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About Utah: Turning 80, Brighton style

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BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON

Sometime this month — nobody seems to be quite sure of the date — Brighton Ski Resort at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon will turn 80.

At the start of the winter of 1936-37, with Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House, “Gone With the Wind” selling like hotcakes in the bookstores and Bing Crosby’s “Pennies from Heaven” topping the charts, someone from the Alpine Ski Club, his name also lost to history, shouted, “See if it works,” and when the T-bar he was straddling started pulling him up the mountain, the ski area known as Brighton was born.

Only 15 ski areas existed in the United States at the time, and none in Utah. Lift-powered skiing at Brighton predated Alta by two years.

For several years, Brighton — the area is named after Scottish immigrant William Stewart Brighton, who built a store and the Brighton Hotel atop the canyon in the 1800s — was a loosely organized conglomeration of private companies that erected various T-bars and rope tows to haul skiers up the face of the publicly owned U.S. Forest Service mountains.

Consolidation didn’t arrive until 1963, when Zane Doyle, who owned one of two chairlifts on the mountain, bought the other one.

A butcher by day at Hill Air Force Base, Doyle first invested in Brighton skiing in 1943 when he bought a T-bar from Jesse Kimball “K” Smith. Four years later, Smith went on to install Brighton’s first chairlift, on Mount Millicent. Doyle added his own chairlift, a two-seater, in 1955, before buying out K Smith, again, in ’63.

The Doyles, by all accounts, made many friends and few, if any, enemies, setting the tone for the resort that lasts to this day. While the family sold out in 1987 — Brighton is now owned by the investment firm CNL — the resort is still run by the Doyles. Two of Zane’s sons, Randy and Mike, remain in charge, between them overseeing all aspects of the operation. Zane, an inaugural inductee into the Intermountain Ski Hall of Fame, died at the age of 89.

Under their care, Brighton, in spite of how much skiing has changed over the years, remains a throwback — a no-frills, unpretentious, casual place to ski, and board, and whatever other way you want to get down the mountain.

“Everyone’s invited here, as long as it’s safe,” says Jared Winkler, Brighton’s marketing director, using the term loosely. Who else allows ski bikes?

With five high-speed quads and chip readers at the lifts, Brighton is still as old school as new school gets. The only overnight accommodations are at the Brighton Lodge, with a grand total of 20 rooms, many of them featuring bunk beds. There are plenty of places to buy food, but if you want to bring a sack lunch, no problem.

At $79, adult day-pass prices would put the Alpine Ski Club into apoplexy, but it qualifies as downright cheap in the ski world — as attested in this year’s resort rankings by Ski Magazine, which places Brighton, out of all the places you can ski in North America, No. 2 in the category of value.

“We’re still affordable,” says Winkler, 40, whose own Brighton story is typical of thousands upon thousands of kids who grow up in the Salt Lake Valley and find their way to the Brighton bowl. His parents had their honeymoon at the Brighton Lodge and brought Jared and the rest of the family to Brighton to ski when he was a boy.

They’d ski — and later board — on gear they found at thrift stores, and at lunchtime they’d eat sandwiches and food cooked in a crock pot out of the back of their Ram Charger, parked mere steps from the lifts.

Among Jared’s fond memories of those days is how everyone could scatter to the lift of their choice, sure they would eventually all filter back to the same place.

“Brighton was the perfect baby sitter,” he marvels. “You could keep track of everybody. And this was before cellphones.”

The one thing Brighton isn’t good at is bragging. It has the snow, the lifts, the runs, the location and the history, but tends to keep it all low-key. Go to the website (brightonresort.com), and you won’t find a word about it being the oldest ski resort in Utah.

As for turning 80, the party plans remain classically Brighton. “Nothing flashy, nothing crazy,” says Winkler, who sketches out details for a celebration on Friday, Jan. 27, with live music at Molly Green’s and free s’mores for the kids.

Why Jan. 27? Jared shrugs. “Because it’s an old moon,” he grins, “as dark as it can be for the fireworks.”

In Brighton world, you know that makes sense.