The sheer sheet of ice rose sharply from Little Cottonwood Canyon, a steep climb under the best conditions, but for the mountaineers with the skis strapped across their back, it was a rare opportunity for some June skiing.
As they made their way up the Y-shaped chute, with some 3,000 feet to the bottom, one slipped and tumbled, skidding down the 50-degree ice slope, gaining speed as he went.
By the time he managed to stop, he had slid some 800 feet. The snow was covered with blood from where most of the skin on his left hand had been peeled away.
It was just another extreme adventure for Wayne Niederhauser, the new Senate president and the body’s resident outdoor maniac.
“He’s Clark Kent in the daytime and Superman when he gets off work,” says Chris McCandless, Niederhauser’s long-time business partner, as well as climbing, skiing and cycling sidekick.
Clark Kent, of course, was a reporter, while Niederhauser’s is every bit an accountant — stiff demeanor, nervous, staccato chuckle, slicked-back hair and the wonkish, data-driven way he approaches issues.
But when the tie comes off, he’s a different person.
In a quest to make more time for backcountry skiing, Niederhauser began trekking up Little Cottonwood Canyon near his Sandy home after the Legislature adjourned with his sons or McCandless. They would strap halogen mountain bike lamps to their helmets and hit the slopes in Grizzly Gulch above Alta after dark.
He has climbed the 14,411-foot Mount Rainier twice and scaled many mountain peaks around Utah, an opportunity, he says, to bond with his boys.
He is, by all accounts, a fanatical bicyclist, either on the road or on the trails, and sets a blistering pace.
“There are few people in better shape than him. He’s an amazing climber up hills, whether it’s on skis or on a bike,” says Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association and frequent riding partner. “Being up eight, nine, 10,000 feet, he just feels at home.”
A video on Niederhauser’s website shows him knee-deep in water, strapping his bike to sticks and logs, building a makeshift raft to ferry his ride 50 feet across the flooded Cane Creek near Moab so they could get back to their car.
“There isn’t anything he does that he doesn’t do wholeheartedly,” says his wife, Melissa Niederhauser. “He does throw himself into everything.”
The outdoors were a big part of Niederhauser’s upbringing in Logan. His father, Larry, worked for the power company and his mother worked at the bank. The oldest of three children, Niederhauser wasn’t particularly gregarious or athletic.
“He was kind of a nerd,” says his mother, Mary Beth Niederhauser.
Outdoors • But Niederhauser says he and his friends in the Boy Scouts would head up the canyon in the winter, dig a hole in the snow, and camp overnight. He would deer hunt with his father or take off on motorcycles with his brother.
“He was very adventurous,” says Mary Beth Niederhauser.
She says her son nearly died of pneumonia when he was a baby, almost drowned in the ocean on a family trip and flipped his boss’s Jeep just after getting his driver license.
“He has a purpose on this Earth now, because he has survived,” she says.
In addition to a love for the outdoors, Niederhauser’s father, who died in 2003 of pancreatic cancer, also passed on a sense of community involvement and public service.
“Looking at Larry, Wayne’s father, and looking at Wayne, you can see a lot of the common denominators,” says McCandless.
Niederhauser served an LDS mission in Tallahasse, Fla., and attended Utah State University in Logan, where he met his wife. She says he was handsome, kind and knew where he wanted to go in life.
They married and moved to the Salt Lake Valley, where the Niederhausers first met McCandless, who sold them their first home just before their first daughter was born.
Niederhauser was working for an accounting firm that was hit hard by the mid-1980s recession and was about to lose his job due to cutbacks. But his boss at the time, impressed with his work ethic, called a friend, Al Mansell, and told him “I’ve got a star in there and you ought to hire him.”
Niederhauser worked his way up to become the controller and treasurer of Mansell’s business before he and McCandless — who by that time were friends and partners in their outdoor adventures — set out to start their own real-estate development business at the end of the recession.
They have put together a handful of housing developments in the south end of the valley and built several commercial office buildings together and with Mansell.
Politics • In spring 2006, Mansell, who was Utah Senate president at the time, visited Niederhauser and told him he planned to retire from the Legislature and prodded Niederhauser to take his spot.
“I had to talk him into it. I wanted him to run because he’s the kind of guy we need up here,” Mansell says. “He is as principled a person as I know. He will do the right thing for the right reason every time and if he thinks he’s doing the wrong thing, he won’t do it.”
Niederhauser had served as a county delegate and worked on a couple of local campaigns.
He had been teaching accounting at Westminster College and loved it, his wife says, and had expressed interest in teaching full-time. So the prospect of running for the Senate came as a surprise.
“She thought I was crazy,” Niederhauser says in his first address as president. “I have since proved her right.”
In summer 2006, Niederhauser was appointed to fill Mansell’s seat when he retired.
That November, he spent more than $250,000 campaigning for the seat — $139,000 of his own money — a huge amount in his bid to woo fewer than 23,000 voters, and beat Democratic state Rep. Trisha Beck by nearly 1,100 votes.
As a senator, Niederhauser is best known for sponsoring legislation creating a state transparency website, which allows people to search for government expenditures, and new performance notes aimed at measuring the effectiveness of new state programs.
Both measures were supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative, business-backed group of lawmakers. Niederhauser is the state chairman for the group and sits on its executive board.
At the group’s convention last summer, he presented a resolution — embraced by Reynolds Tobacco Co. — recommending a lower tax rate for smokeless tobacco than for cigarettes and hosted a discussion on research, sponsored by the tobacco company, focused on the relative safety of smokeless tobacco.
“Our concern with his bills was always, because of his involvement with ALEC, whether they’re proposed from a need in Utah and a constituent request or as part of a corporate agenda,” says Mary Ann Martindale, executive director of the progressive group Alliance For A Better Utah.
Green streak • Niederhauser is a strident defender of free markets and federalism and favors limited government. But his time spent outdoors has also given him an appreciation of the environment, a green streak that isn’t necessarily common among his Republican colleagues.
“I ride my bicycle on Wasatch Boulevard a lot and even in the summer you can sense it, or we’ll climb Grandeur Peak during the winter and its like a cloud sitting in the valley,” Niederhauser says. “So you see first-hand the environment and I’m a little closer to the environment because of it.”
As president, Niederhauser is focusing on four goals — increasing government transparency, encouraging departments to work together more effectively, developing a budgeting process tied to the outcome of various programs, and thinking about issues long-term.
“I want to see us less reactive,” Niederhauser says. “Where are we headed on transportation? What’s public ed going to look like in 10 years? Let’s start moving toward that now and stop passing bills that distract us from that objective.”
His other goal is to wrap up the session early — by 6 p.m. on the last night, so he can go night skiing.