Sojourns in the Snow; Resorts That Blazed Western

BY TUKEY KOFFENDDEC. 7, 1986 This is a digitized version of an article from The Times's print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them. Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems. Please send reports of such problems to . The three queens of Western ski resorts - jazzy Aspen, homey Alta and venerable Sun Valley - still reign over their snowy realms after nearly half a century. Each had its beginning as a mining town, fell on hard times during the silver slump and was later transformed into a winter playground. Aspen has grown and changed a lot; Sun Valley has grown a lot and changed a little; only Alta has remained much the same.Alta, snuggled in Little Cottonwood Canyon about 4,000 feet above Salt Lake City, is the smallest and oldest of the three. While Aspen-ites complain about their so-called urban sprawl, Alta diehards are worried about a half-dozen new houses, and some even object to the resort down the road, Snowbird, with its complex of concrete battlements, designed to withstand avalanches.Avalanche danger is one of the reasons for Alta's lack of growth; the threat is ever present, and the only access road is often closed. The ski lodges were laid out carefully between the slide paths. The other reason for the relative lack of development is that only 8 percent of the land is in private hands; the rest is public land administered by the United States Forest Service.Most of Alta's original 3,000 residents departed the snowy canyon and its devastating avalanches when ore began to run out in 1873 and silver was no longer profitable. In the late 1930's, as skiing began to be popular in this country, George H. Watson, an Eastern businessman who had acquired a lot of mining properties, donated 1,800 acres to the Forest Service so that a ski area could be built at Alta.AdvertisementIn 1938 the first chairlift, a primitive contraption constructed partly from old ore-bucket conveyors, hauled skiers up 2,630 feet for 15 cents a ride. Mr. Watson, self-styled mayor of Alta, used to entertain visitors in his cabin buried in snow so deep that one descended, like Santa Claus, by a ladder down the chimney. Here he served his visitors an exotic drink of his invention: a Pine Tree, which consisted of a pine twig, some snow and lots of bourbon.AdvertisementDick Durrance and James Laughlin 4th, who had raced together in Austria in 1936, with Mr. Durrance's wife, Miggs, took over the Alta Lodge from the Salt Lake Winter Sports Association, and the Durrances ran it. By 1940 a lift company had been formed by a small group of stockholders, including Mr. Laughlin (who owned New Directions Press) and Joe Quinney, a Salt Lake City lawyer.At the outset Alta's management decided the area should welcome local families, and later, when other stockholders suggested lift prices be raised, Mr. Laughlin refused. Today, Alta has the least expensive lift ticket, at $15, of any major area in the country.Altaphiles insist their snow is the best. Alf Engen, who has been head of the Alta Ski School since 1949, says it is ''dried-out snow'' from California. Those who favor this resort also cite the reliability and abundance of snow. Although Sun Valley might suffer a six-week snow drought and Aspen has been known to have skimpy coverage in a very bad year, Alta's base averages 3 feet from mid-November to 12 feet by the end of May. Timid skiers might fear all this deep powder, but there are machine-groomed slopes, too, packed nightly - something old-time skiers would have considered insulting.Today Alta has eight double chairs to carry skiers up to all sorts of terrain: open slopes, steep chutes or narrow trails. The ski map of major runs shows only 4 real beginner trails, 14 intermediate runs and an inordinate number of black diamonds (designating the toughest runs): 17 trails and slopes plus a lot of gullies and corkscrews. Helicopters leave from nearby Snowbird to take the intrepid powder skiing.There are four lodges in Alta, all informal and some downright homey. Many of the guests who started coming to Alta in the early days still come, and now they are apt to bring their grandchildren.Though the lodges include meals in their rates, one can have dinner up or down the road. Most people tend to stay put, however, and each lodge has its adherents. Many longtime visitors prefer the down-to-earth Alta Lodge. Others like the more formal atmosphere of the Rustler, with its outdoor swimming pool, and some prefer the Alta Peruvian, which has a cozy lounge with a big fireplace, a pool and a younger crowd. The Goldminer's Daughter, right down by the lift, is more rustic, with Ping-Pong, pool and an exercise room. The lodge owners, all long-time Alta residents, are particularly eager that guests enjoy themselves.There's no need for a car at any of these places. Guests at the Alta Lodge or the Rustler simply ski down a little slope to the lift and ride back up later on a short rope tow. Those at the Goldminer's Daughter don't have to go up or down - they are already at the lift. The Alta Peruvian has a van to transport skiers, as do the resort's condominiums.AdvertisementVisitors to Sun Valley don't need a car, either, for it, too, is self-contained, but there the similarity to Alta ends.At its inception, Sun Valley had one place to stay, the Lodge. It is now surrounded by 600 guest condominiums; consequently there is little of the personal touch that Alta offers.Sun Valley celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. It was the country's first destination ski resort, the brainchild of W. Averell Harriman, chairman of the board of the Union Pacific Railroad, in the heyday of train travel. He wanted to find the best spot in the United States to build a ski resort - as long as it was near his railroad tracks. He sent Count Felix Schaffgotsch, an Austrian ski expert, off to search for the best location.The Count looked all over Colorado -Aspen was too high, he thought - Utah and Wyoming. He wasn't satisfied until he stopped in Ketchum, Idaho, another old mining town that had gone from boom to bust. It was home to 270 people, mostly sheep herders, but it lay at the base of 9,300-foot Bald Mountain and was on a spur of the Union Pacific.By Christmas of 1936 the multimillion-dollar Lodge was built. The Count had picked the site; he decided that where the cows spent the day must be the warmest spot. The Lodge was built in imitation rustic, of poured concrete stenciled and painted to look like logs. There was a glass-enclosed swimming pool, an ice rink, an orchestra for dancing and a ski school with five instructors.The world's first chairlift started operation. It was designed by a Union Pacific engineer who translated the mechanics of hauling bananas onto a ship into hauling skiers up a mountain.Only one thing was lacking: snow. It wasn't until New Year's Eve that a storm dropped two feet of the stuff, enough to barely cover the slopes. But never mind: Sun Valley soon became the glamour resort of the decade, with Hollywood stars and Eastern social luminaries mingling on the hill, dressing up for dinner in the ornate upstairs dining room and dancing in the Duchin Room.They came from New York on the luxury train City of Los Angeles, and on the SnoBall Special from Los Angeles. At the Ketchum railroad station a dogsled met visitors and took them, swathed in furs, to The Lodge. Today limousines and vans at Hailey Airport have replaced this glamorous ride.AdvertisementThe next year the Challenger Inn (named after a Union Pacific train) was built to accommodate people who couldn't afford the Lodge, and the year after, bunk-bedded chalets renting for $1 a night were opened for ''college students.'' Today rooms in the Lodge and the Inn are nearly the same price.In the beginning the resort had only three rather small mountains, Dollar, Proctor and Ruud, and it wasn't until Bald Mountain, known as Baldy, was developed in 1939 that Sun Valley had a really good ''skiers' mountain.''In 1964 Bill Janss and the Janss Corporation, seeing Sun Valley's potential as a year-round resort, bought it from the railroad and began a vast expansion program; all the condominiums and apartments have been built since then. In 1968 Bill Janss himself took over and formed the Sun Valley Company.Sun Valley changed hands again in 1977, and is now part of Little America Hotels and Resorts, whose president is the oilman R. Earl Holding. Two new chairlifts have been installed, a double and a triple, but more important, Sun Valley is trying to re-create the elegance of earlier days. The grand foyer in the Lodge has been restored. There are new marble bathrooms everywhere. Waiters in the dining room are dressed in tails and serve dinner wearing white gloves.Today many of Sun Valley's visitors are young families who prefer the comfort of a condominium with kitchen and television set to a hotel room. There is a sprinkling of the old guard who always ski at Sun Valley and always stay at the Lodge, but many visitors are here for the first time.As for the skiing, there's something for everyone, from gentle to terrifying. Baldy has 64 ski runs; 38 percent of its terrain is for advanced skiers, the rest for intermediates. Dollar Mountain and Elkhorn, on its other side (above the Elkhorn Village development), are perfect for beginners. Three restaurants serve Baldy's skiers, with another at the base of Dollar. The story of Aspen's beginning as a ski resort has been told many times: how in 1936 the skiers Billy Fiske and Theodore Ryan, with the developer Tom Flynn, hired a Swiss ski expert, Andre Roch, to evaluate the area around nearby Ashcroft for a resort; how, in his spare time, Mr. Roch laid out the first ski trail on Aspen Mountain, where a race was held in 1938 and national competitions in 1941; how the 10th Mountain Division, including many of the country's top skiers, trained at nearby Camp Hale; how Friedl Pfeifer discovered what he called ''the nearest thing to Switzerland'' on a ski trip to Aspen, and how after the war Walter Paepcke, chairman of the board of Container Corporation, decided that Aspen was the perfect town for his grand dream of culture in America.Later Mr. Paepcke and Mr. Pfeifer joined forces and, along with a group of stockholders, formed the Aspen Ski Corporation. Mr. Paepcke also put together a separate group, the Aspen Company, which leased and refurbished the Hotel Jerome, and bought Victorian houses to serve as additional lodging.Once one of the West's most prosperous silver mining towns, Aspen had been served by two railroads and boasted a fancy opera house, 10 churches and 6 newspapers until the silver bubble burst and it fell on hard times. By the time the new lift, billed as the world's longest, started up Aspen Mountain in the winter of 1946, the town was a sorry sight compared to glamorous Sun Valley.AdvertisementYet the resort's setting in the Roaring Fork Valley and the exciting terrain on Aspen Mountain soon lured skiers from all over. During that first winter Aspen had as many Chicago and Denver socialites as Sun Valley had movie stars. But it wasn't yet the cultural center that Mr. Paepcke envisioned.When Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago proposed a Goethe Bicentennial celebration in 1949, Mr. Paepcke persuaded him to have it in Aspen instead of at the university. Dr. Albert Schweitzer, on his only visit to the United States, was to be the principal speaker. The first music festival was planned for the same time, and the architect Eero Saarinen was engaged to design a tent to hold an orchestra and 2,000 people.Skiing grew apace. In 1950 the World Alpine Championships of the Federation Internationale de Ski were held for the first time in the United States, and Aspen was chosen as the site for the race.Please verify you're not a robot by clicking the box.Invalid email address. Please re-enter.You must select a newsletter to subscribe to.View all New York Times newsletters.Today, with five double chairs, three quadruple chairs and a brand-new, high-speed gondola (from bottom to top in 13 minutes), scheduled to open just before Christmas, Aspen Mountain is a far cry from 1946, when the only way up was on the No. 1 and No. 2 lifts. In those days a skier could remove his lift coat, usually an old raccoon or a Hudson Bay, at the top and send it back down on the chair. At the end of the run he collected it from the big pile of coats at the bottom.In those days everyone ate at the Sundeck at the top of the mountain. Now there are three restaurants on the mountain, including the newest, the Coyote Grill, formerly Ruthie's. Old-timers stick to the Sundeck; celebrities seem to prefer Bonnie's, half-way down.Aspen Mountain is the most challenging in the Aspen complex. This year two huge bowls will be accessible by snowmobile for powder skiing. Thirty percent of Aspen Mountain's runs are expert, 35 percent more difficult and 35 percent most difficult. This is where hotshots cut huge moguls on the Ridge of Bell or bounce through new powder on Zaugg Dump. It's also the favorite mountain of many skiers who started coming here in the 40's.The old-timers are apt to turn up their noses at Snowmass, an instant $10 million town created by the Janss Company in 1967. It has added more than 1,500 acres of skiing to the Aspen complex, with 86 trails and more than 55 miles of runs; you can ski at Snowmass all day and never go down the same slope twice. There are some yellow (expert only) trails, including two snow bowls, but on the whole, Snowmass is the supreme cruising mountain. It's also an ideal family resort, with most of the condominiums right on the slopes. There are 14 chairlifts, including two new high-speed quads. Lift lines are never very bad here except on holidays.Smooth and friendly Buttermilk, an area begun by Friedl Pfeifer in 1958, is perfect for beginners; nearly half its runs are easy ones. There are six double chairs and rarely any lines. The Tiehack area on the same mountain has black diamond runs (well, maybe gray-black), and the view from the top of its lift looking up Maroon Creek is one of the best in Aspen.The fourth area in Aspen is one that two years ago won a $7.5 million antitrust suit against the Aspen Ski Company for not including it in the three-mountain daily ticket. Whipple Van Ness Jones started the Highlands, two miles from town up Maroon Creek, about the same time that Buttermilk was begun. Now it is managed by his grandson. The Highlands is the favorite of many local residents for its season pass, the only real one in Aspen. (This year it's $425.) Aspen's 40th anniversary as a ski resort will be celebrated Jan. 5 to 10, with a week of races, balls, parades and banquets. One day will honor the 10th Mountain Division.AdvertisementIn the years since the first lift was dedicated, Aspen has become a mixture of modern and Victorian, furs and jeans, locals and tourists, movie stars and tradespeople. It is more than just another resort. The combination of splendid setting, summer culture, winter skiing and interesting residents gives it an ambiance both rural and sophisticated. Heading for Western slopes Resort Logistics Room rates given throughout are for peak season, generally from early February through early April. Rates for the Christmas holiday period can be higher; from early to mid December and from early to late January, they may be 10 to 20 percent less.All the resorts have programs for children that include both ski instruction and activity off the slopes. Alta There are four lodges; none takes credit cards. All add a 15 percent gratuity to the bill. A package may help you get a better air fare; contact the Alta Travel and Reservation Service, 801-742-2040.The rates at Alta Lodge (801-742-3500) include breakfast and dinner. They start at $69 a person in a dorm-style room for four; double rooms range from $76 to $104 a person.At the Rustler (801-742-2200), rates start at $62 a person for a dorm room (men only) and go up to $126 a person for a deluxe double. Breakfast and dinner are included.Rates at the Goldminer's Daughter (800-453-4573), including two meals, start at $53 a person in a dorm; a deluxe double is $70 a person.Rates at the Alta Peruvian (800-453-8488) include three meals and a lift pass. They start at $82 a person for a dorm room and range up to $130 a person in a deluxe double.Condominiums, on the European plan, are all about a half-mile from both Alta and Snowbird. A one-bedroom unit will cost about $175 a night at the Hellgate (801-742-2020) or Blackjack (801-742-3200); a two-bedroom at the Powder Ridge (800-453-5789) will run $285.Restaurants in Alta are an academic question for many visitors, because meals are included with hotel accommodations. For those who seek a change of scene, Snowbird is about a mile down the road. A new seafood restaurant, the Aerie, is scheduled to open there in mid-December.AdvertisementAlta's area day pass is $15. Two-hour ski classes are $14. Private lessons are $34 an hour for one person, $12 for each additional. Sun Valley Packages for a seven-night stay with a six-day lift ticket start at about $500 a person sharing a double room at the Lodge or the Inn, and range up to about $625; prices at condominiums are comparable. For information and reservations, call 800-635-8261.There are two restaurants in the Lodge: Gretchen's (formerly the Duchin Room) and the Lodge dining room. Gretchen's serves breakfast and a menu of salads, sandwiches and such for lunch or dinner. As in the early days, there's music in the bar till the wee hours. The dining room on the second floor is elegant, with Continental fare and a trio for dancing; steak or veal entrees are about $18.In Ketchum, local residents like the Pioneer Saloon (208-726-3139) for steaks and beer. Dinner, about $20 a person. The Evergreen (208-726-3888) has a Continental menu, with dishes like raspberry duck or milk-fed veal at $18, and an extensive wine list. Soupcon (208-726-5034) has a different menu every night; entrees range from about $13 to $22.Or you can take a horse-drawn sleigh ($8.50 round trip) to rustic Trail Creek Cabin east of the resort for a dinner of meat, potatoes, salad, and dessert for $17 to $22 a person.Sun Valley's lift tickets are $29; 3-day passes $79, and 5-day, $128. Ski school rates are $37 a day. Private instruction is $40 an hour. Aspen The Aspen Resort Association (303-925-9000) will help with accommodations arrangements.In the recently remodeled Hotel Jerome (800-331-7213), double rooms start at $225 and go up to $500.A bed-and-breakfast inn, the Sardy House (303-920-2525) on Main Street has rooms from $155 to $205. It is owned by the same people who run the Hotel Lenado (303-925-6246), with rates from $145 to $205.Families with children might prefer a condominium in Snowmass, where they can ski right out the door onto easy slopes. A studio will run $139 a night for two; a deluxe two-bedroom at the Wood Run V unit, $395. Call the Snowmass Resort Association at 303-923-2010.During Aspen's busy winter season, smart visitors make dinner reservations when they book their rooms.AdvertisementEnticing and expensive is Gordon's (303-925-7474) which serves appetizers (about $8) such as potato pancakes with golden caviar. Entrees include free-range chicken with sun-dried tomato and herbs, $24.Abetone (303-925-9022) is a lively and attractive Italian place with entrees starting around $18. The pasta is homemade, the fish is never overcooked and the veal saltimbocca is first rate. Poppie's (303-925-2333), an intimate bistro, has wonderful sweetbreads at $21. The Golden Horn (303-925-3373), one of Aspen's oldest restaurants, is famous for its wiener schnitzel among other veal dishes for $20 and up.The Crystal Palace (303-925-1455) is an Aspen institution where waiters and waitresses become entertainers after dinner. Dinner and show, $28.In Snowmass, reservations are a must at Chez Grandmere (303-923-2570) a very small and personal French restaurant; it's $35 for a four-course dinner. Krabloonik (303-923-3953), although home to teams of husky sled dogs, somehow manages to have the best dry martini, as well as wild game and smoked meats; entrees run from about $16 to $26.The daily lift ticket at Aspen is $29. A three-day, three-mountain ticket is $84; for six days, $162. A six-day, four-mountain pass is $168.A day's group lesson in the ski school is $35. Private two-hour lessons for one to five people are $100.Aspen Highlands' lift tickets are $28; a three-day ticket is $69, and a five-day ticket, $95.The graduated length method is taught at Aspen Highlands' ski school. Class lessons cost $28 a day; private instruction, $50 an hour. T. K.Tukey Koffend is a writer who lives in Aspen, Colo.A version of this article appears in print on December 7, 1986, on Page 10010019 of the National edition with the headline: SOJOURNS IN THE SNOW; Resorts That Blazed Western Trails. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

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