The Beginner’s Guide to Fighting in the Wasatch

| March 21, 2014 | 34 Comments

Welcome to the Wasatch.  Now pick a side – pave it or preserve it.

There’s a lot to be said for the Wasatch Mountains, especially from a skiing/boarding standpoint.  They are very riding friendly, have easy access, are close to a major metropolitan city, close to an airport, have seven major ski resorts and also have an abundance of light, deep snow. Technically, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest entails 2.48 million acres of land, but much of that is lower elevation, brushy or lacks winter road access, which makes it undesirable for skiing.  Conversely, upper elevation areas (above 7,000′) with year-around road access are very desirable for skiing, but in short supply. The area famous for “The Greatest Snow on Earth” is actually quite small – roughly 5 x 20 miles, or 64,000 acres. This area is known as the Central Wasatch or the Tri Canyons area (Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood and Mill Creek) and is ground zero for 99% of the fussing & fighting you hear about in the Wasatch.

The red mountain tops represent the prime terrain above 7,000′ in the Central Wasatch, which is where most of the user conflicts takes place.  The seven resorts are approximately located on the shady north sides of the highest peaks.

Being firmly in the “preserve it” side, I’ve had 2-3 occasions to take out of town journalists on a sightseeing tour, and once we reach a high vantage point overlooking the Central Wasatch, they have all had the same reaction – “I had no idea it was this small!” And it really is.  Ski Utah promotes an Interconnect Tour where you can ski six major resorts in one day, but what they aren’t saying is that you can easily do this on foot as well, and not only that, you could then reverse the route and make it back home with daylight to spare.  Unfortunately, hiking the Interconnect in the winter is only hypothetical as the entire Park City side is private property and three out of four of the other resorts, which are on public land, don’t allow uphill traffic.

As the Wasatch is so small and has so many resorts close to each other, it has brought up the question “Why aren’t they all connected?” for close to fifty years.  I have no idea why it wasn’t done in the past, but currently favor an idea I heard from Will McCarvill, a long time Wasatch backcountry user – “When people talk about compromise and sharing, what they forget is that years ago the public made a major compromise when they gave away all of the prime, upper elevation, north facing terrain at the head of the canyons to the ski resorts.  We’ve already made a huge compromise.”  Having been born in Salt Lake City and then spent the last 25 years touring around in the Wasatch backcountry, I’d have to agree – the resorts are constantly barging at their boundaries and trying to gain more public land, mainly in the name of creating marketing buzz.  Enough is enough.

Standing in one resort, Canyons, with five others visible in the Central Wasatch.

The latest twist on the interconnect idea recently surfaced as ONE Wasatch.  I’m not sure why the ONE is capitalized – maybe it is an acronym for Ours No-one Else’s, but in any case, this time they promise to do the whole thing on private land.  This may be, but it begs the question, why hasn’t it been done already? For some resorts (Snowbird, Solitude and Deer Valley), it would just be a matter of cutting the boundary ropes and/or changing their policies and ticket prices, but for others, it would be a huge investment.  Alta would have to construct at least one and probably two lifts up Grizzly Gulch, plus all of the maintenance and avalanche control work to keep them open, just to help people leave their resort.  Brighton, or whoever owns the Mill F area in upper Big Cottonwood would be in the same boat – creating and maintaining a high-altitude, south facing lift just to shuttle people out of their area.

Some concerns:

A Tale of Two Counties
The Wasatch Front (Alta, Snowbird, Brighton & Solitude) is located in Salt Lake County, which is very concerned about preserving and protecting the watershed as it supplies 1.5 million people with drinking water.  The Wasatch Back (Deer Valley, PCMR and Canyons) is in Summit County, which is mainly rural and could care less about… most things.

Lodging Vs. Powder
It’s a cruel irony that the Park City side has tons of room for hotels and expansion, but lacks the quality and quantity of the snow three miles away in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Conversely, Little Cottonwood has great skiing, but no room to grow the real estate. The idea with interconnect is that you could stay in Park City and ski in Alta, but that’s not going to do you much good when the lifts stop running at 4:15pm and you are stuck in the middle of nowhere.

AKA “trafuck” in Little Cottonwood Canyon, where all it takes is one car skidding off the road to completely shut down the whole canyon and deliver a 2 hour commute to go 12 miles for all of the thousands of people who are trying to get out.  A new comprehensive study  called The Mountain Accord has been set up to study this problem.

Skier Numbers
Skier days have flat-lined at about 4 million annually in Utah and aren’t even keeping up with population growth. ONE Wasatch feels that by connecting all the resorts it will draw more customers, but that has not been the case in other connections, most notably when Whistler and Blackcomb were joined.  About 1% of the US population skis, and in Utah it is about 5%. To someone like me who grew up skiing at resorts, the reason for the decline seems painfully obvious – the sport has gotten very expensive.

Backcountry Usage
When lifts go in, the nonpaying public is shut out.  Sure, some of the ONE Wasatch areas may already be private property, but for whatever reason they have been allowing people to access it for years.  There is lots of talk about making the Wasatch more European, but one main difference is that in Europe the public is allowed to walk over open private land.

Interconnect Reality
It would take 6-8 lifts, each way, to start in Snowbird, have lunch in Park City and return. If anyone of those lifts isn’t working, there’s no interconnect.  If you get halfway through your return tour and the lifts close, you are stuck in Big Cottonwood Canyon with no car or way of getting back.

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Category: Wasatch Mountains

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber and Mountain Unicycle rider. He and Polly Samuels McLean are the parents of two very loud little girls.

Comments (34)

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  1. Bob Macfarlane says:

    Awesome write up Andrew. This ain’t the Alps and we’ve paved enough.

  2. Peter says:

    Well done.

  3. Brendan McGuire says:

    A great summary and I think we have plenty of development already done. Leave it alone.

  4. Sandy Brown says:

    Andrew, Direct and concise as always. Seems like we keep playing whack-a-mole with the pro-development crowd! When can we get “no ONE Wasatch” lawn signs!!!

  5. Nice write up.

    How many people buy Alta/Snowbird day passes? I bet is a super small percentage of sales. My point is that ski resorts are big enough as is for a day of skiing. The only rational for the interconnect is to have the biggest ski resort in N. America. In the process of fulfilling this greedy desire we lose more of the scraps that are left beyond. When is enough enough?

  6. Hi Wally – Yes, I wonder that as well. From my recollection, there was a big roll-out fuss about AltaBird and now it is buried in some website. Nobody really cares, except the marketing departments and I have to wonder about their sanity. “You could start the day at the Snowbird tram, take a lap, up and over into Alta, take a lap, go down and buy a hat at the Alta Lodge, then head up and back over to Snowbird for lunch at the Tram Club, then head back to Alta for a cocktail before catching the last chair and riding back up and over into Snowbird so you could ski down and spend the night relaxing in a spa after your busy day of scooting between resorts!” Apparently this idea appeals to some people.

  7. bozo the cloud says:

    Your point regarding the expense of resort skiing is, to me, a crucial point that is often overlooked. Ski areas can be a lot of fun, and, let’s face it, nearly all skiers get into the sport and learn through the repitition provided by ski lifts. But it seems strange to me that the resorts have not noticed the positive correlation between massive “improvements”, increased ticket prices, and decreased skier numbers over the past 20 or so years. It’s as if everyone saw Deer Valley and Vail succeed by appealing to the rich with a “look at our upgrades and luxury” mentality and figured that was the only way to go. Alta has resisted that pull as much as anyone, but now they are getting suckered into this scheme. Solitude got suckered into bigger=better years ago, and has gone from a pleasant little place to ski, to an expensive maze of lifts that take you to more lifts. Has anyone ever considered taking their resort in a different direction – keeping costs low, running deals for beginnners, and leaving a little adventure for those who still want adventure while skiing at a resort? 5% of Utah skis. Think of the money you could make if you could get one more percent to ski, primarily at your resort. This expansion plan is not going to do anything to bring more people to the sport. At the end of the day, I am pretty sure it will run more off. And, in the process, it will cut into the one segment of the ski industry that is growing – backcountry skiers.

  8. Andrew, Jack Gallivan owns most of upper Mill F.

  9. DP says:

    Great work on this commentary. It’s very original, profound, and I am glad that you spent the time to put this together yourself without taking the bulk of the content from somewhere else like so many others do lately. Happy turns!

  10. PC Arborist – that’s interesting… as far as I know, Gallivan is fairly civic minded. I wonder where he stands on this?

  11. I totally agree with you Bozo. I went to a ski industry meeting a few years ago in Park City, and when the keynote speaker was asked about the skyrocketing cost of skiing, his response was “Once people get used to 300 count linen, you can’t go back to plain old cotton.” I have no problem with super high-end resorts, but not when everything else gets wiped out in their path.

  12. Sarah says:

    I think the connection between all the resorts is a great idea! I hope it happens. I live in Park City and hate the drive on the free way to ski in the Cottonwoods. I would much rather travel there on skis.

  13. Sarah – For sure, and it is a shame that the only thing stopping you/us from doing it right now is the resorts.

  14. Actually, Mill F East Fk is a checkerboard of ownership. Jack owns the lower drainage area, Utah P + L (now Rocky Mtn P + L) owns a strip (ROW) from Scott’s Pass down thru the middle of the drainage and United PC Mine (which is now Talisker) owns the upper slopes what BC skiers call USA bowl.

  15. what about this…if there were an interconnect, would people be more partial to lodging in Park City, assuming they can make it all the way to Alta Snowbird for deep pow. the traverse via all those lifts would take all morning, then they’d have to head back after their lunch….leaving more “scraps” for locals to rip up in Little Cottonwood. No doubt nightlife in Little and Big Cottonwood stinks, And tourists generally want nightlife. I think it’s an interesting point to say the more “scraps” would be left for locals who know better. I’m against the interconnect, but think of this concept. It will happen on day, because money will take over eventually, but not for another 10 years….at least.

  16. I guess as a proud snowboarder and having Alta expand even more means more of the prime Wasatch will be closed to snowboarding. It just seems wrong that I will have even less access to the Wasatch with this plan than before. That makes the Wasatch even more exclusive than before. I know most of your readers ski and probably hate snowboarding but fact is snowboarding is not behind this at all. Why would we be, we cant utilize one Wasatch.

  17. Jay Tierney says:

    Interesting take. Obviously this program would require an extensive shuttle bus program to make it work as desired. That would eliminate the whole getting stuck scenario. So that would add more expense, on a continuing basis.

  18. SG Karl – the crazy thing with Park City is that they/we are also maxed out on traffic and especially parking. The ex mayor of PC was luke warm about the idea of plowing Guardsman’s Pass as a potential interconnect option, and when I asked him why, he said that PC proper (which is where the GP road ends up) couldn’t handle any more cars.

  19. ty says:

    so, i was over there in little cottonwood to tour for the first time in November…musta been the first big pow day in a while cause the backcountry lot across the street from Alta was completely full, and there were moguls on natl forest land. Ha! I tour in Montana and Wyoming where you are more likely to see fracking than another party. A lot of users to say the least.

    Solution: Just decree that intermediate skiers must ride the park city terrain, without exeption. Pass a ski test that includes backcountry ethics, winter driving safety and the stem christie to get your LCC/BCC pass…spin it as “more exclusive”. “its like the yellowstone club” you will say, but without the 3 million dollar season pass. Have fun over there, ill take my 400 foot runs in the northern laramie range over that mess any day…even with all the “fracking”

  20. dc says:

    cool… will Alta and Deer Valley allow snowboarding when “ONE” goes into effect?

    get #&%$’ed you greedy pricks

  21. Jim Holland says:

    It would be interesting to get a view of terrain that would effectively become in bounds as a result of this …

  22. Sam A says:

    Would Deer Valley and Alta allow snowboarding? How would snowboarders travel between resorts that do not allow snowboarding?

  23. Good question Sam A. Deer Valley is kind of on the end of any potential Interconnect, but with Alta being right in the middle, it seems like they would have to.

  24. Bret Mathews says:

    What about putting tunnels between the resorts, sort of like what Snowbird did only longer, and with two conveyor rides so that there’s one in each direction? They wouldn’t be affected by the wind. They would have to be sealed to avoid messing with the watershed. They could be kept open late so that after an epic day of skiing at the Bird people could have dinner there, and then catch the conveyor ride to Big Cottonwood and then to Park City. To crazy????

  25. I play out there too says:

    @Bozo the Cloud – Low prices and fun family experience resorts? How about Beaver Mountain, Powder Mountain, Eagle Point, Brian Head & the notorious Brighton? They all have kept low ticket prices and encouraged lift access to slack country. Yes ticket prices are nuts at the Disneyland resorts – but so is Disneyland, and I won’t smear my children’s childhood memories with Disneyland.

    @Andrew – the fact that larger resorts equal smaller BC zones – is a horrible outcome, and it sucks. But in this scenario, If you take Brighton to PCMR out of the equation, there is no loss in BC zones — that is unless you think Mill F has anything above 20º to ski, or if the baked SFace of Ggulch is a backcountry mecca. With our w/o the Alta to Big (solitude) connection, a Grizzly chair will go up – hell they already run cats up it, and even those don’t get utilized cause the skiing conditions are so marginal. Do you find Pinecone Ridge (the proposed Canyons to PCMR connection) a loss? As you mentioned PCMR 2 DVR is already there, Alta 2 Bird there, Soli 2 Brighton there.

    @All — Connection & Expansion/Development are 2 different discussions. I’m for a connection but against further brick & mortar development. If the brick & mortar have to come along with the connection, then I’d be against the connection. Shits going to get bigger, resorts are going to expand, but I’m 100% for a connection involving chairlifts over a connection involving roads. Since 70% of UT land is owned by the non-tax paying Fed gov. maybe the Interconnect can provide some sort of state revenue system – helping to fund our pathetic Education & Environmental support funding. Maybe the better alternative is fighting for resorts to use greener power sources in order to move forward. This discussion, should not be about “don’t let it happen, stop all” but “how do we improve UT’s environmental situation by incorporating and mandating a long term benefits plan, in order the connection to move forward” think of the connection as a bill and make sure there some benefit for the state’s health outset of it’s wallets.

    @Andrew, “when the lifts stop running at 4:15pm and you are stuck in the middle of nowhere.” come on, if they can’t use a clock they deserve to be “stranded at a resort” – stranded is a pretty backwards term for fine dining, bars, spas and luxury lodging.

    @Forrest Gladding – Alta not allowing snowboard has nothing to do with a violation of the 14th amendment – it’s a fucking choice dude! Pretty sure you don’t choose what ethnicity you are in the morning, wax it and throw it in your vehicle. Fck insult to the constitution.

  26. Duane says:

    A friend told me that the wasatch crest is honeycombed with mine shafts and tunnels. It wouldn’t be hard to connect them for a true European experience: trains. Then people could get from lodging to powder and back to the bar without being dependent on ski lifts, weather, and darkness.

  27. bozo the cloud says:

    I think tunnels would be far too long for conveyors. There’s a lot less rock to cut through near the ridge, such as at peruvian, than at the bases. Personally, I don’t have much of a problem with a lift between BCC and PC, if it goes up Guardsman. I think they should angle for a gondola, covering the full length between PC and BCC, 12-15 hours per day so people can stay in BCC and have dinner/drinks in PC, or stay in PC and ski in BCC. (Similar to the gondola at Telluride). I don’t think a gondola above the road at Guardsman would affect backcountry skiing, hiking or mountain biking much, and it would have a lot of potential tourist appeal since it doesn’t hinge solely on the assumption that people will want their lift ticket purchase to cover 10x the amount of terrain they can ski in a day. Maybe Solitude could finally get their occupancy rate at the faux Interwest village about 10%.
    The LCC-BCC connection is far more troubling. There is no way to do it without messing up some prime backcountry/hiking terrain. If it were by enclosed gondola, taking a route that stayed low through twin lakes pass, and done in conjunction with some bus service upgrades as part of a transportation plan, I might be on board. But just putting lifts up Grizzly Gulch and Twin Lakes bowl looks to me like it’s just ski area expansion, and if it put skiers on Emma Ridge, making Silver and Days sidecountry, it would be a huge loss.

  28. Bill Balz says:

    Thanks Andrew…I’m an east coaster with friends who live in PC and have condos in LCC. Whenever I visit them we stick to one mountain per day. Even when I’m with the Alta crowd we tend to stick with SB or Alta on a given day. Hell, on a good powder day at Alta, with all the traversing/climbing for good turns, who’d want to slog over to SB? And I love ‘em both. How about we get enough skiers so snowbasin will open all it’s lifts on a Wednesday powder day in feb so we don’t have to traverse there as well? They have about 4 castles built from the olympic downhill event and they are more extravagant than Uzbekistan’s dictator’s houses, yet they are empty during the week in mid February when there is 2′ fresh on the ground.

  29. John says:

    I survey Guests at the resort by the hundreds, they want 1/2 day skiing, more food options, kid friendly and ease of use within the resort. I ski Alta/Bird, and never expect to do both resorts in a day, nor do the traveling skiers. Most of the skiers arriving don’t even know where Snowbasin is, so much for Olympic stickiness. The best part about this latest land grab is Talsker again underestimates social media, and how easy it is to educate those who care. My ski buddies who want One Wasatch won’t work to make it happen. Flip side is the people who care, they will work consistently to uncover the truth, and share it. Ski Link was stupid, One Wasatch is even lamer. A lot of us are becoming like Andrew, we step up, volunteer and expose poorly thought out land grabs.

  30. Jared Dross says:

    I hope all you Alta, Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude riders/skiers are willing to share your resorts with Park City on pow days. Now you will have all the Park City folks coming over on those days and tracking it out even faster. I could also see PC and Canyons starting their commuter lifts early to allow people time to traverse over to get in the BCC/LCC lift lines before their resorts open. As if things don’t get tracked out fast enough…just be prepared to see folks already standing in line who came over from Park City after you just spent an hour driving in traffic up Big and Little.

    The Only people who are benefiting from this plan are on the Park City Side. Notice the tours always start from the Park City resorts and go to LCC/BCC…When do ever see someone go from Snowbird to Park City? never.

    Basically all Backcountry users along with Snowbird, Alta, Brighton, and Solitude season pass holders should be strongly against this idea if you want to preserve you riding terrain.

  31. Sorry about the late comment approval IPOTT – I’ve been out for the last month. Nothing personal.

  32. Andrew Bird says:

    I’m a backcountry skier from the Canadian Rockies and would love to visit Utah – both for its backcountry and its resorts. The ONE proposal makes it much more likely I’ll visit. It would be great to have something Euro-style in North America, where you can stay in the same hotel and ski vast areas by lifts, or go off-piste at will. Where you don’t have to book a week at Alta only to realize you would have preferred the Canyons. Ski resorts being an inherently good thing, easier access to more of them seems better.

    I understand the main point of the above article to be “more lifts = less backcountry” because the terrain is so limited. But if that’s the case, then wouldn’t the lost terrain just be tracked-out side country anyway? Look, if I have to hurry to get there for fresh tracks, I’d just as soon have a lift to do it. That’s not real backcountry. As an outsider, I don’t understand what you’re losing.

  33. John Dubock says:

    Live here and you’re realize why the One idea is bogus. The resorts barely work together as it is and Joe Average skier skis half day max at this elevation, not to mention the insane cold half the year. Utah isn’t Europe, its one to a car here. The resorts are so big you could take weeks to ski it out, so think real estate land grab vs doing anything for skiers.

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