Friday, March 28, 2014

the Wasatch Interconnect

Last weekend I had the interesting opportunity to be invited on the famous "Wasatch Interconnect" tour from Deer Valley to Alta/Snowbird with Ski Utah as the representative from The Wasatch Backcountry Alliance with other VIP's to get an up close and personal look at the terrain that was at stake in the recently unveiled ONE Wasatch "concept" (http://onewasatch.com/)  One can probably guess what I think of this idea, but I was determined to keep not only an open mind but also act as civil and nice as possible to keep this discourse professional.  If you'd like to read the slightly more-sterile, shorter, and less-opinionated version of what went down I generated another post on the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance's website:  http://wasatchbackcountryalliance.org/2014/03/29/one-wasatch-interconnect-vip-tour/

We started out in fine Deer Valley style, being toted around in a special van:

And were then given our 'credentials':
worth $300.....
Worth A LOT more.  I am not sure why this is not made more widely known; it IS the ONE Wasatch pass....
After a decent breakfast (interestingly, the cooks had an average age of about 68; all the better to identify with DV's core consumers?) we were introduced to our guides who gave us the lowdown on our day. We took a handful of lifts through DV to get to the top of….some chair, went under the ropeline at the patrol shack, and proceeded down a PCMR run that literally is adjacent to DV run, with a 20 yard DMZ between the ropelines.  We took a couple of chairs and ended up on top of Jupiter chair, where we descended then booted up to the top of Jupiter Peak.  It was here that Nathan started on what was the two recurring themes throughout the day:  “Look at how beautiful it is” and “Look at how convenient this lift interconnect would be“. 
 
The first "warmup" sidestep, to make sure that we were worthy of the arduous day to come, where we would ascend - gasp - almost 200 vertical feet under our own power!  

"Lifts going here, there, and everywhere!"

I asked what the PCMR/Canyons connection would be, and he said it would come across from the new Iron Mt chair (that quietly took out what I understand to be the last sliver of b/c skiing out of PC) across the pine cone ridge to meet up in the Scott’s pass/Jupiter area.  It was here that he made some disparaging remark about Ski Link and how that was such a bad idea; no doubt for my edification about how sensitive they’ve become.  I also asked why the three PC resorts hadn’t been connected in the past themselves, since if 7 resorts is The Best then certainly connecting those three resorts – which I believe collectively would be the biggest ski resort in North America – would at least be Good.  He went on and on about how they are such different cultures and they just have never really had the incentive to and they are wary of each other and oh by the way PCMR and Talisker/Vail are at each other’s throats but with the incentive of the Other Guys being in to help them along they might put that aside.  Basically, I got the impression that the GM’s of each of the resorts just didn’t really want to join forces with their nearby neighbors out of ego; they all think they are good enough without them. But with the LCC/BCC resorts?  Now we’re talkin’! 

It was here that I asked him about plowing Guardsman, and I got a bit of a barrage of answers that had to do with how steep the road was (I pointed out that the Powder Mt road was super steep also, but I was told that was ‘different”) and how difficult/dangerous it would be to have plows on it due to avy danger (more so than LCC with 20-some-odd 3000’ avy paths?!  I didn’t point that out…).  Ralph said that Park City is very fearful of the traffic implications on Marsac ave, and that they would see G-man plowed “over their dead bodies”.  Interesting. 

We skied down towards the road that people use in the summer to ride up to Scotts Pass from the Gman road, then down below that to the road that is used to access USA bowl, and on out to Solitude.  We rode up through the ‘tude to the top, took the Sol-Bright trail down to the Milly chair at Brighton, up that, then down the lower Sol Bright back to the ‘tude for a sumptuous lunch. 
 
Our gang near the top of the Milly chair
Back up to the top of Solitude, across the “highway to heaven” traverse to Twin Lakes pass, 

where the ever-grinning Ono 

was there to whisk us in the Alta cat up to the top of Black Bess where we were able to partake in the glory of Grizzly Gulch.  

As we awaited the snowcat to haul us the extra 300 vertical feet to the top of Grizzly, we heard some voices and saw some skiers coming down, which was pretty normal on a sunny Saturday, but the abnormal part about it was that some of the voices sounded...quite small.  And indeed, the people the voices were coming from were quite small:




These kids had hiked up to the top of Grizzly Gulch/Michigan City with their parents to do a bit of backcountry skiing. They were 5, 7, and 9 years old!  I was so psyched to point out that if five year olds could go backcountry skiing, anyone can, and what the hell were we doing taking a snowcat up??!!  (fyi - the kids did NOT have AT/tele gear; they were on alpine stuff  - just like most of our crew - and just marched up in their ski boots carrying their skis....)

Before we skied down, they pointed out that the Solitude-Alta connection was going to be some sort of chair/gondola going across the high expanse from near the top of the Honeycomb chair to the top of the couloir running down from where the cat stops.  We marveled at a couple of notable freeride gals as they handily fired a pretty spicy line, and people ogled at the famous gap-jump kickers that people had built in Grizzly.  I pointed out that if the Grizzly chairlift - which Onno and Nathan talked about as if it were a foregone conclusion - were indeed to go in, that those jumps that are featured in every ski magazine would very likely no longer exist.  

Cast of Characters:
Bob Wheaton is the GM of DV who I believe is a famously-nice guy, and he certainly seemed to be so.    He welcomed us, but he did not join us on the tour. 

Nathan Rafferty – very much the ringleader, and as I expected, he’s a guy you really want to dislike but he makes it quite difficult to do so.  Smart, articulate, friendly, and makes you think that “he gets it”.  He admitted to me that the whole plan was simply a marketing scheme to appeal to people’s aspirational vacation desires; ie the reality of waking up in the DV St. Regis, skiing over to the ‘Bird to fire down Great Scott and have a chili dog at the Birdfeeder before zipping back over to ski the Honeycomb chutes and before having a cocktail at Silver Lake to round out the day is not realistic at all, but that doesn’t mean that the appeal of possibly being able to do that doesn’t have a huge effect on their vacation decisions.
 
Singing the praises of ONE Wasatch
He also admitted that this interconnect deal will be of little benefit to locals, since they typically support one resort and recognize the time wasted of going between resorts vs nailing the good lines. 

Mayor Ralph Becker – famously underspoken, I tried to get a sense for what he was thinking, and it was hard. He did tell me that SLC had fairly recently quietly bought land in the bottom of Silver Fork, which infuriated Solitude because it effectively cut them off from Meadow Chutes forever.  This was right before we sat down to lunch where the end of one table held Ralph, myself, and Dave DeSeelhorst.
 
the Mayor surveying his watershed, and beloved b/c terrain.  
Dave DeSeelhorst – owner of Solitude.  He has a lot to say, and a few were actually interesting:
The new fancy Montage hotel in DV has averaged 40% occupancy since it opened, but at least the original budget of $250M finally settled at nearly $600M
Solitude also has 40% occupancy of their hotels
He had just returned from Telluride, and it’s pretty clear to me that this interconnect thing is mostly spawned from all the Utah resort GM’s being tired of 30 years of getting “beaten” by Colorado, despite the latter being more crowded and having worse snow and terrain.  He also spent a bunch of time in Europe and loves it there, so he’s a big proponent of the chairs-all-over-yonder-and-back concept, and he thinks it’ll take him and his dinky little resort into the big time.  He also loves Whistler Blackcomb and what they’ve done. 
 
DeSeelhorst in the center
Both he and Nathan fully admitted that the ski industry has stagnated, but I get the feeling that they think that they have tons of potential to grow by stealing those folks who go to CO and-  importantly – SoCal, which supposedly has far more skiers than you might think, and these guys know that it’d be easier for SoCalians to go to the Wasatch than to Mammoth. 

They also think that the variety of cultures that the resorts represent would be a welcome change from the cookie-cutter resorts of – for example – CO and CA.  I was tempted to argue this point a little, saying that sort of flies in the face of the generification of…..nearly everything, but part of this day reminded me that it’s easy to look at this from a marketing or economic standpoint and say “that doesn’t make sense”, but I think it’s important to note that what we think of their business decisions doesn’t matter.  If they think that it’s a good investment – and, if you think of it, the only investment that each of the 7 resorts has to make is the cost of less than one chairlift, it actually is a decent investment, by their standards – then it is.  So we need to hit them on our points, not theirs. 

Anyway, back to the cast of characters:
Dave Whittikend (sp?) – the Wasatch-Cache Ntl Forest Supervisor – a nice guy, big runner/cyclist, and he has a lot on his plate.  Again, a hard guy to read; he was oohing and aahhing with the rest of them at the natural beauty and the proximity and didn’t ask many/any hard questions – and only seemed mildly interested that I had a map that showed the private/public land designations (thanks Brian and Christian). I will follow up and send him digital versions of those maps. 

Mike Allegra, director of UTA – Mike’s been around since the beginning of time and is an old buddy of Ralphs (and Brad Barber’s, who’s the chair of the Mountain Accord’s recreation committee) and a former avid b/c skier.  He had the suggestion that “we should take these guys out for a ski tour” which is a decent one, but I think that might be a bit much. 


Laynee Jones – the director of the Mountain Accord project.  She’s whipsmart and motivated, and knows how this stuff works.  I told her that my theory was that the resort GM’s heard about this Mountain Accord thing and they sort of panicked and threw together this “concept” in an effort to try to trump it, but she said that this project has been in the works for years and it was due to her urging that they include it in the Mountain Accord project because if not then it would have absolutely no chance.  She also said that the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance had the potential to really influence the recreation committee – mostly by very-clearly outlining what “we” wanted, probably via maps – and that the recreation committee was in turn going to have a huge impact on the Accord itself. 


Jeff Heilman – a planner brought in from Portland to help Laynee with this Mountain Accord project, and also quite sharp. He has a presentation of tons of recent ski industry statistics that he can provide, tho again, I’m not sure that saying “but the ski/snowboard industry is in decline” is the right argument for people who want to preserve backcountry terrain.

Drew Clark – Editorial writer for the D-news.   He was sporting some of those cool video-shooting shades, and had no idea that people could actually ski without the use of chairlifts.  I bent his ear quite a bit when I had the chance, and am following up with him  to basically influence his writing and make sure he's not simply a Ski Utah mouthpiece.  If nothing else, I think our involvement in this day is worth this one important aspect. 


There was a DV employee there, Ralph’s new (and young!) communications manager, Laynee’s husband, a city engineer for Cottonwood Heights (who LOVED the concept of hiking uphill for turns!), and a Provo water/landslawyer representing SLC on the Mountain Accord project.  And the GM of Solitude joined us for a bit.    

A couple of notable moments....

At one point mid-morning Jeff Heilman had to whizz, and asked the guide "is there going to be a bathroom soon, or should I just find a tree" (he had just seen me whizzing but was more polite than me and decided to ask).  The guide looked at him and said "well.....this IS watershed..." I pretty much blew my wheaties out my nose at that; here we were talking about how great it was that we had seven ski resorts in proximity and how awesome it would be to have them linked up in one behemoth resort and the guy pulls the "watershed" card out?!?!  I laughed enough to make the guide sheepishly understand the ridiculosity of that. 
 
The 2nd was even better.....
 
we were down in Grizzly Gulch and someone asked about the power lines, and Ono said something to the effect of how they get their power from PC but Snowbird gets theirs from the valley (scintillating information!).  Then Nathan says "yeah, it'd be great if those weren't there."  My ears perked up at this and I said "why's that?" and he said, "well, it's just nice not to have power lines everywhere."  I didn't want to make him look like too much of a DB in front of everyone, so I waited a minute til people moved on and I leaned in close and said "Nathan, you are a good enough guy that I'm going to tell you that you gave me a layup there and you should appreciate that I didn't slam dunk you hard.   Power lines may be a bit of an eyesore, but they don't transport people up into the mountains; chairlifts do".  And to his credit, he  - also sheepishly - admitted that I had a point there.....

Ski Utah and the resorts underestimated the backlash that their Ski Link proposal had a couple of years ago, and they are being far more strategic this time in their rollout of this new/old idea, but their new proposal has far greater implications than Ski Link did.  It's no secret that the central Wasatch needs some transportation "solutions" to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of users, but ONE Wasatch is most definitely NOT a transportation solution; it's a marketing scheme to try to one-up Colorado in order to lure visitors here vs there to account for previous investments in too much capacity - and, for example, The Canyons is still planning on over 50% more hotel rooms! - with no proof that it will actually work, but at least valued areas like Michigan City, Patsy Marley, Wolverine, Snake Creek, and virtually all of upper Silver Fork will be compromised forever and there's very little benefit to local SLC valley resort skiers.  

2 comments:

  1. Great read! But as a snowboarder and avid spiltboarder I have to wonder why no one talks about snowboarding in this equation? Not only is the backcountry at stake but another huge swath of the Wasatch has the potential to be taken away from snowboarders. 40% of snowsliders are snowboarders and 60% of families are mixed. Why doesnt anyone talk about how exclusionary this idea is for our snowsliding communities? How can the resorts and Ski Utah expect to compete with Colorado when they are going to ask snowboarders to pay the same price lift ticket as a skier but only access 5/7ths of the terrain?

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