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Friday, October 7, 2011
A tram over the Wasatch

By Keith Carlsen
ESPN.com

The Canyons and Solitude could be connected via a tram someday.

Early last week, Salt Lake City, Utah, news sources reported on a proposed new lift or gondola that would connect Canyons Resort in Park City and Solitude Mountain Resort at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon. The announcement resurrected a debate around the idea of Utah's major ski areas moving toward a European-style interconnected mega resort.

A diverse group of players have spoken up about the issue. Resorts want expansion, increased skier visits, and increased profits. Environmentalists -- namely Save our Canyons -- wants to put a stop to this idea. And local and out-of-state skiers and snowboarders sit on both sides of the fence.

The official statement from Canyons was made by spokesman Ted Wilson, former Salt Lake City mayor who was an environmental adviser to Gov. Gary Herbert before joining Talisker Mountain Incorporated, the parent company of Canyons Resort. Wilson stated that the proposed lift's main purpose would be to help fix the traffic congestion problem in Big Cottonwood.

Solitude CEO Dave DeSeelhorst offers another take. "We have had an agreement for over a year now to study the possibility of connecting the two resorts with a lift," said DeSeelhorst in an exclusive interview with ESPN.com. "There is a tremendous amount of work and thought that needs to go into a project of this magnitude. The genesis of this idea is simple. We both believe that our customers are looking for more of an alpine adventure than what one single resort can provide. We have an amazing diversity of resorts in the Wasatch. Each resort has a distinctive feel to it."

In response to this news, much of the public, according to blogs and message boards, agreed -- as do I -- that this expansion is not about fixing BCC's traffic congestion, but rather the more obvious and ubiquitous trend in the ski industry to constantly expand and create new marketing stories to tell the public and media each year to attract more skiers and, ultimately, increase bottom line profit. Ski areas are businesses, not philanthropists, so this is never surprising. And when expansion can improve the skiing experience, even the most diehard local skiers support the moves. See the recent merger of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows or look at Alta and Snowbird, where opening the gates between the neighboring resorts in 2001 created arguably the best resort on the continent.

Ultimately, the proposed Canyons-Solitude connector lift -- which is in its extreme infancy stages and years from any actually development, if it is approved -- would definitely change the skiing experience for both resorts.

If a skier boards a lift at the Canyons, it will take an estimated 90 minutes to move via lifts to Solitude. And even then they will be at the bottom of Solitude. The skier who starts at Solitude, however, and heads to the top of Canyons via the new lift might even beat out skiers who started at the base of Canyons and have to ride four lifts to access the upper (read: best) terrain on the mountain. So, the lift could motivate more people to drive up Big Cottonwood, score upper Canyons laps, then come back to Solitude to finish their day. Without knowing the exact entry and exit points of the lift, this is all pure speculation, but it begs the looming question: Is this really about BCC's traffic congestion?

Diehard skiers have fallen in love with Solitude for its, well, solitude. Lift lines at the resort are rare. With skiers dropping in from the Canyons, the current Solitude skiing experience could be threatened. That said, one would assume skiers would also be leaving Solitude and heading to the Canyons. All this and we still haven't delved into the debate regarding backcountry skiing access issues.

Bottom line: The Wasatch interconnect concept has been on the table for years and doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.