Editor’s Note: As Onno Wieringa gets ready to retire after a 45-year career at Alta, Utah, including the last 29 as the resort’s general manager, we look back on this profile that originally published in the November 2015 issue of POWDER (Vol. 44 Issue 3), as well as a short film recently produced by Sweetgrass Productions.
Snow is falling at the weapons complex on Peruvian Ridge. Onno Wieringa cranks the wheel on the howitzer and aims the 105-millimeter barrel at the white sky. He handles the Korean War-era weapon with respect, his dark silhouette stark in front of the white movie screen of falling snow. The range of the howitzer is about seven miles, and each winter Wieringa’s avalanche team fires some 300 rounds to control the massive snowfall in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon.
“You can imagine there are a few things within seven miles that you’d want to be careful about,” says Wieringa, as he aims his gun.
He’s referring to the weapon, but the same could be said regarding the decisions facing Wieringa, the general manager—and guardian—of Alta, one of the most revered places to ski in North America. For almost three decades, Wieringa has been a constant at Alta, which now faces a number of potential changes that will define his legacy. Among the ideas on the table for the 76-year-old ski area are proposals for new ski lifts that would link Alta and Brighton, land swaps with the U.S. Forest Service, the prospect of a train tunnel through the mountains to connect Park City to Salt Lake, and the ever-present pressure to allow snowboarders on the lifts. In 10 years, Alta could look vastly different, but that vision hinges on this old-school GM.
Wieringa, 66, is wearing a black down jacket and orange wool hat. He is trim and fit, with deep lines cut through his leathery, weathered face, steel eyes, and gray, wavy hair. He speaks with a throaty growl punctuated with pregnant pauses and deep breaths, as if he is drawing the energy to speak from deep within.
“Shooting the weapon is one of my favorite things,” he says. “It’s the best part of the job.”
IN DUTCH, “ONNO” MEANS “NUMBER ONE”—a family name passed down to the first-born son for four generations. Wieringa’s father, also named Onno, was born in Conrad, Montana, and served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. Upon return, he packed the family into their station wagon and drove to Big Mountain, in Whitefish. After the younger Onno graduated from Montana State University in Bozeman, he worked on the ski patrol at Bridger Bowl. He arrived at Alta in 1972, seeking a warmer climate. That winter he slung drinks at the Rustler Lodge and landed a job as a ski patroller.
After working five years on patrol at Alta, Wieringa took the role of snow safety director in 1977, serving under Chic Morton, the second general manager after Alta’s first GM, Fred Speyer. An ambitious employee, Wieringa often approached Morton with ideas for improvements. He says he was thrown out of his office as many times as he was invited to stay. But when Morton was ready to retire in 1988, after 30 years, he tapped Wieringa to fill the role, a position he’s now held for 27 years.
His office is the corner of a complex that includes the silver LEDE skier service building, and he has a stand-up desk to keep nimble in front of the computer screen. He schedules a power nap at 2 p.m. nearly every day for 10 minutes, stretching out on a Therm-a-Rest while wearing noise-cancelling headphones. He doesn’t often take days off but will relax on Sunday afternoons and take a hike with his wife if things are going well. One wall of his office holds maps and charts, while the others are adorned with framed photos of past Alta icons and the people who led the way before him.
Over a coffee in the Alf Engen Room at the Peruvian, Wieringa speaks with a measured drawl in reverence toward the people, now passed, that shaped Alta and his own character. When Wieringa was feeling low, he’d ski with Engen, one of the early pioneers who recognized Alta for its ski resort potential. “Alf was the most optimistic, good-hearted, big-energy, inspirational guy you could ever meet,” says Wieringa. “Alf never had a bad word to say about anybody.”
Ed LaChapelle, the renowned snow-science expert and part of the pioneering crew of Forest Service snow rangers who laid the groundwork for the avalanche control program, was leaving Alta when Wieringa took the lead job. As a mentor, LaChapelle taught Wieringa to be more careful, more thoughtful, always thorough in all aspects of dealing with snow that can be as deadly as it is beautiful.
Ed’s rebellious wife, Dolores, a “deep ecologist,” writer, and pioneering powder skier who made one of the first descents in Baldy Chute, shaped Wieringa in a different way. “She didn’t care about the business management side,” says Wieringa. “She wanted me to take care of the people and the resource. She really helped me with that foundation. She was as good as it comes.”
“I am a product of all these people,” Wieringa emphasizes before leaving for a meeting with the Salt Lake City mayor on land use and transportation issues.
AT THE END OF A POWDER DAY, the long red snake of brake lights is an inevitable component of driving down the canyon. It likely would have frightened the early pioneers who knew not only that Alta’s snow was special, but that growth and pressure on the resource would degrade the quality of the experience.
With more than 1.7 million people in the Wasatch Front and Utah’s population growth trending at nearly double the national rate, the Utah Foundation, a public policy research group, predicts the state could add up to 2.5 million new residents by 2050. How many skiers can a delicate slice of mountain handle without ruining a precious and revered place?
“There’s too many cars and too much pollution,” says Wieringa. “The common theme is the quality of life as our population soars. We all know we have to do something.”
That’s a question at which Wieringa knows his mentor Dolores LaChapelle, were she still alive, would bristle.
“She would not be happy with the growth of Salt Lake and the pressures that it’s putting on Alta,” says Wieringa. “She would be like everybody else who is startled by the development, hating the air quality that’s come with it.”
Beneath East Devil’s Castle, Wieringa pauses to sweep his arms toward Grizzly Gulch, the contested area Alta owns adjacent to Solitude, in Big Cottonwood Canyon, and a popular backcountry access point.
“There’s too many cars and too much pollution,” he says. “The common theme is the quality of life as our population soars. We all know we have to do something.”
Through all the complex transportation and land issues, preserving the watershed and forest health is paramount to Wieringa while offering an exceptional ski experience. Wieringa looks at people, the environment, and profit as a “triple bottom line” equation. If all three don’t pencil, he won’t do it.
Wieringa is a key stakeholder in the Mountain Accord initiative, playing the chess game regarding the future of the Central Wasatch, with transportation, land exchanges, and dispersed user-access all on the table.
“Skiing is our first love,” says Wieringa. And there’s no doubt of his conviction. But through all the negotiations, he will also work to maintain a position that keeps his company economically sustainable.
He points to the ridgeline that is owned by Alta and Snowbird and talks about proposed trades with the Forest Service for 160 acres of base-area land in exchange for 603 acres in Grizzly Gulch, Devil’s Castle, and Emma Ridge. With that swap, Alta would have the ability to construct a 100-room hotel and eight commercial/retail shops in support of a transit station and the water to service them.
An acceptable replacement for Alta giving up ownership of Grizzly Gulch is precluded on its desire for a tunnel or another type of connection to Big Cottonwood.
“Change is scary,” says Todd Collins. “And possible expansion plans are scary for existing hotel owners here.”
“If it gets that busy that there is a train and twice as many people in the valley as the projections say, we’d probably need to get into the hotel business and the transit center business,” says Wieringa. “And if nothing in that realm happens, then we just ski and be happy.”
But not everyone in the small community of Alta, population 390, is willing to make compromises in a place known for having some of the best snow on Earth.
“Change is scary,” says Todd Collins, general manager at the Peruvian Lodge, one of five lodges at Alta. “And possible expansion plans are scary for existing hotel owners here. If Alta ends up owning land that is zoned for hotel and retail, they would have a more attractive business for a new generation of family owners to sell in the future. Alta might not be in the hotel business right now, but they may be in the land-acquisition business.”
BACK AT THE WEAPONS SHELTER, the clank of the howitzer and our bootsteps echo off the concrete floor and walls. Wieringa explains the elevation and deflection relative to the sight board that is dialed in with levers for more than 165 target points. Once the gunners have double-checked coordinates, rounds are fired at 1,800-feet per second, targeting blast points across the highway below Mount Superior or closer on the resort toward Baldy face. Soon, the guns will need to be armed for another storm. But today, everything at Alta is quiet.
A welcome snowfall swirls outside, and as I watch Wieringa gaze down the spiral barrel of the 5,000-pound blasting machine, I wonder if I am looking at one of the last of its kind.
Back outside, we lock the doors to the weapons cache and click into our skis. Graupel falls from the sky—super-cooled droplets of water that collect and freeze on falling snowflakes. Our skis hiss on the pellets of snow as I chase a dark figure who disappears into the white.
Marquee Photo: Brian Schott