LEE CO­HEN

THE MAG­NATE

Powder - - PROFILE - Words JULIE BROWN

Lee Co­hen steered his pewter brown 2003 Sub­ur­ban up the wind­ing road in Lit­tle Cot­ton­wood Canyon, bound for an­other day of ski­ing at Alta Ski Area. It was April. An Al­ta­holics Anony­mous sticker was plas­tered on the bumper next to a dented Utah li­cense plate pro­claim­ing the state’s nat­u­ral trea­sure: “The Great­est Snow on Earth.” He wore a knit beanie and the tran­si­tion lenses on his spec­ta­cles were a dark pur­ple. The in­side of his Sub­ur­ban was just as dirty as the out­side. Mud cov­ered the seats, the mats were crusted with dirt, and dust was ev­ery­where. All signs pointed to Co­hen’s reg­u­lar pas­sen­ger, his dog Zeke. An old Grate­ful Dead cas­sette tape pro­vided the sound­track be­cause his CD player had bro­ken a while ago.

“This is the last show they ever played at the Fill­more East,” says Co­hen. “I’ve prob­a­bly had this tape in my car for three months. I love it. To me, it’s the best Dead show ever: April 29, 1971.”

Co­hen, 60, has a near pho­to­graphic mem­ory. He can re­call num­bers—dates and ad­dresses—as if he were read­ing them aloud from a piece of pa­per. This is how he’s cat­e­go­rized so many vivid de­tails of his ear­lier years. But for the last 40, Co­hen’s tool for doc­u­men­ta­tion has been his Nikon cam­era.

As the long­est tenured pro­fes­sional ski pho­tog­ra­pher at Alta, Co­hen is largely re­spon­si­ble for dis­sem­i­nat­ing—and defin­ing—what ski­ing pow­der looks like, es­pe­cially at the top of Lit­tle Cot­ton­wood Canyon. His images are fa­mous for en­vi­ous turns in deep, tex­tured snow, but his port­fo­lio also in­cludes cul­ture—mounds of snow on the pa­tio, the ici­cle-crusted skier giddy with joy on the chair­lift, ski pa­trollers hud­dling in a storm. His first cover of Pow­der was pub­lished in 1988, and he can’t keep track of how many cov­ers of this mag­a­zine he’s pub­lished since—at least 10, prob­a­bly more, he thinks. “I don’t count how many days I go ski­ing, ei­ther,” he says.

Much has changed since Co­hen started his ca­reer, not least of which is photography’s tran­si­tion to dig­i­tal. “Now, they get to shoot their photo twice,” says Co­hen. “They shoot it once out in the field and then shoot it again on their com­puter.” He grum­bles about things—crowds, com­pe­ti­tion, so­cial me­dia. Age is also catch­ing up with him. He has had open heart surgery, knee surgery, and cataract surgery all in the last seven years. But he is still tak­ing photos and pub­lish­ing them on­line and in ski magazines, while also shoot­ing fly-fish­ing and other out­door pur­suits. On pow­der days, he gets up at 5 a.m. (or ear­lier) to drive up the canyon be­fore the high­way closes for avalanche safety, so he’s ready to get on the hill as soon as pos­si­ble.

“I’m still do­ing it,” says Co­hen. “I’m pretty stub­born and I’m loyal. I don’t like walk­ing away from stuff. And I have a great time shoot­ing pic­tures still. I truly en­joy it.”

Co­hen grew up in Long Is­land, New York, and learned to ski on trips with his dad to Brom­ley and Mount Snow, in Ver­mont. In sixth grade, one of his friends re­turned from a fam­ily ski trip to Aspen and showed Co­hen the trail map. “He cre­ated the sur­real West­ern ski ex­pe­ri­ence in my mind,” says Co­hen. “That was the first time I thought about ski­ing out West.”

Co­hen made his so­journ West dur­ing the sum­mer of 1978, hitch­hik­ing the en­tire way. He snagged his brother’s cam­era, with­out per­mis­sion, be­fore he left. One guy picked him up in a con­vert­ible and drove with the top down in the rain. A kid from Mary­land gave him a ride across New Mex­ico in a ’62 Mer­cury Comet. Co­hen worked in Yel­low­stone for a few months that sum­mer. When the weather turned cold, he went to Colorado and skied A-basin, Vail, Cop­per, and Steam­boat. He camped in the snow. “We had a cave for a while, off the back lot of A-basin,” says Co­hen. “We were camp­ing at Steam­boat when it was 38-be­low.”

On New Year’s Eve, 1978, Co­hen went to San Fran­cisco to see the Grate­ful Dead. “We didn’t get in and watched a live simul­cast nearby at Jim Jones’ Peo­ples Tem­ple at 1859 Geary Boule­vard,” says Co­hen. Af­ter, he drove a Buick Lesabre across the desert to Salt Lake City. That’s when he skied Alta for the first time.

“I just got smit­ten with Alta,” he says. Lift tick­ets were $7. He snow-camped near the creek lower in the canyon and tem­per­a­tures dipped to 15-be­low zero. He’d leave his sleep­ing bag to dry in a con­fer­ence room at Snow­bird. But most of all, he skied.

“The fa­ble of myth­i­cal pow­der pulled me in,” he says. That win­ter, Co­hen only stayed in Utah for about 10 days be­fore an­other Dead show in Kansas moved him on­ward. He even­tu­ally went back East to fin­ish a busi­ness de­gree at State Univer­sity of New York at Brock­port. But like gen­er­a­tions of skiers, Co­hen had fallen in love with the mom-and-pop ski area at the top of Lit­tle Cot­ton­wood Canyon and its creamy, over­head bliss.

“Ski­ing pow­der, you’re like float­ing in space,” says Co­hen. “It’s kind of like be­ing in a nether­world. You’re al­most one with the uni­verse, or some­thing.

You’re in the mo­ment. You’re lost in the mo­ment. High Rustler is my fa­vorite run—on a pow­der day when it’s bot­tom­less and you can just let it go. Just make turns, you’re not hav­ing the pres­sure to slow down a whole lot. You’re just mov­ing through it when it’s deep. It’s an in­cred­i­ble feel­ing, weight­less­ness.”

The early ’80s were years of deep snow­pack and long road trips with friends to go ski­ing.

“I started shoot­ing photos be­cause I liked doc­u­ment­ing what my friends and I were do­ing,” says Co­hen.

In 1981-82, he saved up enough money to move to Salt Lake City where he lived in a trailer park with a foot­ball coach. He still re­mem­bers the ad­dress: 457 West 9260 South. “That was a re­ally big year," he says. "It was just dump­ing. I think it snowed 637 inches—maybe.”

The fol­low­ing ski sea­son, Co­hen gave his friend from New York, Pat Duffy, a grand tour of the West, vis­it­ing 22 ski ar­eas in Utah, Cal­i­for­nia, Idaho, New Mex­ico, Wy­oming, and Colorado. Af­ter that, he de­cided to stay in Utah for good.

“I’m pretty sure I can say it was the best win­ter I’ve had,” says Co­hen. “It dumped and I was bliss­fully un­em­ployed, liv­ing the ski bum life on the cheap.”

Alta in the 1980s was a sleepy, old-timer ski area. Co­hen worked odd jobs in the sum­mer and saved up a few thou­sand dol­lars, which was plenty to cover the rent ($125), a ski pass (less than $200), gas, food, and his bar tab. At that time, the ski in­dus­try was largely fo­cused on Ta­hoe, where pro skiers (like Scot Sch­midt) and pro ski pho­tog­ra­phers (like Larry Prosor and Hank de Vré) were all the hype. “I re­mem­ber try­ing to con­vince peo­ple that Utah was a wor­thy place, too,” says Co­hen. “That we got a lot of snow and had a lot of great skiers, too.”

His first sub­mis­sions to Pow­der were re­jected with curt notes from the ed­i­tor at the time, Neil Steb­bins. A few years of per­sis­tence, though, and he even­tu­ally got pub­lished. In Fe­bru­ary 1988, he was sit­ting in the em­ployee din­ing room of the Rustler, one of the higher-end lodges at Alta, when some­one handed him a copy of Pow­der. Co­hen saw his photo on the cover, a shot he had taken of one of his bud­dies on a clas­sic blue­bird pow­der day.

“I was sit­ting there, hang­ing out, and they were like, ‘Dude, that’s a sick cover shot you got,’” says Co­hen. It was a com­plete sur­prise. Thirty years later, he still has the manila en­ve­lope that Pow­der used to ship his slide back.

One morn­ing last spring, af­ter a storm rolled through the Wasatch and dropped more than 20 inches at Alta, Co­hen was knee-deep in the snow­pack on the Shoul­der of Mount Baldy. He crouched low to line up the cam­era an­gle. The ter­rain was smooth, undis­turbed, and blank. He hollered up slope, where two skiers, Ju­lian Carr and Drew Petersen, waited for his cue to dive in.

Many of the photos that Co­hen has pub­lished were taken on the Shoul­der. About a hun­dred yards of 35-de­gree ter­rain at the top of Alta’s Wild­cat chair, the Shoul­der is Co­hen’s spot. It re­ceives the moun­tain’s first light. It has the right pitch. The snow fills in. Co­hen says it’s ef­fi­cient, though he gets de­fen­sive about it, too, be­cause the Shoul­der has be­come his very own cliché. “There’s all these peo­ple who think it’s the only place I’ve shot a pic­ture, and I don’t like that,” he says. “I get shots from ev­ery­where.”

That day, the Shoul­der was not de­liv­er­ing. Co­hen flipped through the pic­tures on his cam­era’s screen, how­ever, mut­ter­ing they were no good. The light was too flat. Change of plans—co­hen packed up his cam­era. He had an­other lo­ca­tion in mind to shoot.

We fol­lowed two ski pa­trollers to a steep al­ley­way in the trees that dives off the back­side of Alta and into Snow­bird.

The snow was fall­ing harder now, and the trees added di­men­sion and depth to the frame. Co­hen had a good feel­ing about this spot. He staked his poles in the snow and shoved one glove on top of each pole. He took his cam­era out of his pack, im­me­di­ately zip­ping it shut so it wouldn’t fill with snow. On most days, Co­hen shoots with three lenses—a 24-70mm, 70-200mm, and a 14mm.

Co­hen yelled up com­mands to Petersen and Carr. His in­ner New Yorker was flar­ing up—com­mand­ing, de­ci­sive, and loud. He knew ex­actly what he needed out of this shot, and a lot was hing­ing on their suc­cess. The last few months had been warm and dry and Co­hen had been in­jured, so he hadn’t been able to shoot much. This was one of his first good pow­der days of the year.

The first of the re­sort skiers started to fil­ter through, ping­ing shots through the trees like an­i­mals rav­ing with mad­ness. Mean­while, Co­hen con­tin­ued to work the slope in 20-foot sec­tions, leap-frog­ging with Carr and Petersen to har­vest as many photos as he could out of the pre­cious snow.

Fi­nally, at the last pitch, Co­hen made the call to en­joy the rest of the de­scent. He got ex­actly what he needed and put his cam­era away.

“Let’s ski the rest for our heads,” Co­hen said.

“Ski­ing pow­der, you’re like float­ing in space. It’s kind of like be­ing in a nether­world. You’re al­most one with the uni­verse, or some­thing. You’re in the mo­ment. You’re lost in the mo­ment.” —Lee Co­hen

If there is one theme that car­ries across Lee Co­hen’s vast body of work, it’s that his photos all cap­ture the dream of what it means to ski pow­der. The snow could be feath­ery and light, or chunky and ex­plo­sive, but it’s al­ways un­tracked and pris­tine.

A mas­ter of pow­der photography, Co­hen is near-sighted. He has an eye for up-close de­tail, like the wrin­kles in the snow­pack when a skier dives in, or the mois­ture-heavy snow­balls that spray inches from his nose as the skier whooshes past.

If there is one theme that car­ries across Co­hen’s vast body of work, it’s that his photos all cap­ture the dream of what it means to ski pow­der. The snow could be feath­ery and light, or chunky and ex­plo­sive, but it’s al­ways un­tracked and pris­tine. The skiers in his photos are com­mand­ing strength and power to fly down moun­tains.

In the early to mid ’90s, Alta was just start­ing to emerge from an old-timer’s hal­lowed ground to a ski re­sort with the chops to breed some of the world’s best skiers—fi­nally steal­ing some of the spot­light from Ta­hoe. Co­hen was a force push­ing that shift to the front pages of ski magazines. He had a solid crew of skiers—they were all friends who soon started call­ing him “mag­nate”—and they’d go out and shoot photos ev­ery day the sky popped blue af­ter a storm.

“He has cap­tured the heart and soul of what Alta was like in the ’90s and cur­rently,” says Spencer Wheat­ley, who was part of the same crew. “Work­ing with him, shoot­ing photos with him, changed my whole life.”

One of the first days Wheat­ley went out to shoot photos with Co­hen, they went to the Shoul­der. Wheat­ley nailed a shot that was ul­ti­mately pub­lished in Pow­der’s Shoot­ing Gallery in 1995, and set him on track to be­come a pro­fes­sional skier fol­lowed by two decades as a heli ski guide.

“I’ve al­ways felt that Lee just loved ski­ing and he loves Alta more than any­one I’ve ever met,” says Wheat­ley. “He be­came a fix­ture, for sure, and re­ally sent out to the world what it was like to be at Alta first thing in the morn­ing, get­ting a pow­der run.”

Co­hen is also fa­ther to pro­fes­sional skier Sam Co­hen, who was raised at Alta and ski­ing Mount Baldy’s chutes as an 8-year-old. When he was a teenager, Sam started shoot­ing photos with his dad and now hops be­tween Utah, the Pa­cific North­west, BC, and Alaska, shoot­ing for ski movies and em­bark­ing on ski moun­taineer­ing ex­pe­di­tions.

With his son gone more of­ten than not dur­ing the win­ter, and af­ter sep­a­rat­ing from his wife, Sam’s mom, in 2012, Co­hen lives alone with his dog Zeke, a blue-eyed Aus­tralian Shep­herd who greets him at the front door by putting both paws on his chest and lick­ing his face. His house in Sandy at the base of Lit­tle Cot­ton­wood Canyon is stacked with pho­to­graphs and keep­sakes. There are photos of his child­hood—go­ing to Mets and Yan­kees games in the ’50s with his dad and his grand­fa­ther. (Yet, some­how Co­hen be­came a Red Sox fan.) Photos of Sam are on nearly ev­ery wall. A scenic moun­tain shot il­lu­mi­nates Sam on a jagged ridgetop with his skis on. An­other shows a much

younger Lee, his smile is giant and his arms are wrapped around his son, with the same sig­na­ture spec­ta­cles and bushy mus­tache he’s rec­og­nized by, but with much darker brown hair.

In the days of film photography, Gordy Peifer—one of Co­hen's more mem­o­rable Alta pow­der skiers—re­mem­bers Tues­days be­ing the day Co­hen would get his slides de­vel­oped. When Co­hen came home, he’d find Wheat­ley and Peifer and the rest of the crew wait­ing for him to set up the slideshow. A younger Sam would be at the house, watch­ing his fa­ther’s slides, too.

“We would freak out when we got an amaz­ing shot,” says Peifer. “And we had to wait back then. You couldn’t just look at the cam­era.”

To­day, Alta is in a time of tran­si­tion. Long­time lead­ers like gen­eral man­ager Onno Wieringa and mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor Con­nie Mar­shall have re­tired, and the pol­i­tics of the Wasatch are grow­ing as ex­po­nen­tially as the pop­u­la­tion in Salt Lake City. But Co­hen doesn’t give that much thought. “Alta has done a re­ally good job to do what they can to keep the fla­vor, to fol­low the Alta credo,” says Co­hen. He’s not sure when he’ll re­tire, ei­ther. “Let’s see what kind of win­ter it is this year,” he adds. What is more press­ing to Co­hen is his abil­ity to keep up with young skiers. But that’s the ben­e­fit to be­ing the skier with the cam­era—ev­ery­one waits for you on the skin track.

Last April, as we made our way up the canyon, Co­hen straight­ened out the road con­sid­er­ably—cross­ing the yel­low line and veer­ing into the other lane as he talked an­i­mat­edly about Dead shows and Sam and Zeke. We pulled up to the Peru­vian to grab a cup of tea and play a game of Scrab­ble. His first word scored 80 points, so I called the game early with the ex­cuse that we re­ally should go ski­ing—this time with­out the cam­era.

It was rain­ing, a warm spring storm, but con­di­tions were sur­pris­ingly good. Co­hen asked if I would have gone ski­ing on a day like to­day if we hadn’t made plans. I replied hon­estly that I prob­a­bly would not have. “Me nei­ther,” he said, chuck­ling. At this point in Co­hen’s life and ca­reer, he is choosy with his ski days. The man has skied a lot of pow­der, and is un­der­stand­ably par­tic­u­lar. But we were out, and once you’re out, ev­ery day is a good ski day.

Our last run was out to Ea­gle’s Nest. We took the High Tra­verse and stood at the top of an al­ley­way for a mo­ment, look­ing down the fall line. The moun­tains met the sky and the ev­er­green trees framed a tun­nel that dropped out of view as the slope steep­ened. It was quiet. Co­hen pushed off and cut turns around the bumps. He skied this one for his head.

A leg­end in his own right, Lee Co­hen has come a long way from camp­ing in the park­ing lot to shoot­ing count­less Alta photos archived in stick­ered draw­ers at his home at the base of the Wasatch.Photos: David Red­dick

TOP RIGHT: Mar­cus Cas­ton holds up his end of the deal. Photo: Lee Co­hen

BOT­TOM: As a young man from New York, Co­hen had to move, re­ally had to moo-oooove, to Alta, where he has since de­fined pow­der photography. Photo: John Shafer

Skier: Mar­cus Cas­ton Photo: Lee Co­hen

PHOTOS FROM TOP: Lee Co­hen, David Red­dick

As a kid, Sam Co­hen used to watch his dad's Alta slideshows along­side some of Lit­tle Cot­ton­wood Canyon's best skiers. Now, he's one of Lee's photography sub­jects.

Photography, pow­der, and tapes of Dead shows are the clas­sic combo of Lee Co­hen.Photos: David Red­dick

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