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Alta Ego

Features
posted: 01/29/2001

Can the new school find happiness at old-fashioned Alta?

It's the last day of the 1999-2000 season at Alta, and all the weirdos are out. The ridged summit of High Rustler looks like a gigantic New Delhi city bus during rush hour, with about 400 people dripping off the top and down the sides. They appear to cling precariously, although in their squeeze, there is somehow room to stumble, flirt mercilessly, and drink copious amounts of alcohol.

It's a young crowd, mostly 20s and early 30s, and not at all what you'd expect from a resort so rich in history and soul. The revelers throw firecrackers and say "dude" about once per sentence. A few of them are famous skilebrities; most wear wild costumes, with beer stains down the front. Look, there's a shivering Wonder Woman with goose bumps, a hockey player swinging a stick instead of ski poles, and a guy named Brother Love dressed like a 10-foot-tall Native American.

Alta's renowned older skier-gods, the black sheep anticorporate types who have created the soul for which Alta is so well known, sit in a smaller group higher on the ridge. These are the heroes the partiers below revered while growing up. About 20 of them look down on the noisy spectacle and have their quiet end-of-season séance. How did the new school so thoroughly overtake Alta? And what do these older skiers think of all this, of the dudes and dudettes below talking about the misty flips and double backs they hurled all winter off the Stadium Jump in Devil's Castle or Kicker World in Grizzly Gulch, or the big GS turns down Eddie's when they killed 1,500 vertical feet of powder chop in three turns?

Alta has long been a place of extremes. In the encampment's mining era, between 1844 and 1915, 200 people died from avalanches here, and slides eventually wiped out the town. The onset of skiing in the late '30s brought in the legendary Engen brothers, Alf and Sverre. Alf had jumped 311 feet, in leather boots,back in the early 1900s. Gelände had been birthed in the mid '30s, and there are black-and-white photos of Alta skiers jumping over everything this side of a Model-T Ford. In the late '50s, Jim Gaddis and Alan Engen (son of Alf) went straight down Baldy's Main Chute -- on old wooden skis with tiny, twitchy, releasable Miller toepieces and wearing leather boots reinforced with wraparound longthongs -- a feat that has yet to be repeated. In the '70s, Wild Bill Wilson threw front flips into the bowls and went straight down everything, banking by patroller Harold Goodrow's house at 100 miles per hour, showing off for his girlfriend.

Still, thanks to the new school, Alta skiing may have changed more in the past decade than in the previous half century. There was a time -- before 1995, say -- when it was a real badge of honor to ski the fabled High Rustler, and only gods were capable. Even then, some sickos would straight-run it, although it wasn't called "straight-running" but just "going straight." Now, thanks to twin tips and fat skis, all the hot young skiers can ski it like suicidal Japanese fighter pilots, with just a few turns. The same thing is true of other venerable Alta runs: the Backside, everything off the High Traverse, out of bounds on the cliffs of Rocky Point. The new legends today, they're pulling five screaming GS turns where the older gods made 100 jump turns or little powder 8's. New gear allows current young heroes to use the terrain features in new ways and to perform more contorted jumps.

All this newness contrasts with Alta's sense of tradition and history. Alta is a place where the patrol shack does not have a bathroom, where high-speed lifts will never run, where snowboarding will never be allowed, where lifties and instructors have been fixtures for 20 years or more. Is it possible that the very last pure mountain holdout has become just another oasis for the new twin-tip-fat-ski lifestyle?

Alta's reputation as a new school place to be habeen slow to develop. It began, perhaps, back in '89, when Gordy Peifer showed up at Alta as a promising young racer ranked in the top 10 in GS in the nation in his age category. He quickly became known for jumping off cliffs so hairy even guys from new school mecca Squaw shuddered.

But Squaw remained the new school place to be; ski gnarlier, faster, better, or bigger, get some pictures taken, appear in a few magazines or movies, and the sponsors will lick you all over. Alta, with its crunchy-granola feel, was a tougher sell. It continued to attract some of the best skiers in the world, but they didn't impact the wider new school scene.

Still, Gordy and the boys stayed. Not to make a statement for Alta, because Alta's statement had already been made long ago. They stayed because of the soft landings, the chance to be a part of the pure spiritual and core scene, and quite frankly, because the Wasatch mountains are the most worthy in the nation. The young skiers knew that trying to call attention to themselves here was like trying to sell BMWs in Bangladesh, but so what? It was worth it.

It has taken a while, but today, Alta skiers are hot properties. Gordy, Dave Richards (a.k.a. Grom) and Dave McReynolds (a.k.a. Chode) are filmed for the end-all of new school movie producers, Teton Gravity Research. Gordy won the prestigious and very competitive 1998 Whistler extreme event and is now revered as the sickest ski talent in the world. Down lines where merely great Alta ski bums hang on desperately in the backseat, Gordy is humming to himself nonchalantly.

There are more gods now. Zillions more, thanks to twin tips and fat skis. Also, with so many more skiers attacking the harder lines, the avalanche danger isn't so prevalent. So a lot more of Alta gets skied -- including the new gap jumps, which are truly horrifying. Coming up short means certain hospitalization. Leviathan (140 feet), Pyramid Gap (80 feet), and the eerie Chad's Gap, an 118-foot chasm that only three skiers have cleared (no snowboarder would consider it), are legendary, not just in Little Cottonwood Canyon, but worldwide. Suddenly, but not so suddenly, kids are choosing Alta as the place to be hardcore. This is stranger news than if the Queen Mum decided to redecorate in leopard-print velvet.

Strange, perhaps, but true. The new school has thoroughly infiltrated Alta. These days, even the telemarkers are pulling flips. "Some guys even throw in a couple of twists," says Bryon Curtis, a 20-year Alta veteran. As we ride the Wildcat lift, we watch a kid below try his first front flip off a lip and almost, but not quite, stick it. (Someone call a doctor.)

"It's so cool to watch people go bigger than I ever thought of going," Bryon adds. "I went to Rowland Hall a private academy in Salt Lake City and did the whole racer thing, but people never put the time and effort into going that big. It makes me want to take bigger turns myself and open it up and buy some fat skis."

This open-mindedness even extends to the local mono-ski culture. About five guys always show up for first chair in their University of Alta T-shirts, CamelBaks full of beer, board on their feet long and proud. They always ski right under the lift, too. This leads to constant heckling from onlookers, but they don't mind. Like so many here, they've achieved legend status.

And Alta continues to change. Terms like "old school" and "new school" are already out. How much time will pass before Alta has an official jib park? (People currently build kickers wherever they want; why not make it official?) Alta still has no high-speed quads, but this year it installed snowmaking on the Sugarloaf side. And there's a new patrol shack -- with a bathroom.

Everyone gravitates to the last-day party, even the monoskiers. Farmer Dave is here. He is known to chug Coors in the lift line at 7:30 a.m. and remains, you guessed it, a legend. The Farmer lays tight powder tracks -- like perfect, homogeneous art -- all over the forgotten spots of the mountain. His old school tracks remain for weeks when it doesn't snow and epitomize the beauty of the sport as much as a 60-foot back flip off a cliff.

It's one big drunken love-in. There are no old guys grumbling about kids these days having a death wish. The telemarkers can't think of one bad thing to say about anyone. No criticism about the way it used to be or the way it should be.

Grom was up the ridge hanging with the old-timers for half an hour, just looking around and talking quietly. He rejoins the drunken ruckus below, where skiers are throwing snowballs and firecrackers, trying to blow each other up. The season's final exclamation mark is a loud and happy one.

Sam Howard, 43, is a deeply sunburned career patroller and longtime ripper who's been at Alta since '84. He's part of the small contingent atop High Rustler looking down on the party raging below. Back in the days when 20 fewer chairlifts graced the state of Utah, Sam had already skied all the lines being skied today. Skied 'em hard, too. He may have done more jump turns and fewer jibber tricks off the cliffs than the current full-meal deals, but he earned respect and established his place in Alta history as a mythical creature, and he still skis like a god today. So, how does he feel about that noisy group below?

"See that bare patch over there?" Sam gestures to his friends, pointing to a long brown smear in the melting springtime slush below the Baldy Chutes. The line's known, based on the presence of two trees, as Two Trees. "Chode built a kicker on it this winter and hucked over those two trees. It was a triple-digit air. He did a grab, too -- grabbed his sphincter and tried to keep it from falling out. Heh, heh. No, actually he grabbed his skis."

When Chode launched Two Trees, he didn't just aim off the flute, which would have been proud enough, as the edge is set back 20 feet from the treetops, which are 70 feet high with rocks laced underneath (oof).No, Chode built a kickerfor extra sproing,and he threw in a grab.

As Sam talks, it's clear that 28-year-old Chode is Sam's hero. So is 21-year-old Grom, son of another lifelong Alta patroller. "Those guys Chode and Grom have totally changed everything around here," Sam says. "Them and guys like Chris Collins, Will Burks, Linda Peterson, Dan Withey, and of course, Gordy."

But here's a twist for you: Chode, a blond, blue-eyed, sunburned professional skier, and Grom, with such a cute smile women are reduced to quivering puddles at his feet, consider Sam their hero. They also revere renowned ski mountaineer and Alta legend Andrew McClean. Andrew's known to dink small turns down suicidal lines that require as much rappelling as skiing. "Grom and Chode?" McLean remarks with an ironic smile. "Glad those young kids finally figured it out. I'm all for it. Someday they might even be able to keep up." Andrew and Grom have much in common: dog worship, 19 shots of caffeine a day, a love of sick mountaineering lines, reverence of Britney Spears.

Confusing? Well, look at it this way: At Alta, everyone worships everyone else. And that, in a nutshell, is the new soul of Alta -- and of skiing.


Check out Destination: Alta, Utah in the related links above for more information on how to get to Alta and what to do while you're there.- all over the forgotten spots of the mountain. His old school tracks remain for weeks when it doesn't snow and epitomize the beauty of the sport as much as a 60-foot back flip off a cliff.

It's one big drunken love-in. There are no old guys grumbling about kids these days having a death wish. The telemarkers can't think of one bad thing to say about anyone. No criticism about the way it used to be or the way it should be.

Grom was up the ridge hanging with the old-timers for half an hour, just looking around and talking quietly. He rejoins the drunken ruckus below, where skiers are throwing snowballs and firecrackers, trying to blow each other up. The season's final exclamation mark is a loud and happy one.

Sam Howard, 43, is a deeply sunburned career patroller and longtime ripper who's been at Alta since '84. He's part of the small contingent atop High Rustler looking down on the party raging below. Back in the days when 20 fewer chairlifts graced the state of Utah, Sam had already skied all the lines being skied today. Skied 'em hard, too. He may have done more jump turns and fewer jibber tricks off the cliffs than the current full-meal deals, but he earned respect and established his place in Alta history as a mythical creature, and he still skis like a god today. So, how does he feel about that noisy group below?

"See that bare patch over there?" Sam gestures to his friends, pointing to a long brown smear in the melting springtime slush below the Baldy Chutes. The line's known, based on the presence of two trees, as Two Trees. "Chode built a kicker on it this winter and hucked over those two trees. It was a triple-digit air. He did a grab, too -- grabbed his sphincter and tried to keep it from falling out. Heh, heh. No, actually he grabbed his skis."

When Chode launched Two Trees, he didn't just aim off the flute, which would have been proud enough, as the edge is set back 20 feet from the treetops, which are 70 feet high with rocks laced underneath (oof).No, Chode built a kickerfor extra sproing,and he threw in a grab.

As Sam talks, it's clear that 28-year-old Chode is Sam's hero. So is 21-year-old Grom, son of another lifelong Alta patroller. "Those guys Chode and Grom have totally changed everything around here," Sam says. "Them and guys like Chris Collins, Will Burks, Linda Peterson, Dan Withey, and of course, Gordy."

But here's a twist for you: Chode, a blond, blue-eyed, sunburned professional skier, and Grom, with such a cute smile women are reduced to quivering puddles at his feet, consider Sam their hero. They also revere renowned ski mountaineer and Alta legend Andrew McClean. Andrew's known to dink small turns down suicidal lines that require as much rappelling as skiing. "Grom and Chode?" McLean remarks with an ironic smile. "Glad those young kids finally figured it out. I'm all for it. Someday they might even be able to keep up." Andrew and Grom have much in common: dog worship, 19 shots of caffeine a day, a love of sick mountaineering lines, reverence of Britney Spears.

Confusing? Well, look at it this way: At Alta, everyone worships everyone else. And that, in a nutshell, is the new soul of Alta -- and of skiing.


Check out Destination: Alta, Utah in the related links above for more information on how to get to Alta and what to do while you're there.

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