SE3:EP8 - Alf Engen: Legend of Alta

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The legend of Alf Engen goes back to the 1920s when Alf brought his brothers to America from Norway. In the midwest and later out in the mountains, they found a home in America as skiers. Alf became a great ski jumping champion and world record holder at Ecker Hill, near Park City. He spent time at Sun Valley but ultimately settled in Utah. In the 1930s, he was hired by the U.S. Forest Service to scout potential ski areas as the sport was booming. That led him to the mining town of Alta in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Years later, Alf Engen would become intimately connected with Alta as its director of skiing. He became a figurehead for the sport and a friendly face who floated through powder on the flanks of High Rustler. He introduced thousands to the sport through his engagement with the Alta and Deseret News ski schools. He would later turn the reins over to son Alan, who succeeded him in the role.

Father and son both became iconic figures in Utah ski history, both inducted into the Intermountain and U.S. Halls of Fame. Alan became an instrumental figure in archiving the history of skiing in Utah with his books, the 1998 For the Love of Skiing, and 2002 First Tracks.

"As I was growing up, I saw my father and uncles as living day representatives of winter legends of Norse mythology. I imagined all of the Engen brothers with their great physical strength, competitive drive and love of winter as evolving into skiing icons. And in truth, they actually have." - Alan Engen

This episode of Last Chair offers fascinating insights into the legend of Alf Engen and the lore of skiing in Utah. Here are a few snippets of the interview with Alan Engen. Listen in to Last Chair to learn more.

Alan, as the son of Alf Engen I suspect you began skiing at an early age in Utah?

I'll tell you a little story that comes from my mother, not me. But my mother was always fond of telling how I came into this world. The doctor who delivered me put tongue depressors on the bottom of my feet and then proudly handed me over to my father. So, that being the case, I've added a little extra to the story by saying I came pretty close to being born on skis.

Growing up in Utah in the ‘40s and ‘50s, how did you see skiing grow?

I knew that skiing was growing. I was going up to Alta just about every chance that I had to ski and I could watch the traffic and I could see more and more cars coming up to Alta all the time. So I knew the sport was on the map, but I didn't know exactly how it was going to grow. And I think my father played a big role in helping to develop that growth through the Deseret News Ski School. Because it was a free ski school, it was a community outreach. And that brought in virtually thousands of people that got their first start of skiing through the Deseret Ski School.

Your father was a competitive athlete and later an instructor. How did that influence you?

I taught, but I taught as an amateur, not as a professional. And I grew up in competition. Dad told me at a very early age, he said, ‘Alan, you don't have to follow me in competition if you don't want to. But, I'll give you one piece of advice. If you want to be an instructor, be an instructor. If you want to be a champion skier and in athletic competition, do that. But don't try to do them both at the same time because the temperament isn't the same.

How did your father Alf Engen get connected with what was to become Alta?

Dad was hired by the Forest Service in the mid-1930s to go up and start taking a look at potential ski areas. One of the first that he talked about was Alta, because it had been around for a lot of years as a mining town. They knew it had plenty of good snow, but they wanted to see whether it would actually be good for a ski area. And dad skied up over Catherine's pass from Brighton into Alta. And stayed with a couple of miners by the name of the Jacobsen brothers. That was the only way dad could get into Alta at that time. He did it in the middle of the winter, so he had to hike in. That was a powerful skier. He had strong legs so he could go through that deep snow all the way over Catherine's Pass. He dropped into the Albion Basin. It was a great place for a ski area, but the miners had denuded all of the tree coverage that held back the avalanches and dad. He went back to the Forest Service and said, ‘You know, yes, let's go ahead and develop the area. But for gosh sakes, we've got to put new trees in there, so it'll hold back the avalanches.

How did Alta’s signature run, High Rustler, come to be attached to your father?

In the early days of Alta, in the 1940s, the run itself, the mountainside, was actually used and skiers would come up and they would hike up. They even put a little tow in there. But it eventually developed into a place that was very prominent at Alta. People would see it firsthand when they would come in. And in the 1980s, as a tribute to my father because it was such a prominent run, they renamed it Alf's High Rustler.

Did you take a lot of pride in following in his footsteps?

Well, I don't think anybody really follows in my dad's footsteps. He said some pretty deep tracks for me to follow, but I always had him as my idol. I truly felt that of all of the athletes I had the privilege of knowing in my lifetime, I thought my father was the one that I'd like to most closely emulate.

Alf Engen Ski Museum

Today’s Alf Engen Ski Museum, located at the Utah Olympic Park just off I-80 in Park City, is considered one of the finest ski museums in the world. In addition to showcasing Alf’s hundreds of trophies, it features an in-depth history of the sport, especially in the Intermountain West. The museum is free and features a host of interactive exhibits that are especially fun for kids.

“When we were talking to dad a little bit about having a ski museum, he says. ‘you gotta make it interesting for the kids,’” said Alan Engen. “He said, ‘build it around the kids so the kids have an interest and they can see what is happening with the ski sport and they will want to become a part of it.’”

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