William F. Meehan III
‘Alta’ isn’t a word you hear often in fashionable conversations in skiing circles … You can live out a casual lifetime, as a casual skier, and not know about Alta, and the odd thing is that this really suits the Alta people just fine. There is absolutely nothing about Alta that suggests commercial jingoism. Sometimes you even have the impression that the natives and the operators rather wish fewer people would go there, not more. The only thing inconsistent about this attitude is that it contradicts the hospitality of the people of Alta, and that is a phenomenon at least as remarkable as that crazy snow trap that makes the mountain there one of the skiing phenomena of the world.…
In that beautiful corner room we were given [at the Alta Lodge], with great panes of glass looking out toward the grand skiing hills to the south and up-valley to the north, I absorbed something of the ambient Mormon energy.
—William F. Buckley Jr., “Alta,” Signature Magazine, January 1968
Shortly after publishing the inaugural issue of National Review, in December 1955, William F. Buckley Jr. drove with his wife and six sisters to the Green Mountain State where, after purchasing equipment and skiing all afternoon, he joked about his future: “I thought seriously of abandoning journalism, my vendetta with the Soviet Union, my music and my sailing and settling down in Vermont, working five years to qualify as a ski instructor and spending the balance of my life on the slopes.” Buckley, of course, stood athwart history but at the age of thirty was “bitten” by the ski bug and suffered from “quite an understandable infection” for the rest of his life, accepting that like others on the slopes “there are no lengths to which [we] won’t go.” Buckley spent many winter afternoons skiing what he calls the “radiant Alpine sanctuary” of Gstaad but found that Utah’s Alta and the Alta Lodge “have a way of getting to you.” An introductory look at what skiing (at Alta) meant to Buckley, therefore, enhances an appreciation of his life and work.
Thirty minutes by car or forty on the Ski Bus (#937, $2.50 one way) from Salt Lake City, Alta is the tiny (population 382) town located high (8,500 feet) in Little Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains. Little Cottonwood Canyon provided the rock and timber used by the Mormons to build their Temple and was the site of sliver booms in 1868 and 1904. More recently, Little Cottonwood Canyon, including Alta, has become an important watershed location that supplies Salt Lake City. The glacial trough (U-shaped) formed millions of years ago, however, is perhaps best known for its unique atmospheric conditions that make possible ample and frequent snow powder. Produced when cold air from the Pacific Northwest travels over the warm air of the Great Salt Lake and gets trapped by the 11,000-foot mountain peaks, the featherlight, dry powder dumped on Little Cottonwood Canyon is called by marketing professionals “the greatest snow on earth.”
Except for a few years, such as 1977 and 1987, the average seasonal accumulation is 550 inches. The single-season record was 748 inches in 1982, while the greatest twenty-four-hour snowfall was 55.5 inches on January 6, 1994. The current season is off to a promising start, likely not to disappoint powder hounds, who pay $135.00 for a day’s pass valid at 9:15 a.m.–4:30 p.m. According to the Alta Ski Area Instagram account, “A 65″ storm cycle capped off a dreamy opening weekend” (December 3) and “It’s been an incredible start to the new year, with 132″ of new snow this month” (January 23). On the second day of my own recent visit, eight weeks after its opening November 29, Alta had received 345 inches of snow.
Alta Ski Lifts, Inc., a privately held company, opened in November 1938; when the Collins Lift began operating two months later, it became the second of its kind in the United States. Named for a prospector who hit pay dirt, the Collins Lift was a converted aerial ore tram used by a mining company that travelled 425 feet a minute and carried 350 skiers on single-seat devices. After three upgrades (1946, 1973, and 2004) the lift now comprises two sections driven by 500-HP motors and moves 2,400 skiers per hour at a maximum speed of 1,000 feet a minute on cushioned four-seaters between Mount Baldy (11,064 feet) and Mount Superior (11,036 feet), offering on its stomach-dropping way down a panoramic view of the area.
The Federation Internationale de Ski selected Alta as the host for its 1940 world championship, the same year two trustees of the Rio Grande Railroad donated $25,000 for construction of the Alta Lodge and development of winter sports recreation. Company B of the 503rd Parachute Battalion, the elite airborne infantry, spent the winter of 1941–1942 at Alta preparing for deployment to the Italian Alps, and the U.S. ski team trained there in the 1950s, leading to a Sports Illustrated cover in December 1959. Alta also was home to a giant slalom race (Snow Cup) and ski jumping competition (Gelande) for more than twenty years. The Alf Engen Ski School—named for an Alta founder who won sixteen national championships and was selected Utah’s Athlete of the Century—opened in 1948. Alta’s ski patrol standardized first aid and rescue techniques, while its avalanche research center pioneered the use of explosives and is still today in the vanguard of snow science.
While it might appear that Alta hurled itself into the ski industry, its approach to change is cautious, even “conservative.” In Kirkian terms, adherence to custom, convention, continuity, and prudence are its guiding concepts. In Alta Magic, his collection of essays and photographs, Lee Cohen explains: “Alta is such a special place that considerable energies have been devoted to keep it unspoiled. It has long been considered a slow-mover in the ski world, a place where things never change. Alta has actually made steady concessions to progress—in a slow, well-though-out manner. It has inched forward in a quest to further improve the skier experience while maintaining principles that have created the aura of what Alta remains today.”
When Buckley “discovered that skiing was a halfway station between earth and heaven” he headed, in 1961, to Alta and, starting in 1978, joined economist Milton Friedman and entrepreneur Lawry Chickering there every January for seventeen years. Buckley compared the “many years of total immersion” over a few days “with night watches on a sailing boat: The intimacy is of the kind that generates true pleasure in one another’s company.” At least once during their vacation, “We complimented ourselves on having found Alta, and the Alta Lodge and, to be frank, ourselves, which is how friendship works.” Buckley would go on to write articles about Alta and skiing in places as varied as National Review and TV Guide.
Alta is an enchanting place where the casual style enkindles soothing affection among winter pilgrims. “Alta life is something that almost imposes informality,” Buckley once explained. “Everyone seems to relate skiing at Alta to personal experiences—with the mountain, yes, obviously; but also with where you stayed and with whom, from which you develop your perspectives.” The social milieu in which these experiences occur fosters allegiance.
“People develop tremendous attachment to Alta and want to stay connected to the place,” Dave Davenport, president of the Alta Historical Society, told me in the Deck Room at the Alta Lodge. Between sips of Earl Grey, Andria Huskinson, year-round director of public relations who has been skiing Alta for twenty-five years, added that an appreciation of Alta’s “deep culture” is handed down by families from one generation to the next. “She’s right,” Davenport, an Upper East Side New Yorker who relocated to Salt Lake City, said, reaching for his coffee. “Alta is the last bastion of old-fashioned East Coast skiing—with much better snow.”
Understanding of a culture centered on familial traditions was critical to one man’s civic leadership at Alta. “Everyone talks about their fathers coming here and their grandfathers coming here and how Alta is their spiritual home,” William H. Levitt told The Salt Lake Tribune when he was re-elected in 2001 to his ninth term as mayor. “What we’ve tried to do is keep this place a haven for all of them.” Levitt was voted into office in 1972, when the municipality was formed, and the wisdom of his judgment over thirty-two years in City Hall is revealed in the town’s code: Virtually all of Alta’s existing land use rules and regulations are dated 1989. Even Alta’s “Commercial Core Plan of 2016,” written eleven years after Levitt’s death, reflects his vision: “… there should be no fake log cabins, no fake Swiss chalets, no fake stone walls.” Levitt, a well-educated former employee of the United Auto Workers whose views contrasted Buckley’s, understood that Alta’s magical qualities required protection and believed, according to Alan K. Engen in For the Love of Skiing: A Visual History, “his firm resolve to keeping Alta protected from never-ending demands for commercial development his greatest legacy.”
Levitt is typical of people who travel to Alta year after year for vacation and eventually realize that it would be cheaper to live there. In truth, though, they fall in love and never leave. Levitt was so taken with Alta that he purchased, in 1959, the Alta Lodge from New Directions publisher James “J” Laughlin, a transaction sealed the old-fashioned way during a summer hike—with a handshake. In Bill Levitt: In His Own Words, editor Austin Hoyt asks Levitt about his philosophy running the Alta Lodge: “We did something different … we just decided we wanted to model the lodge on the great old European lodges, which are part of our literature—Hemingway stories, the romantic experiences. The people, when you came to these places, the staff knew you. They knew your family. They became your friends. And we did that … And so when people came here, we wanted to make them feel that it was their place. And I think we succeeded.”
Skiing became part of Buckley’s daily routine during his winters in Switzerland where, over six to eight weeks in February–March, he wrote a novel or edited a collection of his articles, starting in 1970. He would spend the morning doing “getting-and-spending work” and ski in the afternoon, when fifteen minutes after selecting a run “You are heading downhill at 40 miles per hour and you have the sensation of a child looking into the great F.A.O. Schwarz toy store at Christmas time and all of a sudden the windows melt before your eyes, and everything there is yours.” He later would go back to work, but “the burden of it is greatly lessened, the melody of your hour on the mountains reaches right into your desk.”
Buckley, who ranked his ability 12 on a scale of 20, thought skiing “a sport that lightens the very load of life” and brings immediate pleasures; moreover, it is “the most democratic of all sports [because] everyone who tries it is an expert.” If skiing a run in one’s later years takes longer than it took in one’s prime, then “so what?” There is no delight in performing a Mozart sonata designated presto if played andante, Buckley explains, but “the pleasure of skiing is not a function of the speed of one’s performance.” No professional or leisure activity, he argues, is “as indulgent as skiing in giving you exactly the combination you wish of challenge, relaxation, thrill, and exhilaration.”
After sailing, skiing is Buckley’s “next enthusiasm in the world of sports.” He found in skiing “a bit of paradise,” his experience on the slopes paralleling emotions awakened on a sailboat. When at sea, “You are moving at racing speed, parting the buttery sea as with a scalpel, and the waters roar by, themselves exuberantly subdued by your powers to command your way through them.” Similarly, when on skis he feels the “sheer joy sliding down the mountain at any speed you choose, treating the snow like hired gravity letting you glide over its softness, cooling your face and balming your spirit and reminding you day after day and year after year of the singular pleasure that issues from a mountain height.” Skiing is less expensive and “as a rule” less painful than ocean racing but, with a nod to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, Buckley thought each sport “quite another world worth getting to know.”
Since its opening eighty-two years ago, Alta’s ski area (along with unincorporated neighbor Snowbird) has operated under a special use permit issued by the Forest Service, the current permit effective until 2042 and administered by the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. In a decision that has met with objection by six organizations, including the local land trust Friends of Alta, the Forest Service approved Alta Ski Lift’s plan for ten improvement projects, including a tram on Mount Baldy. While the project, particularly the proposed tram, has “ruffled some feathers,” according to Powder magazine’s Matt Hansen, the Forest Service’s analysis led to a “finding of no significant impact” and Alta Ski Lifts, according to Huskinson, “has no plan to install [the tram] in the near future.”
Alta Ski Lifts has a verifiable record of curating its legacy. “Nowhere is this more evident than in its adherence to a self-imposed, decades old doctrine: To serve as a recreational paradise primarily for local skiers. This is the Alta gospel,” writes Mike Korologos, former skiing editor at The Salt Lake Tribune, in the foreword to Engen’s book. In Alta: A People’s Story, author Duane Schrontz concludes, “Something has to be said for quality of life, security of employment, and continuity of expectations.”
When ascending the hill at the base of Collins and Wildcat Lifts became an obstacle to his skiing, in 1994, Buckley expressed concern to Alta Ski Lifts manager Anno Wieringa, who put in place what was to become known as the “William F. Buckley Tow.” For Buckley, however, Alta was where “The magnificent scenery and Mormon hospitality make renewing old friendships as exhilarating as skiing downhill.” His time there no doubt was sublime.
William F. Meehan III is editor of William F. Buckley Jr.: A Bibliography (ISI Books, 2002) and Conversations with William F. Buckley Jr. (University Press of Mississippi, 2009).