The hidden history of skiing in the West

What feels normal was once a great adventure — one we still have access to

You head up for a day of skiing and spend most of the morning stuck in a slow-moving line, raging at the out-of-state plates in front of you. Sweaty, frustrated, full-bladdered and over it by the time you get a (nosebleed section) spot in the parking lot. Sound familiar? In the age of mega passes and canyon traffic pileups, it can be hard to remember that skiing was once a gateway to rebellion, freedom and joy. But it was, and it still can be.

Skiing in the U.S., as we think of it now, came from Europe in the late 1800s by way of Scandinavian immigrants, who used skis as a mode of transportation. They also liked to have a good time in the long, dark mountainous winter, founding ski jumping hills at places like Howelsen Hill, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and Ecker Hill, near Parleys Summit, in Utah.

Called the “Dean of American ski pioneers” by the U.S. ski and snowboard hall of fame, Otto Schniebs lived his life on snow — learning to ski at the age of three in his native Germany, operating machine guns in the Carpathian Mountains during WWI and eventually emigrating to America to “become a free man” — as he described it — to open up Otto’s Alpine Ski School, one of the first ski schools in the nation. | Keith Cole, courtesy Marriott Library, University of Utah

Then, in the early days of the 20th century, wealthy Americans traveled to European ski resorts on elite adventures and brought home the idea of skiing as full-fledged recreation. Some of those ambitious Americans started exploring mountains on skis. In 1909, Fred Harris formed the Dartmouth Outing Club in New Hampshire, which became the initial hub of stateside skiing. Harris was the first person to climb Mount Washington by skis, and over the next few decades he inspired like-minded adventurers to form other outdoor groups like the Wasatch Mountain Club, whose members started climbing and skiing the high peaks of Utah. “It was just one of those fun, exciting things,” Caine Alder, who was one of the first people to summit Monte Cristo peak in the Wasatch, along with the club, said in an interview for the J. Willard Marriott Library Special Collections department at the University of Utah. “I thought, ‘No one’s done this before.’”

Even in a crowded commercialized time, skiing is still a way for us to find our edges.

Skiing started to seep into the broader culture, and politics. In the 1930s, as part of federal efforts to pull the country out of the Depression, the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps cut ski trails across New England. Groundbreaking skiers like Austrian instructor Hannes Schneider, who invented a technique for parallel turns known as the Arlberg technique, and German instructor Otto Schniebs, who coined the credo, “Skiing is not a sport, it’s a way of life,” moved to the U.S. to escape fascism and Nazi Germany. They were looking for a new frontier, and skiing was a way to get out.

Otto Schniebs

European influence shaped skiing in the states, but by the mid-’30s the sport had taken on its own form. In 1932, Gerhard Muller built the first-ever rope tow in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and two years later the initial American one went up in Woodstock, Vermont. From there, the sport shot out into the bigger, rangier mountains of the West.

“Perhaps no other period of time incorporated so much change for the sport of skiing than the 1940s. It is true that the 1920s and ’30s did much to ‘set the stage’ for the growth of the sport, but it was during the decades that began in the late 1930s and continued into the early 1950s that the greatest growth in skiing occurred, particularly in Utah along the Wasatch Front,” Alan Engen, son of Alta founder Alf Engen, wrote in a report housed in the archive. “The reasons for this are probably tied to the exposure the sport was being given at that time by the U.S. Forest Service; press coverage; and a lot of hard work and effort put forth by foresighted individuals willing to take a chance on making a living from the sport.”

Alan Engen experienced that change firsthand. In the winter of 1935, his father skinned into Alta over Catherine’s Pass, stayed with some miners in Albion Basin for a few days and concluded after a second visit that the zone would make a good ski area. He thought about slope angle and avalanche danger. Little did he know, he was operating on the same time frame as a very different kind of ski area developer. Averell Harriman, the executive chairman of Union Pacific Railroad, started Sun Valley Resort, in Ketchum, Idaho, as a ploy to get high-end traffic onto the train. He envisioned it as a fancy celebrity resort, and he brought in movie stars and a public relations team to make it happen.

For those looking to escape fascism and Nazi Germany, skiing was a way to get out.

Engen and Harriman had very different visions of what skiing in the western U.S. could be, but they shared an idea of exploration, and of exposing more people to the sport. But just as the ski industry was getting its footing, World War II sent many of the young men who were building it to war. A group of skiers ended up in the 10th Mountain Division, an elite force hand-selected for their mountaineering abilities and toughness. Camp Hale, Colorado, a wide valley south of what’s now Vail, became the 10th Mountain Division’s high mountain base, where the troops could train at altitude in an unforgiving snowpack.

Those skiers were only deployed for a brief period, but after the war, the 10th Mountain Division veterans returned to the U.S. excited about the future of the sport. Over the next few decades, 10th Mountain Division veterans established 62 ski schools and started some of the biggest ski areas in the country, like Aspen and Vail in Colorado, and Crystal Mountain in Washington. Unlike the elite skiers of the early 20th century, they wanted to democratize and expand the sport.

Their timing was good. A growing economy and a desire for recreation drove rapid growth in the ski industry from the postwar years into the ’60s. People had disposable income and vacation time, and the rise of skiing tracked with the baby boom — the birth of a big generation of potential skiers.

It was glamorous, exciting and accessible, depending on where you skied. The Forest Service encouraged resort development — to build up what they saw as economic value in public lands that weren’t then being otherwise used — and new ski areas popped up across the high mountains of the country.  

Growth peaked in the winter of 1963 when big-name resorts like Vail, Crested Butte, Park City and Stratton started spinning chairs. Skiing grew from half a million skiers in 1956 to three million by the middle of the next decade. During the ’60s and the first half of the ’70s, the sport grew at a rate of 15 percent a year, and it morphed from an outsider activity to an accessible sport, to a luxury hobby. There were places, like small-town ski areas, where it could be any of those three, but what we now think of as the ski industry directed itself toward selling vacations instead of simply building ski hills.

Skiing morphed from an outsider activity to an accessible sport to a luxury hobby. Today, it can be any of those three.

Condos and real estate development crept in, starting when Bill Janss opened Snowmass, the last of the four Aspen resorts, in 1967. In the ’70s as many of the initial ski area founders aged out or moved on, mountain management largely shifted from 10th Mountain veterans to real estate developers with MBAs. Resorts began to consolidate under corporate management. Ralston Purina bought Keystone and Arapahoe Basin, in Summit County, Colorado, in 1973. The film corporation 20th Century Fox bought Aspen Skiing Co. in 1978. From there, numbers flatlined. U.S. skier visits have been in the range of 50 million skiers a year since 1978 when the National Ski Areas Association started keeping track. By the time Beaver Creek and Deer Valley in Utah were built in 1982, they were designed with heated walkways and fancy seafood restaurants, and skiing had become synonymous with luxury.

The Wasatch Mountain Club was officially formed in 1920 with the purpose of creating a community and educational opportunities for exploring the Wasatch Range in Utah, growing from 13 to 500 members within five years. | Marriott Library, University of Utah
View Comments

That could feel like the end of the arc of skiing, from gritty roots to corporate ownership. But skiers have always been edge pushers and rebels, so even though the industry had broadly developed by the late ’80s, skiing as a sport changed a lot. The ’90s ushered in the era of extreme skiing and big mountain competitions. During the ’00s, snowboarding led the way into park and pipe freeskiing. Now, more and more people head to the backcountry, chasing that same feeling of exploration Engen must have felt when he skied into Alta.

After emigrating to the U.S. from Norway, professional skier Alf Engen (left) helped establish over 30 ski resorts in the west, including Alta, where his son, Alan (right) served as the director of skiing for more than 40 years. | Harold Van Pelt, courtesy Marriott Library, University of Utah
Snowbasin Resort in Huntsville, Utah, was founded in 1940. After WWII halted progress, the resort’s wildcat chairlift didn’t open until 1946. | Marriott Library, University of Utah
Members of the Wasatch Mountain Club skied into once-remote locations near Salt Lake City.

In October, when President Joe Biden designated Camp Hale, home to the 10th Mountain Division, as a national monument, he acknowledged the way that skiing has shaped the country, and given us freedom on so many levels. “When you think about the natural beauty of Colorado and the history of our nation, you find it here,” he said, gesturing to the peaks of the Tenmile Range.

Skiing means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It’s transportation, adrenaline, independence, bliss. Even in a crowded commercialized time, it’s still a way for us to find our edges. Skiing is one of the most objectively stupid, self-serving things we can do, but it’s also about as close as we’ll ever get to flying by our own feet. And if history has shown us anything, it’s that every generation has looked for a way to keep trying to fly. 

Ski racing classes have been offered at nearly every ski resort in the U.S. since the sport took hold in the 1940s. | Marriott Library, University of Utah
The career of Alf Engen (signing skis for a fan) was catapulted by his ski jumping — he held multiple world records. | E.L. Chapin, courtesy Marriott Library, University of Utah
The Wasatch Mountain Club planned outings to summit Wasatch peaks such as Lone Peak, Monte Cristo and others.

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.
Join the Conversation