'd read about was none other than Torlif Haug, the best in the world at the time. They traveled to Chicago, anxious to meet him.
And they found Alf Engen.
They offered him a tryout. He agreed. And on New Year's Day, 1930, the pro jumpers assembled at Westby, Wisc., for their first meet of the season.
Alf jumped 187 feet, winning first prize and setting a scaffold-hill world record in the process. He had also made the tour.
Now he was seeing America, all right. The tour went through the midwest, and then out west, to Lake Tahoe first, and then to Ogden, Utah, for a competition at the mouth of Ogden Canyon. It was there that a man by the name of Pete Ecker asked several of the jumpers if they would be kind enough to take a look at the new jumping hill he was developing east of Salt Lake City.
The first time Alf Engen saw Ecker Hill he knew it had "world record" written all over it.
Three of the professional jumpers - Halver Waalsted, Lars Haugen and Alf's brother, Sverre - stayed in Salt Lake and worked on the jump through the summer, building the hill to their specifications. It was agreed that the 1931 pro jumping circuit would have its grand opening, on New Year's Day, on Ecker Hill.
After playing soccer in Chicago through the fall, Alf returned to Utah for the competition. There were 16 jumpers, all in quest of the world record, which was out there at 227 feet.
On his third and final jump, Alf Engen went where no ski jumper had gone before - a distance of 231 feet.
The crowd went wild. So stunned was one of the spectators, Vern McCullough, a local boxing promoter, that he stood up and offered $250 to any jumper who could set yet another world mark.
These were depressed times.
Alf climbed back to the top.
This time he went 247 feet.
Many more world records were to follow, as were many other titles and prizes. By 1935, Engen was also the U. S. national champion in nordic-combined (cross-country skiing and jumping), and, as a reinstated amateur, was a bona fide double-gold medal threat for the '36 Winter Olympics in Garmisch, Germany. He did an ad for Wheaties that said as much.
But these were the '30s, not the '80s. Avery Brundage headed the International Olympic Committee, not Juan Samaranch. Brundage ruled Alf Engen ineligible for the Olympics, because, like Jim Thorpe before him, he had once competed as a pro.
**** In the meantime, there were ends to meet. And since he had, ever since that record-setting New Year's Day on Ekker Hill, left his heart in the Wasatch Range, Alf Engen settled in Utah and got the job with the Forest Service.
When they realized just who it was they had at their service, it was only natural that they put him in charge of developing winter sports areas.
From the CCC's base camp in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Alf first supervised the building of a jumping hill at The Spruces, and did some work at the Brighton ski area, where rope tows were already running.
It was in the spring when he strapped on his skis and headed over Catherine Pass.
Alta had seen better days. The onetime mining boom town was a ghost of its former self. Boarded up buildings stood in disrepair. The hills were pockmarked by mine shafts, and they were barren of trees, which had been chopped down and used to build the mines.
But Alf Engen didn't see any of that. He saw a huge ski area, perched magnificently at the top of the world.
He told the Forest Service as much.
That summer they started. They filled in the mine shafts, or covered them over. They planted trees by the thousands. They moved out the sheep herds that turned the summers to dust. Old miners' buildings mysteriously burned to the ground in the middle of the night.
As Alf put it, "Little by little, Alta came to be the place God intended it to be."
Three years later, in the spring of 1938, the first chairlift was installed. They named it Collins, after the gulch.
**** For the next decade, Alf helped the Forest Service develop no less than 30 other winter sports areas throughout the west. He served as a technical winter adviser for the U.S. Army during the war years, and was also hired by Averell Harriman and the Union Pacific Railroad, who were developing Sun Valley. He built the first jumping hill at Sun Valley, and cut some of the first runs on Mt. Baldy.
In the meantime, he was winning U.S. national championships in 1) Ski jumping, 2) Nordic combined, 3) Downhill skiing and 4) Slalom skiing. He was named to the U.S. Olympic team in 1940, although that team was disbanded because of the war. In 1948 he was named a coach of the U.S. Olympic Team that included his younger brother, Correy.
After the Winter Games of '48 in Switzerland, he returned to Alta.
His other brother, Sverre, was head of the ski school at the time. But he had just bought half interest in the Rustler Lodge, and talked Alf into taking over the school.
Approximately 40 years and 7,200 ski days later, it is still the Alf Engen Ski School.
**** Alf is nearly 80 now. He continues to ski Alta on a daily basis. His face is the face of a man who has spent his life outdoors, lined like leather, wrinkled contentedly.
He laughs easily, and often, and tells of the time he went to a doctor a couple of years ago, after an out-of-control skier ran into him on Aggie's Alley and he had to have his knee fixed.
A complete physical exam revealed that he had gone through his life with only one kidney, and with only two valves in his heart, instead of the requisite three.
"I asked the doctors," said Alf, "`What if when I was a little kid they had found all these things?' "
"They told me, `Well, they wouldn't have let you do much.' "
"Thank goodness," he said, "I didn't know."