I was late on the scene – almost too late. I did not meet Bengt (Binx) Sandahl until early May of 1998. I had heard about him before that. Earl, now my husband, had told me that everyone who skied Alta in the 1960s knew him. Binx was legendary as the snow ranger of Little Cottonwood Canyon. He kept the skiers safe. He was the one who decided to close the road when there was avalanche danger.
Binx had great stories about those days, like the time he closed the road through the canyon just after Christmas, on one of the busiest days of the ski season. Many important guests of the resorts were stranded below, unable to get to the mountain. “Terminator” Ted Johnson, the original developer of Snowbird, phoned him, “Binx, you’d better be right about this or I swear, I’ll have your ass!” A short time later, a huge avalanche thundered down the canyon side and across the road. Binx, through his courage, had saved many lives.
“How did you meet Binx?” I asked Earl.
He sat looking off in space a moment, “I don’t remember how I met him, but we used to ski together at Brundage after he moved here to McCall. We skied about the same – same speed, same terrain. The young patrollers take off like jack rabbits, and some of the old skiers don’t keep up with me. But when Binx and I skied together, I would pull up to a stop and he would be right there. We skied so close that Binx used to say we ought to ski the powder 8 contests.”
“What kind of style did he have?”
“The old ‘Alta bounce’ style; lots of up and down, like a porpoise, to get you out of the powder.”
Binx told Earl that he and a friend at Blue River, British Columbia used to ski the powder 8 contests together. “He was a Black man, so we called ourselves ‘Salt and Pepper.'” This was an especially appropriate name because Binx’s hair was pure white. An informant once told us that Binx was quite the ladies’ man; at Alta he was known as the “Silver Fox”.
Earl kept alluding to some very special skiing story that Binx had told him. He would never tell it to me, but kept insisting that Binx had to tell me the story first-hand, and that I had to write the story and submit it to a national skiing magazine. We are talking special! He also told me that I needed to hurry and get this story written and submitted because Binx’s health was failing, and he wanted Binx to see his story in print before he died. That is why, in early May, 1998 just a few weeks before Earl and I were to be married, I finally got an opportunity to meet Binx. Earl arranged a lunch/story-telling meeting for us.
Binx arrived at the restaurant, looking very energetic; his wavy white hair framing a finely featured face. His slender athletic build and brisk approach made me suspect that Earl had an exaggerated concern for Binx’s health. After introductions and hand-shakes, Binx dove right in to telling me his story…
In the late 50s, Binx was working as a civilian technician on DEW (Distant Early Warning) line stations across the northern tier of the western hemisphere (a cold war defense program). He visited numerous sites on a maintenance schedule including one at Cape Lisburne, Alaska. Cape Lisburne was chosen as a DEW line site because of its 2,000 foot mountain, the only mountain for hundreds of miles in any direction, and because it sticks way out into the Chuckchi Sea. The station offices and housing at Cape Lisburne consisted of a group of Quonset huts at the base of a mountain, near sea level. The actual early warning system was on top of the peak. A tramway took personnel and supplies to the top.
On his first trip to Cape Lisburne, Binx was received by the US Air Force contingent and the major that commanded the station. Binx took the tram to the top of the mountain to perform maintenance on the equipment. The view from the mountain top, was certainly astounding – a panorama of wild arctic sea. But because of who he was, he noticed something of far more beauty than the seascape. The winds, which came predominantly off the sea to the west, had scoured the windward side of the mountain to bare rocks, but the lee side was one continuous chute of unbroken snow — 2000 feet, all the way to the beach. A powder dream!
Binx knew he just had to ski that slope, so when he returned to the base station he asked the major if he could bring his skis on the next visit. The major was a little surprised because no one had ever mentioned skiing before. Most of the airmen at the base were from the southern US. He looked around at all the snow on the beach and assumed Binx wanted to ski the pathways at base level, so he told him, “Sure, go ahead and bring them.”
On his next visit Binx arrived with his alpine gear. The major, expecting a Nordic skier, looked at the gear and asked where he intended to use it. Binx pointed to the top of the mountain, and said, “Up there, off the tramway.”
The major looked up at the mountain, “You can’t ski that; it’s practically a cliff!” Binx told him that he sure wanted to give it a try, so with some reluctance the major had him run up on the tramway.
Once at the top, Binx looked down, and it did look awfully steep. He said it reminded him of his first descent of High Rustler at Alta. But he was not about to chicken out now. He put on the gear, and made a few cautious turns to feel the texture and depth of the snow. “This was years before I became a snow ranger, and I didn’t know very much about avalanche danger at that time.” Binx told us.
He was lucky; much to his delight there were about 15 inches of the lightest powder imaginable. He found himself melting into the turns. He let loose and picked up speed. About half-way down his legs grew tired, so he pulled up to a stop. Just then he heard a roar from down the mountain. There, at the base, was the entire Air Force contingent. They had left their Quonset huts to watch him, and now they were giving him a round cheer. With such an audience, he knew he had to perform – and that he did. He completed the run in an unbroken series of the most beautiful round turns he had ever made, and stopped in front of the cheering crowd.
One of the officers told him, “That is the most exciting thing we have ever seen here. Would you mind going up and doing it again?”
Binx was more than happy to oblige. He went back up and sculpted the first, and no doubt the only, set of powder 8s ever on the mountain at Cape Lisburne; which, according to Binx, (and Binx put great emphasis, even winning bets, on this point) is the most Northwest corner of the North American Continent.
Binx was the hero of the DEW line. Those southern boys had never seen anything like this before. They patted him on the back and thanked him for the show. As he was getting on the plane to leave, the major called him aside and told him, “That was a fine show, son, but next time you come, leave the skis behind. You got these guys all excited about skiing and they are all going to end up with broken legs. I have an Air Force base to run here.”
Pride gleamed in his eyes as he related the story. I knew that it had been one of the highlights of his life. The greatest achievements for a true powder mongrel just happen to also be those times when you are having the most damned fun.
I told Binx that I wanted to write the story for a magazine, and he was delighted by the idea. We agreed to get together soon after the wedding and go over the story again. The summer slipped away, and before I knew it we were reading Binx’s obituary in the local newspaper. I deeply regretted having put off writing the story, convincing myself that his health was better than Earl had thought.
I remembered conversations I had overheard among old veterans of Alta, about the important contribution Binx had made to the pioneering of alpine skiing in America. Binx was a decidedly important figure, and deserved a eulogy. Besides, the first generation of skiers in America, the generation that knew Binx, and is fast leaving us as he has now, deserved to hear the story of his solo run down the peak in the most Northwest corner of North America. Even though I was late, I knew I still had to tell the story.
To Binx Sandahl: A fond fair well from the skiing pioneers of Alta and Snowbird, the airmen of the DEW Line Station at Cape Lisburne . . . and from one adoring fan who was fortunate enough to hear “the story” – just in time.