Romantic Alta – Walker Family Story

We shared this story about the Walker family in our 2016 Fall Newsletter, but for those of you who never read it, here it is again. Classic Alta charm. 

When the tar paper ripped away from the window, the room flooded with brilliant sunlight muted by thousands of tiny specks indicating poor bathroom habits of legions of flies. My father, Neef Walker, was undaunted and continued ripping tar paper from Watson Shelter’s windows, encouraged by Chic Morton. Chic had brought Neef and the Walker family up Collins Gulch at Alta to introduce us to the new business that had just become ours. It was mid summer, 1965.

Dad and mom (Neef & Shirlee Walker) had herded their brood, Wilkes (13,) Tom (12), me, Andy (10), Matt (8) and Heidi (4) into a meeting in the kitchen of our small Gregson Avenue home in Salt Lake to explain the responsibilities incumbent upon us if we were to take the Watson Shelter as a family business. We had to promise we’d pitch in and help because the margins of profit would not support a full staff of outside employees. We each solemnly swore to do whatever it would take to have our own family business high on the ski hill at Alta. Our countenance must have been convincing since, a few weeks later, we were watching in awe as dad ripped the tar paper off the windows.

Tom and Huck held no sway over the Walker family with their adventurous life on the Mississippi. We exchanged a river for a mountain and registered claim on a lifestyle so rare you can count other members on a single hand. Living at 9400’ above sea level, mid-mountain on arguably the finest ski mountain in the world, is an accord most any alpine skier would give body parts to entertain. Donating flesh or bone was unnecessary for us though I’m fairly certain we lost a collective 100 pounds of it preparing the Watson Shelter for the upcoming ski season.

To make the business work would require we lived at the Watson during all weekends and holidays of the ski season necessitating the installation of living quarters. The Watson we owned is the second Watson Shelter. The first still stands and is used by the ski patrol for storage and maintenance work. Our’s is long gone replaced in 2005 by the new glass, steel and stone version adjacent to the angle station of the Collins Chairlift. When our’s was first erected, it was a single story affair roofed with at least 10 layers of tarpaper and mopped tar to protect it from deep winter snows. When the second story was added years later, the roofing had been torn up only in the cafeteria area, and replaced with linoleum. About a third of the overall floor was walled off behind an “Employees Only” sign and was used exclusively as storage for the supplies that make a food business run. That part had been left with the old roofing material. Our first job was to remove the roofing which we did with hatchets, sledgehammers and big crowbars. Upon the newly renovated floor we built living quarters and a much smaller storage room made efficient by the addition of floor to ceiling shelves.

Preparing for that first season required Herculean efforts and under the direction of Dad, a die hard remnant of “business before pleasure” schooling, we managed.

Day one of that first season was probably the most exciting in my family’s history and it came and went with surprises and not a few hiccups, but we survived. We were so grateful for our first customer, a Mr. Alex Biel, that he got his lunch free. He wrote annual post cards timed to arrive on opening day for years with postmarks from St. Moritz, St. Anton, Garmisch, Davos, etc. bringing delightful memories of that wondrous first day.

While school required we maintain our home in the Salt Lake valley, we still managed release from school early every Friday afternoon so my mother could drive us up to Alta in time to catch the last chair on the old Collins single chairlift (which sounded just like a Coke-a-Cola bottling plant whenever it operated due to the castanet type “shells” that grabbed the top cable as it rounded the bullwheel atop the lift). We’d trudge the 200 feet to the Watson and pitch in with clean-up and then retire to play on the snow covered mountain. “Tray sliding” was a cherished activity we engaged frequently. Those old red food trays were faster than a speeding bullet when pointed down a snow covered hill with screaming child barely hanging on. Directional control was an issue that proved disquieting for the family one evening when Heidi, flying pell-mell down the hill, always wanting to beat her brothers at everything, smacked into a tree and was thrown several feet. She landed completely unconscious and the rest of us went screaming bloody murder up to Watson to inform mom and dad that Heidi was badly injured! By the time we arrived back down the hill, panicky parents in tow, Heidi had awakened and, discounting a long, nasty headache, was no worse for ware.

Both mom and dad skied at expert levels, especially in deep powder. With them to guide us, and myriad ski instructors that became family friends, we soon gained confidence and marauded the ski hill with a certain amount of reckless abandon. The ski patrol worked for decades to rein in that spirit but enjoyed little success until finally our bodies began to betray us in aging years. Mom and dad needed a system to capture us when we were tardy for our lunch rush bussing duties and settled on a clever trick: we all got bright yellow parkas. Now the patrol, and lift crew could see us coming a mile away and it was convenient to intercept us and send us to Watson for KP. Thus was born “The Yellow Parka Boys”, a club with membership totaling exactly four (Heidi, for reasons I don’t recall but probably because she was too young and growing too fast, did not get a yellow parka).

Summers at 9400’ begin around mid July so whatever work must be done, and there’s always a lot, must be done between then and when the snows begin to fly in October. For the first decade of our Watson proprietorship we burned the garbage nightly in a big incinerator behind Watson. The cans, thousands of them, did not burn but their gooey innards and paper covers burned off and what remained by summer was a ten foot high pile of burned rubbish that need to be hauled away. For a few years we hauled it to old mine pits. But after Chic blasted them all closed to satisfy the areas lawyer’s concerns, we had to take it all to the dump way out on the west side of the Salt Lake valley. We all remember that job with great distaste but, in hindsight, it brings beautiful memories of hard work in the high mountains.

Our summers were not all work. Fishing in the stream at the area base (now flowing in large underground culverts till west of Peruvian Lodge) was a favorite pastime and dad was good at it. He taught us to tie our hooks, thread worm and clean our catch. He was a marvelous mountain man raised in the out-of-doors all his life. We walked up and down the mountain as if it was our own backyard and, in large measure, it was. Life in that mountain paradise was challenging and unique. It gave us an appreciation for solitude that few ever get wind of in the modern world. To this day, I’m most comfortable with skis attached to my feet, or standing with climbing boots on steep granite, miles from any human habitation. While by no means a recluse, my deepest solace comes with alone time in the mountains. This I learned from a father built of earth, wind, water and fire.

Our years at Alta were earmarked by so many unforgettable chapters that a book will be necessary to even scratch the surface. My mother left an unpublished book filled with our family’s history at Alta called: “The Other Side Of The Counter”. I will one day work with her (posthumously) for a hopeful publication.

Upon Albion Basin’s eastern flank is a lovely area called Memorial Grove. Heidi is there as is my mother. About a month ago, following a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer, Neef joined them. My brothers and I will all occupy that sacred place one day too and that takes some of the sting out of the idea of dying. Alpenglow sunsets will light Sunset Peak and Grizzly Gulch in an eternal torchlight memorial to Alta’s kin, the pioneers of whom my mother described as; “made from steel while the lifts were made of wood”. “Shirlee Malts” and “Skiballs”, no doubt, flow a river in this eternal paradise and I wonder in what currency Mayor George Watson collects his “two bits” for those careless enough to neglect using Alta’s full name: Romantic Alta!

Decades ago Ray Conrad, an old timer of Alta and a wonderfully creative musician and composer, wrote a song called: “The Skier’s Daydream”. We Walkers traditionally sing it when any of us passes on to whatever is next. It’s final verse goes: “It may be that someday when I’ve had my last run, when I’ve hung up my skis and my life here is done; and if heaven’s really heaven, and that’s where I go, that there’ll be some high mountains and deep powder snow.”

To the memory of William Neef, Shirlee Wilkes and Heidi Maria Walker.

By Andy Walker