Experience Alta’s History Through Generations of New Skiers

Little Cottonwood Canyon cuts a steep, serpentine fissure through the Wasatch Range. In the winter, snow cleaves to sheer granite cliffs, stubbled with pine trees of such deep green they appear almost black. For more than 80 years, skiers have been driving the canyon road to reach the slopes of Alta Ski Area. When I started ski lessons at Alta during the 2022-2023 season, I had only a general knowledge of the long history of the area. I had no knowledge at all of how that history intertwined with mine and the histories of many Utahns who donned their first skis at Alta. For generations, Utah families of powder hounds have raised future ski pilgrims to learn the ways of the mountain faith, using Alta as their base and temple. When I learned I had unknowingly continued my own family’s Alta tradition, I prevailed upon them to share what it was like when they first skied those same slopes. 

Photo courtesy of Alta Ski Area

1940s Powder Hounds

“We’d go almost every weekend, not just once in a while, but we as much as we could,” My grandfather, Lloyd Bishop, started skiing with his friends as a high school student in Kaysville, Utah in the 1940s. There were not as many options then, and Alta had the best powder. He used second-hand equipment and, eventually, gear he bought “for almost nothing” from an Army surplus store after the war. (Alta served as a training ground for Army paratroopers to prepare for combat in the Alps.) To hear my grandpa tell it, nothing was more uncomfortable than heavy, 7-foot, Army-issue skis and boots. “They were just horrible,” he groans, but it was the only gear he could afford. 

To earn money for a ski pass, he played saxophone in a “dance band,” performing at churches and weddings. “I started playing when I was 14 years old because—this was the start of World War II—and all of the older guys that would normally be playing were gone,” he says. “I made about $3.50 for playing the night, which is about what it cost for a day pass to Alta!” He laughs, “We would beg, borrow and steal,” anyway they could get it, he says, to ski. 

Utah Skiing
The author’s grandfather, Lloyd Bishop, stops to pose for a photograph while skiing at Alta Ski Area in 1947. Photo Courtesy Lloyd Bishop

My grandfather and his friends’ quest for powder and thrills saw them skiing all day in the warmest clothes they had—thermal underwear and denim jeans and jackets—until they were soaked through. Back then, Alta had just the Alta Lodge and one main lift. The old Collins lift opened in 1939, becoming the second chairlift in the West. While my grandpa skied Alta throughout high school and college, it grew with the conversion of the Rustler and Peruvian J-bars to single-chair lifts, the opening of the Rustler and Peruvian lodges and the expansion of the Ski School. 

The quest for powder drove them to hike in skins for half a day up the backside of Brighton (before there was a resort in Park City) to ski down the other side. They would spend the second half of the day skiing at Brighton for the cheaper, half-day rate. Similar ventures were made to Alta from where would eventually become Snowbird. “You were on absolutely virgin, fresh snow that nobody had ever skied. And the snow is powder, deep powder,” he explains. 

In 1950, my grandfather went to Germany for an LDS Mission, where he skied the Bavarian Alps on those “horrible” Army skis at Zugspitze and gained a little perspective. It remains a popular German skiing destination and, at the time, it made ski areas in Utah look downright “primitive.” “It’s because most people didn’t realize it back then, that Alta is one of the best ski areas in the United States,” he says. “But it was also very primitive, which is both good and bad.” For example, “The road up Little Cottonwood was a challenge by itself,” he says. The road to Alta was even more treacherous and frustrating than it is now—prone to closures and fraught with avalanches that we were still developing the techniques to mitigate. On the other side of that same coin, powder hounds of the era look back at the staggering number of runs they could do on nearly unbroken powder in a day at Alta, but nothing good stays secret for long. It’s a balancing act that defines and guides Alta still today—modernizing and growing to meet demand without sacrificing the quality and nostalgia of the Alta skiing experience. 

To that point, James Laughlin, the once owner of Alta Lodge is quoted saying, “You’ve got to keep some places like god made them. If you overdo it, you’ll destroy Alta…I take great pride in Alta because it is the one place that’s left that’s a little bit like the old skiing.”

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Alta Ski School Students in the ’80s. Photo courtesy of Alta Ski Area

1970s Powder Pilgrims

“I can’t remember the name of the mountain because it wasn’t a mountain. It was a hill. It was more like a pimple.” My grandpa moved the family to New Jersey when my mom was just a kid, and skiing there, once again, gave some perspective. “They get so much traffic coming down the ski run that, when you have a curve, all the snow had been worn off.” He shakes his head. “So, they would cover the mud with straw.” 

“After that, I said to the kids, ‘what would you rather do? Go to Utah and maybe only ski twice or three times a year, or continue to ski for a year here?’” It wasn’t even a question. That’s how my mom, Kellie, and her siblings ended up visiting Utah every Spring Break to ski. By then, the Goldminer’s Daughter had opened. New and expanded lifts at Alta accessed higher areas as well as some that were more beginner-friendly, as if to accommodate the cultivation of a new generation of Alta skiers.

Utah Skiing
Skiers at Alta, 1947. Photos courtesy of Utah Historical Society

“For me, Alta was like growing up.” Even though my mom had skied elsewhere before, she considers Alta where she really learned to ski and keep up with bigger kids on the mountain (including an older boy who was her first-ever crush). They would ski all morning, then go to the parking lot to scarf down some bagged lunch in the car, then back to skiing. “I couldn’t last all day back then,” my mom says. “I mean, granted, I would have been like eight or nine. I thought it was really cool that I could walk in my ski boots in the lodge and get hot chocolate and sit in there by a fire while I waited for everyone else to be done.” It’s one of her favorite parts of the experience.

While she remembers having to overcome her fear of heights to first ride the lifts, the transfer tow ended up being the real problem. “I would always keep my hair in a ponytail tucked into my cap,” she says, so it wouldn’t get in her face as she skied. With equal parts laughter and terror, she recounts grabbing onto the tow behind her older sister, Lynn, who wore her hair in a long, free braid. To this day no one is sure quite how it happened. The end of Lynn’s braid caught in the rope, pulling her hair as the tension increased with the addition of more riders. 

My grandpa was waiting nearby and looked over to see that “it was dragging her up the mountain by her hair. I rushed down to her and skied up as fast as I could before the rope tow came to an end and she could get herself tangled.” 

Not even a vindictive rope tow stopped the fun that day or the yearly pilgrimages to Alta, however, and the tale has become a piece of family lore. 

And Now

I’m not a powder hound or a pilgrim. My ski lessons at Alta last season marked the first time I had skied ever. But before I graduated to the beginner runs, Patsey Marley and Crooked Mile—some of the same runs my mother braved her fear of heights to ski—I shared my brief time on the bunny hills with parents teaching their young children, who in turn had been taught to ski by their parents on those same slopes. 

While the experience has changed some since my grandfather’s formative Alta years (improved facilities, new lifts and much better gear) and since their annual family spring ski trips (yet bigger, better lifts and the addition of the Albion Day Lodge) much remains the same. It’s the balance that Alta and its collection of family-owned lodges are trying to maintain. The things that remain the same, the experiences we all share, are the things that connect us to the generations that came before: The morning ritual of loading up ski gear with family and friends. The awe-inspiring but oft-frustrating drive through Little Cottonwood Canyon. The search for thrills and untouched snow. The celebration of fresh powder. Resorting to creative methods to fund an expensive habit. Bagged car lunches. Pushing ourselves to go a little higher and faster. Laughing at our siblings’ misfortunes. The simple pleasure of sipping a warm drink in a mountain lodge.  

Alf Engen Ski School

In 1935, the ski school namesake, world-champion skier Alf Engen explored Alta’s slopes on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service to scout potential winter sports sites, ultimately recommending Alta as a place to develop a ski area. Engen (who also lends his name to the legendary run Alf’s High Rustler) helped found the Alta ski school and served as Ski School Director for 40 years, starting in 1949. The ski school has since become a model for others across the country. The program offers group or private lessons for adults and children of all skill levels, as well as camps and multi-week lessons with some of the best ski instructors around. alta.com/ski-school

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Alan and Alf Engen, the namesake of Alta’s Ski School. Photo courtesy of Alta Ski Area

Christie Porter
Christie Porterhttps://christieporter.com/
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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