On Wednesday, March 19, Ski Utah and the seven resorts of the Central Wasatch (Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons and Park City) made an announcement that was both monumental and anticlimactic. It was monumental because seven separate businesses—two of which are embroiled in a bitter lawsuit—agreed to collaborate and anticlimactic because it basically reintroduced a decades-old concept with no timeline or implementation details.
That concept, of course, is the interconnect, or in its new iteration: ONE Wasatch. The version unveiled to the press last week promises to connect Snowbird, Alta, Solitude, Brighton, Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort, and Canyons using six or fewer lifts and intermediate runs, all on private land and with private funds, and united under a single pass. Once complete, ONE Wasatch will encompass more than 18,000 skiable acres, 700 named runs, and 100 lifts.
"A concept like this isn't going have 100 percent favor," said Ski Utah President and CEO Nathan Rafferty during the press conference. And he's right—it wasn't surprising at all last week that the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance, Save Our Canyons, and a litany of backcountry bloggers (Andrew McLean being the most prestigious among them) came out steadfastly against ONE Wasatch. The resorts repeated their intentions, and the usual suspects repeated their disapproval. Just another day on the Wasatch front.
Hype aside, this time appears to be different. Rafferty can say, "It's a concept, not a plan," all day long. The resorts know where the lifts need to go, and those who are going to have to make the biggest investments either have the money in hand, or can get it pretty easily. They already own the land. They will need to get municipal, county, and/or state permits, which will require a public input period, but they won't need U.S. Forest Service permission. This time, this appears imminent. We're just waiting for the first resort to decide to build the first lift.
To be clear, POWDER was asked to give an endorsement of this concept and declined, citing concerns about backcountry safety, lift ticket price, and, simply, generally favoring conservation of pristine terrain over development. Though I wasn't part of that decision, I believe it was the correct one. National media based out of state should not meddle in local access issues.
As someone who lives here, who has had a pass at six of the seven Central Wasatch resorts, what's my view? Have at it. You have seven resorts in about a 20-mile diameter that are a ridgeline apart from each other. Finish the job.
Why? There are a dozen scenarios I could paint for you. If nothing else, think of the spring pub-crawls you could put together. Mimosas at the Aerie, followed by a Susies at Alta Java (just to keep you on your toes), a beer at the Honeycomb deck at Solitude, to Molly Greens, a stop at the Stein Ericsson, maybe grab a shot at High West, and finish up with an Aprés concert at the Canyons. Or a hundred variations thereof.
The bigger question is: Why not? Questions of the cost of a ticket and additional backcountry access points sending more, possibly underprepared, people into avalanche terrain has to be a concern, though we won't know the specifics on this until one of the resorts proposes a lift.
And, of course, how does snowboarding fit in to the plan since Deer Valley and Alta still do not allow single-stick shredders? While Deer Valley G.M. Bob Wheaton said Deer Valley would not allow snowboarding in the foreseeable future, Onno Wieringa of Alta left the door open. "As the plan gets more refined, [Alta's snowboarding policy] will be one of the things that gets addressed," Wieringa said. Deer Valley would not be necessary to complete the circuit, while Alta would.
The best counter argument has come from Save Our Canyons' Carl Fisher. "When will the end of resort expansion be realized in the Wasatch?" he says. "And it just seems there is no end in sight for these things." And with that, I agree. There needs to be a line in the sand. Fisher said he could accept connecting the three Park City resorts. "[They] would have the largest ski complex in North America," he says. "That's where we'd like to see things stop." He draws a line at Big Cottonwood Canyon, and I respect that. My own line in the sand is this concept—ONE Wasatch.
After all, this land belongs to the resorts, and we learned long ago that chairlifts can be built in the watershed responsibly. Just last summer, Snowbird replaced the Gad II lift to little dissent and no poisoning of the valley's water supply. The interconnect would add 1,000 acres of new inbounds terrain, which is substantial, but spread out over seven resorts, isn't much relatively.
In terms of conservation, some encouraging news also came out of the press conference. When asked about SkiLink—the controversial gondola/land grab linking Canyons to Solitude proposed in 2012 (and to which I am vehemently opposed), Mike Goar, the G.M. for Canyons stopped just short of saying the idea was dead, and said it was no longer in the resort's plans. "SkiLink has been tabled," Goar said. "We view [ONE Wasatch] as a viable alternative. We are supportive of this effort—finding connections that are on private land." I took that to say that, if ONE Wasatch happens, SkiLink won't. Maybe I'm being naïve, but SkiLink was going to take an immense amount of political, social, and public relations wrangling to happen regardless.
So SkiLink goes away, which saves acres of Big Cottonwood backcountry. What do we trade? Fisher mentions, among other places, Patsy Marley, Grizzly Gulch, and Flagstaff—all of which are actually Alta's private property. If we disparage SkiLink for stealing public land, how, with a clear conscious, do we tell Alta what to do with their land?
On his website, Straightchuter.com, Andrew McLean drew a map where he highlights the prime ski terrain in the Wasatch. And for the most part he gets it right (though to get to where I usually ski these days, you'd have to follow the arrow toward "fracking.") The best snow—some of the best in the world—falls on the Cottonwood Canyons. "The area famous for ‘The Greatest Snow on Earth’ is actually quite small—roughly 5 x 20 miles, or 64,000 acres," McLean writes. "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 percent of the fussing and fighting you hear about in the Wasatch."
It's the best snow, yes. But it's ground zero for fussing, quite frankly, because it's where everyone lives, and understandably people get defensive over it. Meanwhile, there is uncrowded touring 45 minutes north in Weber county and 45 minutes south in Utah county, neither of which made McLean's map. There's also a lot of terrain in the Tri Canyons Area that will remain untouched (or at least as untouched as it is now). All of this is more accessible than 90 percent of the backcountry I skied in the 11 years I lived in Crested Butte, Colorado—a place surrounded by wilderness and open space and one of the most conserved places in the Western United States.
So yes, as locals and backcountry skiers, we're going to have to give something up for this. We're no longer going to be able to drive a half-hour, park our cars, and skin for 30 minutes to ski Silver Fork. We'll have to skin for 45 and ski Days Fork. We're still going to have great backcountry skiing just out of the resort boundary, and just out of the car. We're still going to have better snow and access than most places where people live to ski.
But we're going to have something else, too—something that can't be done in Whistler or in Tahoe or Colorado or New England or anywhere else in North America. And most of us, on most years, probably won't use it. But you know what? With a few obvious exceptions, most of these resorts have been pretty good to us over the years—teaching us to ski, throwing charges for us when the snow's not safe, letting us cross their land after we decided we could safely ski out of bounds, keeping the road open, serving us hot and cold beverages when the day is done. I'm not saying we owe them. Just that it's their land, and their money, and—this time at least—they seem to have put a lot of thought into it. So let's at least listen.