Photograph by Austen Diamond

Charlie Sturgis

Words by Jay Burke 

Charlie Sturgis is a good egg. And no wonder. He’s got more PLCs, as he calls them, than most people we know. What’s a PLC? A Positive Life Choice—you know the kind—see it sunshining outside? Go out and play. Ride your bike with abandon. Climb a rock just because. Play like your life depends on it.

Charlie is an institution around Park City—as the head of the Mountain Trails Association, he’s the guy to talk to when it comes to the Park City area trail system. But before he was that guy, he was an early owner of White Pine Touring. As he tells it, White Pine Touring got its unofficial start because “Two guys living in yurts out White Pine Canyon rented XC skis at Park West and then rented them out to other people. A lot of people don’t realize that White Pine Touring started totally rogue (no permits or anything) in 1972 until 1981 when it moved to the golf course. I started managing it in 1984. In 1985, the owners wanted to sell it so my wife Kathy and I formed a partnership with some other guys and we took it over and started the retail side of the business.” Retired from White Pine Touring but still going strong in rock climbing, mountain biking, trail building, and countless other activities that rack up the PLCs, Charlie Sturgis talks with BigLife’s Jay Burke, founder of Park City Point 2 Point, about bad manners, losing at tennis to the women in your life, and building and maintaining the Park City trail system.

BIGLIFE: How did you end up in Park City?
Charlie Sturgis: So there I was in business school in Chicago, dating a beautiful Jewish girl, getting straight As, and I thought, ‘Oh, man this is too good.’ So I left and ended up in Utah. The defining moment was skiing in Snowbird in 1974, and I thought I was a pretty darn good skier—Snowbird had opened in 1972. I remember standing there at the top of Snowbird with my brother’s friend, in the middle of a storm, no goggles, thinking to myself, ‘This is pretty cool.’ Admittedly, the skiing was over my head—that was not what I was used to skiing. But that hooked me.

BL: So, you were from back East, did you have much outdoor experience?
CS: I grew up hunting and fishing, but back then, tennis was my main game. When I moved out here, I was playing eight hours a day. I gave up a tennis scholarship I had at a small college back there…

BL: I had no idea you were such a tennis player. Do you play anymore?
CS: Well, I could play, but when I moved out here and started playing the guys at the U of U (University of Utah) I got my ass kicked. And no, I don’t really play anymore—sometimes I say that rock climbing ruined my game. I’m trying to get Kathy (my wife) to re-engage so that we have a non-hazardous game that we play.

(At this point, Jay and Charlie discuss the finer points of tennis and getting beat by the women in their lives who are much better tennis players than they. They throw around words like “ego bruise” and phrases like, “I thought I’d be able to man-handle it, but…”)

BL: How did you end up an aficionado of two wheels
and good dirt?
CS: I was doing a lot of trail running and rock climbing and I was working at Wasatch Touring in Salt Lake when Specialized came out with their first mountain bike, their original Stumpjumper. And I remember saying, ‘This is a STUPID sport. I mean, think about it. When you’re out there on the trails running, if you have a problem, you bend over and tie your shoe and you’re good. No big deal. Well, with the bike, you’re talking about 35 pounds of steel… But I rode one that we had for demo, and I remember pushing most of the way up Red Butte down behind the U and riding down all these stairs and going, ‘Wow, this is like big fun, like back when I was a kid and we’d just go wreck bikes and jump bikes.’ At the time, I saw it as an extension of my running, but I could go farther and see more. And I was fishing a lot back then so I’d hop on my bike with my fishing gear and hit some dirt road…

BL: How has mountain biking changed over the years in PC and what has it meant to the community?
CS: Well, when I moved here and we opened the shop in ’86 or ’85 with mostly just mountain bikes, there were essentially no trails. I mean, you’ve heard the stories. There were 14 miles of trails—maybe not even that. We’d ride anything that was dirt… mining roads, sure, but I’d go out and ride down the runs—hit some of those deep troughs they have across the grass and completely just destroy myself. Back then, anything you could roll was considered a doable deal. But people started running around—like Dennis McCormick and Rich Perrier—and we started clipping our way through stuff, like Lost Prospector and up in the mine areas, the old Iron Cart Trail. Back in those days, we actually sold saws…

BL: (laughs) And actually encouraged people to go cut trails?
CS: Yes, we sold saws, but no dog leashes. Obviously, things have changed since then and I don’t think anyone could argue with the immensity of the impact that the development of our trail system has had on Park City. But I think the coolest thing to me, overall, about the impact is this whole idea that I like to talk about PLCs—Positive Lifestyle Choices. The chance to be outdoors at virtually no cost, with easy access, makes it really possible to be a really healthy community. In 2011, we were recognized as having the lowest obesity rate of any county in the United States. And that’s pretty cool. You know, Aspen and those guys lost by 1 gram, but when you win, you win. The coolest part about it? The millions of PLCs happening out there each year. Positive Lifestyle Choices.

BL: Can you tell us about some of your epic rides?
CS: Adventure was initially the main driving aspect for me and riding. But when I got into the business of bikes, I started thinking about opportunities to ride and the fact there was a real lack of opportunity here. I went to places like Crested Butte—seven days of riding and never riding the same trails. It blew me away.

Back then, I was spending time in Salt Lake buying map inventory for the store, and I would spend hours at the USGS office going through their maps. I would get lost in the maps thinking, ‘Wow, look at that primitive trail. And look at that primitive trail. I wonder if those two things connect…’ I spent a lot of time putting maps together and riding.

Probably our biggest overall adventure was when we unofficially adopted Bench Creek. I ran it on a rest day to see if it would work out as a bike trail because some horsemen had told me about it. So I ran recon out there. Got lost, but found my way out using a map and an altimeter. We opened that trail soon after.
Another big adventure for me was probably the Wallsberg ride. I put 10 or 12 hard efforts into finding my way up to the Great Western Trail (GWT) out of Wallsberg. Back in those days I rode in running shoes with flat pedals. I’d park and take off. It took many efforts on my part before I ran into an equestrian riding in on the GWT, way up behind Hobble Creek. When I saw him, I asked him how he got there, and he said he had come over from Vivian Park on the Great Western. I was like, ‘Woo-hoo! Perfect.’ Not all ridable, but a super cool adventure. A 4,000-foot descent from Windy Pass to Vivian Park. Without a shuttle it’s about 25 miles.

BL: What about the next generation of riders?
CS: I see a significant need for the next generation of bikers to develop an equally strong or stronger etiquette to encourage land owners and land managers to see the credibility of mountain biking as a sport. Every day we run into the negative effects and those get put out there more and more. That limits opportunities. We could talk about speed entitlement—but really it comes down to people being on task, behaving out there, and not giving the sport a blemish. Be a good hunter, be a good equestrian, and be a good cyclist. To the sport’s credit, when it got going back in the early ‘80s, a set of rules came with it pretty quickly, the triangle and who yields to whom…

BL: Best advice you’ve ever been given?
CS: My father—a common sense kind of guy who survived the war and was a tank commander—he always doled out these bits of wisdom. As a 16-year-old, of course, I always told him he was wrong. At 40, I found myself saying all these things to my employees… and I’d wonder, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ The sage witticisms that I threw out there are a result of my father. But the thing that resonates with me and I like to put out there is, “Maximize the potential and minimize the damage.” It’s one of my favorites; it’s all-encompassing and it’s what you have control over.

BL: Rides and places to ride on your bucket list?
CS: The Great Western as a ride-through connected all the way through the Wasatch Front (approximately 150 miles). Technically, that trail goes from Canada to Mexico. We put it on the Mountain Accord ‘hit list’ with the idea to make it the Kokopelli of the north. And I’d love to ride Europe. You can’t go wrong riding in Europe. It’s a toss-up, you could either ride or climb or mix it up.

BL: Top Three Bad Biker Habits?
CS: Entitlement. That’s the number one cause of trail problems. And speed. Speed injures and shackles other peoples’ buzzes—dogs, hikers, runners. We have probably 1.5 million PLCs or user days on those trails and a lot of types of users. A good thing to remember is 10 seconds of kindness goes a long way. You can have your Strava on and smile at the same time.

BL: When you’re not biking, building, or running Mountain Trails Foundation, what do you do?
CS: Well, you know, I love skiing, I love biking, but I’m addicted to climbing—all forms of the vertical world—I’m at home on it. I started climbing in 1976 or before that. I had a roommate who climbed and he got me out there. I was doing tree work for five or six years, hanging out in trees, with ropes, chainsaws, so I thought, climbing, no big deal. Of course, I soon found out, I was totally wrong—it is a big deal. But even though I was miserable the first time, I can remember thinking it was really cool. I was way up above Little Cottonwood and I was looking down at those guys—they had cold beer and I was baking up there on the rock. But I was hooked. It’s a full-focus sport.

BL: You guys started the trail building nights back in the day. Can you tell us about that?
CS: Thursday Night Rides (TNR) was an idea that Chris Erikson (who used to work at White Pine Touring) had. This was back in 1985 or 1986. With White Pine, I’ve always felt great about the way we educated people along the way about the toys they were buying from us. Educating the users so they could have the best time possible. By the ‘90s, we would get 80 to 100 people for Thursday Night Rides. I’d have 10 guides on. Then we started doing trail work because we wanted to give back and increase opportunities. We had all this manpower. We’d take the rides to those places, do the trail work, and then continue on with the ride. Over the course of time, we’d run 25K people through TNR. Trails like TG, Tour de Suds, Speedbag, all that stuff in the Spaghetti Bowl­ area (Old-Town Trails) was fair game. All that came from TNR.

BL: What makes a great riding partner?
CS: One who doesn’t have a lame excuse for not showing up! And one who shows up on time. I can deal with most anything else—lack of food, tools, showing up with only one glove… but late and a last-minute bail-out don’t work. Sometimes I climb or ride with people who are younger and a little more willing to suffer conditions… I’m old enough to know better. If it’s raining out when you start—that’s not good. It’s one thing to get caught in the rain. It’s a whole different thing to start when you know you’re going to get pummeled.