Skiers savoring a day on the slopes enjoying Utah's famous powder may not realize it, but they are part of a history that dates back as early as the 1870s.
That's when miners on 14-foot-long "skees" broke the winter monotony and also picked up needed supplies by sliding down steep Little Cottonwood Canyon slopes near present-day Alta.
Utah boasts the second-oldest chairlift-served resort in the United States; is one of only three states to host a Winter Olympics; pioneered avalanche control measures; produced some of the country's first ski champions; provided historians with one of the world's most complete ski archives; and is home to competitors and resort developers known for their individualism.
"Skiing has been such an important part of life here," said Roy Webb, an archivist at the University of Utah's Marriott Library who has helped preserve 150,000 images, movies, stories and oral-history interviews with ski-industry pioneers. "It goes back into the 19th century, when snowshoes that were really great big, long skis were used by miners to get supplies to Alta and Park City."
By the early 1900s, ski-history author Alan Engen wrote that the Wasatch Mountain Club was leading winter ski treks into the Wasatch, and the Norwegian Young Folks Society started organizing ski-jumping competitions in the hills near Salt Lake City.
The Wasatch Mountain Club would build a lodge in Brighton in 1928, years before a rope tow took skiers up the hill in 1936.
But it might have taken the star power of Engen's father, Alf a charismatic native Norwegian who migrated to Chicago as a 20-year-old in 1929 and, according to altacam.com, relocated to Salt Lake City in 1931 to help the sport take off.
Engen played many roles in the history of skiing. He was a champion jumper, winning the U.S. title eight times and, after learning how to downhill ski at age 30, eventually capturing the national downhill and slalom championships in 1947. He put places like Ecker Hill near Park City and Ogden's Becker Hill on the map in the 1930s when skiing was still in its infancy in the U.S.
Wheaties put Engen on its "Breakfast of Champions" cereal box in 1936, a move that, though the jumper was not paid money, kept him out of the Olympics because he was declared a professional.
These events generated publicity for the sport locally and nationally.
Engen was also a resort pioneer. He helped lay out Sun Valley, Idaho, initial ski hills that boasted the first true chairlifts in the country in 1936. According to altacam.com, he was hired by the U.S. Forest Service in 1935, skiing into Alta from Big Cottonwood Canyon, spending a few days with miners and recommending that the Civilian Conservation Corps plant hundreds of trees on Alta's slopes. He would also be instrumental in laying out Ogden's Snowbasin, Utah's second-oldest resort.
Alta would open the nation's second chairlift on Jan. 15, 1939, near the present-day Collins lift. Engen would eventually spend much of the latter part of his career associated with Alta's ski school and resort. His brother Sverre would be hired as what is believed to be the nation's first snow ranger at Little Cottonwood Canyon, and the Forest Service would open an Avalanche Center at Alta in 1949.
"I had the opportunity to be associated with a lot of the early pioneers, those who are considered legends in skiing," said Alan Engen, who will retire from Alta this year and wrote the book First Tracks: A Century of Skiing in Utah with Gregory Thompson. "Dad took me to meet a lot of people, and he was and is a major contributor to skiing in the area. Dad always thought I should do a book. When I got involved in putting the ski museum in place, we decided there needed to be a history to go along with it. We started putting together a lot of material."
That ski museum is the Alf Engen Ski Museum and George Eccles 2002 Olympic Winter Games Museum at the Utah Olympic Park four miles north of Park City. Utahns looking to learn more about the history of skiing would do well to visit the museum, which charges no entrance fee.
Alan Engen and Salt Lake author Alexis Kelner, who wrote Skiing in Utah: A History, said the people who built the state's resorts, all the way to the most recent (Deer Valley, which opened in 1981), tended to be dreamers and individualists.
"There was a basic individualism that went into creating these ski areas," said Kelner. "Most started out with a single individual who had an idea and was generally a skier himself. That proceeded from there and expanded to what it is today."
Alan Engen called many of the state's ski pioneers "hearty, strong people. The other thing is in the early development of ski areas, they were jacks of all trades. My uncle Sverre ran lodges, was out on the mountain with the ski patrol, was safety director and ski school director. You had to do multiple tasks in order to keep an area alive and going. There were not that many people up there. You had to be good at a lot of things. It was a big undertaking."
The two ski historians had different takes about Salt Lake City's hosting of the 2002 Winter Olympics, a quest the Utah ski industry coveted for almost 40 years, starting in the late 1950s.
"In terms of getting exposure to what we have to offer here in Utah, the Olympics was a wonderful opportunity," said Engen. "We were lucky enough to have good weather and we were on the map for having one of the finest Olympics that has ever been held. The visual impact presented to the world certainly helped."
Kelner, a frequent Olympics critic who wrote a book on the subject, said one lasting effect of the Salt Lake Olympics was that the bidding process to get the Games showed how corrupt the Olympics had become.
"The Olympics did stimulate some developments," he said. "Whether they would have been there without the Olympics, they would have come at a later date. â¦ The whole intention of the Olympics was to make developers able to build."
Looking back at old photos and knowing much about the characters who pioneered skiing in Utah, Kelner and Engen think the early resort owners and skiers would be surprised by the huge ski hills, high-speed quad lifts and developments that are a big part of Utah skiing today.
"I am blown away by the prices," said Kelner, himself somewhat of a ski pioneer though more of the backcountry variety. "It's unbelievable. [Because many are on] national forests, the ski areas are supposed to cater to the masses. Now it has become so expensive that it is made for people with lots of money. It is unconscionable that the Forest Service allows these things."
Engen thinks the early ski pioneers would be thrilled with the modern resorts.
"Look where skiing came from and look where it has gone," he said. "They would be happy about the advances that have been made, not just in lift technology but in ski equipment in general. â¦They used 7-foot-3-long hickory wooden skis that were stiff as all get out and marginal boots. Now with the latest and greatest equipment, you can get people skiing and having fun in a short amount of time. You wouldn't see the growth of skiing. You had to make advances and make it fun."
Utah ski area timeline
1936 • Rope tow opens at Brighton in Little Cottonwood Canyon
1938 • Alta builds first chairlift in Utah (and second in U.S.) in Little Cottonwood Canyon
1941 • Snowbasin Resort opens in Ogden Canyon
1944 • Timp Haven Resort opens near Provo Canyon
1946 • Snow Park (on site of current Deer Valley) opens in Park City area
1946 • Little Mountain opens in Emigration Canyon
1949 • Beaver Mountain opens in Logan Canyon
1954 • Gorgoza opens in Parleys Canyon
1958 • Solitude opens in Big Cottonwood Canyon
1959 • Powder Mountain opens in Ogden Canyon
1961 • Brian Head opens east of Parowan
1963 • Treasure Mountain (now Park City Mountain Resort) opens in Park City
1968 • ParkWest (now The Canyons) opens in Park City area
1968 • Actor Robert Redford purchases Timp Haven Resort near Provo Canyon and renames it Sundance.
1969 • Nordic Valley (now Wolf Mountain) opens in Ogden Canyon
1971 • Snowbird opens in Little Cottonwood Canyon
1972 • Mt. Holly (now Eagle Point) opens east of Beaver
1981 • Deer Valley opens in Park City
Source: First Tracks: A Century of Skiing in Utah by Alan K. Engen and Gregory C. Thompson.Olendrem
Joe Quinney Winter Sports Center
Four miles north of Park City at the Utah Winter Sports Park, the Joe Quinney Winter Sports Center contains the Alf Engen Ski Museum and George Eccles 2002 Olympic Winter Games, both of which give visitors a good overview of skiing's history in Utah. Admission is free to both museums, which are open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. For information, visit http://www.engenmuseum.org.