What distinguishes Salt Lake City is not its choir, not its
genealogical records and not its bizarrely complicated drinking
laws (guess what, heavy beer is not the opposite of light beer),
but an upturned crust of rock called the Wasatch Mountain Range,
a north-south ridge of the Rockies that looms to the east of the
city. The peaks in this range run 9,000 to 10,000 feet and are
divided by huge glaciated canyons and, in winter months, are
covered by upward of 500 inches of dry, fluffy snow. When you're
on top of them the last thing on your mind is the view to the
northwest (what's that briny lowland?) or below (kind of a
generic-looking metropolis, wouldn't you say?). All you can
think is, Wouldn't it be fun to slide down those canyons, one
way or another?
It would, it is, it always has been. The miners who showed up
here after prospecting for gold in the Sierras (pocking these
canyon walls in search of silver, lead and zinc) were immediately
adept at snow travel, whizzing around in "flip-flops," as their
wooden skis were known. Col. Patrick Conner's Third California
Infantry, sent here in 1862 to keep an eye on this Brigham Young
fellow, soon found this was the only way to go as well. The
soldiers, transferring skills first developed in California
mountains, were probably the area's first downhill skiers,
although it was more an issue of transportation than sports.
Back in the 19th century there were no high-speed quads or
four-day ski packages. Alta, which is now a low-frills ski
destination at the end of Big Cottonwood Canyon, was strictly a
mining town in the mid- and late-1800s (as was Park City,
today's gentrified resort that is host to the Olympic events of
Alpine giant slalom and snowboard), although the nightlife was
considerably less temperate than down the hill, where Young was
settling his new followers. Alta had 26 saloons and six
breweries, and not one of them required a "membership." Still,
the example of these miners and soldiers gliding around on
14-foot-long boards (if not bellying up to the bar) was soon
embraced by the citizenry during the back-to-nature movement at
the turn of the century. There were clubs, organized outings,
plenty of healthy schussing.
The most galvanizing movement in Utah ski history, though, was
the Norwegian immigration--lots of homesick ski jumpers, some
lured by Mormon missionaries, others just spreading out from
Scandinavian hot spots in Chicago and Minnesota not long after
1910. Like any other newcomers to the area, they were first
transfixed by the mountains and their downhill possibilities,
except the Norwegians knew more possibilities than the natives
In 1915 some of these new arrivals, known as the Norwegian Young
Folks Society, organized the first local ski jumping
competition. It was a definite success, with 5,000 people
showing up to see somebody sail upward of 80 feet. This caught
on big. And although the jumpers were almost all Norwegian, some
locals began taking notice.
Jack Walker was a kid who started skiing with his buddies in the
valleys not long after. He wasn't Norwegian (later, in
emulation, he toyed with spelling his name backward--Reklaw
Kcaj), but he was aware of these new daredevils, with names like
Trogstad and Engen, who were getting strange air off a wooden
roller-coaster-looking ramp on Becker Hill in Ogden. Intrigued,
he bought a pair of longer, grooved skis from Scott Hardware in
downtown Ogden and, even as he was lugging the skis out of the
store, caught the attention of a fierce-looking guy with poor
"He tapped me on my shoulder," says Walker, now 86 and still an
active skier, "looked at my skis and told me about a huge
jumping hill they were building near Parleys Summit [now an exit
off I-80 on the way to Park City, where the Olympic ski jumping
competition will be held]. Said I should come on up there."
The fierce-looking guy was Halvar Hvalstad, a member of a
professional ski jumping team (12 of the 14 were Norwegian) that
operated out of the area, barnstorming throughout the West and
Midwest. The billing, sampled here from the Ogden Examiner, was
even less coy than it might have been in these sensational
times: SPECTACULAR THRILLS ADD TO EXCITEMENT AS NORWEGIANS HURL
SELVES INTO SPACE DOWN SIDE OF STEEP MOUNTAIN. Up to that time
the Norwegians had used hills in Salt Lake and Ogden. In fact,
at Ogden's Becker Hill a Norwegian by the name of Einar Fredbo
flew a hill record of 203 feet in 1931, so it was worth
watching. According to Alan Engen, whose father, Alf, was a
Norwegian champion before coming to Salt Lake in 1929, jumps
like that "got the crowd's attention." Alan, who is now ski
director at Alta and who has written two histories of skiing in
Utah, says it was not unusual to have thousands show up for a
competition. Some would just sit in their cars, ringed around
the landing, their lights on.
Soon the action moved to Ecker Hill at Parleys Summit because of
its engineering and because the snow was more reliable there.
The site became popular on the barnstorming tour, and skiers
would compete for purses. Hvalstad won the first event there in
1930, sailing 142 feet, but that proved to be nothing. The next
year, after the hill had been remodeled, Alf Engen set the world
record with a jump of 247 feet. Within the year he moved the
mark to 266 feet. Engen, who was becoming the Michael Jordan of
his sport, especially in Utah where there weren't many other
champions, pushed it to 281 feet the next year (and to the hill
record of 296 in 1934). According to his son's book For the Love
of Skiing, it wasn't pure fun for the jumper. "It's fun jumping
even as far as 200 feet," Engen said, "but when you try to go
any farther than that, the possibility of serious injury is so
great that most of the joy is taken out of the sport."
From the spectator's point of view, though, it could hardly be
more exciting. That led to participation, however modest the
scale. Walker and his childhood buddy Vern Nichols took the
fierce Norwegian up on his invitation and found themselves
skipping school from time to time to visit the hill. They'd get
up at 3 a.m., get a ride with a friendly milkman to the Wel Come
Inn on the hill and then, if nobody else was around, pack the
ramp with their skis. Using the B hill that ran alongside it, the
boys worked up their courage for the big ramp.
Walker was properly wary of that big jump, but he knew he wanted
to try it. By way of preparation, he was near the takeoff one
day watching a fellow amateur make his first jump off the A
hill. "To do that was a tremendous thrill," Walker says, "to fly
off with nothing underneath you, like dropping from a 15-story
building, ready to hit pavement." On that day, Feb. 22, 1934,
Calmar Andreasen did indeed "hit pavement," having been flipped
in the wind. He was--surprisingly, considering the equipment
used and the distances attempted--the only person to die on
Ski jumping persisted in the region, but as other skiing
disciplines grew, interest in jumping waned. Also, that original
barnstorming team began to wither and disbanded before 1935.
Turns out, there were attractive alternatives to barnstorming.
Jumpers could regain amateur status if they stayed truly amateur
for a year, and with the '36 Olympics coming, that seemed a nice
alternative to, say, traveling to Strum, Wis., where fans
expected a Diamond Jump (four skiers crisscrossing one another
on the way down the hill).
Unfortunately for Alf Engen, even a year away from the tour
wouldn't help. In 1935 he was chosen as one of four winter-sports
athletes to appear on a Wheaties box. Although Engen later
complained he got nothing but Wheaties--"plenty of Wheaties"--he
was ineligible for Olympic competition, and the world did not get
to see the greatest jumper of the time.
Though ski jumping remains an Olympic event and a Salt Lake
favorite (Utah Olympic Park has 90-meter and 120-meter hills
that local kids have been getting 300 feet off of), even the
sport's pioneers saw that it wasn't likely to appeal to the
masses. Ski jumping was to skiing what wing walking was to
general aviation: It got your attention but wasn't necessarily
the way you wanted to travel. "It wasn't for everybody," says
Walker. "Jumping on Ecker Hill petered out. People took to
For some, this was not easy. A guy like Walker, who indeed
survived his first jump and became a locally decorated jumper,
found he had an upward learning curve this time. "Here I was, a
known, famous skier, and I couldn't even turn!" The first time
Engen took Walker up Alta, "I came down on my back."
Plenty of others were willing to learn, though, and the Forest
Service was alert to their interest. The service commissioned
Engen to scout the canyons for a recreation area. He found Alta,
and it was soon developed. (Other sites were springing up in
other canyons.) The first to provide a rope tow was Brighton, in
Big Cottonwood Canyon. Alta is credited with the area's first
ski lift (and the country's second, after Sun Valley, Idaho).
The sport was becoming user-friendly. The resorts were eager to
introduce one and all to downhill skiing. Engen became an
instructor at Alta and for years offered free Saturday lessons,
increasing the customer base.
In the postwar boom more resorts sprang up--Sundance, Snow
Basin, Park City, Deer Valley, Snowbird, Solitude. All enjoy
that unique combination of meteorological and geographical
conditions that turn the desert air from the Great Salt Lake
basin into powdery snow (and lots of it) with some additional
downhill properties as well, just for fun.
To this day the mountains remain a rowdy presence that hovers
over the decidedly sedate city below. It's not just that it's
easier to get a drink in Park City, it's that sense of
daredevilry that was a pioneering force above and seems absent
beneath. Below, Salt Lake City is super well-educated,
well-behaved and shockingly uniform in race and creed (roughly
70% of the population is at least nominally Mormon; who knows
how white it actually is). It is routinely described as a great
place to live, with high-tech opportunities aplenty in the
Provo-Ogden corridor and some of the best recreational
facilities in the world. You wouldn't pick Salt Lake City,
though, no matter its underground, to become a hotbed of music,
Still, thanks to those peaks there is even in Salt Lake City a
sense of grand adventure, the possibility of doing something
truly crazy. Jumping into thin air, just for an example.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN The elite athletes who sail off the Utah Olympic Park hills this week are not the first to discover the joys of ski flying here.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN When Walker (top, and above in 1936) heard about "a huge jumping hill" being built, he knew he had to try it out.
B/W PHOTO: COURTESY JACK WALKER [See caption above]
The mountains remain a rowdy presence that hovers over the
decidedly sedate city below.
"[Ski jumping] was a thrill, to fly off with nothing underneath,
like dropping from a 15-story building, ready to hit pavement,"