Thursday, March 1, 2012

Wasatch Backcountry Skiing is Under Siege

Love skiing in the Wasatch backcountry? Not for long. That's right, if the ski resorts get what they're applying for, you'll be hard pressed to find any quality terrain left outside the ski area boundaries.

Five of the seven major ski resorts operating in the Central Wasatch Mountains are attempting to gobble up the remaining mountains outside their borders - by adding chairlifts and turning the entire heart of the range into one, connected sea of lift-access terrain. Backcountry ski legend, and author of the Chuting Gallery, Andrew McLean outlines the impacts of the nine new lifts here on his blog - According to an article in the Deseret News, if all the lift proposals were to go forward, the total acres of in-bounds terrain would more than double, adding as many as 8,270 acres to the 6,294 acres now.

If you only love skiing in-bounds, you might think this is great news, but if you've ever had a memorable day in the Wasatch backcountry, and hope to have more in the future, then now is the time to speak up. Because before long, this little range will be maxed out with chairlifts, aerial trams and gondolas to every ridge top. Grizzly Gulch, Flagstaff Mountain, Silver Fork, Cardiff Fork, USA Bowl, Wolverine Cirque, Twin Lakes Pass, White Pine - you name your favorite backcountry destination, it'll be inside a resort, tracked out by noon.

There's nothing new about the Wasatch ski resorts trying to expand. In fact, they've been slowing spreading their collective footprint since the first ski lift was installed at Alta in 1937. But at some point, we, as Salt Lake City residents, need to decide when enough is enough. How developed do we want the Wasatch to be?

Let's take a closer look at the new lift projects currently proposed.

  • The Canyons/Solitude SkiLink Connect Tram
The Canyons, owned by Talisker Corp. is partnering with Solitude Mountain Resort in a joint effort to connect the two ski areas with a gondola. The 8 passenger lift, dubbed SkiLink, would access 6,000 acres of current backcountry terrain - starting at the Solitude base area and unloading at the top of the Canyon's Daybreak lift. The nearly two mile long lift could deliver 1,000 skiers per hour to the top of the Park City Ridge Line, accessing backcountry favorites like USA Bowl, and Bear Trap Fork.

To build their gondola, this partnership has pursued purchasing a 30.3 acre parcel of public land at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon. In an effort to acquire the land, a bill has been introduced to Congress - The Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act, to remove the land from the federally protected watershed, and put it in private ownership. Therefore eliminating the Forest Service, who's current forest plan prohibits ski resort expansion within the Cottonwood Canyons, from the decision process. Salt Lake City Public Utilities, who provides drinking water for Salt Lake from Big Cottonwood Canyon has expressed concern over the proposal. (Backcountry skier Sonja Matson in USA Bowl, above)

  • Snowbird Tram to American Fork Twin Peaks
Snowbird has proposed a new expansion package to the Forest Service. Its centerpiece is a new tram running from Hidden Peak to the West Twin of Twin Peaks American Fork Canyon. The expansion would add 780 acres of Mary Ellen Gulch into the Snowbird Resort boundary. The Forest Service has accepted the proposal, and is considering it for approval.

From a backcountry skier's perspective, this tram is also concerning because it would provide resort skiers easy access to White Pine Canyon's upper bowls. While Mary Ellen Gulch doesn't get much use because access is limited by the location of Snowbird, White Pine is one of the most popular Little Cottonwood tours. (Backcountry skier Kelly Paasch in White Pine Canyon, above)

  • Alta Lift on Flagstaff Mountain
Alta is exploring the idea of a new lift up Flagstaff Mountain on the north side of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Their rationalization: the lift would make avalanche control work safer, by eliminating the use of artillery fire across the canyon. The new lift would in turn allow skier compaction of the slopes, helping to stabilize Upper Little Cottonwood Canyon's snowpack. Can't argue with that. But the lift would provide access to some of the most popular backcountry terrain in the world. Grizzly Gulch, Flagstaff Mountain, Twin Lakes Pass, all these popular tours would either be inside Alta's ropes or part of their easy access "side-country".

  • Solitude Mountain Resort's proposed new lift in Silver Fork Canyon

Solitude has proposed a new lift in Silver Fork Canyon. The package would include re-aligning the Honeycomb return chair for a return ride from the bottom of Silver Fork. The new lift would access a total of 298 acres of backcountry terrain, (182 Forest Service/116 private). The Silver Fork lift and Flagstaff Mountain lifts would essentially connect Alta and Solitude at the ridge. Again the Solitude "side-country" would expand under this proposal too, with easy access to neighboring Days Fork, and the very popular backcountry runs of Meadow Chutes on the west side of Silver Fork Canyon.

  • Park City Resort's Jupiter and 10420 Lift

Park City Resort is exploring building two new lifts in the Guardsman Pass area, one to the top of Jupiter, the other to Peak 10420. These lifts would expand Park City's boundaries to the north edge of Brighton Resort.

Here's a link to a KSL video about the overall effect of the proposed ski area expansions.

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