ALF ENGEN SKIED like a locomotive. Old, blurry color footage shows him powering through the deep snow of Alta, the powder enveloping him in a cloud from his boots to the top of his head. It’s a description that also extends to his character.
Engen immigrated from Norway at age 20, learned English, muscled his way onto a professional ski-jumping team and set world records. He scouted out ski areas for the U.S. Forest Service, taught thousands to ski and became known as the Father of Powder Skiing.
Running the Alta ski school from 1948 to 1989 earned him the moniker Old Man of the Mountain, and Engen is still a household name in this Little Cottonwood Canyon mountain community. Nic Nichol, Engen’s assistant at Alta, became locally famous for his remarkable imitations of Alf ’s distinctive Norwegian accent.
Nichol can’t resist drifting into that accent today. Engen, said Nichol, was kind and incredibly patient with novice skiers.
“You know,” Nichol imitates his old friend, “any turn made standing up is a good turn.”
Pre-Engen, deep powder skiing was a stepping motion, first one ski, then the second. It required wide turns to escape collisions with trees. Engen refined a new technique, keeping skis parallel and shifting weight back and to the side, allowing tighter, faster turns. When he demonstrated it to his students, Engen seemed to float over the snow in a now-familiar S pattern.
But as Engen told the crew: “By gosh, don’t teach dem everyting the first day. We vant dem to come back.” And come back, they did. Engen was so effective, so beloved, that the school is still called the Alf Engen Ski School.
The Alta crew began holding an annual contest to see who could best mimic Alf. After Nichol won the contest five years in a row, the crew decided to change the rules: The winner would be the person who best imitated Nic imitating Alf.
“Alf won that one,” Nichol deadpanned.
In the evenings, Alf and his brother Sverre would play music, sing and dance with the crowds at the Alta Lodge, recalls Connie Marshall, who spent 44 years selling tickets and directing public relations at Alta. Alf greeted everyone the same – the locals, Hollywood celebrities, the Kennedys – with a big, open grin. Marshall largely credits him for the intimate vibe that remains at Alta today.
“There was something very magical about him,” Marshall said.
ALF COULD EASILY have disappeared into the workaday factory life once he arrived on the boat from Norway in 1929. He was the oldest of three brothers when their father, Trond Engen, died during the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic in their village of Mjondalen. As jobs dried up in Norway, Alf emigrated to America.
He joined the immigrant population in Chicago and found work, claiming to live off coffee and doughnuts because those were the first English words he learned. Alf thought he’d left behind his carefree skiing days, when his father crafted skis for his sons out of barrel staves and the Engen boys built miniature jumps over the fences so they could ski to school without slowing down.
Back home in Norway, Alf had shown promise as a ski jumper, setting a local hill record at age 16.
Alf didn’t even know if these United States had snow. Then some Norwegian friends invited him to watch a ski-jumping meet in Milwaukee. The competitions drew thousands of spectators, generating the same kind of excitement as when the circus came to town. Once there, Alf couldn’t resist asking to borrow another man’s skis. The gentleman looked askance at Alf ’s sport coat and street shoes, expressing his doubts aloud before hesitantly agreeing.
Alf tied the skis to his street shoes and proceeded to soundly outjump his more prepared competitors. After that display, he was invited to join a professional jumping group – as was brother Sverre, two years his junior, who had followed from Norway six months after Alf.
Not only were the Engens’ ski-jumping days far from over, they discovered they could make a living doing what they’d grown up doing purely for fun.
Alf and Sverre fell in love with Utah in 1930 on Becker Hill, a jumping hill where Pineview Dam now stands in the Ogden Valley. They came to the West on the professional jumping circuit, and to their surprise, Utah’s mountains looked a lot like home. They stayed, and their mother, Martha, and youngest brother, Kaare, joined them in 1933.
The three swashbuckling brothers won hundreds of medals and high-flying reputations. Alf was consistently among the top four jumpers in the United States, breaking the world distance record four times in 1931 alone. Once he left the pro jumping team, restoring his amateur status, he reasonably expected to compete at the 1936 Olympics in Germany.
Then came the Wheaties incident.
The U.S. Olympic Committee disqualified Alf when it learned that his picture had appeared on a box of Wheaties cereal, as part of its ad campaign linking well-known athletes to a diet of Wheaties.
Alf took the ruling in his usual good-natured way, even though he maintained he hadn’t been paid for the promotion. He said he didn’t see a dollar from the cereal company – although he jokingly admitted his family and friends surely ate a ton of free Wheaties.
Kaare, now calling himself Corey, was the only brother who competed in the Olympics. A member of the 1948 ski team, he won third place in Nordic jumping in Switzerland. At the relatively advanced age of 40, Alf also qualified, but he accepted an offer to co-coach the Olympic team instead.
As it turned out, the brothers had more important work to do. They needed to teach the world to ski.
Corey founded the ski school at Snowbasin (which, along with Alta, was among the 30 resorts Alf scouted in the West) and coached the Weber State College ski team in Ogden. He spent his most legendary years in Idaho, directing the ski school at Brundage Mountain in McCall. He produced 11 national champions while Sverre, Alf, Alan and Corey Engen were all inducted into the Ski Hall of Fame during their lifetimes. Here, they take a tour of the Olympic Sports Park in October 1996. The brothers, Alf, Sverre and Corey, are widely credited with putting Utah on the map with their skiing prowess and contributions to the ski industry. running the junior ski programs. Sverre taught at Alta, then blazed new trails in snow safety and filmmaking.
SVERRE HAD A THIN Hollywood mustache and movie-star looks, so it’s not surprising that his legacy is wrapped up in ski films like Margie of the Wasatch, meant to showcase the joy of skiing. He took his films on the road from mid-September to New Year’s to promote the sport. He’d film in January, February and March.
Sverre preceded Alf as ski director at Alta. He ran the Alta Lodge, and he coached the University of Utah ski team to its first national championship in 1947. In addition, he was a musician and singer.
“Dad loved to entertain, make people laugh,” said son Scott, who did his share of skiing competitively and teaching before settling into a career as an advertising writer. “He was a wonderful storyteller and humorist. … Dad just had this gift to engage an audience and hold them in the palm of his hand.”
Sverre became one of Utah’s earliest snow rangers, working in avalanche control at Alta. He learned to “read” the snow and measure conditions, and shut down slopes when the danger was high. He and the crew discovered they could trigger, and therefore disarm, an avalanche with a well-placed dynamite charge. Somewhat to their delight, they later found they could point a small cannon and achieve the same effect.
Sverre was the moving force behind the Engen family compound of log homes on 5 acres in the southern Salt Lake Valley, built for easy access to Little Cottonwood Canyon. Sverre hauled lodgepole pine logs from Montana, and added a swimming pool.
The cabins, five in all (two were for a fellow Alta employee and his family), still stand today. One, built for Corey and his family, was remodeled and topped off with a second floor and now operates as the Engen Hus bed and breakfast. Proprietor Karen Stewart says Alf used to walk across the street and give free ski lessons in the sloping driveway to a young girl who lived there.
If Alf was a jokester, Sverre was a downright prankster. Scott has always been a fan of antiques, but his father … not so much. Scott came across an antique kerosene can in the desert. It had a wonderful patina, Scott said, and some intriguing bullet holes and time-worn rust. For a long period of time, the kerosene can would disappear and then show up again in the strangest places … the shower … in Scott’s car … in his bed. His father finally ran out of places to hide it.
“I still have it. It’s sitting on my mantelpiece,” Scott said. He thinks of his dad every time he walks past it.
ALF’S SON ALAN followed in his father’s ski tracks, at least partway down the mountain.
He entered his first ski-jumping competition at age 9, at Alta’s Landes Hill. Feeling the pressure of being ski-jumping champion Alf Engen’s son, he worked himself into a nervous frenzy. He fell on his two practice jumps, and walked over to a tree, crying. Alf came over to ask what was wrong.
“The other kids don’t have to win. I do!” Alan cried, as he recounts in his book For the Love of Skiing. His father put an arm around him and said: “Alan, you don’t have to please anyone but yourself. To be successful, you must want to compete, but, more importantly, you must have fun doing it. Forget what people think; just go have fun and mean business.”
Alan – who won that competition – kept those words in mind throughout his competitive years. He followed his father and uncles into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, in Ishpeming, Michigan, on the strength of his skiing and ski history work. The Engens set yet another record, this one for the number of family members in that revered hall.
Following his father as head of the ski school at Alta, Alan has kept his family’s achievements in the public consciousness with his books, his contributions to a University of Utah ski archives, and the establishment of the Alf Engen Ski Museum in Park City.
Alan said his father preferred teaching over competing, because competition is about self and teaching is about others.
Alf Engen told his son: “To be recognized as a great skier is very nice, but what is important to me is what you are as a man.”
This story first appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Utah Life Magazine.