Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ski Area Expansion and Canyons 'SkiLink'

The seven ski areas of the central Wasatch fall within three distinct areas: the Wasatch back areas of Park City, Big Cottonwood Canyon and Little Cottonwood Canyon. Each area remains separate from one another and holds their own distinct character. Hopefully it will stay that way.

This year the Canyons resort has upped the ante with a proposal to link the Park City side to Big Cottonwood with a ski lift called ‘SkiLink’. So what does this mean for the Backcountry skiing in the area? I’ll give you a hint; it’s similar to playing with fire.

 The Canyons resort, or just ‘Canyons,’ as it is now called (everything said latte must be good), wants more. And they might just well need more to maintain their current assets, the resort is a real estate development with some skiing nearby; not a proper ski area. It seems they want to draw an eye; to differentiate themselves from the other Park City based resorts. The ability for Canyons guests to go to a different ski area for a day could be an appealing draw. This plan seems less to do with an inter-connected system of ski areas and more to do with a marketing stunt and the possibility for more in the future.

At first glance it seems like a no brainer, connect all the resorts in the region and ski around with glee. Ski for miles, like in Europe, and go where you please. The problem with this concept here in Utah from a backcountry skiing standpoint is that although more terrain may be accessed by lifts that you often can’t go where you please, even in areas on public land. Ski areas can charge whatever they want to use their services (nearing double the cost of skiing in europe) and close areas or access to areas at their discretion, largely due to liability concerns. Aside from the fact that new in-area terrain ruins areas that were once less touched, new lift served areas allow for more limitations on where it is possible to go even outside the ski area. For example, Snowbird closes the ridge access from Hidden peak to the American Fork Twin Peaks (and everything beyond) and for the majority of the season. So not only is the terrain within the ski area a rat race but the terrain beyond it is difficult or impossible to get to unless you walk up from outside the ski area. From a backcountry skiing standpoint the Snowbird tram might as well not even be there and is a far cry from the grand backcountry access points of the Alps such as the cable cars up La Meije in La Grave or Chamonix’s Augille du Midi.

Anyway, back to the dirt:

Canyons ‘SkiLink’ does not claim to expand ski terrain officially or affect the adjacent backcountry ski terrain it travels over in Big Cottonwood Canyon. The plan involves a point to point lift from the Solitude base area to a high elevation in-area neighborhood of the second home elite on the other side of the ridge (within Canyons). There is no planned top station on the ridge to immediately allow access to the backcountry and it would take several ski lifts to access the lift from Canyons base or to get back to the ridge to ski back to Big Cottonwood.

You might ask: why? Canyons claims that the lift will cut down on traffic on the Big Cottonwood road as less people would then have to drive around from Canyons if they chose to, which few currently do. For some reason nothing is said about the additional people that will drive up Big Cottonwood from Salt Lake City because the lift is there; undoubtedly increasing traffic overall in the canyon: HELLO!!!???

Skiers from Canyons would likely still be allowed access to the backcountry and into Big Cottonwood from other access points within the ski area, such as through the current access point off the 9990 lift, virtually creating a massive, unpatrolled, easily accessible backcountry area all the way down into Big Cottonwood. The fact that several lifts would be necessary to turn backcountry laps would surely make it necessary to purchase an all day ski pass for nearly $100 a day (opposed to single ride options such as that offered on the Millicent lift a few miles farther up Big Cottonwood at Brighton for $12).

The terrain affected leading back into Big Cottonwood is fantastic ski touring terrain and a reasonably safe area to travel for those in the know when avalanche risk is higher. It is a sanctuary when other areas are dangerous. Contrary to what Canyons states, this area would indeed be ruined for ski touring by resort skiers going out of the boundary if it remained permissible to do so; many of which skiers would undoubtedly not be able to safely deal with being out of bounds. The average clientele at Canyons is less than the self sufficient type.

All of the purposed lift expansion and adjacent backcountry also lies within the Salt Lake City Watershed. With the increased use of the area there will surely be impact to it. Lifts require fluids and maintenance overall and resort skiers leaving the boundary are animals too. Canyons beg to differ.
Canyons also argue there will be significant economic benefit from the lift development over the short and long term. My guess is that there could be some economic benefit over the short term but that global warming will ultimately drive Canyons out of business far before the ski areas in the Cottonwoods as it snows significantly less there and is lower in elevation.

My biggest fear of the entire idea of ‘SkiLink’ is what really may  be being planned; what I would guess is more real estate and or a purchase of Solitude. It would be very sad to see the McMansions of the entire Park City area infiltrate Big Cottonwood. There are thousands of lots in Big Cottonwood and nearly everything has a price tag. The Park City area is a disease really. If we really want a euro style skiing area, we need to lose liability concerns and get rid of the real estate mongers pushing on-mountain private homes; then we’ll talk.

Canyons 'SkiLink' development is pending approval by the USFS or waiting on the approval of an over the top maneuver as Utah senators in Washington favor the idea. 30 acres of Forest Service land must be eased for the proposal to go through. Stinky politics is all over this one.

The negatives on the land: straightchuter

Latest Findings of Canyons preliminary report disputed: The Salt Lake Tribune

Have a look for yourself: http://www.skilink.com/

What are your thoughts?

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