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Original Issue

Striking It Rich at Snowbird

They are proliferating now at almost the same frenetic pace that once introduced fast-food eateries and all-night laundromats. Find a hill with a dependable blanket of snow (or maybe a winter's worth of icy boiler plate) and a passable road nearby, and you will find men willing to sink their money, their teeth and their dreams into it. They will erect stanchions on the steeps, string up lift lines, hang seats, park cars, install a ski school bell, a row of flush toilets, a supply of radar-baked cheeseburgers, a cash register and—lo!—the world is presented with still another fabulous new ski resort.

It has come to seem almost like Richard Brautigan's The Cleveland Wrecking Yard, where complete surplus environments were scrapped and put up for cheap sale and fast assembly:

"...The waterfalls all had price tags on them. They were more expensive than the stream. The waterfalls were selling for $19.00 a foot.... I was very curious about the trout stream.... Oh, I had never in my life seen anything like that trout stream. It was stacked in piles of various lengths: ten, fifteen, twenty feet, etc. There was one pile of hundred-foot lengths. There was also a box of scraps...odd sizes ranging from six inches to a couple of feet...."

Well, perhaps it has not come to that yet. The hills, trails and frills of American ski resorts do not come precut or precast in hundred-foot lengths. Nor do they come cheap. Nor do they come easy. But they are coming very quickly.

The past couple of years and this new season of '72 have seen a whole grand coast-to-coast wrecking yard full of American resorts launched, each with its own high hopes—and high promise of being, somehow, something special. And how does one choose?

High in the Rockies of Colorado are the burgeoning $6 million Keystone Mountain, owned by the Ralston Purina folks; intimate Crested Butte, named after a mining town two miles south of the peak; lovely unfinished Telluride, also an oldtime mining settlement; and big, ambitious, $12 million Copper Mountain—which opens this year with no less than 25 trails and a three-story glass restaurant with a 60-mile view. North of Denver is cute little Sharktooth with one slope, one wire-rope tow, one warming hut and all of its runs under floodlights at night.

Or there is Maine, with struggling Evergreen Valley, once dreamed of as a $40 million wonderland but now merely a $4.5 million area with three lifts and legal troubles. And there is Burnt Meadows Mountain, two tow lifts and three trails spread daintily over acreage that was turned to ashes and stumps in a 1947 forest fire. In New Hampshire is Onset Ski Area on Crotched Mountain near Bennington, and there on the Oscar Rosebrook Range will be Bretton Woods, a modest little spot for bunnies, which its developers are pitching as a mountain designed with an eye to "broad lateral scope" rather than trying for "the greatest vertical drop in the East." Outside Spokane is 49 Degrees North, as the new ski resort at Chewelah Mountain is called, with three chair lifts (the longest 6,900 feet with a vertical drop of 1,850) and over near Harrisonburg, Va., suh, is Massanutten, four chair lifts in the mild old Shenandoah Valley hills (maximum drop 795 feet), a mere two hours from Washington, D.C. Up in New Jersey is the Playboy Club's Great Gorge area (a B-cup mountain if there ever was one) and there in Pennsylvania is tough little Jack Frost Mountain, a hardy hill that joins with the Poconos' venerable and respected Big Boulder area, now a quarter of a century old. And in California, where Mineral King still has all of its Disney-sized ideas beached in the courts and Squaw Valley has been nipped by the black frost of bankruptcy, there are still brave new resorts in bloom. Notably, there is Northstar-at-Tahoe, which plans a $100 million showplace eventually but opens this year with a lot less (10 miles of trails and five lifts), and Kirkwood, which figures on a $60 million facility someday but opens now with six condominiums, a day lodge, 14 trails and four chair lifts.

The ski resort boom is deafening and it is possible—though not probable—that it has yet to reach a fortissimo. There could be much more to come, but there are those who say that the bull market in ski resorts is already fading. It is true that there is a sharply diminished supply of accessible mountain land for ski trails and facilities. It also is true that the Federal Government, which has leasing rights to a huge majority of America's mountain lands, is becoming more and more reluctant to allow lovely wild areas to be used for further commercial development and private profit. Then, too, there is an ever more dedicated—and rapidly growing—legion of devout conservationists and ecology evangelists who believe more ski areas are a desecration of the wilderness. They are not entirely wrong; certainly the U.S. is nearing the point where the life expectancy of a golden eagle and the well-being of an aspen grove are issues more critical than the installation of still another hundred miles of ski trails. This is particularly true considering the inevitable bulldozer destruction and mountain upheaval that come with the arrival of the roads, heavy traffic, sewage lines, parking lots and all-round environment-busting stuff required by a respectable profit-making ski resort.

Still, the new plethora of mountains polished and hillsides groomed for skiing has produced at least a few admirable specimens of really tasteful architecture and genuine concern for nature-blended planning. None, so far, quite matches the resort that has happened—and is still happening—in lovely, winding Little Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountain range 25 miles above Salt Lake City, Utah.

The place is called Snowbird. It is named for a little, unheralded silver-mining claim (which proved to be silverless), one of hundreds of such claims that cut a vast patchwork of hopes and scars across the mountainsides 100 years ago. In summer one still can see an occasional rusted one-track, one-man rail line laid along the slopes of Snowbird—and beneath the surface there is still a honeycomb of mine shafts and tunnels where men once burrowed for riches. Some found it: in all, about $37 million worth of ore was packed and chipped and tunneled out of the sides of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

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.

Johnson came up with a movie (starring the inimitable Ted Johnson floating down the powder slope) showing the snowy realities of the place, added scale models of the ambitious and decorous village he envisioned at the base of the hills—and set out on an exhausting expedition through the executive suites and corporate boardrooms of the land. His wife Wilma. a tall, strikingly handsome Australian lady who is considered a powder skier second only to Ted himself, went along.

"We hustled every big corporation in the country," says Ted. "We'd make our presentation and they'd be really interested in it. A ski resort? It excited a lot of them. I went to Boise Cascade, Royal Street, Western Airlines and the W.J. Voit Rubber Corporation. I'd tell them I was sure it would take 10 years before the thing could turn around and make a profit—but that it looked like a sure thing. Well, lots of them loved the dream—lots of the people I talked to loved the dream, that is. But then they'd say, 'Well, maybe we'd better run it through the computer and see what it says.'

"The old Snowbird got defeathered by more computers than any project in history, I guess."

The computer rejections went on and on, for about five years. Johnson tried everything else, even selling the place piecemeal like a private club, until one night he was at a cocktail party in Vail, Colo., staring despairingly into his drink, when up stepped a chap with a thick Texas drawl.

"I've heard your name," the stranger said. "Where are you from?"

"Alta," said Johnson.

"I been dyin' to go and ski over there," the man said. And then he said: "Tell me, are there any investments available over there?"

The stranger was Richard D. Bass, 42, native of Dallas and graduate of Yale, one of the heirs to one of the robust oil and ranching fortunes in America. Already a large and influential investor in the Aspen Ski Corp. and Vail Associates, Bass flew to Utah to look at Ted Johnson's dream resort. The two of them donned boots and climbed the mountain, hiking every lift line and major trail that Johnson had planned. And Investor Bass signed on, calling himself general partner and underwriting everything. Ted Johnson's days of balky computers and ephemeral dreams faded for good. The Bird, as they say along Little Cottonwood Canyon, started to take off.

It wasn't an easy launching. There were no ready-made scrap parts for a ski resort lying around to be bought for $19 a foot. In fact, what started out as a $5 million investment rose to $8 million, to $10 million, then $11.4 million, and finally shot to $13.5 million before the opening season of 1971-72.

But the money was well planted into the landscape. Now there are more than 30 miles of ski runs in Peruvian Gulch and Gad Valley, which undulate downward in gigantic fluffy snow steps. A monster Swiss aerial tram carries 120 passengers from the base plaza at 8,100 feet to the 11,000-foot Hidden Peak in six minutes. Another four double chair lifts can move 4,800 skiers per hour. From the top, there are 36 north-facing runs, many of them 2½ miles long with roughly a 3,100-foot vertical drop. And Snowbird is not only big, but steep: 22 of the runs are for experts. Intermediate skiers get nine and novices five, the sort of setup that makes one aspire to improve. Snowbird gets its dry powder from early November to late May—an average fall of 450.5 inches per season—and since much of it falls overnight, skiers are usually greeted by an entire morning mountainside of untouched, unbroken snow.

In an ironic way, that was part of the Snowbird problem: from the beginning Johnson was met with fierce and stubborn resistance by all sorts of local folk. The Wasatch Mountain Club, a band of militant conservationists, attacked Snowbird as being no more than another profiteer's rape of the wilderness, insisting that the huge increase in auto traffic to the resort would upset the ecology of the canyon, that the buildings (one of them a proposed 19-story condominium) would wreck the canyon esthetics, that the bulldozer destruction would rip up the natural habitat of countless species of wildlife. Nearly every public hearing on Snowbird facilities turned into bitter shouting matches.

One by one, Ted Johnson debated and rebutted and argued with those who opposed him. Now, at 46, his hair has turned pure white and there are deep purple circles beneath his eyes. He rarely skis anymore, but he has begun to convince people that perhaps Snowbird is neither rapist nor blatant profiteer. "Sure, the traffic rate is up in the canyon," he said, "but lots of that is in the summer, sightseers who have nothing to do with Snowbird. We're working on the idea of a monorail or a bus service up from the bottom to keep cars at a minimum. All our buildings are designed to blend with the mountains. We're even planting grass on the roofs so from on top they won't conflict with the natural environment. I've insisted every tree must be preserved. Actually, it has cost us quite a few thousand extra bucks to do it, too, but I will not have this mountain all cut up for Snowbird. We went for high-rise buildings because we didn't want to create a sprawling clutter at the base of the slope. We didn't want a layer of one-story buildings stretching all over the bottom slopes like some kind of Levittown. We're keeping everything compact, unified. People are starting to believe us, but don't kid yourself—I'm going to have to light and argue and bitch for every new building we put up. Hell, I'm going to have to fight for every new floor on every new building we put up."

Economically, the first season was, predictably, awful—losses averaged $20,000 a week. Dick Bass has now had to dig for at least another million out of his own pocket. And now Snowbird must keep expanding, adding new condominiums, new rooms in order to attract enough skiers to produce enough revenue to—someday, some year—get out of the red.

Economic success is a long way off, though Snowbird expects to start breaking even this winter. But already Snowbird is a spectacular esthetic success. The architecture is a delicate, yet rugged, combination of wood and concrete, gracefully combined in the Lodge in an attractive sweeping array of balconies and railings facing the ski slopes. The Lodge (350 beds in 160 rooms and apartments) is joined to the "Village," a remarkably tasteful single structure including the administrative offices, ski shops, two restaurants, a cafeteria, a pharmacy, discotheque, the ski school and lift-ticket sales booth, as well as a sunny, lovely plaza where people can await departures of the tram. It is a miracle of planning and unity that neatly avoids the sprawl and foolishness—to say nothing of the snarled car traffic—that ruin so many ski villages.

Apartments are being built steadily, a new 70-unit condominium opening next month. Ted Johnson and Dick Bass have laid out a series of future expansions over the mountain, eventually, perhaps, even spilling over into some of the incredible powder bowls on the other side of the Snowbird slopes.

But what of the skiing now, today? There is simply none better. The terrain of Peruvian Gulch and Gad Valley is exquisitely hair-raising—steep and straight as church steeples in some places, a snowball of moguls in others. Except for the lilting undulations of Big Emma (named after a grand madam of Alta's mining days), there is not so much for the timid intermediate to enjoy. Yet it is hard to think of a more beautiful, more exciting, more skiable mountain than that which looms over the settlement of Snowbird.

Indeed, this place in Little Cottonwood Canyon may well prove to be, as an awed visiting Frenchman exclaimed recently, "the Louvre of the world's ski resorts!"