The first time he said it, it slipped by as casual conversation, like mention of the weather outside or a good meal. The second time, Onno Wieringa stopped midsentence to make certain the meaning wasn't lost: "Alta is for skiers."

But then, why else would a ski area exist if it weren't there for skiers?

"No," Wieringa, the resort's general manager, went on, "Alta is for skiers . . . and it's fodder for a lot of discussions around here. It goes back to the philosophical discussion of whether we are selling lift tickets or ski tickets.

"We call it a lift ticket, but I contend that what skiers are buying is skiing. The lift is just something to get them to what they are really buying — skiing."

Which means in Alta's case, no tubing hills, no ice rinks, no sleigh rides, no live entertainment at the disco next door.

Almost from day one, and even before, when Alf Engen walked into Albion Basin back in 1936 and into what he called a "dust bowl" of cut timber and dismantled buildings and saw "an area with great (skiing) potential," skiing has been the main commodity on the shelf.

No-frills skiing is what Alta is all about and what Wieringa is intent on delivering — "I've had good teachers, supportive owners and I have a great mountain." At times, however, it hasn't been easy.

Many of those in Alta's yearbook of returning customers want nothing changed. Then there are those who come looking for a Disneyland at a ski resort.

"People who ski here like us for what we are . . . a ski area. And that's all we want to be," he said.

And it's his job to make sure Alta stays a ski area first and foremost.

Wieringa was raised in Montana and worked as a ski patrolman at Bridger Bowl outside Bozeman. Upon graduation from Montana State University, he went in search of a break between school and full-time employment in the business world.

"Everyone was headed for Big Sky (ski area in Montana), which was about to open. I saw it as just another freezing, cold ski area. I called a friend who was working at Alta and asked if this was a good place. He talked me into coming to Utah," he recalled.

"I drove into the parking lot in the fall of 1972. The ski patrol director met me and asked, 'Well, what do you think of Alta?' All I could see was High Rustlers, and I told him I thought it was going to be bigger. Wow, I can't believe I said that. I soon learned there was a lot more to Alta."

He arrived on Nov. 1 and remembered it started snowing heavily on Nov. 9. "We opened and I thought, wow, you drive in, it snows like crazy and you have all this wonderful powder skiing. This is great," he recalled.

One winter turned into two, then three, and after six years on the ski patrol he became one of the first members of Alta's avalanche control team after the ski area took over duties from the U.S. Forest Service. He would later become head of snow safety at the resort.

"Those were great days," he remembered. "We pioneered all sorts of things here that hadn't been done to make a modern ski area safe. We were given all the latitude we needed to make it work."

He worked in snow safety for 10 years and was then brought into the front office by Chick Morton, who was at the time president/general manager, and was among the early legends in skiing who had made Alta home.

Eventually, Wieringa was made general manager when Morton retired.

Over the years, he'd come in contact with many of the greats in skiing who were bonded to Alta, including Morton, Engen and Joe Quinney, one of the founders of Alta.

"I was lucky," he said as he reflected, "to have been able to learn from them. They were all great men. They were all a wonderful resource. I could always go to them with questions and they always had an answer. And, they were all skiers. If I'd had to work with some New York corporation I wouldn't have lasted 30 seconds."

Within the span of a couple of years, they would all retire or pass away, "and things got pretty lonely around here for me."

"Every day I'm here I think how lucky I am to be here and to have been able to work with and learn from such great men," he added.

"Over the years I've gotten to know a lot of ski area operators, and the more I learn the luckier I feel about being in Little Cottonwood Canyon."

It has only been within the past 10 years that Alta has undergone what Wieringa would call "significant changes."

The owners, he said, gave permission for the new generation of area managers, his generation, the OK to "fix all the things we wanted to fix . . . everything from replacing lifts, to relocating lifts, to making Sugarloaf (lift) go high enough so people could get back to the Collins side of the mountain without hiking.

"We wanted to make it nicer for skiers, but we were always careful to protect the character of Alta . . . Our philosophy has been and always will be, 'Alta is for skiers.' "

When it came time to replace the Sunnyside lift, for example, and given the option of a new high-speed lift or an older and slower fixed-grip, Wieringa opted for a medium-speed detachable. The concern was that a high-speed could overcrowd the slopes and lessen the ski experience.

Some improvements, even some that at the time seemed perfectly logical, have not always been so well received.

"Like the day we tore out the old Alpenglow Restaurant. It was dark, sunken, steamy, and there was not enough room. People had to stand outside as they waited in line. Why would anyone be disappointed with a nice, spacious restaurant that was light, airy and had room to sit down? But there were those who loved the old place and said we never should have torn it down."

This summer there are plans to tear down the old Watson Shelter, another Alta icon, and Wieringa expects there will be those who will call it a mistake.

"It was built in 1950 and, I think, there have been 12 additions, none of them done well. But we have to be careful with change," he continued.

"I constantly tell people here that no one comes to see us. They come to Alta for the skiing. We have the most consistent snow in the world, great terrain and are in a beautiful canyon. That's why they come here.

"It all goes back to our philosophy that we need to make things as easy as we can for people. Anytime we have a problem, and we don't have many, it's usually because we're standing in the way of them doing what they came to do — ski. People who come to Alta are focused on skiing, and we just need to stay out of their way. They don't want to deal with us. They want to go skiing."

Snowboarding is another issue Wieringa deals with. Snowboarders are not allowed on the lifts at Alta, but it's an issue that is always on the table, he admitted.

"It comes down to a business decision. We've made the decision that we are a ski area and that we're good at what we do. We've been good at it for a long time . . . and our customers are happy with things as they are," he explained.

Oh, there will be changes made in the ensuing years. And, it will be Wieringa's duty to make sure none interferes with or takes away from the skiing experience.

The very best compliment he could ever receive is if no one notices the changes, "and then we know we've done things right," he said.


E-mail: grass@desnews.com