The U.S. Forest Service has approved a plan by Alta Ski Area to build a tram to the top of Mount Baldy, a move that would mark one of the most progressive developments ever undertaken by the historically unprogressive ski area.
The tram would originate near the top of the existing Collins chair and span 1,900 feet to a spot 90 vertical feet below the Baldy summit. Similar in design to the Big Sky and Snowbasin trams (resembling beer cans that hold about 15 people per car), the conveyance would move approximately 150 people per hour. According to the Forest Service's Environmental Assessment, a decision released on April 17, the development would allow Alta ski patrol to more accurately and effectively control the 23 avalanche starting zones on Baldy by using hand-charges and skier compaction. These zones are currently controlled via 105mm howitzers and two avalaunchers, which fire missile-like bombs into the snowpack from a platform far below.
Alta's plan also calls for replacing and upgrading two lower mountain lifts, Wildcat and Sunnyside. Wildcat is currently a 33-year-old double that moves at a geezer's pace--a favorite among longtime locals for precisely that reason. According to the plan, it would be upgraded to a fixed-grip or detachable quad, increasing capacity by about 1,000 skiers per hour. The plan also calls for expanding two restaurants and installing new avalanche-control technologies. A new, very short double chair, called the Flora, would be built from the flats below Sugarloaf to near the top of the Collins lift. Alta sees the Flora chair as helping to eliminate the need for skiers to cross the East Baldy Traverse, which Alta maintains is a drain on snowcat and avalanche control measures.
The original plan was submitted in December 2015. The latest decision brings Alta that much closer to finalizing the project.
Not surprisingly, the plan has ruffled some feathers in the famously touchy Wasatch.
"We don't agree with this decision at all," Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
The Forest Service decision lists Alta's reasons for the plan as follows: Improve economic and environmental sustainability; improve visitor parking; enhance avalanche control methods; upgrade lift service while reducing visual and land impacts; implementing emerging lift technology and streamline service; increasing efficiency to popular terrain; upgrading skier services and opportunities while improving skier distribution and circulation.
But it's the tram that has the ability to upend longstanding Alta traditions, where chairlifts don't necessarily drop you exactly where you want to ski. Any self-respecting Alta skier knows that he or she must hike, traverse, shuffle, scoot, or sidestep to ski the area's multitude of convoluted chutes and bowls. On a good day, the bootpack to the top of 11,068-foot Baldy takes about 20 minutes, leading to stunning views of the Wasatch and Salt Lake Valley, and some very exciting steep skiing. The hike keeps beginners, intermediates, and anyone else too lazy to shoulder their skis from getting in over their heads.
With a new tram, will Alta's culture change if anyone with a lift ticket can get to the top?
According to the decision, the plan presents "no significant impact." The decision now opens a 45-day comment period. Afterward, any action will be final. For more details on the project, go here. To comment, go here.