WORDS & IMAGES BY IAN FOHRMAN | PRESENTED BY STRAFE OUTERWEAR & POWDER PRODUCTIONS
Huge, white flakes swirled through the air. They looked like schooling fish or a murmuration of starlings—layer upon layer of orchestrated chaos. Every snowflake seemed to drift and meander through the air on a circuitous, free-willed trip toward the ground, a wider view revealing the symphony of millions of delicate, white clumps in harmony against the mottled backdrop of dense forest.
“HUGE WHITE FLAKES SWIRLED THROUGH THE AIR.”
After two days of filming and shooting photos, I finally put the camera bag down for a soul-shred solo lap. I sat by myself on the swaying double chair with a huge, dumb, cold grin and watched it dump. The Wildcat chairlift, or “The Kitty,” as it’s been dubbed by locals, offers a steady 8.6-minute ride over just 1,225 vertical feet of relatively mellow, forested terrain from the base of Alta Ski Area.
I have never lived in Utah, and I only get to ski Alta a couple times a year at most, but something about this lift feels like home. It’s sheltered from the raging weather elsewhere on the mountain and it feels almost cozy. It’s a place you can go by yourself and expect to meet familiar smiling faces to ski (hard) with every day. On this day, I had the place to myself and though I was supposed to go inside and meet friends after one lap, I couldn’t pull myself away. After each lap of bouncing playfully through the featured terrain, finding new jumps, drops, slashes and transfers, I couldn’t help but hook a hard right, back into the empty lift-line corral. ONE MORE!
Hayden Price and Thayne Rich ascend towards the top of the “Kitty”.
We had come to meet up with Thayne Rich, one of Alta’s most talented skiers, and capture him in his home element. The 25 year old has become a legend for sending and stomping big tricks and for his friendly demeanor and humble attitude. He is one of a handful of skiers that you might glimpse from the chair making the hill look like a terrain park, the key feature of what makes Wildcat a special place. He has been skiing in Little Cotton Wood Canyon his entire life and he’s been a die hard Alta skier for 12 years.
“I’ve been skiing at Alta for 12 years and I still find new features and new ways to hit them every year. It’s got everything: steep pitches, tree-skiing, open jumps—it’s got it all,” Rich recounts as the 57-year-old chairlift hums in the background.
“I’ve been skiing at Alta for 12 years and I still find new features and new ways to hit them every year”
Several years of honing in his skills on the “Kitty” reflects in Thayne’s skiing. Playful and powerful.
Thayne’s got some of the best style in the business.
Thayne has an amazing ability to pick out any feature, visualize a trick, and execute.
Even his (Thayne’s) straight airs ooze with style.
Yan Kunczynski, a controversial but prolific chairlift manufacturer and installer, built Wildcat Chairlift in 1959. His company, Lift Engineering, built 200 fixed grip chairlifts and 31 high-speed quads between TK and TK. Despite his lifts being involved in the deaths of five people and the injury of 70, the worst record of any liftmaker in North America, many laud his creations as some of the best ever built.
Alta General Manager Onno Wieringa says confidently, “It’s the most reliable piece of equipment we have in Alta. It runs every day, it’s simple, it’s clean, it works. It’s designed so the top can get completely snowed in. You’ll turn it on slow and it’ll scoop its way around the bull wheel and it will slowly scoop out a trough and you can ride the lift to the top. Then you can shovel the rest of the snow away. But you can start it in any weather. That’s as good as it gets.”
“It’s the most reliable piece of equipment we have in Alta.”
Onno Wieringa, Alta General Manager.
We visited with Wieringa as a storm rolled in and the Wildcat hummed in the background. He recounted the meticulous process of designing “his lift.” Kunczynski and Wieringa went to foam factories to pick the perfect density for the seats. They designed a “sweep back double,” a center-pole chair where the lift pole that secures the seat to the cable is behind the rider. He remembers arguing with Kunczynski about the angle of the back support bars. Yan liked to lean back while Wieringa sat upright.
The solution was surprisingly simple.
“The other unique thing about that chair is the back straps that you lean against. He made the back-straps out of nylon webbing so you can lean way back and it conforms to where you’re going or you can lean way forward and it’s comfortable for everyone,” says Wieringa.
Al Turnbridge, head of mountain operations of Alta started working there since 1971/72.
“The operator had his tin can that said ‘roaches’ on it.”
Van Edgette, Alta Lift operation supervisor.
Lift Operations Supervisor Van Edgette chuckles as he remembers other amenities that were considered for skier’s enjoyment.
“[Wildcat] used to have a mid-station,” says Edgette. “It used to be, as people were riding the lifts they’d be smoking their joints, and as they got to the midway station the operator had his tin can that said ‘roaches’ on it. You could make a deposit if you wanted and then make your way to the top of the lift.”
Thayne Rich and Whit Boucher hike through the wind with Mt. Baldy in the background.
Alta has a rich history of interesting characters. In 1920, after an economic depressed shut down the town’s mine and main economy, George Watson found himself as Alta’s sole resident. He promptly elected himself Mayor of the defunct town. When he found himself nearly broke and in need of tax relief, he deeded 700 acres to the US Forest Service in 1937.
View of Mt. Superior from Alta.
The Forest Service had already retained the services of ski legend Alf Engen. Engen held 16 United States skiing titles, half in ski jumping, and is credited for helping design more than 30 American ski areas. Engen was tasked with a surveying Utah for potential ski resorts and in 1935 Engen visited the area and declared it suitable for a ski resort. Two years later Alta built the Collins chair and opened for operation. Prices to ride the second chair in North America (the first was in Sun Valley) were 25 cents for a single ride and $1.50 for a day pass.
In the years since, Alta has remained a hub of ski passion. It’s one of the few places where the patrol won’t hassle a group of kids hanging out and building jumps directly under the chair. It’s the access point to Snowbird and even the relatively small (as measured in acres) terrain it accesses provides a universe of options. It’s a place of congregation and community for anyone who’s heart beats for powder. It feels like one of the few remaining bastions of true ski culture, untarnished by the excesses of corporate takeovers and acquisitions. Wildcat is the epitome of shred simplicity; an old sturdy fixed grip double that takes you exactly where you want to go.
“It runs every day, it’s simple, it’s clean, it works. It’s designed so the top can get completely snowed in.”
Thayne Rich, Whit Boucher, and Hayden Price discuss their plans for their next run.
As I continued my perpetual cycle of, “maybe I’ll go in on the next run.” The sky got darker and the flakes got bigger. Eventually the lifties put the rope across the corral and I was forced to find my friends who were predictably bellied up at the Peruvian. The Peruvian Lodge, built in 1948, is just a short walk or skate from the base of Wildcat. It is as much of an iconic fixture as any ski artifact or lodge in the world. It echoes the mellow homey vibe of the Wildcat chair with the same potential for sending when the mood is right. It’s a center of ski culture at Alta and the natural place to end any day lapping the Kitty. The snow continued to fall harder and the mood in the Peruvian swelled. You could feel the stoke from the day and anticipation for the next growing as drinks flowed and flakes stacked fast outside. The lodge vibrated with the same energy and enthusiasm for sliding downhill that has filled this place since the days since the 40’s.
Wildcat in the background as Thayne does what he does best.
Author Ian Fohrman
Photographer Ian Fohrman
Executive Producers Ian Fohrman and Whit Boucher
Project Lead Whit Boucher
Art Direction Whit Boucher and Ian Fohrman
Video Production John Stifter and Hennie van Jaarsveld/POWDER Productions
Presented By Strafe Outerwear and POWDER Productions
Special Thanks Alta, Connie Marshall, Onno Wangara, Al Turnbridge, Van Edgette, Thayne Rich, Hayden Price, Joe Johnson, Peruvian Lodge
Footage and Photos Strafe Outerwear