Two visions for the future collide in the Wasatch Range

As ski resorts push for a mega-connection, Utah backcountry skiers try to save some of the wild

 John Lemnotis drops into the Benson and Hedges Couloir in Big Cottonwood Canyon, a popular place to backcountry ski. ||  James Roh

John Lemnotis drops into the Benson and Hedges Couloir in Big Cottonwood Canyon, a popular place to backcountry ski. || James Roh

This story original appeared in High Country News. The following text is an excerpt. Read the full story, here.

On a winter day in Utah’s Wasatch Range in the early 1970s, University of Utah professor Gale Dick and a small group of skiers stood near the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, contemplating a pristine slope of powder. A man appeared at the bottom of the run and urgently waved them away. Thinking they were being warned of avalanche danger, they took an alternate, much bumpier way down. At the bottom, they again encountered the man — a famous French skier named Jean-Claude Killy. There was, in fact, no avalanche danger at all. Much to the group’s annoyance, Killy had been cast in a promotional ad for Snowbird Ski Resort and needed a pristine slope for the day’s photo shoot. 

Dick went on to found Save Our Canyons, an organization that’s fought for more than four decades to keep development out of the Wasatch Range. The wild land of the Wasatch, which abuts Salt Lake City and its exurbs, has become a ski mecca, with six resorts scattered amid thousands of backcountry-skiing acres. Most of the resorts are separated by just a single ridge, a proximity that has fueled the ski executives’ dream: Connect them all, so that skiers can hop chairlifts from one to the next, thereby stimulating an already lucrative industry that brought more than 4 million visitors and 18,000 jobs to the state last year.

A growing community of backcountry skiers, though, object to that plan. They see themselves as more akin to Gale Dick than to Jean-Claude Killy, and, increasingly, they feel squeezed out of public land by the big resorts. Earlier this year, Vail Resorts Inc., a Colorado-based industry giant, purchased and consolidated two Wasatch Range ski areas. In mid-November, Park City opened for its first season as the country’s largest ski area, charging more than $100 for a daily pass. Vail’s move has created fresh impetus for further consolidation and connection of resorts, and set the stage for a new battle. 

The conflict between backcountry users and resort operators highlights two very different visions for the mountains: One that eagerly welcomes the rapidly growing population in the nearby urban areas, and another that wants to hold the growing mass of humanity at bay. The population of Salt Lake and Summit counties will more than double by 2050, according to the nonprofit Utah Foundation, and the tussle over competing uses of a finite resource is only growing as demand increases. “Everyone wants more — more terrain and more solitude within those spaces for backcountry skiing and more acreage for resort skiing,” says Chase Lamborn, a research associate with the Institute for Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University. “But the reality is, you’re talking about this confined space, and all of the areas are already being heavily utilized.”

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