Snowbird Founder

Passing Date: 
Monday, January 29, 2018

Ted Johnson, the one-time California beachcomber who founded Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort that elevated Utah’s winter sports image to world-class status, died January 29, 2018, in Santa Barbara, California. According to his son, Peter, Ted succumbed to injuries suffered when an allegedly drunk driver hit him in a crosswalk. He was 91.

Johnson’s story is the stuff of legends. A West Coast surfer-turned-Alta-bartender-turned visionary, he cobbled together 800 acres of land, mostly dormant mining claims, adjacent to land administered by the National Forest Service and a mile down-canyon from Alta in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon. One claim was named Snowbird.

After years of quietly securing the land, Johnson had to persevere through years of heartaches, setbacks and broken promises as he sought financial backing. In desperation, he considered selling ownership units in the proposed resort “like a condo” to thousands of investors. Another foray was a co-op arrangement with a prominent U.S. cosmetic company that was exploring recreational investments at the time.

While attending a party in Colorado, Johnson met Dick Bass, who sat on the boards of both Vail and Aspen ski resorts. Johnson regaled the oilman with his vision and won him over enough that Bass visited the proposed resort site the following week. Bass liked what he saw and provided the financial muscle that allowed the ‘Bird to take flight on December 23, 1971. Johnson remained a partner in Snowbird for three years before selling his interest to Bass.

“Ted was a graceful, powerful powder skier,” recalls long-time acquaintance Jim McConkey. “He was a surfer and had such strong legs that he could stay down in the powder longer than most.” McConkey, former ski school owner at Whistler Mountain for 28 years, recalled that when he, Junior Bounous, Jim Shane and Johnson worked at Alta in the 1950s and ‘60s, “we had great times performing for several Warren Miller ski movies. About that time, Ted appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated (1959 and 1965) in two great powder photos. He was beautiful in the light snow.”

Johnson was inducted into the Intermountain Ski Hall of Fame in 2007. His plaque reads: “Snowbird stands as a legacy to the wily ‘Silver Fox’ whose quest was not to be denied.”

He is survived by his wife, Shirley; children, Peter and Kylie; three grandchildren and ex-wife Wilma. Son Peter told acquaintances the family is planning a memorial in the spring “to celebrate Ted’s life in the same spirit with which he lived it . . . going fast as he could through waist-deep powder.” —Mike Korologos

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