With homage to its storied mining origin, Park City Mountain Resort is littered with place names directly or incidentally related to that heritage. Its major ski lifts, for instance: Pay Day, Bonanza, Silverload, Silver Star, King Con, Jupiter, Motherload. In that regard, however, a certain exception stands in stark contrast, not identified by an old mine name or mining term: McConkey’s chairlift.
Located at the ski terrain’s southern extreme, the windward lift bears a man’s name, honored in awed appreciation for his contributions to skiing generally, but also in particular to Utah and the Summit County ski mecca Park City Mountain Resort.
Jim McConkey, a born and bred Canadian, reached Utah already renowned in his native land as a skier stretching the limits of that winter sport’s surging popularity. Having learned to ski by his seventh birthday, he ultimately raced, became a certified Canadian ski instructor, appeared in films mastering that country’s mountain challenges, and learned how to construct modern chair lifts.
Lured to Utah in 1953 to join Alta’s Alf Engen Ski School, operating a ski shop at that Little Cottonwood resort, where chair lift construction also enlisted his talents, McConkey excelled at finding opportunities on western slope Wasatch Mountain terrain that stopped other skilled downhillers of the day in their ski tracks. He conquered the risks and, from ski magazine accounts and more film appearances, gained the title “America’s most daring skier.”
By the 1950s, desperate to somehow capitalize on its devalued Park City mine property, United Park City Mines Co. proprietors identified the commercial potential overlaying their underground assets. They gambled and applied for a federal low-interest community economic recovery loan dedicated to ski resort development. Once approved, they embarked on staffing an enterprise for which they had Little to no experience, so owners and managers wisely turned to advice from those who did.
One of the luckiest such suggestions prompted attracting Jim McConkey from Alta to direct the fledgling resort’s nascent ski school. By 1963, when The Treasure Mountains Ski School was ready for students, McConkey had hired experienced, talented instructors. Some he knew personally and others he was confident he could depend on to convey knowledge on how to savor the outdoor, cold-weather, physically counterintuitive pastime of skiing.
It did not hurt that the instructor-in-charge could be legitimately advertised to prospective clients as “a dynamic professional skier of international fame.”
While earning that reputation, he had been pronounced by celebrated Austrian skier Ernst Hinterseer as the “best all-round skier in the world.” Not only had he pioneered better technique for vertically surfing deep powder, his gelande jumping and assorted acrobatics are considered the foundation for what was eventually coined “freestyle” skiing. Induction into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame was conferred on him in 2001.
Abundant reasons, surely, why a wide, steep mogul-carpeted bowl at Park City Mountain Resort’s southern reaches and the lift that serves it would be gratefully christened “McConkey”.
Learn more about Park City’s skiing history at the Park City Museum and in its Hal Compton Research Library.
Harry Fuller is a Silver Springs resident who skied Park City on its second day of operation and continues to tackle the slopes into his 80s. He is the former Editorial Page Editor of the Salt Lake Tribune. His late wife was Park City Attorney and Ski Instructor, Janet Goldstein.