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High-tech equipment, speedy lifts revolutionize skiing

Posted: Friday, October 06, 2000

SALT LAKE CITY -- Norm Burton remembers holding on for dear life the day Snowbasin opened its first single chairlift in 1946, when he was 9. The metal rattled and clanked and he feared bouncing right off the seat.

A coil of rope was strapped to the back of his chair so he could lower himself down in case of an emergency.

Skiing sure has changed since then.

Just how much high-tech materials and cutting edge technology have revolutionized skiing can be seen at an exhibit of historic photos that goes on display Friday in Salt Lake's City-County Building.

Featuring about 150 photos collected by the University of Utah Marriott Library Ski Archives, the show is a testament to skiing in Utah and a means to generate excitement for the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games.

These days, high-speed trams, gondolas and detachable quads -- often equipped with plastic covers against the wind and cold -- hum along, gently delivering hundreds of skiers to the top of impeccably groomed slopes.

Back then, the snow was all natural and never packed; in other words, it was treacherously deep, crusty and bumpy. And if it didn't fall from the sky there was no way to make it.

A cat was just a pet, not a multi-ton machine used to till snow, breaking up icy patches and flattening bumps into smooth corduroy -- as freshly groomed snow is known in ski lingo.

''One of the biggest changes is the farming of the snow,'' said 75-year-old Junior Bounous, director of skiing at Snowbird. ''Without it we would still be pounding our way through moguls, skiing slow, and there would be more accidents by far.''

And what about the skis? Old-timers remember the outrageously long, 7-foot wooden boards with no flex or side-cut. Forget about skiing powder on those.

Now, there's the fat boy to float on the powder, the carving ski for a feel-good cruise down the corduroy and the short, stiff ski to tear up the slalom course.

Not to mention the ever popular snowboard and the lesser known, and miniature size, snow-blades and Big Foot.

''My first pair of skis was made by my father,'' said Burton, now 68. ''My second came from the Army surplus. We used to scrape off the paint to find out how many laminations there were to see how good they were.''

U.S. Army troops trained at Alta and Snowbird during World War II and their extra gear -- from boots to parkas -- was sold to locals.

Burton, a former president of the Professional Ski Instructors of America who still teaches at Deer Valley, says he's skiing on the shortest skis in his life.

''I'm technically better than ever and much of that is due to the materials that have been developed,'' Burton said.

The photos will start touring Utah in November, stopping at schools, Olympic venues and ski resorts through 2002.

Meanwhile, Snowbasin is bustling with construction as it prepares to host the Olympic downhill, more than 50 years after building its first chair.

''The ski jumping and the downhill will certainly be a big draw of the Olympics,'' Alan Engen said.

A former U.S. Ski Team racer and author of ''For the Love of Skiing,'' Engen, 60, describes the first downhill race in the 1860s as a straight run with no turns.

''Racers used 12-16 foot-long boards that were very wide and had one big groove in the bottom,'' he said. ''There were no bindings, the skis were just held in by a toe strap, but they were still timed at 60 miles per hour.''

Materials such as fiber glass and titanium now allow manufacturers to fine tune everything from the skis' stiffness to their hourglass shape. Sturdy plastic boots with metal buckles -- versus leather ones with laces -- and quick release bindings translate into greatly improved edge control and safety. With the modern boards, downhillers plunge down steep, icy slopes at up to 90 mph.

While old-timers are nostalgic of the early days, most say the changes have made skiing more accessible, safe and fun for all levels.

Skiing, initially cross-country and jumping, was brought to the United States in the 1800s by northern European immigrants. As its popularity grew, the Forest Service began scouting out areas to build resorts.

In Utah, Alta and Brighton were the first to install rope tows, in the early 1900s. The first chairlift went up in Alta in 1938, two years after Idaho's Sun Valley built the nation's first chairlift.



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