At 98, skiing legend Junior Bounous is still carving up the powder with a smile. | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly
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At 98, skiing legend Junior Bounous is still carving up the powder with a smile.

Singing Down the Slopes


  • Cover photo by Alex Mager

Junior Bounous is simply too cool for words. When the 98 year-old skiing icon walks into the conference room reserved for our interview, he's dressed in fresh outdoor gear, technical pants, shirt, vest and shoes. His white hair is rather full and sweeps back from his forehead in a merry, self-confident wave. His hazel eyes sparkle, full of life. "Well," he asks with a big smile, "what do you want to know?"

Bounous then spends the next two hours answering every question in great detail. We only stop because we're worried about wearing the old man out, but he jokes to his son, Steve Bounous, "I thought you said this would take 15 minutes!"

He's not tired. He just needs a bathroom break, maybe a little energy bar and then we're all going skiing.

On the slopes, Junior and Steve discuss each segment of the route. It's Steve's job to keep Junior safe, but the biggest danger to Junior isn't the slopes he knows like the backs of his hands; it's the other, less experienced skiers, so we take the less-crowded runs or we stop and wait until the traffic clears before we continue.

Junior Bounous, left, and his son Steve Bounous,  catch a ride to the top of a run. - ALEX MAGER
  • Alex Mager
  • Junior Bounous, left, and his son Steve Bounous, catch a ride to the top of a run.

"He skis better than he walks," Steve Bounous says. "Get him on skis, and he's 50 years old again."

Filmmaker Alex Mager skis with us, and he discusses his shots with the two Bounous men, then sets up at the bottom of a run or skis backward alongside Junior as he follows the agreed-upon lines. According to Mager, Junior is the most experienced ski actor he's ever filmed.

He undoubtedly is. Junior Bounous has skied in over a dozen Warren Miller films and has been featured on the cover of innumerable ski magazines. He's a natural on camera with his beautiful, fluid movements and his willingness to get the shot right.

And he's a flat-out celebrity on the slopes. When you get off a lift with Junior, you draw a crowd. Even with his goggles on, everyone knows him in his yellow helmet. A group of ski patrollers slide over to say hi. A wide-eyed local gets a selfie. An instructor stops to tell her students they're meeting a living legend.

An out-of-stater comes up and says, "Sir, you don't know me, but I just want to say thank you for all you've done."

What's Junior done? For Snowbird, the answer is just about everything.

An admirer snaps a selfie with Junior Bounous.
  • An admirer snaps a selfie with Junior Bounous.

Founding Fathers
In 1971, Ted Johnson called up and asked Junior Bounous to lay out the runs for a new ski area. For 30 years, Junior had been working on ski schools and development at Alta, California's Sugar Bowl and at Timp Haven-turned-Sundance.

At Snowbird, Junior studied topographical maps until his eyes watered, then hovered over Gad Valley in a helicopter to see how the proposed routes would lay on the land. He made sure that the timber was cut, the boulders were rolled away, the culverts were placed and the gravel filled in so that every run would be thoughtful and well-arranged.

And fun. Because above all, Junior believes that skiing should be enjoyable.

"Skiing should be fun from the first time you put on skis," he says, noting the philosophy he was trained under: safety, fun and technique, in that order.

When Junior Bounous was born in 1925, his big Italian family slowed down work on their Provo farm just long enough to welcome him into the world. His parents hadn't agreed on a name for their sixth child, so they left his birth certificate blank. They called their new son "Junior" and got on with business.

According to Ayja Bounous, Junior's granddaughter and author of the biography Junior Bounous and the Joys of Skiing, it wasn't until his late 20s, when he needed his birth certificate for a passport application, that Bounous discovered he didn't have a legal first name.

“Skiing should be fun - from the first time - you put on skis.” - —Junior Bounous
  • “Skiing should be fun from the first time you put on skis.” —Junior Bounous

"He was Junior Bounous on all of his school documents, his driver's license, even his registration for the army draft," Ayja Bounous said.

Junior is of a generation that got their start on homemade, barrel-stave skis. He took his first formal lessons from Alf Engen, the famed Alta ski school director, in 1945. Under Engen's instruction, Junior became a competitive skier, but it was Alf's teaching method that captivated him and inspired him to teach others, starting with his then-girlfriend Maxine Overlade.

"I'd take a private lesson from Alf, and then I'd go practice [teaching] on Maxine," Bounous said.

He and Maxine married in 1952 and were together for 67 years. Maxine would become a certified ski instructor, teaching alongside Junior at four ski areas.

"We are the grandchildren of a generation who learned how to ski because of Alf Engen and Junior Bounous," says Ayja Bounous. "They came at skiing from this approach that it was supposed to be joyful and fun. It was kind of revolutionary at the time. And it's one of the reasons so many people ski today."

Junior Bounous played a key role in the design of Snowbird’s classic runs.
  • Junior Bounous played a key role in the design of Snowbird’s classic runs.

Other ski areas, notably Sun Valley in Idaho, had hired instructors from the Austrian Alps, and it was going as expected: the Austrians were rigid and demanding. They taught skiing through a strict sequence of steps and expected a student to master one step before they moved on to the next. But that way of doing things can make people lock up.

"The Austrians and Norwegians brought a technique, but they didn't bring much on the humanistic side of teaching," says Sal Raio, director emeritus of skier services at Deer Valley.

Raio got his start cutting timber for Junior and became one of his first ski instructors at Snowbird.

"The American technique is student-centered, not instructor-centered," Raio said. "And Junior was a big part of that."

Jim McConkey—a good friend and member of the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame who taught for Junior at Sugar Bowl—said of Junior's teaching technique, "He makes it simple. He's a very gentle person. He put a nice little 'bumpty-bump' in there, and people enjoyed it. They kept coming back year after year."

Junior is famous for that "nice little bumpty-bump," which he developed as a method for skiing deep powder. It can be mentally challenging to learn to navigate powder, so after teaching his students the technique, Junior told them to forget everything and just sing a little ditty.

"If there's tension, and the technique is lost, you have to distract them," Junior said of his stressed students. "Then, they can have a healthy breakthrough."

Junior liked to use "The Hearse Song" to train students. Popular during World War I, it's a morbid tune about what happens to a corpse in the ground: "The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out, They crawl all over your chin and mouth ... "

It's gloomy, but the funerary beat serves its purpose. If you let go of the lyrics, you get a slow "ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump."

It turns out this is the perfect rhythm to have in mind when skiing powder, according to Junior Bounous. And it puts people in a fun—not funereal—frame of mind. It's said that if you listen closely on powder days at Snowbird, you'll hear Junior's students singing their way down the slopes.

"I think his insight into people is really good," Raio said. "He knows when people are doing well, and when they're not doing as well. I think he picked up some of that from Alf Engen."

This gentle, caring nature is not above dishing out some playful abuse to peers. Junior's love of playing pranks and having fun led to him being known for "Bounous-abuse," which was usually inflicted on instructors who got extra training on the last tram ride of the day.

The Joys of Skiing records a story about one of these times, told by Snowbird Mountain School employee Fran Wikstrom. It showcases Junior's incredible ski talent, muscular strength and inherent silliness. Often, when the doors of the tram opened, Junior "would take off running, throw both skis down on the snow, jump into them simultaneously, and take off skiing with everyone struggling to keep up," Wikstrom said.

One day, Wikstrom thought he'd fix Junior, so he rushed out of the tram first. "I skied past him, reached down, grabbed one of his [loose] skis, and kept going." Wikstrom made it nearly the entire way down the Silver Fox run before she noticed that Junior, not 15 feet behind, was following him on one ski.

Bounous spent decades as a ski - instructor and - resort planner.
  • Bounous spent decades as a ski instructor and resort planner.

Good Old Days
Junior Bounous is also known for jumping off some big stuff, and McConkey—the Canadian hall-of-famer—was usually right there with him. They were the very first people to ski Snowbird's Pipeline, a 700 vertical-foot couloir that descends into Gad Valley, on the day of Snowbird's grand opening.

Junior remembers that celebrations were in full swing when he suggested they take a run. Of all the world-class skiers standing around at the moment, McConkey was the one who took him up on the offer. As they rode to the top of the mountain, the Pipeline chute caught their eye.

"The Pipeline hadn't been skied yet," Junior recalled. "I called the heli, and they said, 'I'll pick you up at the top of the tram in 10 minutes.' We loaded, and he dropped us at the top of Twin Peaks."

McConkey, speaking by phone from his home in California, remembered there being very little room for the helicopter to land.

"He just kind of set it down long enough for us to get out," McConkey said.

Junior adds that the conditions were a surprise. "It was 20 feet of vertical rock just to get into it, so Jim and I had to belay our skis down and walk in our ski boots down to the Pipeline."

A celebrity on the slopes, Junior Bounous’ gentle - and fun demeanor attracts people to him.
  • A celebrity on the slopes, Junior Bounous’ gentle and fun demeanor attracts people to him.

Junior has skied the Pipeline 15 times in his life, including twice by helicopter—that first time and his last run down the chute as a celebration of his 80th birthday.

"Those were the good old days," he jokes, "when I was only 80."

But when Maxine passed away in 2020, skiing stopped being fun for Junior.

"When she passed away, I was ready to quit," he said.

But Steve had just retired from his career as director of the Snowbird Sports Education Foundation, and he had time on his hands. He got Junior hiking in Snowbird's wildflower-covered hills and gradually got him thinking about skiing again.

"As a carrot, I said, 'We'll go heli-skiing at the end of the year,'" Steve says. "Then Ayja found out that it would be a world record."

At age 95, Bounous was named the world’s oldest heli-skier by Guinness.
  • At age 95, Bounous was named the world’s oldest heli-skier by Guinness.

So, at age 95, Junior earned the Guinness World Records title of Oldest Heli-Skier. The following season, he was back to his old self and skied 101 days.

Junior knows he's not the only one who has felt alone in their later years. He'd long before started a senior ski group at Snowbird—Junior's Seniors—to keep his peers on the slopes. "Talking to seniors, the biggest reason they wanted to quit skiing was social, not physical," he says. "They had lost ski mates, husbands, wives. Skiing alone wasn't as much fun as skiing with a partner."

“Skiing alone [isn’t] as much fun as skiing with a partner.” - —Junior Bounous
  • “Skiing alone [isn’t] as much fun as skiing with a partner.”—Junior Bounous

Although Maxine went on ahead, "he never skis alone," Steve said. That's because Junior's gentle and fun demeanor attracts people to him.

"The man is kind of one in a million," says Raio.

Ski historian Alan Engen puts Junior in a special category. "In my opinion, the two genuine legends of skiing are my father and Junior Bounous," he said. He noted that, like his father, Alf Engen, Junior has excelled in every ski discipline and every area of ski development.

"But to me, his greatest attribute is the kind of special man he is inside," Alan Engen said. "Just like my father."

When asked the secret to a long and healthy life, Junior credits the high altitude and clean air he's always enjoyed in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Then he adds a statement he's known for. "You don't stop skiing because you get old," he says. "You get old because you stop skiing."