Ted Johnson, 87, was, of course, the visionary and Richard “Dick” Bass, 83, the financial backer and owner. Last month Johnson gave a group gathered to officially celebrate Snowbird’s 40th a little insight into Snowbird’s beginning and events that may well have plucked the ‘Bird from the annals of ski history.
Johnson, then manager of the up-canyon Alta Lodge and a skier, realized the mountain slopes to the West presented themselves as material for a world-class ski resort. But he needed to sew up enough land to build a resort. And, at the time, most of the land was tied up in abandoned mining claims.
“Without those claims there would be no Snowbird. Getting those claims was a very complicated process,’’ he said. And, it all had to be done quietly. “I couldn’t get into competition for those claims. I had to keep it all a secret for a long time.’’ A scale model showing Johnson’s vision, in fact, had to be kept well hidden from all but a few possible investors.
Once he had the land he made a short movie, which he took around the country looking for backers. Early on there were no takers. At one fateful dinner he sat next to a Texas oil man who asked a simple question: “Any good investments.’’ Just so happens, he responded, there was, “the best ski resort in the world.’’ Bass walked the slopes in Little Cottonwood Canyon and was hooked. But he said he couldn’t find any of his rich friends to so much as look at the film. So it became a two man operation -- Johnson and Bass. The Snowbird icon, the aerial Tram, was another questionable venture in the beginning.
“Half the people in Salt Lake City were after me to not build the tram,’’ he reported. Approval had to come from Bass and it was a trip to Switzerland that sold Bass on a tram. Johnson showed him the Swiss trams “and I saw his eyes roll back in his head and I knew we were going to have our tram.’’ Building the tram was another hurdle. He recalled with a chuckle that the team of Swiss engineers sent to Utah to build the tram “required a hot lunch daily and drink . . . schnapps, and it had to be good schnapps.’’
He figured they went through between 75 and 100 gallons of schnapps, all brought in from Switzerland along with the tram equipment. A wine glass imprinted on a container was confirmation that there was also good schnapps inside. So intent were the Swiss to complete the tram, when a cable wench broke during cable installation, the two-and-a-quarter-inch cable was hooked to a large piece of heavy equipment that was then driven off a cliff into Mineral Basin, pulling the cable along, where the earth mover sat, buried, for a winter.
Also key to the future development of Snowbird was the hiring of Junior Bounous away from Sundance and Robert Redford. Bounous organized and ran Snowbird ski school program and helped in the early alignment of chairlifts. “To this day Redford doesn’t like me very much. He claims I stole Junior away from him,’’ Johnson said with a smile. Then there was the hiring Bob Bonar, then a 21-year-old who would eventually turn Snowbird’s avalanche and snow-control staff into one of the most respected in the country and now serves as the ‘Birds president.
Johnson also explained the naming of one of the resort’s most popular lifts -- Wilbere Double. There was in the beginning a strict policy to not use the names of people for lifts or runs. All names chosen were of old mining claims . . . except one. The middle name of his wife, Wilma, was Wilbere, “and I thought it was far enough removed it couldn’t be connected to her.’’ The name of one of the early mines, in fact, was Snowbird.
It took two years to build the resort from ground breaking to opening. And it was an “unbelievable group of young kids, working round the clock, that were responsible for the resort opening. There were no time clocks.’‘ Snowbird was scheduled to open in November, but avalanches slowed work and it didn’t start running lifts until December.
Today, the ‘Bird offers 2,500 skiable acres, 89 runs, 13 lifts, 900 rooms, 15 restaurants and 5 bars. And, as Bass told the group, “If you like the ‘Bird now, you’re going to adore it when it’s finished.’’
Important dates 1969 - Johnson meets Bass 1971 - Snowbird opens 1971 - Inn at Snowbird opens 1973 - Cliff Lodge opens 1974 - Iron Blosam opens 1986 - Major expansion of the Cliff Lodge 1995 - Baby Thunder lift opens 2000 - Mineral Basin opens 2001 - Baldy Express in Mineral Basin opens 2001 - Snowbird/Alta connection opens 2005 - Peruvian Express opens 2005 - Snowbird Tunnel opens 2011 - Snowbird’s 40th anniversary