I wrote this piece awhile back as a guest blogger when Connie Marshall was still running the big show up at Alta. It was published on their blog at this link http://www.alta.com/blog/a-brief-and-colorful-history-of-alta-ski-area-and-the-bright-future-ahead but for some reason the full story doesn’t load.
Honestly, I am just reposting it here because occasionally people ask for writing samples, and this was one of my pieces that I don’t hate so much. Enjoy:
Keepers of the Frozen Flame
Alta is for skiers. Let’s not debate this. The definition of what it means to be a skier in the purest form has nothing to do with how many boards you are standing on and how wide they are. It has even less to do with spa treatments, sushi, or swanky accommodations. In the purest form, It involves a passion for a sport that depends greatly on a frozen fire that burns deep in the soul, respect for the mountains that were meant to be skied by skiers, a reverence for the snow that fills those mountains up with its bounty, and appreciation for the stewards of the resources required to preserve this tradition and pass it down to the next generation.
Alta is for skiers, and back in 1935, it was a skier of all skiers who helped make the case to the Forest Service that the mountains surrounding the mining town of Alta, Utah had the potential to be a magical place for people to ski. A pioneer of powder, Alf Engen hiked and toured and arced through the precious weightless commodity that was piled up above the surface of the earth, unlike the riches that were once sought deep down below. A few years later, in 1939, the first single chair lift ferried skiers up into the clouds in search of those same goods.
Alta is for skiers, and if you ask some of the folks have have been working and skiing there their entire careers and lives, they would say there are a few reasons why the owners and staff have been able to stay focused on their simple brand promise and the overdelivery of the pure skiing experience. At the top of the list of qualities is independence. Somehow managing to remain independent and privately owned in an industry where speculation, boom-to-bust master planning, foreclosures, corporate acquisitions, litigation, in essence all of the rocky and treacherous things that seem to make up the business that lies lurking beneath the blankets of untracked powder and ready to rip the edges off your skis, has allowed Alta to focus on just the skiing. Because Alta has never really been through the all too common cycle of new owners bringing in new people to replace the old people, you won’t find a lot of change-for-change sake here, and longevity has become a very powerful lever for those committed to keeping Alta true to its heritage and tradition.
Alta is for skiers, and occasionally some feathers can get ruffled. Let’s have a conversation about this. Not long ago, a grown-up group of snowboarders with law degrees decided they had a strong case to go after Alta on grounds that by not allowing snowboarders, they were discriminating against a group and preventing them from using public lands. Let us remember back in the mid to late 1930’s, when the Quinneys and the Laughlins got together with the Forest Service people, and invested the time, money, and passion to establish the first Alta Ski Lifts, their efforts were pure and simple: to provide a way to move skiers up the mountain so that in return, by skiing down, they could truly be moved. This was the only promise made to anybody back then. There was no exclusivity clause back then, and there is none today. Perhaps during this costly and time consuming modern day discussion, some may have thought the Alta tradition was at risk, but when traditions are strong and pure they seem to endure.
Alta is for skiers, and even among those who call themselves skiers who are not convinced by the science behind the notion that our planet is getting warmer (the 3 of you should get together for a few beers in the Sitzmark after a day of skiing laps on High Rustler and discuss this, while you still have a chance of being convinced otherwise), it is hard to imagine the prospects that the thrill of sliding down plastic mats is anywhere near the thrill of chewing on a mouthful of blower pow shooting at you in the face from the tips of your Super 7s. The management team and staff at Alta believes in being accountable and responsible and doing everything they can to give their tradition a snowball’s chance in hell that it will last beyond the century mark, and they quietly have invested in some noteworthy efforts. For example, you wouldn’t think a resort based in its own microclimate that consistently receives over 500 inches of the lightest and driest snow needs to augment itself by pumping and spraying compressed air and water all over the place, but improving their snowmaking infrastructure and coverage in an ecologically responsible way has proven to be less of a hedge against impending doom, and more of an improvement that skiers over the past few years have noticed and appreciated. Sustainability in Alta’s corporate culture is a practice, not a preaching, and you will more likely find people doing things, rather than talking about them. The Alta Environmental Center founded in 2008 is an example of how a passionate group of people can combine the job of running a profitable business while also finding new ways to help ensure that business is viable for future generations.
Alta is for skiers, and while many other ski resorts busy themselves trying to get the word out about what’s new and how many millions of dollars are being spent in the annual arms race to attract market share, Alta knows you can’t ski on dollar bills, nor would you want to. Most of the capital improvements on the mountain have come over time, and only when the management deems them necessary to improve upon the skier experience. “The owners and management team here have been historically conservative when it comes to capital improvements,” says Connie Marshall, Director of Marketing and PR. “We’ve never really built anything we couldn’t afford.” Not beholden to creditors and financiers, the only debts are to the loyalists who keep coming back. There are always small improvements on offer, like a recent upgrade to RFID tickets and passes, modernizing lifts when the time is right, and introducing new ski school programs.
Alta is for skiers, and in no way should this be interpreted as intimidating or cautionary or meant to scare you away if you are questioning or searching for strands of the skier’s DNA in your genetic code. It’s not about how skilled or accomplished you are, but if you consider yourself skilled and accomplished, you will be tested. Alta’s trademark steep terrain stands proud and tall with the best the Wasatch has to offer, but in fact over two thirds of the skiable terrain is rated intermediate and beginner. Alta is and has always been family-centric, and a high percentage of loyal Alta skiers will have to dig deep into the well of childhood memories if you ask them to recall the first time they skied here. This means the fire burned before, and the fire still burns today, and there is a good chance the fire will burn again tomorrow. And that bodes well, because Alta will always be for skiers.