Skiing Salty with the Wizard of the Wasatch

There's a wizard in them thar hills. An interview with Bob Athey

For those who don’t know, there’s a wizard roaming Utah’s Wasatch Range. He may lack actual supernatural powers and certainly prefers flannel to white satin, but if you’ve traveled outside the gates in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, chances are you’ve seen his tracks appear out of thin air. Bob Athey is the 61-year-old backcountry son-of-a-bitch branded the Wizard of the Wasatch, a legend who knows the range better than most know their first-born. The aging ski bum and his rasp-ridden cackle have spent the better part of 40 years discovering every nook and cranny along the Wasatch, providing the Utah Avalanche Center with his own renegade snow reports for over 15 years, while logging over 3,000 backcountry days in the process. His experience is unequivocal, his knowledge undeniable, but Athey remains a polarizing presence. His salty character earned him choice words from fellow forecasters, helicopter pilots, and backcountry travelers alike. Still, the self-indentified curmudgeon doesn’t give a damn what other’s think of him, as long as he’s cutting the first track.

How did you get into this ski bum life?
The original plan was law school, so I have a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a criminology certificate. I got out with a good GPA, but all school really taught me was how to be a ski bum. I graduated from the University of Utah in ’81, ski bummed from then on. That’s been my 35-40 year career.

Have you always been skiing?
I skied a little in junior high but didn’t again until college. Life was drugs, sex, and rock and roll. I graduated from high school in ’71, so that should explain just about everything.

So how did you find backcountry skiing of all things?
My ex-wife took me skiing and even though I thought I could ski, I discovered that on those toothpick skis we had back then I couldn’t ski worth a shit. That was frustrating, but it got me skiing. I wanted to make it down a hill.

Was it always the plan to be in the backcountry?
I started skiing at ski areas when I got metal edge skis and leather boots. I had a season pass at Alta for 25 years but then they put the Supreme lift in, which allowed quick, easy access to Catherine’s, and the whole character of the area changed.

More and more people started using it, and I stopped when the professional photographers started taking photos of the skiers hucking off all the rocks at Rocky Point—I kind of lost interest in ski areas in general around then.

"I want to be the only geriatric skier out there." PHOTO:
I want to be the only sponsored geriatric skier out there. PHOTO: Jonah Howell

Where’d the Wizard of the Wasatch nickname kick in?
For some reason the Salt Lake City Tribune decided that I was a character and started asking my friends about me and one of the old avalanche forecasters, old Tom Kimbro, gave me that nickname. The story goes, ‘how does a guy go ski everyday and hasn’t been killed an avalanche yet? Oh it’s magic, he doesn’t know shit, it’s just magic.’ He gave me that nickname and I got a bit of notoriety from the article. I’m certainly not making a living at this, never have, and it’s questionable if I ever will, but it’s nice.

As a veteran backcountry skier how do you feel about the influx of backcountry skiers? Is it a little crowded?
It’s more than a little crowded, but I’ve got a jump on them. I know all the hidey-holes. That’s what I’ve spent many years doing, exploring the Wasatch. Most of the time I don’t see anyone.

How about those helis?
I’ve been fighting the helicopter for years. The heli guides used to call me a rabid dog. There’s so many backcountry skiers in the core of the Wasatch that helis fly further out and do the same thing as I’m doing, skiing terrain that isn’t high traffic. They can’t ever seem to learn that they shouldn’t be landing where backcountry skiers are.

Any fights?
I’ve had a number of altercations. That’s a whole other article. They tried to arrest us once. I’ve had a heli follow me down a drainage for a half hour. The ’80s into the ’90s was a very interesting time. They claimed I was the leader of an anti-heli group, but I just wanted them to leave me alone.

Snowmobiles too. But you don’t want to have too serious of an encounter with snowmobilers because a lot of them are packing sidearms.

Your time in the backcountry actually got you a job with the Utah Avalanche Center, how’d that come about?
In the late ’80s they started this volunteer program and they told me that if I went someplace obscure I should call in an observation and see what they think. I kept doing it and doing a good job at it and they set up this nonprofit, Friends of the UAC group, so they could hire me. So I was a private independent contractor for the UAC, and getting $12,000 a year for six months work. I got paid for 120 days of observations and that was not a bad gig. I did that for 15 years.

Do you still have a relationship with them?
No, I don’t. I don’t use their information. I think their information is geared to danger. It’s all danger all the time and it used to be about snow. You can get good information on weather and snow off the Internet and then start up the trailhead and determine whether the snow is stable or unstable. I adjust my route depending on what I find.

What if there was no avalanche report? Then what would all these people do? You look at these accidents and you start thinking people should learn more about what the fuck the snow is doing, not just what the avalanche report says the danger is. Too many people are dying when they shouldn’t be.

Why do you stay in the Wasatch?
The fascination is in the route finding and the changes in the snow and what you can ski on any given day. I haven’t skied all the lines, I still find new ones to ski every winter.

What is your ideal line?
I like big open slopes at high speed. With today’s big skis it reminds me of the great, big, swooping telemark turns we used to take, but now we can take those great, big turns in total control. It’s like windsurfing in 30 mph winds, a little rush you get flying down the mountain. I don’t like milking the cow, you know, taking tiny turns going 2 mph, shaking your butt and stuff.

When are you going to stop?
I hope I don’t. I’m not a Jeremy Nobis or whoever-the-fuck and I’m not the world’s best skier, but I go down the hill at least as fast as I did 10 years ago. I still have good endurance, I just move slower. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because you see more of the world when you’re moving slowly. I want to be the only sponsored geriatric skier out there.