Snowbird • Bob Bonar first stepped foot in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon in 1969 to spend a winter off from college working at Alta Mayor Bill Levitt’s lodge beside the old mining town’s famed ski area.
The Southern Californian was more of a beach guy than a skier, but he quickly took to Utah’s world-renowned snow in the Wasatch Mountains' daunting, avalanche-prone terrain. He returned the next winter as a college dropout and rookie member of Alta’s ski patrol.
“I made $125 a month and enjoyed lots of good powder skiing,” Bonar recalled. “Avalanche control was just getting going. A big day was like 20 hand charges for the whole mountain.”
Just down the road, plans for a new ski area were taking shape as Ted Johnson built what would become Snowbird in craggy cirques served by a tram rising more than 3,200 feet to the summit of Hidden Peak.
The 20-year-old Bonar and eight other Alta patrollers hired on at the upstart resort the next season.
“We saw it as a big adventure, a brand-new ski resort, a lot of opportunity,” Bonar said recently, reflecting on his half-century in Little Cottonwood Canyon while taking in the view of Mount Superior and Mount Baldy from Snowbird’s new summit conference center. While some of his old comrades pursued careers outside of skiing or at other ski areas, Bonar stuck around to eventually run Snowbird.
For the first time in 47 years, Snowbird’s ski season opens Saturday without Bonar. The resort’s last employee to have worked there since its debut, Bonar retired this fall after shepherding Snowbird into the 21st century and cementing its place as one of North America’s great ski destinations.
It may have been the mountains that drew Bonar to Little Cottonwood, where he raised three kids with wife Ann, but it was the community that kept him and many other longtime Snowbird employees there, even as skiing changed over the years.
“Bob was in this group of general managers who started in the salad days of the ski industry. He literally helped build Snowbird,” said Nathan Rafferty, head of Ski Utah, the marketing arm of the state’s industry association.
Helping the 'Bird take flight
Nature endowed Snowbird with superb snow and a terrain that is both beautiful and challenging. Sculpting it into a world-class resort took the vision of founders Johnson and Dick Bass, while Bonar and his generation turned the vision into reality, using hard-earned knowledge acquired through the years, mostly by trial and error. Today, the resort operates 13 lifts on about 2,500 acres of national forest land and abandoned mine claims, and hosts many events during the summer months.
“It was on precipice of bankruptcy for decades,” Rafferty said. “Bob was the one to see it though. He was responsible for taking it over the hump.”
After the resort got out from under the thumb of nervous creditors in the 1990s, it resumed investing in amenities that had set standards elsewhere in North America. Under Bonar’s watch as general manager, Snowbird converted nearly every lift to high-speed detachables, opened Mineral Basin over the divide in American Fork Canyon, bored North America’s first and perhaps only ski tunnel under that ridge, connected Snowbird with Alta, expanded snowmaking, and built a conference center atop Hidden Peak.
“Bob, throughout his career, was a very singular, visionary fellow,” said Rick Mandahl, who served on the Snowbird professional ski patrol from 1973 to 1987. “He pushed the envelope in many directions, operationally in the mountain and in the business stetting. He [had] good ideas and worked to make them real. He was a good leader a leader who could see over the horizon and take the organization in that direction.”
In the early days, not many people were skiing Snowbird. Bass, the resort’s main financier and owner, nearly lost it to bankruptcy after he over-leveraged it to build the Cliff Lodge. But Bass, a wealthy Texan who took up mountaineering in his 50s, never gave up on his goal of developing a resort that would rival the legendary ski destinations of the Alps.
“Dick pursuing his dream made it possible for us to live there,” Mandahl said.
Bass died in 2015 and has been commemorated in a statue unveiled last month at the Snowbird Center. In a kind of yin-yang depiction, it shows Bass skiing down one side of the sculpture by Edward Fraughton, while another Bass climbs the opposite side, a reference to his 1985 ascent of Mount Everest.
Snowbird’s first ski patrol director, Kent “Hoopie” Hoopingarner, assembled that initial team of young patrollers in fall 1971. Johnson was rushing to complete construction before opening day in December, but he was behind schedule and a lot of snow was falling.
Instead of practicing rescues, patrollers were swinging hammers, pushing wheelbarrows and performing other forms of grunt labor. Bonar had never handled a self-propelled snowblower before and was thrilled to use one to clear the new Skiers Bridge.
His excitement turned to embarrassment when the machine propelled itself into the creek 30 feet below, according to a new memoir by Bonar’s sister, Linda Bonar, titled “Avalanche Busters: A Historical Memoir of the Snowbird and Alta Ski Patrols.”
“It was borderline tragedy the whole winter. When the ski patrol got on board, we spent the first couple of months helping Ted Johnson finish the construction,” Bob Bonar said. “We had no time to train on the mountain. We had no experience running our routes, very little experience firing the military weapons.”
Patrollers still use howitzers to fire 75 mm shells into slide paths to trigger controlled avalanches, although this practice is fading as new technologies emerge and surplus ordnance becomes scarce.
From the beginning of the ski revolution, the Cottonwood canyons have been a caldron of avalanche studies where much has been learned regarding the behavior of snow and hazard avoidance, sometimes at a steep price in terms of lives lost and near misses. Patrollers experimented with the use of dogs and transceivers to find buried victims.
“The whole evolution of rescue methods was part of something we were making up as we went a long,” Mandahl said. “It was very much a pioneering time. A lot of knowledge that is still important today was in the development stages.”
Mandahl himself was buried in a big avalanche at Canada’s Whistler 40 years ago. At the time, competing models of avalanche beacons had just begun transmitting on a standardized signal. His was the first life to be saved, thanks to that innovation, which emerged from the rescue procedures pioneered in Little Cottonwood.
Bonar’s generation of leaders, including the recently retired Onno Wieringa of Alta and John Loomis of Snowbasin, not only made Cottonwood skiing safer, but also more developed. Fast lifts and nice amenities made skiing more enjoyable — and more expensive.
The price of business
“The ski industry is very capital-intensive. I get asked why skiing is so expensive. What we do is expensive. We are also labor intensive,” Bonar said. “In the winter, 2,000 people work at Snowbird. What we do takes a lot of maintenance and sophisticated equipment.”
Snowbird’s rise spurred the formation of the environmental group Save Our Canyons. The organization has remained at odds with Snowbird through the years, especially with its long-standing plan for a conference center at the tram’s upper terminal.
After decades of negotiating, Bonar completed a scaled-down version of The Summit, which features 18,000 square feet spread over three floors at a cost of $18 million.
“Snowbird is a place for everybody. Dick [Bass] was an everyday kind of guy, and he wanted Snowbird to be accessible,” said Bonar, who has been succeeded by former operations manager Dave Fields. “Everyone can come here and enjoy the mountains, and yet we are surrounded by big, giant wilderness areas.”
Other improvements Bonar oversaw drew heat from canyon watchdogs concerned with the ski industry’s growing footprint in the increasingly congested Central Wasatch. Some see a beloved sport getting turned into a pampered experience that few can afford, one in which day passes run more than $100.
Bonar says he has worked hard to soften Snowbird’s footprint and improve environmental conditions in the canyon, while accommodating more and more guests. He has invested in cleaning up some of the old mines that discharged metal-laden groundwater.
Bonar directed $1 per every guest night at Snowbird to the National Forest Foundation, which matched that money in a grant to an area nonprofit, the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation, that helps take care of Big and Little Cottonwood. These canyons see more visitors than all of Utah’s national parks combined, but the Forest Service has few resources to manage them.
The tunnel, which transports skiers from the top of the Peruvian lift into Mineral Basin, was a $1.6 million effort to reduce Snowbird’s visual impact. Rather than extend the lift to the ridge’s top, where the terminal could be seen for miles, Bonar bored a 600-foot hole under it. With the tunnel, skiers can reach Mineral when high winds idle the tram.
Such amenities, for better or worse, reflect the expectations of discerning skiers, who have rewarded the resort by coming in droves and ranking it in North America’s top echelon of ski areas year after year.
Keeping up with Park City, Deer Valley and other Utah rivals was more than a full-time job for Bonar, who is now on vacation in South America’s Patagonia, enjoying summer, something he didn’t get to do before, as winter descends on Little Cottonwood Canyon.
“My neighbors would ask me, ‘You’re general manager of a ski area. You don’t really work, do you? Isn’t it just fun? Don’t you take summers off?”’ Bonar said. “Summers are worse.”