Change Comes to Alta

A tram to Mount Baldy and a new Wildcat Chair are among the developments outlined for Alta's future

Goodbye Wildcat? Alta submitted a plan to update lift infrastructure to the U.S. Forest Service. PHOTO: Adam Clark

Alta Ski Area—not resort—at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, harbors strong connotations of skiing heritage, deep powder, and quirky vibes. Known to receive boatloads of some of the finest snow in North America, it’s a place that, since its inception in 1939, has changed the lives of countless ski bums, tourists, and industry professionals. And like many iconic ski areas, it is one of a kind.

“Things are going to change. That’s one thing you can be sure of,” says Lee Cohen.

Last week, the Salt Lake Tribune reported expansion plans proposed at Alta, news that sounded the alarm for many diehard skiers there. The proposed developments intend to update the ski area’s aging infrastructure and include a tram to the top of Mount Baldy, new and replaced chairlifts, more parking spaces, and a restaurant expansion. Alta submitted a Master Development Plan Update to the U.S. Forest Service in December 2015—the ski area operates on a USFS special use permit. After accepting the update, the USFS has now initiated their review in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act. Public comment will be accepted on the matter until May 26th.

“Today there are more people than ever and things are going to change. That’s one thing you can be sure of,” says Lee Cohen, a POWDER senior photographer who is largely responsible for disseminating Alta’s storied powder to the rest of the ski world. In his 35 years skiing at Alta since he moved to Utah in 1981, Cohen says he has seen the ski area change with the times, albeit slowly. “It’s just a matter of how much things change.”

The proposal contains 12 specific projects centered on uphill capacity, avalanche control, parking and accessibility, additions to existing mid-mountain structures, and one environmental restoration project that would re-create an alpine lake to store eight million gallons of water for snowmaking.

“We’re hoping to do some fine-tuning around Alta and preserve the passionate experience that exists along with having a modern lift infrastructure,” says Connie Marshall, Alta’s director of marketing and PR.

Photo: Lee Cohen
Improving uphill capacity, avalanche control, parking and accessibility are all goals Alta hopes to achieve with the wishlist they submitted to the USFS this winter. PHOTO: Lee Cohen

The moment a ski area mentions the word “development,” locals become disgruntled. Ski resorts are forever battling to stay relevant and that often means replacing slow chairs with faster ones and remodeling base areas. However, Alta Ski Area has always been a beacon of core ski culture atop the road. They have been slow to progress with the times—they still do not allow snowboarders—and that keeps their clientele loyal. Alta is a skier’s mountain with a general manager—Onno Wieringa—who still runs snow-safety routes and manages operations with a hands-on approach, combing the mountain nearly every day to see what’s going on around the hill.

This is why the initiative to build faster lifts—notably replacing the Wildcat Chair and a tram to Baldy—doesn’t make sense to many Alta skiers. The ski area’s relevancy within the industry has always been rooted, and still is, in preserving the snow, the culture, and the vibe. The way of thinking has always been: If you want high-speed lifts, go elsewhere.

Alta Ski Area has always been a beacon of core ski culture atop the road. They have been slow to progress with the times—they still do not allow snowboarders—and that keeps their clientele loyal.

The proposed changes, Marshall emphasizes, won’t affect that feel or culture. “Our people per hour and density of skiers on the mountain will be finely handed, keeping one of our basic promises that you can get off a lift and experience the Alta people have come to love,” she says.

Alta intends the proposed developments to create positive change. GazEx technology for avalanche control will keep Alta patrollers safer and help them open terrain more regularly. Removing Albion (with a nod to nostalgia to those who learned to ski there) and updating Sunnyside will provide beginner and intermediate skiers a more conducive location to learn. Combining Cecret and Supreme chairs into one detachable chair with a capacity of 2,400 people per hour will move skiers easily through the surrounding Supreme/Catherine’s area. Even the new Flora chair, while it initially didn’t make sense given the existing EBT traverse that brings skiers from Sugarloaf to Collins, will allow the ski area to have East Baldy exist as an entire ski run—rather than it being bisected by a traverse.

The bulk of the controversy, however, stirs around Mount Baldy and Wildcat.

Alta is proposing to build a tram from Germania Pass to just below the top of Mount Baldy, above the Perla’s area. “This lift would transport ski patrollers to near the top of the mountain to allow conventional explosive avalanche control work,” according to an official statement by the ski area. “The lift could also be used for skier access below the tram or in the east and west Mount Baldy areas when conditions allow.”

A tram to the top of Mount Baldy? That may come sooner than you think. PHOTO: Lee Cohen
A tram to the top of Mount Baldy? That may come sooner than you think. PHOTO: Lee Cohen

“The whole feeling behind the Baldy tram is to maintain our ability to do avalanche control in the future,” says Marshall. Considering the limited supply of military surplus shells to use with the existing avy gun that Alta uses, as well as a fear that newer avy guns would shoot farther than the current system, elevating the risk of overshooting targets, Marshall says, “Our ability to shoot terrain is dwindling, and if the new tram is running we can put people on it.”

But skiers appreciate the hike that’s currently required of anyone who wishes to ski Baldy.

“You have to be a real skier to ski Baldy, and all the best ski resorts that currently exist still have hike-to terrain,” says Judd Salvas, an East Coast transplant who has called Alta home for close to a decade. “I like the fact that if I’m in shape I can go hike and ski there a few times in a day. There’s something special about that experience.”

Replacing Wildcat with a modern, detachable lift would be like replacing Mad River Glen’s iconic single chair.

Replacing the 33-year-old Wildcat double chair with a detachable lift—which would double its uphill capacity—also scares many powder stash seekers. Alta hopes the new lift will make the Wildcat area more attractive to skiers. But the very thing that gives Wildcat appeal is that it holds snow well into the afternoon. Wildcat is also the most iconic symbol of Alta’s culture and heritage. Replacing Wildcat with a modern, detachable lift would be like replacing Mad River Glen’s iconic single chair.

“For me there’s something about [the Wildcat] lift that’s warm and fuzzy,” says Salvas.

A resident of Park City, Salvas intentionally passes several ski areas on his way to Alta. “I drive to Alta for the community of skiers that is unlike any other resort I’ve ever been to. That vibe sits really well to me, it feels like home.” Despite the impending developments, Salvas he will still ski at Alta.

The proposed Alta developments are a sign of the times, the beginning of sweeping changes coming to Little Cottonwood Canyon and the entire Wasatch. The remaining legislative sessions in Washington D.C. will vote on a Federal Lands Designation bill, sought to protect parcels of the Wasatch. However, if that bill doesn’t pass, advocates of a united Wasatch may go back to the drawing board. Considering Snowbird’s approved expansion into American Fork, some argue that the Mount Baldy tram is another step in connecting the dots for one mega-resort.

“Alta is the soul of Little Cottonwood Canyon,” says Salvas. “It’s true to the sport of skiing. I just hope they keep the soul with small updates.”

Public comments regarding the proposed developments are open until May 26, 2016. To comment electronically, send an email to: comments-intermtn-uwc@fs.fed.us

Passing Through: Alta and Snowbird

Proposed Development at Alta Ski Area:

    • Albion/Wildcat base parking swap of 50 spaces to accommodate mass transit.
    • A Tram from Germania Pass to the top of Mount Baldy.
    • GazEx or other equivalent technologies to replace artillery and avalauncher.
    • Replacement of Albion and Sunnyside lifts.
    • Replacement of Cecret and Supreme lifts.
    • Replacement of Wildcat lift.
    • New Flora lift from bottom of Sugarbowl to the top of Collins lift.
    • Supreme terrain work.
    • Alf’s restaurant building addition.
    • Watson Shelter building addition.
    • Equipment storage facility.
    • Lake restoration at the top of Glory Hole.