But the rush turned into a trickle, leaving nothing but a wretched little mining settlement called Alta at the top of the canyon. In summer a gentle carpet of pines and wild flowers spread over the mining scars, and in winter massive falls of snow covered all the tracks of men. The snow was treacherous stuff that often exploded into avalanches, rampaging down the steep slopes, wrenching loose mammoth trees, rolling them like pool cues down the mountainside and turning them into splinters. Nature pretty much ruled the canyon as it wished for several decades—until 1937, when the science of avalanche control matured and that decrepit little ghost town of Alta sputtered toward resurrection as a ski area.
In those young years of the sport there were perhaps 50,000 U.S. skiers (compared with five million today), and Alta quickly became the Mecca for deep-powder addicts, known around the world as that rare vastness of untouched slopes where purists and experts only need apply. After all, the mountainsides fell away at a degree just something less than vertical, and the only thing that kept the skiers connected to the world was the fact that they were literally up to their armpits in fluffy snow.
But Alta never grew very much, being in the remote and liquorless state of Utah, and came to rely almost entirely for revenue on local folks—who are a notoriously spoiled and stingy breed, since they need drive but 30 minutes to the greatest snow on earth and pay no more than $7 for a weekend lift ticket. Even now, in its 35th year, the place seems relentless in its determination to remain modest: Alta still has only four small lodges and six chair lifts, and can handle no more than 4,200 skiers per hour.
But by anybody's definition, unassuming, shambling old Alta is the true godfather to the brawny and dynamic new resort just down the road, for had there been no Alta, Snowbird's golden egg would certainly never have hatched.
Among the purists who succumbed to the glories of Alta powder long ago was a strapping, blue-eyed chap named George Theodore Johnson, carefree and possessed of energetic joie de vivre, a onetime cotton-picker, bicycle rider, lifeguard-bar manager at Waikiki and a new convert to skiing. In 1954, then 28, Ted Johnson was on his way to Sun Valley for an aimless winter when someone told him about Alta. Although he went around the world a couple of times later, performing in ski-adventure films, Ted Johnson never really left Utah again.
He moved in as a handyman and later became famous as the caretaker at a tiny mid-station shelter high on the mountainside, selling magnificent hamburgers to cold, hungry skiers and gaining a reputation as a cook that almost matched his status as the best powder skier in the West. Johnson also managed the Alta and Rustler Lodges. His own sense of resort image was not so sharply honed then as it has come to be: one Christmas during the peak of the Kennedy years in Washington, D.C., he flat-out refused a request by Robert F. Kennedy and family for rooms at the Alta Lodge. "Well, it was Christmas and we were filled up." he shrugs now. "No one at Alta ever thought of what it would mean in prestige and business to have a President's family there. That wasn't the Alta way."
But even as Alta settled deeper into its innocent old ways. Johnson had his eye on something better just down the canyon. For years the hardiest skiers from Alta had been hiking up over the range to the high powder fields in the areas called Peruvian Gulch and Gad Valley. On top. at 11,000 feet, they could look down into the Salt Lake Valley on one side and. on the other, down on the top of Alta. From this lofty jump-off, they would curl down those unmarked drops, billowing clouds of dry powder all around, spinning past great white pine groves, sometimes kicking off a baby avalanche or two. "There was no better skiing in the world than that," says Johnson, and he began to dream of putting the slopes to use for more than the few mavericks willing to slog over from Alta.
In 1965 Johnson scratched together enough capital, about $30,000, to buy a sprawling old mining claim called Blackjack, which lay between Alta and the dream mountainside. Then he set to work in the dusty files and record books of county land offices, burrowing through thousands of yellowed pages to find the forgotten ownership of some 95 other abandoned mining claims. One by one he sifted and sorted through them, finally sewing up all the land he needed. He paid $18,500 for the last parcel to a grizzled ex-miner he had at last located living in a retirement house trailer in Fontana, Calif.
That is the way ski resorts are born. Johnson had wrapped up 857 acres of land, most of it backing right up against 1,200 acres of Wasatch National Forest—with projected expansion possibilities stretching into counties and ridges far beyond.
And then began the long, tough chore of raising enough money—$5 million might be a nice round sum, he figured—to install the lifts, put in a tram, the lodging, restaurants, parking lots and power lines to make his fanciful dream Snowbird take off.