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The World’s Longest Gondola May Soon Loom Over Little Cottonwood Canyon’s Boulders

If Utah’s Department of Transportation can get funding for it.

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After weighing several proposals to minimize winter ski traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah’s Department of Transportation (UDOT) announced on Wednesday that it plans to ferry skiers to and from Alta and Snowbird in the world’s longest gondola. UDOT was also considering a road-widening plan, which would have added two bus-only shoulder lanes to SR-210, the avalanche-plagued road that winds its way up the canyon. Local climbing organizations have staunchly opposed both proposals, noting that the traffic is only a real problem for some user groups, and only on the snowy weekends. 

UDOT’s plan currently calls for a multi-stage implementation. Recognizing that sourcing $550 million for up-front capital expenses may take years, they propose immediately implementing shorter-term traffic-mitigation efforts such as increased bussing infrastructure and tolling for single-passenger vehicles—minimally invasive steps that local climbers like Nathaniel Coleman have been advocating for all along.

Once the project is funded, however, phase two will begin, which among other things involves constructing the gondola, a 2,500-car parking lot, and a base station near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Once completed, 35-person gondola cabins will arrive at the base station every 2 minutes. On-gondola travel time will be 27 minutes to Snowbird and 37 minutes to Alta. Building the gondola’s pilings and service roads, however, will inevitably require blasting apart some of Little Cottonwood Canyon’s historic boulders—though it’s still unclear exactly which ones are in the line of fire and how exactly parking and crag access will be affected. The gondola will also bring significant visual changes to the canyon. 

The 45-day public comment period, during which the public can recommend changes to UDOT’s proposal, begins on September 2. After that, UDOT will issue a final “record of decision” and push the plan to the legislature for funding sometime this winter. You can submit a comment about the plan here.

Zach Galla on the Green A Project, a hard undone line in Little Cottonwood Canyon. (Photo: Sean Faulkner)

In a statement on Instagram, the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance (SLCA) noted that “the fight is not over!” and urged climbers to weigh in during this public comment period. Climbers can ask UDOT to make a good-faith assessment of how well their shorter-term phase-one measures work before making recourse to “destructive large-scale infrastructure.” The SLCA also noted that, since funding will likely be a product of federal, state, and private investment, climbers can and should let their legislators know what they think of the plan.

According to UDOT’s report, the gondola has multiple advantages over the road-widening and do-nothing alternatives. First, since the gondola will be able to operate in most snow conditions, it can ferry users up and down the canyon regardless of road conditions, which are often treacherous in winter. The Gondola has a greater visual impact than the other options, UDOT notes, but has lower impacts on “the watershed, wildlife movement, and climbing boulders” when compared to the road widening. It is also expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the canyon by 25% annually.

Many critics, including climbers like Nathaniel Coleman and advocacy groups like the SLCA, reject the premise with which UDOT has pursued this entire project: namely that something drastic has to be done to solve a problem that exists only a couple of weekends a year. They’re especially put off, they say, by the fact that both of the UDOT’s proposed solutions—road and gondola—had clear negative impacts for the canyon’s other user groups, including hikers, bikers, climbers, fishers, birders, and backcountry skiers, who are minimally affected (if at all) by the traffic problem. 

Last October, Julia Geisler, the Executive Director of the SLCA, told Climbing that, “Less destructive options exist—options that would be more equitable for dispersed recreators and other users that will not come at the expense of the canyon’s beautiful landscape. Transportation infrastructure that physically and permanently alters the canyon should only be considered after less impactful options have been implemented and shown to be ineffective. Before they begin making permanent changes to the canyon’s landscape, we’d like to see UDOT try to expand electric bus service—service that includes dispersed recreation transit needs—and couple it with tolling and other traffic mitigation tactics.”

Gondola Works, meanwhile, a pro-Gondola interest group, proposes satisfying the canyon’s other users by supplementing the gondola service to the resorts by providing free shuttles to trailheads. They argue that the gondola, though unsightly, would minimize road noise and pollution from the 7,000 cars that travel up and down canyon each day during peak season—a number that would have only increased with road widening.

Snowbird and Alta, meanwhile, have thrown their pocketbooks behind the Gondola plan. Snowbird has even gone so far as to purchase five acres of land at the canyon’s mouth, presumably to either sell back to the state for the gondola’s base station or to build yet more skier-focused hotels.

Little Cottonwood Canyon Boulders Threatened by Infrastructure Plan: Hundreds of Problems May Disappear