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A Nordic interloper in an alpine town

Cross-country skiing has come a long way

By David Hampshire
The Park Record
Dave Hanscom, shown here in a 1988 cross-country race, has been coordinating the Wasatch Citizens Series for about 25 years.
Park City Museum, Park Record Collection

In November 1978, this reporter wandered up to the base of what was then the Park City Ski Area to ask The Park Record’s man-on-the-street question, not realizing he was about to stumble onto a story.

That week’s question was, “How was the skiing on the first day of the season?”

“It’s as good as it was last year,” said Bob McBroom, Park City Racquet Club tennis pro. “But they won’t let you ride the lifts this year if you have cross-country skis … I think that everybody who pays for a pass ought to be allowed to use the lifts.”

It turned out that a Nordic skier in Vermont had filed a $1.5 million lawsuit after being paralyzed in an accident. Fearing the liability, Park City and several other resorts had decided to ban them from their lifts.

Like snowboarders in the 1990s, Nordic skiers in the 1970s didn’t get much respect.

“It was a bit counterculture,” said Jim Miller, one of those Nordic skiers. “Before snowboarding, perhaps that wasthe counterculture.”

The ban lasted only a couple of years, according to Gaye Erickson Stoner, another local Nordic skier. In the meantime, she and her friends would sneak onto the lifts by wearing regular ski pants instead of knickers and gaiters and making sure not to lift their heels off their skis when they were in the lift lines.

But didn’t her skinny skis give her away?

“Well, we got on,” she said.

Miller and Stoner were more than participants in that 1970s “counterculture.” They were among a small group of local residents who helped spread the gospel of Nordic skiing.

Miller said that he was working at the alpine rental shop at ParkWest, now known as The Canyons Village, in 1972 when he met an instructor who “had done a bit of instructing in Norway.” The instructor had a pair of wooden cross-country skis. “And I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I really want to do.’”

Miller and friend Steve Erickson, another ParkWest instructor, decided to start their own business selling Nordic equipment and offering lessons and tours.

White Pine Touring opens

“At first called Uphill and Company, the name was soon changed to ParkWest Touring,” Erickson wrote in a recent email from his home in New Zealand. “We operated there until combining with Bob Kassow in 1975 and starting White Pine Touring.”

They named their business after White Pine Canyon, where they were renting a cabin and touring long before the days of The Colony development. Miller said they would also ride the chairlift at ParkWest and ski down Red Pine Canyon, which was completely wilderness except for one old road.

“In one day I broke two or, actually three, (wooden) skis trying to ski down it and, you know, falling and crashing,” Miller said. “So the equipment was a limiting factor.”

Bob Kassow was one of a group of alpine instructors at Park City Ski Area who was introduced to Nordic skiing by instructor Liv Simonsen, according to Al Davis, another member of that group. In the spring of 1972, Simonsen took the group up to Scott’s Pass on their wooden skis and light leather boots, Davis recalled in an article in the February 2007 issue of TUNA News, the newsletter of The Utah Nordic Alliance. “I believe that Jim Tedford, Bob Kassow, Duncan Ogilvie, Gary Cole, Jan Watts, myself and some others were there.”

On the way up to the pass, “we all remarked that there was nothing to this cross-country stuff,” Davis wrote. “Then it was time to go down and our view changed instantly. We were all young, strong skiers with the egos of youth and we absolutely and utterly flailed.”

However, Kassow, who was also a nationally ranked cyclist, soon became a convert to Nordic skiing.

“We had ambitious plans the first year to open a shop on the (Park City) golf course where Bob Kassow had been teaching a few lessons through the Park City Ski School,” Erickson recalled. “We planned to maintain a prepared track on the golf course and open a trail system in White Pine Canyon.”

Their first shop at the golf course was a converted bus shelter that had been abandoned by Lewis Brothers Stages, and they stored their skis in a 1937 school bus. In later years they shared space with the golf course pro shop.

At first they groomed the cross-country track simply by skiing around it a few times, before upgrading to snowmobiles.

Creative use for a bedspring

“We always bought old, used ones,” Miller said. “We didn’t have any money. But what we used to initially prepare the track – you need something heavy to drag behind the snowmobile, but it can’t be too heavy. … So we actually had an old bedspring that we would drag around. You know, it was inexpensive to get them at the dump. And that would pack down the surface. … But occasionally people would come in and say, ‘Hey, I found this spring on the trail. What was that from?’ Well, it was from these old bedsprings.”

During White Pine’s second season, Kassow moved to Atlanta and Al Davis acquired his share of the business.

Erickson said the track system in White Pine Canyon lasted only one or two years, but operations continued on the Park City Golf Course. “The early years included citizen races on the golf course as well as a couple of overland races – one from Brighton to Park City and another from Park West to Millcreek Canyon. These were wild and crazy events.”

Among the regular contestants in these early races was Park City resident Dave Hanscom, perhaps best known today as the co-author (with Alexis Kelner) of “Wasatch Tours, A Ski Touring Guide to the Wasatch Front” and the present organizer of the Wasatch Citizens Series cross-country races. Hanscom was also famous – maybe infamous – for his creative strategies in the annual Nordic free-for-all known as the Wasatch Overland that ran from the base of Brighton Resort in Big Cottonwood Canyon to the Park City Golf Course.

The Wasatch Overland

“The only rule that I knew of was that the person who got from start to finish the fastest was the winner,” Hanscom said. “And there were no rules about route or equipment or anything, and people were always trying new stuff. … Ken McCarthy was probably the guy that initiated the most innovations as far as equipment was concerned, but you never knew what people were going to come up with next.

“Back in the day, there were a couple of ways to do things in the backcountry. You could either use skins and sometimes heavy equipment – you know, touring-type stuff … Skis like the old Head Standard (downhill) skis were favorites for touring. The alternative was to use (lightweight) cross-country skis with wax,” he said.

“One of the things that I remember Ken doing was combining those two. He would go with his cross-country skis but he strapped on some little skins that just were half the length of the ski, and he would use those to get up to Scott’s Pass. Then he would rip those off and stick them in his pocket, and he’d have faster skis coming down. But they were really lightweight skis, not the heavy touring stuff.”

Hanscom’s specialty was choosing the fastest route.

“I spent a lot of time the week before these races checking things out and figuring out what I thought was the fastest way to get there,” he said. “There are no coincidences in any of this stuff.”

In a couple of races, he said, the route went over Guardsman Pass because of a lack of snow at lower elevations.

The Hanscom cutoff

“I had checked out the route and there’s a shortcut that goes from that big switchback that goes up to the pass, and so I took that shortcut, which is really steep but … somebody had been over there and kind of packed it down. The snow was firm enough,” he said.

“So I was behind some of the leaders, like Jock Glidden and Steve Erickson, when we got to the cutoff. And they didn’t see me, but I turned off there and cut up through the woods and up this little gully that ends up right at the pass. And I had to take my skis off in the last part because it was really steep. … So I got to the pass and put my skis on and I started over the top and here comes Steve and Jock. And they just couldn’t believe it: ‘How the heck did you get up here?’

In later years, another of his shortcuts was adopted by so many other competitors that it became known as “the Hanscom cutoff.”

Hanscom didn’t hold back even when it came to members of his own family. In the 1995 Wasatch Overland, he said, his son, Brett, was ahead of him as they approached Three Kings Drive, which separated Thaynes Canyon from the finish line on the golf course.

“Usually they put snow across the road and so you could just ski right across the road,” he said. “But this year they just, for whatever reason … didn’t get around to it. And we got to the bottom of Thaynes Canyon and Brett was there taking his skis off. … And I thought, well, this is my chance. I can still beat this kid. He was 26 at this point, so there was no doubt who was the faster guy.

“So I ran across the road with my skis on. Except they weren’t my skis. They were borrowed from a friend — used to be a friend. And I got across the road, and by the time Brett got his skis on and got over to the golf course, I was able to get there ahead of him. So I beat him by 30 seconds. Whatever it takes, right?”

Uinta Mountain touring

As development began to close off many of their favorite routes in the Park City area, Miller and Erickson started taking tours into the Uinta Mountains east of Kamas. They also arranged to lease the cabins in the Boy Scout camp on the East Fork of the Bear River for multi-day tours. The job of leading those tours went to two of Steve Erickson’s siblings: his brother, Frank, and his sister, Gaye Erickson Stoner. They reached the camp by driving on I-80 to Evanston, Wyo., then taking U.S. Highway 150 into the Uintas.

“We’d go in in the fall and we’d put a wood stove in, and chop wood,” Stoner said. “And then we stocked a bunch of, oh, some canned goods and some stuff so we didn’t have to carry it.”
In the winter, she said, they could drive only as far as the Bear River service station. “And then we’d ski six miles in, and we’d bring all the other food in. I mean, we had huge packs. So we’d take the clients in, and it was three to five days we’d stay,” she said.

“If it was a three-day trip, then the next day you took a full-day tour, and you’d go up high and find some powder. Or there was a long valley, (along) the East Fork of the Bear, and you could ski just a tour, a flat tour, if people didn’t want to go up and ski down. … So you’d have one full day and the next day you’d ski out.”

There were times, she said, when she would return to the cabins alone before skiing back the following day to meet the next group.

“It was very peaceful. I had people think I would be afraid, and I never felt afraid,” she said. “I guess I’m one of those people that would be more afraid in the middle of a city.”

Stoner said her favorite clients included a group from Salt Lake City. “Frank and I always did this trip. There was a group of ten attorneys and they went every year. And Frank said, ‘That we got through that and never got sued is quite amazing.’”

On another memorable trip, she said, she and Frank took a group led by Jack Major, a snow ecologist from California. “He was just this wealth of knowledge, because he had lived in the mountains … studying this all his life. It was really fun.”

Selling and moving on

While Jim Miller and Steve Erickson owned the business, White Pine Touring was just a seasonal operation. In the summer they would close up shop and head off to other jobs in the outdoor recreation business.

“This was also before mountain biking, too,” Miller said. “That would have been the natural extension (of the business).” However, in the late 1980s, rather than choose the option of minding the store 12 months a year, they decided to sell and move on.

“We were young men and we were doing this just for fun,” Miller said. “But as the business got to be more serious and we realized we weren’t serious enough to continue with it, that’s when we sold to Charlie Sturgis. … He recognized mountain biking was coming into play and that’s how he could make it in the summer.”

Today, White Pine Touring is owned by the JANS group of companies and mountain biking is a major part of its business. However, it hasn’t strayed far from its roots, still selling Nordic equipment, offering lessons, and maintaining the cross-country track, which now extends from the Park City Golf Course past the McPolin Farm almost to White Pine Canyon.

Since Dave Hanscom started running the Wasatch Citizens Series about 25 years ago, he has seen attendance grow from about 50 racers to as many as 300. About one third of those racers are juniors, many of whom will go on to compete at the college level.

There is now a second groomed cross-country track in the Park City area on the golf course at Jeremy Ranch. And in nearby Wasatch County, elite athletes come to compete at Soldier Hollow, site of the cross-country and biathlon events at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

As Al Davis wrote in TUNA News, “None of us could have imagined how popular the sport would become in an alpine community like Park City.”


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