There's no mistaking the message. It's made clear the minute you arrive in the upper basin. People hear it, read it, see it and, even on brief stays, feel it . . . Alta is for skiers.
It was that way 50 years ago when the first skier rode up the world's second chairlift, and it's that way now. No frills! Nothing fancy! Skiing comes first and whatever is second can wait until the runs are over and the ski boots are off.Maybe that's the lure of Alta; what makes skiers clutch to the area like family. Some say it's the snow - light, fluffy, bottomless at times. It's addictive.
After all, Alta is not Utah's biggest ski resort, nor is it its most elegant, nor its tallest, nor highest, nor longest, nor closest, nor its most expensive.
But it is Utah's oldest, most popular, most recognized, most secure, its snowiest and its quietest. Alta's owners and staff have long believed that its skiing says it all.
**** Lumber and water were all that interested the early settlers in Little Cottonwood Canyon until silver-bearing ore was found. Stories on the discovery vary. The most repeated version is that an Army officer's wife, while at the mouth of the canyon on a picnic, found a shiny rock.
Almost overnight Alta became a town of two-fisted, hard drinking, hard working miners. From a quiet valley that held only a saw mill, boarding house and a dozen people in 1862, Alta became a city of over 8,000, with 10 streets and 180 dwellings, including seven restaurants, two shoemakers, shops, jail, dance hall, Chinese laundry, two breweries, six medical offices and 26 saloons, in which over 150 men are said to have made early departures from this earth.
During the mining years, it is estimated that over 100 miles of tunnels were dug in mountainsides. One tunnel ran for over two and a half miles. Another, the Cardiff tunnel, went between Big and Little Cottonwood canyons.
The most famous of the Alta mines was the Emma. It was reported that the Emma yielded over $4 million in silver over its brief life. It was also cause for some strained relations between the United States and England. Shortly after being sold to an English syndicate for a reported $6 million, the ore body in the mine abruptly "faulted" and the mine closed.
These were not easy times for Alta residents, especially in the winter. Tempers were short, days long, the brew potent and work difficult, made even more difficult by deep snow and the constant threat of avalanches. One newspaper report claimed 143 people were killed by avalanches in Alta during a 14-year period. Actual records, sketchy as they are, indicate the figure is a bit exaggerated. Fire, too, took its toll on buildings and lives there.
By the 1880s, very little mining was being done. Alta was little more than a dusty, dirty valley, barren of trees and vegetation and wildlife. And with but one faithful supporter - George H. Watson.
**** While others were pulling up stakes and abandoning Alta at the turn of the century, a young miner named George H. Watson was digging in. Confident that Alta would again be a mining center, he began buying up old mines and claims.
By 1930, it became obvious to even Watson, the self-appointed mayor of the one-resident township, that the digging was over. Alta the mining town was dead, but Alta the town wasn't.
He found his answer in a story he ran across on a new and exciting sport called "skiing." Alta had the mountains and the snow, and skiing would bring the people, he believed.
By coincidence, a group of Salt Lake businessmen and the U.S. Forest Service were in the midst of looking at starting a ski area. Watson, for the sum of a dollar, gave his deeds to the Forest Service for recreational development, and the Forest Service gave the go ahead to the Salt Lake City Winter Sports Association, later to become Alta Ski Lift Company.
**** By the mid-1930s, skiing was gaining a growing following, helped by the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1936, and the introduction of the first chairlift in Sun Valley in 1936.
Most of this attention during this period was directed toward ski jumping. Weekend jumping events would regularly bring out 10,000 spectators. Among the most heralded jumpers at the time were two young Norwegians named Alf and Sverre Engen.
Downhill skiing, too, was growing. For $5.95 for flat-top hickory skis ($1 for for natural bases), $4.25 for leather boots, $1 for poles and $5.95 for Leggi Cable bindings, properly labeled "bear traps," a person could ski, which to most during this period meant make straight runs with lots of upper body movement and little turning.
A popular excursion before lifts was to hike from Brighton, over the pass and down to Alta, stay the night and return the following day. Most skiers, however, simply hiked a couple of hundred yards up what is now called "Schuss Gully" at Alta, put on skis and made a straight run to the bottom. Good runs were fast and safe.
Skiers did get some help around 1937. A pulley was hooked to a tree a couple of hundred yards up Rustler face and around it a rope was looped. The other end was wrapped around the rear wheel of a Model A Ford. Foley Richards, a long-time Salt Lake skier, recalled wearing out five pairs of gloves on the rope tow.
Alta, skiers were discovering, was perfect for skiing. It had the mountain, the snow, and remnants of an old mining tram. It would be a simple matter to string a cable, attach chairs, like Sun Valley had, and open the second chair lift in the United States. To fund the lift, 100 investors were sold four shares of stock in Alta at $25 per share.
With the $10,000, work on the lift began in the summer of 1938. By November, the mountain and the skiers were ready, but the lift wasn't. Builders ran into all sorts of problems . . . cables, brakes, pulleys lining up, motors, gears.
Finally, in January, after a new drive gear was installed, the lift was ready "to go full blast," published the Deseret News, along with the first published photos of the Collins Lift in operation.
Skiers paid 15 cents a ride, or $1.50 a day to sit down and be carried 2,630 feet up the mountain. That first year only 265 skiers took the adventure.
Early passengers, like Dick Movitz, a Salt Lake businessman and former Olympic skier, and Richards, remember some of the first rides . . . Towers were too short and in places snow was over the cables. Deep trenches had to be dug so cables and chairs could move. Occasionally, an unsuspecting skier would hook a tip in the deep snow and be thrown from his chair.
Other times cable brakes would fail and chairs and passengers would slide backward. Skiers learned to jump on these reverse rides, return to the lift lines and patiently wait until all was repaired.
Still, skiing wasn't easy in those early years. Turns in the deep snow, and on the old equipment, did not come easily. And even those that could turn often wouldn't. Movitz recalled that a good day was measured in the number of runs turned in . . . "One turn getting off the lift and one at the bottom to get on the lift, that was it. We could get in 50 runs a day," he said.
It wasn't until after World War II, however, that Alta started to gain world recognition and skiers. In 1944, a second lift, Rustlers, was added, and the following year a third, Peruvian, was completed.
In the fall of 1947, Alf Engen left Sun Valley and came to Alta to take over direction of the ski school from his brother, Sverre. The following year he joined with the Deseret News to start Deseret News Ski School. It was decided to hold the first session on the slopes of Bonneville Golf Course.
No one expected what followed. Instead of the few hundred skiers, over 2,000 came with every imaginable combination of skis and boots to learn to ski. So eager to learn were some students that they used rope in place of bindings to lash rubber galoshes to old skis.
Another important period in Alta's life came in 1964 when one of the lower mine dumps was turned into a jump, a Gelande jump, the introduction to freestyle aerials. In 10 years, skiers entertained spectators with everything from spins and twists, to "Back Scratchers," and "Daffies." In 1974, the jumps were canceled.
**** Today, Alta has eight double chair lifts that rise from different levels a total of 2,000 vertical feet, or from the 8,500 foot base to the 10,595 foot unloading point near Sugarloaf Peak and Point Supreme. The lifts can carry 8,500 skiers per hour and offer access to 39 runs spread over about 1,800 acres of rolling hills and steep faces.
The slopes are groomed in the winter, something no one five decades ago would have ever guessed would happen, and cleared and smoothed in the summer, another thing that once seemed unnecessary.
Past that little has changed at Alta in 50 years. It wasn't an accident that it happened this way, it was planned. And it's not too likely much will change soon. It's not in Alta's nature. Good skiing doesn't need bells and whistles to be recognized. Good runs and great snow make for good skiing.
That was the idea 50 years ago when paying skiers made the first tracks on Alf's High Rustlers, and it's the same now. Alta is for skiers.