Robert Redford: The Sundance Kid Rides Again

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Robert Redford skis like he owns the place – which, in fact, he does. In vintage Vuarnet shades and a Patagonia fleece vest embroidered with the logo of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Redford angles his bright yellow K2 skis across – but mostly down – a Sundance ski run named Bearclaw, vacuuming great gobs of mountain with each turn.

Though he’s 67 now, Redford’s on-snow technique evokes the young man who, in 1969, starred in ‘Downhill Racer,‘ the best feature film ever made about skiing. Many skiers, especially older ones, maintain control by getting sideways to the hill. They initiate with their hips, making stiff, full-body turns that control speed, but leave the skier exhausted due to the effort of wrenching everything back around for the opposite turn. Redford, on the other hand, lets his knees and ankles point the way, maintaining a textbook-quiet upper body. His hatless, famously blond head barely moves, the Sundance Kid staring down the fall line as if it were an opposing gunslinger.

I’m not surprised by his youthful, aggressive technique. He’s always been a serious athlete, having grown up dodging linebackers as a quarterback at Van Nuys High School; nailing the overhead smash in tournament tennis; lugging a 40-pound wooden surfboard up and down the cliffs of San Onofre; rock climbing the walls of Yosemite; and stabbing screamers down the line as a lefty first baseman.

Baseball actually won Redford a scholarship to the University of Colorado, but he soon lost it, after “discovering drinking.” Restless and inquisitive, he dropped out of college and lit out for Europe. He didn’t ski the Alps then, because in the ’50s “skiing is what Americans visiting Europe did.” As a self-respecting traveler-beatnik, he didn’t cross the Atlantic to be just another U.S. tourist. Instead, he studied art in Florence and Paris, helped refugees from the Hungarian uprising in Vienna, and climbed in Switzerland.

He says he came back to the States with a conscience, which served him well when early partners in Sundance “thought they could talk me into developing it. I said no, though I didn’t know yet what Sundance’s ‘it’ would be. The whole reason I came here was this naturally incredible piece of geology, and I was more interested in preservation.”

Potential investors would act as though they were listening to what he was saying…then ask, “Did you really jump off that cliff in ‘Butch Cassidy’?” For me and the 99 percent of intelligent men who consider ‘Butch Cassidy’ the finest buddy film of all time, the cliff jump scene remains a classic. My favorite, though, happens in Bolivia, when Redford and Paul Newman apply for payroll-guard jobs at a mine. The character actor Strother Martin impatiently tells Sundance to shoot a tobacco plug from a standing position. He misses, then asks politely, “Can I move?”

Martin is nonplussed: “Move? What the hell you mean, move?” Before he even finishes, Sundance drops, draws, and fires in one fluid motion, obliterating the tobacco plug. “I’m better when I move,” the Kid explains.

Redford, similarly, is most comfortable when he’s in motion. Here on the flanks of Mount Timpanogos – the highest peak in the Wasatch – his glide down the snow is rarely interrupted by pole plants. It’s striking to see a skier holding poles yet hardly using them until he shouts over his shoulder, “Thanks to training for ‘Downhill Racer,’ I learned how to race before I learned how to turn.”

See, most skiers are taught to plant hard and turn around the pole. Not racers. Redford uses his poles, but only to graze the snow. They’re not used for force, but for rhythm. The first time I see his pole actually penetrate the surface is while we’re stopped at another pullout. I remark that the canyon seems strangely sheltered from wind and other incursions, and Redford enthusiastically expounds. “Yes, it’s very maternal. The symmetrical, curving line of the basin embraces you,” he says, pausing to draw a graceful semicircle in the snow with his pole tip. “There’s a big power to it, no doubt about it, a kind of energy and spirituality. It strikes just the right balance of foliage, rock, and water.”

Redford first came to this verdant canyon that drains into the Provo River when it was occupied by only scattered cabins and a funky snack bar called Ki-Te-Kai. (It means, oddly, “Come and get it” in Maori.) That was in the late ’50s, when he was attending the University of Colorado. “I love to explore and love to drive, and I took different routes traveling between L.A. and Boulder. I came through here on a shortcut up U.S. 189 and thought, Jesus, this is interesting. I didn’t know anything about Utah. I’d heard Mormons had rings in their noses.”

A couple of years later Redford married a Mormon from Provo. He pulls to the side of Bearclaw and stops to explain what happened next. “My father-in-law took me on a mountain lion hunt here. We came up and over this rise on horseback,” he says, pointing to a canyon rim with his ski pole. “I got no cougars, but saw this beautiful view of Timpanogos, and said, ‘This is the place.’ “

He bought his first two acres for $500 in 1961, and built a cabin on the land. “I was living in New York as a stage actor, and knew I wanted somewhere to escape in the west,” he says. “My wife and I would snowshoe up in the winter, with our kids on our backs. Then, when we had a snowmobile, we’d tow them up on a sled. There was no plumbing, so we had to melt snow for water. It was great. I wanted my kids to learn what I’d learned camping in the Sierra as a kid.”

Growing up in Southern California, Redford craved open spaces for as long as he can remember. “I grew up in a Spanish-speaking part of Santa Monica, in a crackerbox home with a teeny strip of grass for a backyard,” he says. “When I had a paper route, I’d finish and just take off. I’d ride some more and lie in the grass somewhere and stare, and I’d think about being someplace else, living a different life. You need to create your own solitude.”

After those first few acres, he kept buying, and as his wealth and stardom increased, so did his holdings. Lifts and grooming made Sundance a ski area in 1969. The nonprofit Sundance Institute was founded in 1981, then lent its name to a Utah film festival Redford bought and overhauled in 1985. The entire area now covers the southeast shoulder of Timpanogos, a hulking monolith that plunges a mile and a half from its 12,008-foot summit to the valley floor. With horizontal rock bands striping its upper slopes and slide paths greasing regular avalanches, Timpanogos reminds Redford of the Jungfrau region of the Swiss Alps. It’s truly a magical spot, and he aims to keep it that way.

His master plan for the resort – which he insists is named for the way sunlight dances off the peaks and not his mustachioed character in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ – tops out at 106 artist studios and homes, none marring the open areas above the tree line. The ski resort is small – four lifts, 450 skiable acres, and a top elevation of 8,200 feet – and that suits him just fine.

Vail sells more tickets over President’s Day weekend than Sundance does all season, so the slopes here are nice and empty this clear, unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon in late January. Utah’s heavily Mormon populace is attending church, while Redford’s own Sundance Film Festival is luring black-clad cineasts into darkened theaters some 40 miles away in Park City, where the Wasatch meets Interstate 80. If Redford, independent cinema’s greatest champion, feels any remorse for not joining them, he doesn’t show it. Rather, he makes another seamless weight shift from right ski to left, slashing an arc that shoots a plume of sparkling snow toward the cobalt sky.

“Even though I grew up near the coast, I’m more of a mountain person than an ocean person,” Redford says. “I can’t be on an island too long. I get claustrophobic and want to get to higher ground. I used to be into motorcycles and surfing, but these days skiing is my favorite sport, having a slight edge over horseback riding.”

Though Redford has lived here for 40 years – conserving a Utah oasis, providing local jobs, and “bringing a lot of positive, international attention to the state” – in Utah he remains something of an outsider, if not a lightning rod. “The politics of the state are very conservative, and I’m not conservative,” he says. In the mid-1970s he went on ’60 Minutes’ to protest dam and power-plant development in southern Utah. He was burned in effigy. Twice.

He was hassled, too. Redford turns and points to the serrated ridge stair-stepping up to Timpanogos’s crown – specifically, to a steep alpine snowfield outside the resort’s permit area. “I hiked up there once in ’75, skied that backcountry route down, and was arrested at the bottom for skiing on government land,” he says. “I protested, ‘I’m not on your land, I’m on the snow.'” He flashes that trademark grin. “It didn’t work.”

By now even the most hostile Utahans have given up any hope of getting rid of him. Redford’s still here, and he’s still railing. He spoke out against the political shenanigans behind bringing the 2002 Winter Olympics to Salt Lake, calling the land and road swaps given to the Snowbasin ski area – the site of the downhill, which is owned by Sinclair Oil Corporation – “an end run around conservation-minded voters.” He views the Snowbird ski area’s architecture, rife with towering cement high-rises, as so many parking garages and “an ethical violation.” He also sits on the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which gives him nationwide reach. “This administration thinks and acts like we’re still in the ’50s,” he tells me. “What’s really naked is their contempt for the environment. They’re making no bones about undoing 35 years of conservation regulations.”

Utah is not the only landscape that has a hold on Redford – he’s building a house in Napa Valley and owns another in Santa Fe – but he’s always considered Sundance home. “Physically, there’s still nothing like Utah,” he says. “I don’t know of any other state that has such a variety of topography. And a great, great part of it is still untouched, still pure. I came because I like being around hardworking agricultural people. I like the contrast of moving from an urban, edgy place like New York to this place with people working the land for generations.”

The same themes appear in many of his films, such as ‘A River Runs Through It,’ ‘The Horse Whisperer,’ ‘The Electric Horseman,’ and ‘Jeremiah Johnson’. (Most of the latter was filmed within a day’s ride of his home here.) It’s even true of ‘Out of Africa,’ where the Kenyan veldt stands in for the American west. “I think unnecessary real estate development is the greatest threat to the west, pushing farmers and ranchers out of business,” Redford says. “I’m attracted these days to stories where so-called sophisticated living is juxtaposed against agriculture as we once knew it. What’s it look like – this last vestige of a huge part of American life?”

His next movie is also filled with westerners who work with their hands, outside, in the company of large animals. In ‘An Unfinished Life‘ Redford is a crusty Wyoming rancher and Jennifer Lopez plays his estranged, widowed daughter-in-law, running with her small daughter from a brutal boyfriend. The rancher still blames her for his son’s death. Redford calls it “a nice story, about moving toward forgiveness and redemption.”

Our ski day concludes in the artfully understated Sundance Village. Wherever its rough-hewn wooden boardwalks and bridges take visitors, a musical stream follows. Redford intended it to strike the balance of a Frank Lloyd Wright design and to “look like it’s been here 100 years, to key off what was here before. Ski area architecture is usually faux.” He shakes his head at the ersatz Austrian motif of Vail and Aspen.

We talk for a good deal longer, interrupted three times by starstruck tourists and once by Pierce Brosnan, who has a film showing at the Sundance festival. It’s dusk when I head back to the parking lot that Redford recently stripped of 212 spots and replaced with trees and landscaping because he thought it was beginning to look like a strip mall.

Before leaving, I couldn’t help asking him the kind of question he probably gets all the time. Will Butch and Sundance ever get back together one more time? “An adaptation of ‘A Walk in the Woods,’ by Bill Bryson, might be something for Paul Newman and me, if we’re not too old,” he tells me. He flashes that famous smile again. “If Paul can hang on long enough, and we can get him on the Appalachian Trail before he gets in a wheelchair.”