SKIING IN UTAH
Skiing at Alta, 1947
During the 1990-91 season Utah ski areas were host to more than 2.75 million
skiers. These skiers enjoyed Utah's magnificent powder snow, the convenience
of dozens of lifts, and the freedom of thousands of acres of skiable terrain,
all set within the breathtaking beauty of Utah's mountains. But it wasn't
always so. The story of how Utah skiing became what it is today is a story
of trial, perseverance, and individuals with a passion for the mountains,
a sport, and a way of life.
Long before Utah's skiing became an industry there were individuals who
used skis as a means of travel in Utah's mountains. Those who first used
skis include trappers, miners, and other inhabitants of the mountains, for
whom mobility in the mountains meant survival. During these times, skis
were sometimes referred to as Norwegian snowshoes, because Norwegian immigrants
first brought skis to this country. Accurate accounts of these first skiers
are scarce, but some date back to well before the turn of the twentieth
Harold Seeholzer, who made his first skis about 1915 and later pioneered
the Beaver Mountain ski area near Logan, recalled some of his early ski
adventures in the nearby mountains. On one occasion he and some friends
were called upon to check on a trapper who was spending the winter in the
Tony Grove area. "We packed our rucksacks with food, . . . put a can
of wax in our pockets and left on March 17 at 4:00 a.m. for the Logan Canyon."
The next day they found the trapper well but low on food. "We offered
him the rest of our food so he could stay longer. We stayed at the Tony
Grove Ranger Station, got up early the next morning, and started the 25
mile journey back to Logan."
It wasn't long before skiing became a recreational activity for those who
enjoyed the adventure and splendor of the mountain winters. The establishment
of the Wasatch Mountain Club in 1912 was the beginning of organized touring
groups that explored Utah's mountains for recreation. During the late 1910s
and into the 1920s the Wasatch Mountain Club began sponsoring winter outings
into the surrounding canyons.
By the late 1920s short trips lasting from two to four days into the Brighton
area were popular among members of the Wasatch Mountain Club and others
who had discovered the pleasures of ski touring. Paul Dinwoodie recalled
meeting his wife in the early twenties when she got off work on Saturday
evening. They would ski through the night to make the trip from Park City
to Brighton. "We would get up there in the evening, leave the car at
Coffee Joe's, and hike into Brighton over Scott's Pass. We would sleep for
three or four hours, then get up and ski because we wanted to get in as
much skiing as possible."
K. Smith, an early ski pioneer who put a cable tow in the Brighton area,
and later directed the Brighton Ski School for over twenty years, recalled
the excitement of traveling from the Brighton area back to Park City via
Thaynes Canyon. "Going down Thaynes Canyon was a hairy ride, because
we really didn't know how to stop. We'd get up there at the top of Scott's
Pass and give the first skier a head start because you couldn't see him
around the first bend. We'd just hope that he didn't fall, because you were
right behind him. The wind was usually blowing snow across the ditch, and
the ditch banks were up about as high as your shoulders, so you just sat
in there and away you went."
During the era of ski touring in Utah, skiing as a spectator sport was delighting
many residents of the Wasatch Front. Even before the 1920s, ski-jumping
meets held in the foothills of Salt Lake City were attracting large groups
of spectators, crowds numbering in the hundreds and later the thousands.
It wasn't long before youngsters were building small jumps all along the
foothills and trying to imitate the feats of their Scandinavian heroes.
By 1930 professional jumping meets were being promoted enthusiastically.
In Ogden, promoters were just putting the finishing touches on a new jumping
hill. Becker Hill just east of Ogden Canyon was soon host to professional
jumping meets that thrilled thousands of spectators.
It was during this period that Utahns were first introduced to the Engen
brothers. Alf and his brother Sverre jumped at Becker Hill in the very first
contest held there. They were later joined by their younger brother Corey
in 1933, and the three delighted spectators during the 1930s and 1940s with
their daring and skill.
Soon after the first competitions at Becker Hill, ski promoters M.A. Strand
and Pete Ecker were encouraging jumpers to try a new hill built at Rasmussen's
Ranch in Parley's Canyon. The new hill, named after Ecker, was the site
of many jumping tournaments where dozens of records were set and broken.
During the Depression years of the 1930s jumping meets at Ecker Hill attracted
thousands of spectators. The facility existed for decades until it sent
its last jumper skyward in the early 1960s.
The latter part of the 1930s also marked the beginning of uphill transportation
in Utah skiing. Many Utah skiers remember their first experiences with rope
tows that at first seemed as difficult to master as downhill technique.
There were many rope and cable tows from Logan to Provo that soon disappeared.
However, there were a few that survived to become the beginnings of what
we now call ski areas.
The Brighton area had been a well-known summer resort area for affluent
residents of the Salt Lake Valley since before the turn of the century.
Hotels, restaurants, and riding stables served the many visitors to the
area. As skiing activity increased in the area during the thirties, a few
skiers started to think about a way other than hiking to get up the hills.
In 1937 and 1938, the county commission was persuaded to plow the road in
Big Cottonwood canyon to allow for year-round traffic. In the summer of
1937 a group of men formed the Alpine Ski Club and, using an elevator drum,
created a rough cable tow in the Brighton area and operated it during the
1937 and 1938 seasons. But there were many problems with the tow. The next
year, as K. Smith recalls, they came up with the idea of a handmade T-bar.
Smith operated the T-bar until the war, when he served in the armed forces
and was sent to Europe.
In 1943 Smith sold the T-bar to Zane Doyle. Friends remember that Zane and
his family worked hard to make the place go.
About the same time that things were developing in the Brighton area, a
group of ski enthusiasts in Alta were building Utah's first lift and arguably
Utah's most well-known ski area. Alta, formerly an active mining town, was
nearly a ghost town when it was reborn on skis. In 1937 a group of businessmen
headed by Joe Quinney formed the Salt Lake City Winter Sports Association,
whose primary purpose was to develop a ski area for local skiers. In the
fall of 1938 construction began on the lift up the face of Collins. The
first year the lift was plagued with problems and operated sporadically
during the 1938-39 season. However, in November 1939 Alta opened for its
second season of operation and began a long and continuous run as one of
Utah's most successful ski areas.
It wasn't long before Utah skiers already familiar with the Engen name associated
it with Alta. In the early 1940s Sverre Engen became Alta's first ski patrolman
and had the distinction of becoming the first employee of the Forest Service
with the job title of Snow Ranger. Sverre's older brother Alf took over
the ski school in the mid-1940s and directed it for over 40 years. Probably
more than any other name, Engen is synonymous with Utah skiing. Today Alan
Engen directs the ski school that bears his father's name. However, the
Salt Lake area was not the only place where the passion for skiing was great.
In the Cache Valley, the Mount Logan ski club held a meeting in the spring
of 1939 and decided to put in a cable tow in the area known as Beaver Mountain.
Because of the long hike from the road, however, the tow was moved to the
summit area known as the sinks the following year. But the sinks also proved
not to be the ideal place to build a ski area. The tow was owned and operated
by Logan City and the Winter Sports Council; in 1945 it was taken over by
Harry and Luella Seeholzer. It was subsequently moved back to Beaver Mountain
when a road was made into the area. The successful family-owned business
has provided a great service to skiers in the northern part of the state.
Harry Seeholzer died in 1968, but the area is still owned and operated by
the Seeholzer family.
Ogden City began to operate a tow at Snow Basin in the late 1930s as well.
The area went into private hands in 1955. Earl and Gladdis Miller owned
and operated the ski school permit there for thirty-five years. A little
farther south, in an area known as the north fork of Provo Canyon, another
ski pioneer named Ray Stewart built a T-bar tow and named the area Timphaven.
It was developed during the 1950s and 60s, and in 1969 was sold to Robert
Redford and renamed Sundance.
During the 1950s, Utah's ski areas saw significant growth as skiing became
more popular. The next entry into the Utah ski scene was Solitude ski area
in Big Cottonwood Canyon in 1958, initiated by Bob Barret. After more than
a decade of ups and downs, by 1970 Solitude was a successful member of Utah's
ski community. In 1963 an enterprising man by the name of Burt Nichols founded
Brian Head ski area in the mountaintops above Cedar City.
Park City, another mining community that had fallen on hard times, also
received new life based on skiing. Actually, Park City had an already established
reputation for winter sports. During the 1920s and 1930s it was the home
of Creole Hill, a well-known jumping hill. Also, for years Park City was
the primary access point for skiers going to Brighton. It also accessed
a small ski area in Deer Valley named Snow Park. In the 1930s Park City
received ski trains loaded with residents of the Salt Lake Valley. However,
in the 1960s the mines were played out and the Park City area was economically
depressed. In 1962, with low interest loans from a federal redevelopment
agency, United Park Mines announced that funding had been obtained for a
new ski area. In 1963 Park City ski area opened and has become Utah's largest
The early 1970s also saw the Utah skiing picture become more rich and diverse
with the addition of Powder Mountain near the Ogden area, and Mount Holly-Elk
Meadows near Beaver, Utah. In 1971 Snowbird, which was the dream of Ted
Johnson, was able to open with financial backing from Dick Bass. Snowbird,
Alta's neighbor in Little Cottonwood Canyon, has added significant vertical
advanced terrain and has developed into a major world-class resort.
Utah skiers and skiing have made contributions to skiing nationally. The
state has been well represented in competition by Olympians Jack Reddish,
Dev Jennings, Dick Movitz, Suzy Harris Rytting, Marv Mellville, and Margo
Walters, and by NCAA All-Americans Alan Engen and Jim Gaddis, as well.
Utah ski instructors also have made great contributions. People like Professional
Ski Instructor Association (PSIA) founder Bill Lash, and ski school directors
Earl Miller, Junior Bounous, and K. Smith are all members of the PSIA Hall
of Fame. Utah also boasts many members of the National Ski Hall of Fame
in Ishpeming, Michigan.
The latest member of Utah's ski area community is Deer Valley, founded in
1981. Deer Valley is the dream of part-owner Edgar Stern to create an upscale
ski area complete with world-class service and cuisine.
Utah's great skiing diversity provides a variety of experiences for all
types of skiers. Regardless of which of Utah's fourteen ski areas skiers
choose, and whether they are locals or are world travelers, they will be
treated to great snow and spectacular scenery, and they will be part of
a rich skiing heritage.
A. Joseph Arave