SALT LAKE CITY — In 1990, the idea of linking the central Wasatch Range’s seven ski areas came up in Salt Lake County planning circles and was rejected. Aerial trams over the top of the Wasatch and a tunnel through the range did not make much sense for the skiing public, although someone was sure to get rich off the scheme, recall those who participated in the debate.
The so-called “interconnect” may have died a quick death, but the dream of linked ski areas is alive and well thanks to the gradual growth of Wasatch resorts.
As a major winter storm began to pummel Little Cottonwood Canyon one recent Friday, a scene unfolded on Sugarloaf Pass that could be a sign of things to come for Utah skiing.
Executives from Alta and Snowbird — neighboring rivals that boast the finest steeps and deeps in the ski business — opened the gate between Alta’s Albion Basin and Mineral Basin, Snowbird’s freshly developed backside bowl.
For the first time in North America, skiers can glide from one resort to another on a combined pass.
“This is just the beginning,” says marketing leader Kip Pitou, president of Ski Utah. “Interconnected resorts are the future for Utah skiing.”
Let’s hope not, sigh Utah environmentalists, dismayed by the shrinking share of undeveloped Wasatch backcountry and the trend toward bigness in the Utah ski industry.
“Each ski area and winter recreation area ought to have its own character,” says Salt Lake City ski historian Alexis Kelner, a founding member of Save Our Canyons. “Just because people are doing it in Europe doesn’t mean we should be doing it. Most of the people on the (Save Our Canyons) board are opposed to continual enlargement of ski areas in the face of declining demand for skiing.”
Interconnect skiing is common in Europe’s Alps, where ski areas abut into vast networks of lift-serviced terrain and villages, but nonexistent in North America. Only in Utah is it even possible, thanks to the proximity of seven ski areas sandwiched between Park City and Alta — all within a six-mile radius of Solitude in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Two lifts could sew up a complete interconnect, assuming The Canyons completes its planned southward expansion to the edge of Park City Mountain Resort. Alta and Solitude are only a lift away via Grizzly Gulch. Same with Brighton and Park City Mountain Resort via Scotts Pass.
Alta plans to offer cat skiing on private land in Grizzly, but officials declined to comment on rumors that the ski area is contemplating a lift there.
As Utah backcountry skiers have known for years, you can already ski between canyons if you don’t mind hiking through avalanche terrain. For those less versed in the mysteries of avalanche avoidance and backcountry route-finding, there is Ski Utah’s Interconnect Adventure Tour — a $150 guided ski trek from Park City to Snowbird, riding lifts through five ski areas.
“It’s an incredible marketing story,” Pitou says. “It’s something we can do that you can do nowhere else in the United States. We could have the biggest ski area in the world without adding infrastructure. You could ski all day without hitting the same lift twice.”
Interconnecting resorts could cut down auto traffic in the canyons, since visitors staying at the three Park City ski areas could ride lifts — rather than drive — to Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, supporters say.
“It is a natural. It’s all so close,” says engineer Beat VonAllmen of Alpentech, a Salt Lake City ski-industry consultant. “People are so interested in doing different things. They want extra variety.”
But VonAllmen contends the concept was poorly thought out when it was first proposed and “interconnect” is now a loaded term that should be abandoned.
Back in 1968, for example, when Salt Lake City began bidding to host the Winter Games, Olympic boosters touted ski-resort links as if the nonexistent tramways that would carry skiers from Midway to Brighton and Park City were already in place, according to Kelner’s research.
This left people with the impression that interconnect was something to be forced down the public’s throat, rather than serve as a natural outgrowth of skier demand.
Any trans-Wasatch interconnect would face major obstacles and could only happen one link at a time.
“It will happen if it’s what skiers want and it’s best for the ski areas, not because of some grand marketing plan,” says Onno Wieringa, president of Alta Ski Lifts.