We’ve been interviewing locals and longtime visitors to Alta for the past couple of seasons. For the final interview of the 2016-17 ski season, we thought it was only fitting to catch up with Alta Ski Area’s retiring general manager Onno Wieringa, who’s been an Alta Ski Area employee since 1972 and General Manager since 1988. Onno’s legacy at Alta will linger long past his departure; over the decades of working seven days a week, all winter long, Onno has reshaped the flow and function of Alta, while delicately maintaining that special Alta “feel” and carefully stewarding Alta’s business model, even as many other ski areas rapidly consolidate ownership. To accomplish this, Onno has taken every role at some point, from working the avalanche gun which protects the highway and the Alta village nearly every snow storm since the 1970’s, to parking cars and loading chairs, to working with the US Forest Service to plan improvements and engaging elected officials on Alta’s behalf–sometimes all in the same day.
Chris: So where are you from? Did you grow up skiing?
Onno: I’m from Conrad, Montana, and I grew skiing at Big Mountain in Whitefish. My dad was in the 10th Mountain Division, and we were one of three families in Conrad that skied, and on the weekends we would all pile into the station wagon and it was a great way for us to bond and be together.
Chris: Was skiing your favorite thing to do as a kid? Did you ski all winter?
Onno: Not exactly. Skiing was something we did on the weekends when my Dad had a good week working in the body shop. If we didn’t go skiing we might go ice fishing or something else a little cheaper than skiing.
Chris: So you came to Alta straight from Montana?
Onno: I did come to Alta after finishing college at Montana State University where I worked part time as a ski patroller at Bridger Bowl. I got a Minor in Avalanche Studies and I did all the avalanche studies at Big Sky before they opened as part of my school work. A lot of my friends at Bridger decided to move down to Big Sky when it opened and I said….you know, it’s just too damn cold down there. I knew a guy who said he could get me a patrol job at Alta, and he promised me it was a lot warmer in Alta. I came down to Alta, and sure enough it was a lot warmer; I gave away all my turtlenecks and skied in short sleeves on spring days.
Chris: Did you come to Alta to be a ski patroller?
Onno: Yeah. I met the ski patrol director at a convention in the fall of 1972 and he gave me a job and I started on November 1st that year. I got a bartending job at the Rustler Lodge as well, and I worked as much as I could to make ends meet. I started Glacier Raft Company in Montana with another ski patroller, Darwin Stoneman, and as I got busier in Alta, that became something to do in the summer that was a little bit more relaxed than the intensity of the Alta winter.
Chris: I’ve always been impressed that you work seemingly seven days a week all winter long and I know a few other Alta Ski Area managers do the same. Is that unique to the individuals in these positions? Is it unique to Alta, or is it a holdover from a past generation of ski area managers across the industry?
Onno: It is a little bit of a holdover but it’s kind of just a product of this place. There’s always something going on, and I learned that while I was a ski patroller. It used to take us a lot longer to get terrain open and we’d constantly have somewhere we needed to do control work, so if you took two days off you might miss a big avalanche or some great skiing. And ski areas have historically not been places to go if you want to make lots of money, so for some of us the constant work–extra shifts, bartending, second and third jobs, repping ski companies–was a way to finish the season with some cash so you could go have a good summer.
But rest and recreation are good for individuals and these days we’re so deep with good managers that I don’t recommend anybody try to work every day, all winter, and when I move on my replacements will take weekends. As the industry has grown up, we’ve been able to develop better management practices and that allows us all to step back more often.
Chris: You mentioned the company and the individual…you raised a family here. Can you talk about that?
Onno: Yeah…Lots of Alta people over the years have decided to move on because maybe they get married and start a family and there’s just not enough in terms of jobs and salaries, school resources, and housing. That’s had an impact on this place. A few of us decided to try to start a local school and that has helped families like mine settle here to this day. And so my wife Tana and I raised Onno Shea, who’s now 24, and Siri Anna, who’s now 26, right here in Alta.
Chris: What are you most proud of from your time in Alta?
Onno: I think that probably…besides the people we have working here, which is my number one…another one of the three things I’m proudest of is having been able to work with the board of directors to create a more balanced mountain recreation experience. The board allowed me to establish a guest capacity for us to build our facilities around, and over the years I’ve been GM I think we’ve built a ski area that flows, where lifts and trails and bathrooms and other elements complement each other–it didn’t used to be that way. I’m also really proud of starting the Alta Environmental Center, which was the culmination of good forest restoration habits we’d had in the past, and which added a broader process to those good practices and informed company decisions beyond how we care for our natural resources.
Chris: That leads me to another question. What are your hopes and dreams for Alta, and do you worry about any particular threats to Alta Ski Area, the Community, or the industry?
Onno: Well, I don’t look at change as threatening. But, obviously the industry is changing, and that’s reality. How that affects us, and whether we can remain an independently owned, self-sustaining ski area, is my biggest concern. But we’re all thinking about that, so I think we’ll survive it. It’s the unexpected changes that can really hurt a business like ours. We know we’re being surrounded by consolidating ski areas, so we have to stay vigilant.
Beyond that…skiing is a lifelong sport. At least, it always has been; most families that get into skiing do it because everyone can go to the same place and ski together, spend the day with each other. I don’t think skiing’s going to go away; it’s not a fad.
Chris: What’s up with this place? What’s the deal with Alta, why does everybody love it?
Onno: Because it’s got big weather events and great terrain, and really consistent snow. That’s the attraction, which brings really good people to this place, and they stay here and create the energy.
Chris: What’s your favorite run?
Onno: Pretty consistently I’d have to say Eddie’s High Nowhere; it’s the longest fall-line at Alta, and I love the bottom part, where the slope rolls over a couple times in the big trees. That’s my kind of skiing!