A Utah Farewell

Mountain Life

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When Jimmy Pettegrew and I loaded the skis on his Land Cruiser and headed out of Telluride for Utah last March, neither of us thought that we were embarking on a farewell tour. Not a farewell tour for us; we aren’t about to retire. But a tour of unintended good-byes, some more poignant than others, to things that we had both assumed would be there forever.

Jimmy knew for sure that he’d be saying good-bye to his 19-year-old, black-and-gray Daleboots. That was one of the reasons for our trip: to drop in at Mel Dalebout’s Salt Lake City boot factory and shop, with its wood-paneled, Sixties chalet-style fitting room, and trade in Jimmy’s antiques for a shiny new (black-and-purple) pair. Dalebout holds numerous ski boot patents that have been licensed or sold to larger manufacturers, which enable him to support his inventing jones. He has been making and fitting custom boots since 1969. Mel knew at a glance exactly how old Jimmy’s trade-ins were. He didn’t even laugh; Daleboot loyalists often bring him boots more ancient than these for emergency repair just so they can keep skiing in comfy old friends.

That part of our trip went exactly as planned. What we didn’t anticipate was having to wave good-bye to a Utah skiing innocence mauled by 2002 Olympic madness. And we never imagined we would be hearing Alf Engen’s lyrical Norwegian- accented voice-“Ya, sure, we tried to ski smooth as silk”-for the last time.

Jimmy and I each go back a ways with Utah skiing. His Wisconsin youth included yearly visits to relatives in Salt Lake City, where he grew to delight in the state’s dizzy slants and deep snow-so much more like controlled falling than the grounded experience back on Midwestern hills.

I discovered Alta while still a California high-school student and drove 15 hours nonstop across the desert whenever gas money and a three-day break allowed. The 3-D snow kicked my callow windshield-wiper tails. But I floated a few turns in the powder-edges suddenly superfluous-and the memory still haunts my dreams.

Neither Jimmy nor I knew much about Alf Engen then, about the three “yumpin’ Engen brothers” from Norway who barnstormed Depression America on a professional ski jumping circuit, about Alf sparking the creation of lift-served skiing at Alta in 1936, about the Double Dipsie and the other deep-snow techniques that he pioneered. We were only vaguely aware of all the U.S. National Championships and hill records he held, the Olympic teams he coached or, most enduring, the families with three and even four generations of skiers who had all learned to ski from Alf.

Jimmy got to know Alf in 1986, when Engen was a special guest at Telluride’s Pioneers of Skiing Invitational. “All weekend long,” Jimmy recalled of their runs together, “he wanted to give me pointers on how to teach skiing, how important the lead change is and how it needs to be emphasized more. He was passionate about this stuff. Skiing wasn’t just a sport to Alf, it was a way of life-it was life.”

I first met Engen in 1988 when he was 79 and getting ready to hand over the reins of the Alta Ski School after 40 years as its director. He wanted to teach me, too, his troll ears and elfin eyes creased with joy. “Ya,” he said after tracing a liquid line down Roller Coaster, “ski the landscape. Holding a hard edge is tiring. Use only as much edge as necessary. That’s the way to ski well.”

Our mission, Jimmy’s and mine, was to see if Alf, now 88, might make another trip south to Telluride, this time to the Mountainfilm Festival to introduce a program of pioneering ski films. We met at Alta with Alf’s son Alan, who runs the ski school now, and took a couple of runs together. Alan is practically a clone of his dad on skis: barrel-round but playful and solid as hickory. He told us that Alf was doing poorly and couldn’t travel. But he said he would help in any way he could with the film program, and he promised us he would arrange a phone chat with his dad that evening.

For the rest of the day, in brilliant sun, we rode Alta’s fixed-grip double and triple chairs. Alf had told me once that Alta would never bow to pressure to install high-speed quads. “We’d rather have a liftline if it will mean better skiing on the mountain,” he grinned. “No, we don’t want quads up here. Rooons the skiing. Alta is for skiers.”

Significantly omitted from that last group are developers and hucksters and multi-millionaire oil men like Earl Holding, who owns Snowbasin. That’s the still relatively obscure powder-perfect area an hour north of Alta where the Olympic downhill and super G races will be staged in 2002. In 1940, Alf, in his capacity as U.S. Forest Service recreation advisor, recommended that Snowbasin be developed for skiing. He knew it instantly to be a younger, sweeter sister to Alta, and the Basin has been a virginal Utah treasure ever since.

Now Holding, who also owns Sun Valley resort and the Little America hotel chain, wants to turn Snowbasin into a real estate-driven, “pampering” destination resort complete with the world’s longest high-speed quad. He has used the Olympic imperative to fast-track a controversial public-private land swap that will allow him to do just that.

Jimmy and I spent a couple of days skiing the Basin. There was a palpable sense of sliding in Alf’s tracks, of a simple, well-paced day on a mountain comfortable, indeed complete, with its five chairs, its winding access road and basic, base-lodge hamburgers. For now, Snowbasin is for skiers. But not, perhaps, for long.

And, sadly, now Alf is gone. His lungs and heart gave out in July. Neither Jimmy nor I can recall the specifics of the conversation we had with Alf on Alan’s speakerphone last winter. Perhaps it was the awkward technology that had us shouting, as if across town, to Alf and Evelyn’s house. Perhaps it was the unconscious knowledge that, as Jimmy would admit on our drive home, “I knew it was my final chat with him.”

It was a bittersweet ride home. We agreed we would miss the old Utah, the quirky, unsophisticated place that owed more to its pioneers’ simple passions than to the brave new world of high-tech skiing and corporate precedence. To be sure, Mel Dalebout is still there, sending a few custom-boot disciples out the door every day. And Alta will always be Alta, with all that luscious snow filling the high, white end of Little Cottonwood Canyon. We’ll continue to go back whenever the opportunity arises. We’ll feel lucky and giddy, and we’ll try to ski “smooth as silk, pretty much like the path of water.” We’ll listen and we’ll always hear Alf’s words: “By gosh, it’s an Alta day today!”

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