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An Express Train to Powder Skiing Heaven

Mountain Accord

Why Utah needs to fix its public transportation—now.

by Erme Catino | photograph Adam Clark

Four years ago, I abandoned Vermont—my New England base for exploits with my Meathead Films and Ski The East brethren—for Utah’s Wasatch. After a dozen years, my wife and I were done with January thaws, and we left dreaming of deeper snow. Salt Lake City’s six lane highways soon replaced our rural dirt roads. It was a culture shock, but Alta, with its 500-plus annual inches of snow, was only 30 minutes away, so we made it work.

Then, that same year, we got stuck in traffic on a powder day. To say the transportation issue in Utah’s Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons is at a critical juncture would be an understatement. Historically, congestion was common during storms and avalanche control work, but if you hit snooze on a snowy weekend nowadays, expect to be backed up in stop-and-go ski traffic for more than an hour in the canyon. That’s an unacceptable delay for a 10-mile stretch of road.

Forever heralded as the world’s best city for powder skiers, Salt Lake City has seen steady growth for decades. With an expected 1.6 million residents by the year 2040, as well as 5.7 million visitors to the Central Wasatch annually, transportation is a hot conversation here. Environmentalists and ski tourism officials will likely have different visions for a fix, but nobody wants to see Utah’s ski traffic grow as dysfunctional as Colorado’s notorious I-70 corridor, where weekend gridlock can add six hours to a three-hour trip.

Preserving the Wasatch for generations to come—which goes hand in hand with fixing Utah’s ski problem before it’s too late—is the main goal of Mountain Accord, a collaboration among Utah’s ski resorts, local and city governments, environmental activists, state and federal transportation officials, the U.S. Forest Service, and the recreating public. Formed in 2013, Mountain Accord seeks to find long-term solutions rather than piecemeal approaches to conservation. This past August, the group signed its first agreement detailing what some of those fixes might look like—think buses and light-rails, not new gondolas connecting resorts. “We’re committed to public transit that connects our urban areas to recreation,” says Mountain Accord Program Manager Laynee Jones. “We don’t want Colorado’s problems; we see that a few times a year already.”

“Transportation is at the top of our list,” says Onno Wieringa, General Manager of Alta Ski Area. “We have a handle on the skier experience at Alta, but the road experience is a huge part of the ski day.” In the proposal, Alta Ski Area (and the town of Alta) have agreed to swap 603 private acres of land. It’s one of many such swaps the Mountain Accord executive board agreed to. Alta’s land exchange, however, is contingent upon transit improvements between Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, improved avalanche control on the canyon road, and the go-ahead to build a 100-room hotel on its land. Alta is also scrapping plans for a lift up Flagstaff as part of the deal. That type of cooperation is how Mountain Accord is intended to work: Wieringa is confident that the project will move forward.

Recently, my wife and I moved into a modest cabin in Big Cottonwood Canyon. To avoid the traffic and limit our carbon footprint, we’ve taken measures to curb our driving primarily by living in the mountains rather than motoring to them. Our move was a personal fix, but it obviously can’t be universalized. We’re privileged to have trails out the door in the summer and world-class touring in the winter. If the resort is tracked, we tour toward the Emma ridgeline separating Big from Little Cottonwood Canyon. Beneath us, cars zip around and the upper lots are slammed. With a bigger transportation fix, backcountry skiing could be an alternative to resort crowding. If we do nothing, though, years from now, even backcountry skiers will be jamming their cars up the road for powder—at 4:00 a.m.

Erme Catino is a freelance writer and PR+Team Manger at DPS skis.

From the Early Winter 2015 issue.

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