Hellbent on a Dream
Hellbent on a Dream
How Ted Johnson Risked it all to Build Snowbird.
The story of Snowbird sounds like a tall tale of a hardcore mining town, glamorous ski star and chance meeting with a millionaire. It’s full of highs, lows and uncertainties. That’s part of it. The other part moves along steadfast, from an orphanage and oppressive cotton field to a determined couple of visionaries.
Ted Johnson was born in California in 1926. At the height of the Great Depression in 1933—when 15 million were unemployed—his mother took him and left his abusive father. Johnson called it “a very tough year,” one he spent in an orphanage while his mother stayed with a friend and sought employment.
Johnson said he was “lucky to live in a small, county-run orphanage, strict but loving.” Every child did yard work, housework and cooking. He said the kids were older, so “this was a great learning experience in my life.”
He was also a fearless teen. Johnson excelled at cycling, training in the hills without brakes. He got hooked on skiing at a local mountain for $5 a year. In his 20s, he headed to Sun Valley. When his ski buddies went surfing for the summer, Johnson joined and loved it.
Author Linda Bonar says he needed to find a way to support these two all-consuming sports. He bought a picking machine and picked cotton, which fit perfectly between ski and surf seasons. In Bakersfield’s brutal temps and humidity, this might’ve been his toughest job. In fact, he was fired from his first, which motivated him to learn fast, win speed competitions and make great money.
Johnson loved work, and it seemed he could do anything. At Alta, he was a handyman, taught skiing, hauled lunches around for filmmakers, took photos for them and skied in their movies. Junior Bounous, then Alta Ski School Director, says Johnson had good technique and a quiet upper body despite a bad back: for support he wore a women’s corset. Johnson often joked about it.
While running Alta’s Rustler Lodge in 1959, Johnson hired Wilma “Wilbere” Chudleigh, an Aussie on an epic three-year walkabout, working and playing (and learning to ski) from Alaska to Brazil. During her second season at Alta, she hiked out of bounds and couldn’t resist a steep chute she’d ogled from the road. The chute slid and buried her, but she was unhurt. That run is Wilbere Chute, one of Snowbird’s most challenging.
Johnson and Chudleigh married that year, and the adventure continued: they shot ski movies all over the world. But that was just the beginning.
They became obsessed with Alta’s backcountry (known today as Snowbird). They thought its majestic cirque and steeps begged to be developed. There’s a sociological theory that an idea only becomes real when it’s seen by someone else. For Johnson, that person was Chudleigh. They committed to the idea of Snowbird; when they both saw it, it became attainable.
In 1965, Snowbird was either mining claims or U.S. Forest Service land. Bonar says the couple found “a gem of a map” at the recorder’s office and spent every spare minute researching claims, some of which were abandoned. The work seemed endless.
They slowly bought mining claims. It took perseverance, business savvy and luck by the name of Fitzhugh Scott. (The Great Scott ski run would later be named after him.) Scott wired Johnson a loan for the Snowbird claim minutes before noon, when it would be sold to another buyer. He sprinted from bank to title office at 11:55 a.m.
Mining attorney Bob Pruitt, Jr. was instrumental in helping him and Chudleigh collect Blackjack, White Pine, Hidden Peak and the Wasatch Mines (Snowbird Village) claims. They created Snowbird Limited and sold 20 partnerships at $20,000 ($151,000 today) to fundraise.
One of Johnson’s fondest memories was hiking up to Hellgate, overlooking Snowbird with architect Jack Smith as he sketched. Instead of a “clutter” of chalets, they envisioned compact high-rises to preserve the surroundings.
They built the Models condos, where Johnson and Chudleigh lived and gave presentations to prospective buyers. They made a 13-minute promo movie with friend Warren Miller, giant posters of the condos and a 150-pound scale model of Snowbird. They packed everything into their station wagon and crisscrossed the country, seeking investors.
By 1969, they still needed funding and again Scott came to the rescue, inviting Johnson to Vail, where he met Texas oilman Dick Bass. That fall, Bass hiked Snowbird with Johnson and was smitten. Snowbird was funded.
Johnson hired carefully. He recruited Kent “Hoopie” Hoopingarner, Bounous and Liam Fitzgerald, each of whom would spend decades at Snowbird.
Hoopingarner was hired in 1970 as Ski Patrol Director (later President and COO). He had heard Johnson’s dream and said, “If you ever get this off the ground, call me.” A Jackson Hole patrolman, Hoopingarner knew it would take a lot to set up patrol and wanted to do it. Johnson was a mentor to him and, at that age, a hero. “He was cool beyond belief.”
Hoopingarner hired patroller Bob Bonar (former President and CEO), who says Johnson led by example, even in those pre-opening 12-hour-day, seven-day workweeks.
“He wouldn’t ask you to do something he wouldn’t do.”
Bounous had opened other resorts in California and Utah before instructing at Alta. He says Johnson wanted perfection, but didn’t criticize. “He was always positive. If there was a problem, he wanted to work things out and build people up.”
Fitzgerald, first Director of Snow Safety, says, “We thought he was a rockstar.” This wasn’t a stretch: Johnson appeared in movies and magazines, twice on the cover of Sports Illustrated. “He was easy to admire; there was a strong desire to please him,” Fitzgerald says.
Snowbird President and General Manager Dave Fields agrees: “There were amazing hurdles to this resort, more than hunting for mining claims and funding. They had to build a six-mile sewer line and the budget rocketed from $3 million to $13 million. Workers toiled day and night to open only two years after Bass’ investment. And there were two avalanches opening week...he risked everything.”
There were many times when the dream could have ended. On one hand, Snowbird easily could have never happened. On the other hand, there was doubtless determination.
Affectionately known as the Silver Fox, because of his wealth of gray hair, Johnson passed away in January 2018 at the age of 91. He left an indelible impression on Snowbird employees, his influence still strong today.
Fields says, “When I think of how guests and employees should be treated, I think about Ted.”
About the Author
Dawn Cardinale grew up skiing the mountains of Upstate New York. She started her career in Manhattan, proofreading for Sullivan & Cromwell and Standard & Poor's. Now she's a writer in Utah so she can ski the Wasatch. Her favorite things include stylish proofreaders' marks, blizzards, and telling people's stories.