18,000 Acres, 7 Resorts, 1 Ticket

Is this a good thing for Utah?

ONE Wasatch wishes to connect seven Utah ski resorts, expanding inbounds terrain  by 1,000 acres. It's the latest in a controversial decades-old debate. But this time, should we listen? PHOTO: Intermountain Aerial Surveys

ONE Wasatch wishes to connect seven Utah ski resorts. It’s the latest in a controversial decades-old debate. But this time, should we listen? PHOTO: Intermountain Aerial Surveys

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.

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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.

A map highlighting the seven ski resorts participating in ONE Wasatch, and the zones that would be connected. IMAGE: ONE Wasatch

A map highlighting the seven ski resorts participating in ONE Wasatch, and the zones that would be connected. IMAGE: ONE Wasatch

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.

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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.

Add a comment

  • B M

    is it really “their land”?

    • Johnny USA

      Ask the Ute tribes if Utah is really their land.

    • Ignorant & Scared

      yes an no.. the rights to the land b/t LCC & BCC has a bit of an asterisk. The owner borrows USFS land that is much better for skiing than what they own and, in this case, are looking to develop. So while they do own it, they also are dealt a massive favor each year when they get the OK to run Alta on what amounts to mostly public land.

      In short, we don’t owe Alta sh*t.

  • bisccutbob

    those resorts are big enough as is. the only benfit would be a season pass if you live there and i cant imagine what that would cost.

  • Launchpad McQuack

    I can’t disagree with you more. Pub crawl? really? at $100 or more a ticket to ride the lifts around to various resorts? Pretty good to us over the years? Um…yeah… you paid for those services, quite handily. So skier numbers are declining, but BC activity is increasing, so the answer is to increase resort sizes – NO. The fussing and fighting in the BC that you describe occurs in just a tip of the main Wasatch BC terrain in LCC, and most of us that spend time in the BC don’t fight or fuss with each other because we’re out there to have fun away from other people in many many other areas besides south Superior in LCC. Sure there’s great terrain in other ranges, but the Wasatch is amazing and shouldn’t have to be paid for to be skied. I understand that listening to their ideas and having a counter-point to the normal Powder fan view is one thing – but as a life-long Powder fan I think it’s sad that anyone at Powder could have your opinion….which is of course, just my opinion.

    • Rich

      It’s time to share the Wasatch with the world. It seems all are selfish about protecting their powder stash that’s close to where they live. It’s not just for you!

  • scruboak

    The alignments have yet to be revealed. Most likely it will be mostly private, but not all. Most likely it will violate county ridgeline building ordinances, There is a good chance that it will allow the resorts to deny access to Forest Service land, for example LCC access to Day’s & Silver Fork by denying uphill access through the resort. 45 minutes to access upper Day’s fork? Not if you have to start from the bottom. Ski Utah acknowledges that that this is primarily a marketing ploy to bring in out of state riders – locals won’t generally pay the high price to take advantage of this. The goal is to look more appealing to skiers considering going to CO or CA, in an attempt to take market share away in a diminishing market. They are not seeking to meet demand, they are seeking create it and to somehow fill up the lodging that they mistakenly over-built. The recent Wasatch Canyons Tomorrow regional planning process reported that 94% of the participants in the project, which included all the resorts, the FS, local governments and the public, were strongly opposed to any resort expansion. Is this ONE Wasatch for all users to share or ONE Wasatch to benefit the resorts?

  • Rick Heil

    I for one find it an appealing idea.
    Granted I haven’t skied backcountry in 10 years… but isn’t the Wasatch for all. As a skier, especially from Park City, being able to ski into and back out of the Cottonwoods would be much appreciated and a lot of fun. And almost certainly stop our annual down the mountain/back up trips we often do with guests (or simply for ourselves). Living in PC why should we have to drive down and around to enjoy the fron wasatch? And of course visa-versa… come up and join us.

    Seems a minimal impact for lots of business and community gain.

    • Ignorant & Scared

      ^ this guy

      lives in Developer Co. CHECK
      doesn’t bc tour CHECK

      all i need to know.

    • Rich

      Absolutely correct!

  • thosewhocamebefore

    So the marketeers at Ski Utah have facilitated cooperation between the factional, dysfunctional, and egotistic resort powder gods and hijacked a Bob Marley slogan in the process. How republican.

    Making this whole charade even more surreal is the “wink wink” complete lack of a plan. Realliously ? The lack of candor is on full display with the claim that the entire project can be built on private land. Well…… how exactly can you make that claim if you don’t have a plan ? Hmmmmm

    The real issue here is this proposal was conceived and brought to our attention by little, greedy minds. Its a rinky dink, disingenuous proposal that does not do the brilliance of the Wasatch Mountains or its informed and intelligent citizens justice.

    If these chumps had vision and chutzpah they would grab the brass ring and score the sweetest deal for the watershed, the backcountry users, and the resorts in one fell swoop. Better yet, this project could cut pollution, reduce if not eliminate canyon traffic, and be done with federal dollars. How ? Under the guise of an Olympic Bid of course. Go big or go home.

  • Ignorant & Scared

    ONE Wasatch is a half a$$ed non-plan that doesn’t solve the regional issues at play.

    If you want to improve the travel logistics of Utah’s ski areas and improve access for out of town guests, enable large scale and unemcumbered access to everyone. This requires a non-resort travel solution, likely a tramcar, train or similar vehicle. It also requires LOGICAL START and END POINTS.

    If your goal is to link PC & BCC then do that, don’t link a lift at 9,500′ to a lift at 8,700′ and require several hours of transit. Link Main Street to Molly Green’s. Same goes for Alta/Brighton – throw a bone to the backcountry community by providing a solution to the ‘shuttle tour’. A tram between Brighton & Alta TOWNS would preserve backcountry almost completely and provide reliable and cheap travel between canyons.

    Do it right and cover all user groups. That means commuters, bc users, bikers, tourists, and possibly a few on the SOC side.

  • Chuck Allison

    It seems to me, the key datapoint is: It’s their land, their money, and their idea. Sorry, but you can use the system or not, that’s about it.

  • cburg

    I am a full time Utah resort skier – 140+ days per year for the past 7 years. From my perspective, and I know I am in the minority of those who ski these 7 resorts, it would give me a lot of daily options. Let’s see what the plan is, before jumping on a band wagon of NO!

  • G. Brad Lewis

    If you want more skier days, change Utah’s archaic liquor laws. This is just a marketing effort that has nothing to do with skiing. Pub crawl… we owe them… really? When is crowded enough crowded enough?

  • Jack O Hanlon

    Here you go – another way to do it…since their are so many “stakehoiders” involved and the infighting will only get worse:

    A second tram terminates at the top of Mt. Baldy, just across from Snowbird’s tram. It starts at Birghton, goes up and over the ridge and has one of the most wild open gaps in tramway history, rivaling the line that connects Whistler to Blackcomb over the canyon in B.C. The ONE Wasatch users breathtakingly dangling high above Alta. It’s a combo lift and amusement park ride.

    When it arrives at the top of Baldy, skiers can go east or west. Snowboarders to the west only! (Or risk arrest by the Alta Ski Patrol.)

    Sure, it’ll cost untold millions and totally despoil the view of the Baldy ridgeline, the chutes and the craggy brilliance of it all, not to mention how out of scale it’ll be over at little old locals’ hangout Brighton.

    But – it will let Alta keep “It’s culture,” as Onno Wieringa alluded to during the ONE Wasatch news conference. In fact, maybe it should be all trams from the Canyons to Park City over to Brighton, then Alta, as one poster here suggests. A regular airboirne highway. Maybe the trams could have advertising on them, like an UTA bus, or the light rail cars. You could take night rides. Book private parties.

    They could rip off “Canyonlands By Night” and call it “Wasatch By Night.”

    Or – Alta could let snowboarders in and they could build three rather short, unobtrusive lifts on their private property and be done. They could sell local’s only passes like Colorado’s Summit Pass for a low price that would allow for a certain number of days on the interconnect.

    Tourists would defininately come to try it.

    Or just forget the whole thing because, as a long time backcountry skier, I don’t know how much more whining many of us can stand coming from the rather small ultra-vocal group of other BC users who never seem to stop their incessant windging. It’s always something, right?

    Now ONE Wasatch will give these people years more of things about which to complain. It’s another “heli war!”

    To that elitist, self entitled-acting group: your attitude is similar to the private club attitude at Deer Valley. Only you think you are “pure” – yet your SUVs are crammed along Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon roads while you tour up without lifts. Those vehicles being your soot belching “ski lifts,” since you don’t hike up from the valleys.

    Build the interconnect. Let everyone, regardless of what their feet are attached to, come and enjoy themselves.

    Everybody is at war in the Wasatch, when they should just shut up and slide.

  • Cindi Lou Grant

    I see many things wrong with development of our small Wasatch but, the part that bothered me most is the conniving twist on Bob Marleys One Love. You won’t get this 20something yr old to follow blind onto your greedy freight train. If we let this happen it will only lead to more exploitation. My line in the sand is the one already scarred onto the mountains of the Wasatch currently. Shame on you Powder, what happened to Deep and saving our winters? How about they take their money and develop transportation solutions and zero out their massive carbon footprint? That would be a One Wasatch worthy of Bob Marley.

  • Joel

    IF they are able to do this entirely on private property within the regulations of the city/county/state then by all means they should do it. Private property is just that private.

    This past year a local group has started building a new ski resort I my town. While I don’t think the resort will be all they think it will, it is their property and their money so who am I to tell them what to do with it?

    The author hit the nail on the head with this article.

  • AndrewMcLean

    Derek – I think prestigious blogger is an oxymoron, but thanks for the backhanded compliment. ;)

    Just to be 100% clear, I came out against the idea of using any more public land for ski resort expansion in Utah – ONE Wasatch or not. If resorts want to connect via their own private property and with their own funds, there’s not much stopping them, and in fact they probably could have done this about 50 years ago. I guess the question is, why haven’t they? Probably because it is not quite as clear cut as they and Ski Utah make it seem. And just because there may be some private property between the resorts, doesn’t necessarily mean that the owners want to turn it into a ski resort – not everybody is totally enamored with the idea of clear cutting.

    And Derek… I thought you were a skier? It seems like your main interest in connecting the resorts is to swill overpriced watery cocktails and weak Utah 3.2 beer at any many resorts as possible before heading over to a Big Head Todd concert in the Canyons and then taking a $100 taxi ride back to Snowbird to get your car at the end of the day. ?? That ain’t skiing my friend – that’s just consumptive tourism.

  • powder pig

    Ski Resorts are all about real estate. If this expansion boosts sales and development then it will likely go ahead. (at least on paper so land can be sold). There is very little to gain from lift ticket sales and building chairlifts but everything to be gained from the developers.

  • Betty

    NONONONONONONONO!

  • Tabke

    I am absolutely astounded at the opposition to the plan.

    For me, born and raised in Utah, with decades skiing on both the Park City and Salt Lake sides of the range, this plan is a big step in the right direction. First argument “for.” It would be SO MUCH FUN.

    Next, on the grand scale of development in the Wasatch, the infrastructure and environmental impact required to complete this vision is relatively minor. The benefits to the local tourism industry, the ability to interconnect across the range without driving Hybrid Escalades, and the improvement of the day-to-day ski experience absolutely make it worth the lost terrain — some of the least “wild” and least interesting ski terrain in the range.

    When Deer Valley pushed east up Empire Pass, decimating the aspen groves to install the monstrosity that is the Montage as well as countless multi-million dollar vacation homes, continuing to bully independent land owners in Bonanza flats — that is a travesty. Ski Link? That would have been madness. The lack of viable transportation alternatives up the canyons. Insane. ONE Wasatch? Bring it on.

  • Montuckian

    I for one do not miss the constant bickering between the BC users and resort skiers in the Wasatch. I did both for 8 years there and just before the Olympics it started getting completely out of hand. I am for the interconnect but also believe the first priority should be workable public transportation in the canyons. I do miss that snow though.

  • itsnowjoke

    An excellent synopsis. Yes, let’s just get One Wasatch done. then we don’t have to talk, bicker, and fuss about it any more. Several lifts to connect 100 and make one of the most desirable ski areas in the world? Do it!

    • AndrewMcLean

      Snowjoke – since you seem to be in the know on the PC side, why hasn’t Canyons and PCMR joined yet? PCMR and Deer Valley? I know you said they were going to “soon” but so far nothing has happened. This seems like a no-brainer to me.

      • itsnowjoke

        You’re right. It is a no-brainer. That’s why the presidents, of all of the resorts had the One Wasatch press conference, stating that they would be joining. Specifics? I wouldn’t be too terribly surprised if they (DV, PCMR, Canyons) joined this summer.

  • ResortSkier

    As a resort skier from BC, Canada whose primary mountain is Whistler, this idea looks appealing to me. The amount of terrain that would be available looks impressive as a tourist. The point is, I can see this increasing tourism for what it’s worth.

  • SKI GUY

    It’s going to ruin the Cottonwood Canyon Resorts. As if Snowbird and Alta aren’t already crowded enough, adding several thousand more people from Park City is going to make those places mad houses… Great. Oh, and bombarding the BCC resorts with thousands of other people will ruin those places too. I ski BCC because fewer people go to Solitude and Brighton, and I like it that way. Those little mountains are going to be overrun. Keep them separate. Besides, who could ski at all of those resorts in one day anyway? Have fun with the 150 dollar lift tickets too…

  • independentincc

    This idea is absolute garbage. It’s all about bringing a bunch of competitors inline with one another. It’s anti-competitive. It’s all about the money. As it is now, these resorts are independent from one another and they compete for business. The cartel that they are proposing will increase lift ticket prices, including season passes across the board. And for what? So that you can theoretically ski the whole area with one incredibly expensive pass? Look at Alta and Snowbird. You can only ski one of ‘em at a time, but look how expensive a combined pass is there. This will not fly for a number of reasons but chief amongst them will be the anti-competitive aspect which is huge.

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