From Wilma to Wilbere

Image: Wilma Johnson skiing in Sports Illustrated 1965
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From Wilma to Wilbere

Glancing at Snowbird’s trail map reveals a few plum areas off the western flanks of the Cirque Traverse and an old double chair all dubbed “Wilbere.” Like many of Snowbird’s ski runs and terrain, a grand tale accompanies the name. Unlike Big Emma, Regulator Johnson, Peruvian or Snowbird itself, the stories of Wilbere don’t pay homage to the halcyon days when the clang of silver miners reverberated between the canyon’s narrow walls. Instead, Wilbere honors a woman instrumental to Snowbird’s creation.

Wilbere is the sobriquet earned by Wilma Chudleigh Johnson while working at Alta’s Rustler Lodge in the late 1950s. Thousands of miles by sea, land and Volkswagen Beetle led Wilma to Little Cottonwood Canyon where she would leave an indelible mark on the landscape and forever change the mountains that captured her heart. 

Wilma Johnson

At 17, Wilma of Melbourne, Australia embarked on a ship bound for Vancouver, British Columbia with her friend Edna Monaghan in 1956. Keen to explore the world, they planned to spend a year or two expanding their horizons. The pair found jobs as secretaries in Vancouver, and though neither had ever seen snow before, both took to skiing and saved pennies for each new escapade. After two winters in Vancouver, the restless foreigners helmed their Volkswagen north along the unpaved highway from Canada to Alaska. Sheltering in their Bug when bears drew near, the two women roamed the Alaskan frontier for two months before hatching a plan to drive south for a Mexican summer in the sunshine.

As enthusiastic new skiers, Wilma and Edna had heard tales of a place where powder snow as light as air piled over 500 inches deep. A detour to Utah was forged and they drove up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta, awestruck. Wilma left an application with a lodge before she and Edna bumped down to Mexico where they camped and visited remote villages. The intrepid wayfarers had broken free from the mold of what was expected of women in their time, filling their days with rambling adventures.

That fall, Wilma made haste to Alta’s Rustler Lodge thanks to her successful application. While snow drifts deepened, so did her love for skiing and the beguiling landscape of Little Cottonwood Canyon. There were many young gentlemen eager and willing to teach Wilma the finer points of powder skiing and she spent every free moment outside.

The following summer, the duo reunited for another lark in South America. They ventured up the Amazon River with indigenous Brazilians and immersed themselves in village life in the Amazonian jungle. European travel plans were scrapped when Wilma convinced Edna to return to Alta’s Rustler Lodge and work alongside her as a waitress. There they could revel in the bountiful powder snow while avoiding the occasional sweep by immigration officers. It was here that a British chef at the lodge, Frank Menendez, playfully assigned Wilma the nickname of Wilbere.

Wilma frequently skied out of bounds beyond Alta, hiking westward to plunder vast expanses of untouched powder. To this day, a flume named Wilbere Chute commemorates her close call with a large avalanche. She was often accompanied by the handsome and athletic manager of the Rustler, Ted Johnson. At the close of that second season, Wilma and Ted got hitched and began traveling the world with renowned filmmaker, Dick Barrymore, shooting scenes for future ski films.

Wilma Sports Illustrated

The newlywed Johnsons returned to Alta in 1963 to begin an ambitious remodel of Watson Shelter. While toiling, they continued to enjoy the challenging backcountry terrain to the west. The couple envisioned a future ski area atop the patchwork of old mining claims with endless bowls, cirques and chutes.

Momentum gathered once they purchased the Blackjack mining claim from the renowned Engen brothers of Alta. The two ferreted through yellowed papers, files and titles at the county recorder’s office in a daunting effort to track down the owners of old mining claims. Wilma worked countless hours alongside a brilliant young attorney and mining law expert, Bob Pruitt. They had a knack for locating grizzled old miners and the Johnsons slowly acquired dozens of mining claims and some 800 acres between 1966 and 1968. With Bob’s help, Wilma slowly patched the dream together while Ted attempted to locate investors.

The pair envisioned limiting sprawl to preserve as much of the astounding landscape as feasible. Plans were drawn up with architect Ray Kingston for a compact and minimalist village. The next and nearly impossible hurdle was financing. Ted sent footage of Wilma effortlessly gliding down the area’s untouched powder to a friend, Warren Miller. The couple traveled coast to coast to promote the film while hoping to attract financing. All was nearly lost until they landed a “large mouth bass” and the enthusiastic support of oilman Richard “Dick” Bass in 1969.

Wilma Sports Illustrated

To Dick’s dismay, Snowbird’s construction budget swelled from $3 million to $13 million in a dizzying two years. Crews put in 12-hour days, seven days a week, getting this Bird ready to soar. This involved a 6-mile sewer line, the Aerial Tram, The Lodge at Snowbird, Snowbird Center, Wilbere, Gad 1 (now Gadzoom) and Gad 2. This feat was only possible thanks to Ted’s grit, Dick’s money and Wilma’s organizational prowess.

To this day, you’ll find a wooden sign suspended from the Tram’s 4th tower reading “Wilma.” The Swiss crew that erected the Tram insisted that a “maiden of the mountain” climb the highest tower to guarantee the success and safety of the Aerial Tram. Wilma was chosen to uphold the tradition and she gamely passed off her baby to climb the precipitous heights as accordion music blared. Much like her unconventional life, the impossible dream of Snowbird was capped with Wilma’s triumphant journey to the top of the tower, cementing the success of Snowbird for decades to come.

About the Author:

Born in Utah of pioneer stock, Lexi Dowdall had no choice in the matter of becoming a skier. With her father busy in the Snowbird Medical Clinic most weekends, Snowbird served as free daycare for Lexi and her sister, Andi. The two ran amok on the mountain, completing thousands of laps down Mini Miner’s Camp. Lexi works as the Director of Freeride for the International Freeskiers & Snowboarders Association (IFSA) and recently began painting her favorite mountains, including Snowbird, with watercolors. Check out her artwork at kapowder.com. 

 

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