For 19 years, Marty Rein, who lives literally in the shadow of the Empire State Building, has made monthly winter escapes to Alta, a quiet, smallish ski resort tucked away in the top of the Wasatch Mountains high above Salt Lake City. Year after year, month after month, he returns to ski Alta - and no other - staying a week or longer at a time, always in the same lodge and the same room.
"I just whistle and the clothes jump out of my suitcase into the drawers," he says.Rein, 62 and going strong despite a double spinal fusion, skis Alta by day and relives it over a game of cards by night, swapping ski stories with the other lodgers, warmed by an old fireplace. By now, they are a familiar group. There's a regular November group, a December group, a January group . . . Like Rein, they have been gathering here for years, from different parts of the country, from varying professional backgrounds. They all have at least one thing in common: an enduring love of Alta.
"I told my wife that when I die, I don't want to be buried," says Rein. "I want my ashes spread over Alta."
He won't be the first. Illegal though it is, a handful of loyal Alta skiers have had their ashes spread over their beloved slopes from an airplane.
"We don't talk about it, but it's being done," says Chic Morton, who, as much as anyone, understands Alta's allure. For four decades Morton has worked at Alta, three of them as the resort's general manager. "We have a very loyal following," he says. "The same people come here year after year. We're into (their) grandchildren now."
Every ski resort has its fans, but Alta seems to inspire unusually fierce loyalty, and for reasons that go beyond the skiing - reasons enough to give the place a soul. Some of Alta's faithful have been known to retire and move to Salt Lake City just to be near the resort. There are businessmen who have packed up their businesses and moved to Utah for the same reason. And yet Alta, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year - making it one of the country's oldest ski resorts - remains a special haven for born-and-raised local skiers, many of whom grew up on the slopes.
"It's the only place I've really skied for 20 years," says Jack Woodhead, a retired Salt Lake businessman. "There's nothing like Alta. Nothing else has the same feeling."
Woodhead, 75, is a member of the so-called Wild Old Bunch, a collection of 55-and-over skiers (now 130 strong) who regularly ski - where else? - Alta.
"I've skied them all, but I always return to Alta," says Walt Katzenberger, a retired Salt Lake businessman/Wild Old Buncher who, at 63, skis Alta more than 100 days a year. "I seem to enjoy it so much more (than other resorts)."
All this fuss over a resort that, by most standards, is no frills. There is, for instance, no night life to speak of at Alta, and few jet setters. There are no fancy restaurants or lodges (they didn't even have flush toilets until this decade). The lifts are antiquated and the lines to get on them can be backed up like I-15 at 5 o'clock. The parking lot remains unpaved . . .
But it's all part of Alta's appeal - or the Alta mystique - a mixture of nostalgia, tradition, escape and don't (you won't) forget the snow.
"Greatest snow on earth," say the Utah license plates, and the greatest and deepest of the greatest is found at Alta. It's the capital city of powder snow - the light, fluffy, dry stuff for which Utah is famous. What's more, Alta gets lots of it - the resort annually receives the state's heaviest snowfall - plus, it is blessed with spectacular mountain terrain suited to all skiing levels.
"It's got a lot of ingredients you just can't duplicate - snow quality, terrain, beauty," says Dan Meldrum, an Alta ski instructor for 18 years. "Alta is just bloody lucky they got it all."
"We just happen to be strategically located in a place that gets the most snow," says Onno Wieringa, Alta's general manger, who adds, "It's the greatest powder snow in the world."
And Alta officials will have you believe they cater to that snow - and the people who ski it - above all else. From the beginning, Alta has separated itself from the trappings of other skier-related businesses - condominiums, lodges, restaurants - which allows the resort to concentrate on skiing and skiers, particularly local skiers. As a result, Alta is unburdened by the demands facing the many resorts that must fill lodges to survive financially, which means higher lift ticket prices and catering to out-of-state skiers. Thus, Alta, which charges the lowest lift ticket price ($18 for a day pass) of any major ski resort, has long been called, "The best skiing bargain in the world," by ski magazines and afficionados.
It's all by design. "Our policy from the start was that we would be in on the skiing end of this business and that we would try to have good skiing at a reasonable price," says Morton.
And so Alta has resisted change when it deemed that change would impinge on the quality of skiing or raise prices, even when it might have meant more money. The resort stubbornly refuses, for instance, to modernize its chairlifts - either by replacing its two-seaters with four-seaters, or by installing the newer high-speed lifts. "They're all the rage," says Wieringa. "but we think it would impact the quality of the skiing. It would dump three times as many people on the hill and create a lot more traffic."
Alta has resisted other changes, as well. While huge resorts have risen around it almost overnight, blossoming into concrete metropolises, Alta's expansion has been minimal, slow, controlled and paid for each step of the way (the resort operates in the black).
For that matter, Alta, as if time has passed it by, remains much the same as it always has in many ways - the lodges, the people, the lifts, the low(er) prices, the simple feel of the place.
"It's a different atmosphere, like a small town," says Katzenberger. "It hasn't become a concrete jungle. It just hasn't changed much over the years."
"It's the way a ski area used to be," says Meldrum.
Instead of condo heaven, there is only a handful of rustic, wooden lodges and lift houses spread along the base of the mountain, most of them dating back to the early days. Snow Pine Lodge 1939. Alta Lodge 1940. Rustler 1947. Peruvian (built from an old Ogden nurse's bunkhouse) 1948. Gold Miner's Daughter 1962.
The people who work at Alta are equally established. The legendary Alf Engen 40 years. Morton 43 years. Buck Sasaki, head of Alta lifts, 43 years. Russ Harmer, head of grooming, 22 years. Doug Christensen, ski patrol director, 21 years. Jim Logan, foreman of the Albion lifts, 26 years. On and on the list could go. Wieringa is a relative newcomer, at 16 years. "We're family up here," says Engen.
Taking it all in, Wieringa says, "People like consistency in their lives. When they come to Alta, they know they'll find everything about the same."
Including Alta's style, which is as stable and down-to-earth as its buildings and people, and as unpretentious as a flannel shirt. "Alta is plain," said one skier. "Nobody worries about what color your boots or jacket are."
"What Alta's got is tradition," says Lee Benson, the Deseret News sports columnist who has been skiing Alta for some 30 years. "You know how the Hawaiians are protective of their islands. A real Utah skier feels that way about Alta. It's where I grew up skiing. No matter how much I ski the other resorts, Alta will always be king. It's a special place . . . it's a feeling . . . it's stayed the same. It hasn't tried to be a bunch of different things even when times are changing. It's like Boston Garden."
But even hallowed Boston Garden is under seige. There is a movement to retire the place. Can Alta stay its charted course? Particularly when many of its original employees are nearing retirement, if they haven't already reached it. Who will hold the line? "The reason the new guard has stayed as long as it has is because it likes the way things are being done," says Wieringa. And what of future plans? "What we're doing now is fine tuning," says Wieringa. "Basically we've completed the masterplan."
Besides, even if Alta wanted to grow, even if it wanted to go condo crazy a la Vail, it couldn't. Most of the remaining building sights are in slide paths.
It seems even Mother Nature is protective of grand old Alta.