The Arizona Snowbowl: 75 Years Of Adventure, Innovation And Controversy

Feb 1, 2013

Arizona May not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of skiing. But, it actually holds a unique place in skiing history. The Arizona Snowbowl, near Flagstaff, is one of the longest continually running ski resorts in the West. This month marks it's 75th anniversary. And Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris Kohl looks back at a history filled with innovation, adventure...and controversy.

Jimmy Nunn shows off the Avalauncher in his Arizona Ski Museum
Credit KNAU/Gillian Ferris Kohl

Long-time Flagstaff resident Jimmy Nunn was 10 years old the day Snowbowl officially opened in 1938. His mother worked at JC Penney which was in downtown Flagstaff at the time. He says, "she saw in their catalog they had skis and poles. And I've been on skis and poles ever since."

Nunn - a retired architect - has spent much of his life at Snowbowl. In the early days, he built ski runs and volunteered as a ski patroller. Later, he taught his children to ski there. Nunn has also amassed 75 years-worth of Snowbowl memorabilia. It's displayed in a gigantic RV garage turned ski museum at his home near the San Francisco Peaks. He shows off an entire wall of old skis and laughs, "there's probably 200 pairs of skis in here I started running out of room."

There are also hundreds of old photos and newspaper articles. Faded ski patrol jackets and racing numbers hang from the ceiling. But his most prized possession is an early model of the Avalauncher - an air-pressurized cannon that shoots dynamite into the snow in order to set off avalanches before skiers do. It's special because his late wife, Jerry, designed it. "You could take a 22. cartridge blank and put it in here and it had a firing pin. You could shoot it a mile, mile and a half. They're pretty much still using the same system at Snowbowl right now."

But when the ski area opened in 1938, the most high-tech thing about it was a two-person rope-tow powered by a car engine. Jane Jackson is an historian and filmmaker and says it belonged to a Flagstaff business man named Chester Anderson. She says, "he had a service station here and he got a rope-tow which they had on display at his service station before they installed it so everyone could see it and get all excited about it."

Jackson says skiing caught on quickly among locals. Ski teams formed in Flagstaff, Prescott, even Phoenix. NAU students strapped skis on their backs and rode their bike to the base of the mountain, then hitched rides up Snowbowl Road. Jackson says the ski resort closed for only one season in 75 years and it wasn't because of a lack of snow. It was 1944 - the zenith of World War II - and Americans were rationing gasoline. "You weren't supposed to travel unless you had to. That was the basic rule in WWII", Jackson says.

When the war ended, many other small ski areas across the country never re-opened. But Snowbowl did. And eventually, it generated enough revenue to begin hiring employees in earnest. BJ Boyle is the current ski patrol director at Snowbowl. He started working there 32 years ago when he was a student at NAU. He says, "my first job was parking cars in the parking lots. And then after I got that done I was able to go out and train with the ski patrol for the rest of the day. So that's how I kind of the parking lots."

Boyle recognizes that Snowbowl is not a premiere ski destination for most people and that it has always been more of a local ski hill. And that's what he likes about it. "We'll never be a Vail or a Beaver Creek. It's a small mountain feel and when people come to visit, they do recognize that character of it."

But that character has been challenged by controversy in the latest chapter of Snowbowl's history. This season, it became the first known ski area in the world to make artificial snow using 100% reclaimed wastewater. The plan has been widely opposed by many indigenous tribes on grounds that the San Francisco Peaks are sacred. Opponents are also concerned that using treated effluent may present environmental and human health hazards. During a recent protest at Flagstaff City Hall, demonstrator Lyla Johnston said it's not a fight against local skiers. She said, "when you look at the issue at a glance, it's like, oh, it's treated water, what's wrong? And, I like to ski. And I think that viewpoint is fair enough. But people don't really know, to be honest, what the effects of this will be on soil composition, plant and animal life. No one really knows the impact it will have."

While that uncertainty does not define Snowbowl's past, it may well define its future as the ski area heads toward the century mark.