March 1, 2010
SALT LAKE CITY - History of Utah Skiing
Utah has become one of the world’s most popular ski destination and is deeply rooted in the evolution of both skiing and snowboarding. Many consumers recognize the state’s 13 resorts under the brand of Ski Utah and the Utah state slogan, Greatest Snow on Earth®. No one knows for sure when or where skiing got its first foothold in Utah, but what is known is that by the 1870s, miners, snowbound in the canyons of the Wasatch for most of the winter, were strapping on skis to make their way around and between the canyons.
While the first use of those 12-foot lumbering skis with nothing but leather straps for bindings was utilitarian, it didn't take long for the miners to look to skiing for recreation and thrills; a break from winter's monotony. Before long races were organized and bets placed. By going straight down the steep slopes skiers could reach speeds of more than eighty miles an hour, according to Utah ski historian Alan Engen. Of course, stopping or turning was a whole different matter: sometimes all it took to win a race was to survive the run.
During the early 1900s several organizations began to promote skiing. The Wasatch Mountain Club, still alive and well today, formed in 1912. Club members began leading regular ski treks into the Wasatch Mountains. In 1915 the Norwegian Young Folks Society formed and began organizing ski jumping tournaments on the hills above Salt Lake City.
By the 1930s ski jumping tournaments on famous Utah hills such as Ecker Hill outside Park City and Becker Hill near Ogden were drawing thousands of fans to watch local heroes like Alf Engen soar to world record jumps. This decade also saw the opening of Utah's first alpine ski resorts. In 1936 the Wasatch Mountain Club built a rope tow at Brighton Ski Resort and organized Utah's first official alpine ski races. In 1938, Alta opened with Utah's first chairlift (the second chairlift in the U.S. behind only Sun Valley).
The 1940s saw a flurry of ski resort activity. In 1941 Snowbasin opened and gave Ogden skiers a home mountain. That same year, the Mount Logan Ski Club installed a rope tow at a place called the Sinks in Logan Canyon. In 1944 Ray and Paul Stewart brought skiing to the Provo area when they opened Timp Haven ski area up Provo Canyon. In 1946 Park City skiers Otto Carpenter and Bob Burns opened Snow Park (the site where Deer Valley Resort now stands) to give Parkites their own resort. The same year Ray Watrous and Mel Henshaw opened Little Mountain at the top of Emigration Canyon. In 1949, after the Sinks rope tow closed, Harold Seeholzer opened Beaver Mountain Ski Area farther up Logan Canyon. Still owned and operated by the Seeholzer family, Beaver Mountain Ski Area is the oldest continuously family-owned ski resort in the U.S.
The 1940s also saw Utah establish itself as the hotbed of ski competition. Alta began the famous Snow Cup tournament in 1940. Snowbasin hosted the U.S. National downhill, slalom and combined ski championships in 1947, and the 1948 U.S. Olympic team included a large contingent of Utah skiers including Jack Reddish, Dick Movitz, Dev Jennings, Suzy Harris Ritting, Corey Engen, and their coach Alf Engen. To end the decade, the U.S. National Ski Jumping Championship was held on Ecker Hill in 1949.
Utah continued as a ski racing Mecca in the 1950s with Alta twice holding the U.S. National Giant Slalom and Snowbasin hosting the NCAA championships. In 1954, a small resort named Gorgoza opened at the top of Parley's Canyon. After a long hiatus, Gorgoza now operates as a terrain park and tubing hill. Solitude Ski Resort opened up Big Cottonwood Canyon in 1958. The next year Dr. Alvin Cobabe opened Powder Mountain near Ogden.
With steady skier growth, three more resorts opened in Utah during the 1960s. Brian Head Resort, near Cedar City, became Southern Utah's first resort when it opened in 1961. In 1963 Treasure Mountain Resort opened in Park City and boasted the country's longest gondola. With ownership transitions, Treasure Mountain was renamed Park City Ski Area and later Park City Mountain Resort. Just down the road, Park City West began operation in 1968. The resort would undergo several ownership and name changes - first to ParkWest, then to Wolf Mountain, and finally to The Canyons. In 1968 Robert Redford and several partners bought Timp Haven and renamed it Sundance Resort. In 1969 Nordic Valley Ski Area became the third resort in the Ogden area. In 2005 Nordic Valley became Wolf Mountain and then changed to Wolf Creek Utah Ski Utah in 2008.
It was also during the 1960s that Utah first got into the Olympic game. In 1966 Utah bid for the 1972 Olympics, but lost out to Sapporo, Japan.
Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort opened in 1971, bringing a modern counterpart to Alta's rustic charm in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Utah also lost its second Olympic bid in 1973 with an unsuccessful pitch for the 1976 Games which went to Innsbruck, Austria. In 1974 the U.S. Ski Team set up headquarters in Park City.
In 1981, the opening of Deer Valley Resort brought a whole new level of luxury and service to Utah skiing. That same year Park City Ski Area hosted the NCAA championships and the home team from the University of Utah skied away with the national title. 1985 brought major international ski racing to Utah when Park City Ski Area hosted its first World Cup ski race. That year, Utah lost a third Olympic bid when the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to Albertville, France.
Undaunted by a fourth Olympic bid failure in 1991 - the Games went to Nagano, Japan - Utah began constructing Olympic caliber training and competition facilities in an effort to show its commitment to Olympic sports. The Utah Winter Sports Park (now called Utah Olympic Park) opened in 1993 with world-class jumping, bobsled and luge facilities. Construction also began on state-of-the-art cross-country skiing facilities at Soldier Hollow and ice facilities in Salt Lake City. Finally, in 1995 the International Olympic Committee said yes to Utah by awarding Salt Lake City the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
Utah began the third millennium with a splash by hosting the most successful Winter Games in history when the state and its people welcomed the world for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
Since the Games put Utah on the map as a winter sports Mecca, the state has enjoyed five consecutive record-breaking seasons for skier days (2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06, 2006-07, 2007-08). The state currently hosts around 4 million skier visits per season.
The primary source of information for this article was First Tracks: A Century of Skiing in Utah by Alan K. Engen and Gregory C. Thompson.