Back in 1965, when Snowbird was still a dream coming together in Ted Johnson’s mind, an architect — designing the ski resort secretly taking shape in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains — pondered how to get thousands of skiers up Little Cottonwood Canyon, whose steep and narrow walls were lined with avalanche paths.

Jack Smith figured, presciently it turns out, the winding road would prove inadequate and proposed a tramway from the canyon’s mouth. But Johnson and the resort’s main funder, Dick Bass, were focused on getting a tram up Mount Baldy and the resort open by 1971. Smith’s idea for a six-mile tram connecting the canyon mouth with a 16-story lodge spanning Little Cottonwood never got further than drawings in his notebook, although some of the architect’s vision helped shape the resort.

A half-century later, Smith’s ideas no longer seem far-fetched as Utah ski country struggles with rising numbers of skiers and other visitors driving up and down Little and Big Cottonwood canyons. State transportation officials are now giving aerial transit a serious look as an alternative to automobiles.

Parking lots are crammed on busy weekends, tailpipe emissions foul the air, and crews scramble to keep the roads safe from avalanches and clear of snow and the occasional rock slide.

“We anticipated this problem. The parking lots are too much now. Why not do something more practical? No matter how much you improve the road, it won’t help if you aren’t going to heat it for when those ice storms come,” said Smith, now 87 and a professor of architecture at Montana State University.

(Courtesy photo of Jack Smith) Architects Jack Smith, left, and Dan Kiley with pilot Bob Smith load a helicopter in Little Cottonwood circa 1966 during the planning of a ski resort that would become Snowbird.

While posing major visual impacts, an aerial transit system, Smith argues, could have minimized many of the problems caused by skiers’ reliance on personal vehicles for getting to the slopes.

Now the notion for aerial transit is back, albeit in a different form.

Green vs. greenbacks

Among the options under review by the Utah Department of Transportation for fixing Little Cottonwood’s bottlenecks is a massive gondola that could ferry as many as 4,000 people an hour up the canyon to Snowbird and Alta, whose combined skier visits topped 1 million for the first time last season.

The agency commissioned a study examining various combinations for such a system, integrated with parking structures and buses, and identified one scenario that could work — at a cost of at least $300 million to build and millions more to operate.

It might be worth it, said Snowbird President Dave Fields.

“It can span avalanche paths. It’s better for the environment. It’s better than 5,000 cars running up the canyon every day. Think of the air quality impact of all those cars,” he said. “It snows a lot and really fast. It took five hours to get out [of the canyon] on opening day, and it was not even busy. The road only works as well as the worse driver or car on it."

Officials emphasized that the draft 93-page study is not a formal proposal but more of a thought exercise. Other transportation solutions under review include rail, expanded busing and road upgrades. Also under consideration, though not part of UDOT’s recent gondola study, is an aerial system serving Alta from the other direction, the Park City resorts on the Wasatch Back, with an intermediary stop at the head of Big Cottonwood Canyon serving Solitude and Brighton.

The conservation group Save Our Canyons formed in the 1970s in response to Snowbird’s arrival next to Alta. Executive Director Carl Fisher fears aerial transit, especially if it connects across canyons, would just make the mountains more crowded and costly to visit.

“It is a marketing scheme that is preventing the community from enjoying the quality of life and limiting access while they steal skiers from Colorado,” Fisher said. “What’s the problem you are trying to solve? Is it getting people to ski areas, or is it getting them to trailheads? Those are different problems. If this is for ski areas, why are taxpayers footing the bill?”

His group advocates more busing and other low-cost, low-impact measures to transfer people into the canyons without their cars.

"Are we chasing dollars or protecting the environment? I don't think we can do both," Fisher said. "Should we make it so convenient that we are compromising the integrity of the landscape? We are trying to create new markets at the expense of other resources."

How big should it be?

Still, Fisher and other conservationists agree UDOT is wise to study the gondola option so the public can make informed decisions on transportation solutions.

UDOT’s study rejected tramway and “funifor” systems in which paired cabins shuttle back and forth between terminals, concluding they would not move enough people fast enough.

Gondolas, on the other hand, could do the job. Their cables circulate continuously around bull wheels at the terminals and angle stations. Cabins detach from the cables as they pass slowly through loading areas.

The UDOT study considered three gondola systems — mono-cable (1S), dual-cable (2S) and tri-cable (3S) — and determined that three cables were preferable to one or two. A 3S system uses two stationary cables to support larger cabins that are pulled by a third cable.

Whistler Blackcomb Resort in British Columbia hosts North America’s only 3S system, the massive Peak 2 Peak Gondola built by Doppelmayr leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Utah ski areas operate seven gondolas, all mono-cable lifts carrying small cabins with four to eight seats, mere toys compared with what UDOT explored. Utah’s first and biggest gondola is Park City’s 1.26-mile Red Pine Gondola.

While it carries a larger footprint and price tag, a 3S can move more people at faster speeds in worse weather (even in 68 mph winds). Support towers also can be placed farther apart.

For Little Cottonwood, the towers would stand 100 to 200 feet tall and be spaced a half-mile apart. The eight-mile lift alignment, from the canyon’s mouth to Alta, would require an intermediate “angle station” to turn a corner at Tanners Flat, adding at least $10 million to the tab.

Each 20-seat cabin would carry up to 35 occupants, traveling between 16 and 18 mph, potentially moving 3,000 to 4,000 people per hour. That would outpace the road’s 1,000-vehicles-per-hour rate, assuming 2.2 occupants per car. Travel time to Snowbird would be 23 minutes, and 27 to Alta, a few minutes longer than a bus ride when traffic is flowing freely.

There’s a big catch, however. Since a massive parking structure at the canyon mouth would not be practical, skiers would have to park at a “mobility hub” a few miles away, at either Wasatch and Fort Union boulevards — a site known as the gravel pit — or at 9400 South and Highland Drive. The study explored two options to bridge this gap: Extend the lift all the way to the mobility hub, or bus skiers to the gondola terminal.

Both options would present significant drawbacks in terms costs and impacts. Residents along the lift route understandably would object to gondola cabins passing over their homes, while the bus leg would jack up operating costs.

The draft study concluded the preferred option would be to put a 2,500-stall parking structure at the gravel pit and bus skiers 4.2 miles to the gondola terminal. Total travel time: 53 minutes to Snowbird, 62 to Alta. Planners prefer the pit location for the mobility hub because it is close to Interstate 215.

UDOT pegs the cost of such a system at $298 million to $340 million, with about $12 million in annual operating costs. It would run 12 hours a day, 360 days a year. Staffing the gondola would take 15 to 17 people with another three to staff the parking structure.

Band-aid vs. bold move

The draft notes that few people would choose to ride the gondola during off-peak days. It did not address the question of fares, which could be structured to encourage ridership.

“In the late spring, summer and early fall, the gondola would be operating at less than maximum capacity,” the study states. “The annual ridership of a gondola system, measured as a percentage of total trips in the canyon, would be low without other traffic demand management tools (such as tolling) or an overall policy to significantly restrict personal vehicles in the canyon.”

For Smith, anything less than an aerial system would be a temporary solution to canyon congestion, which could worsen if the road is widened and more parking is added to the 4,500 spots already at Alta and Snowbird.

“I couldn’t sell these ideas in 1965 because it was too bold for them,” the architect said. “Fixing that road is a band-aid. That’s a very dangerous road. Let’s get rid of the massive amounts of cars at Snowbird and get rid of some of the parking lots. Let’s have a modern American ski resort."

But what may look modern in America looks old school in the Alps, where rail and aerial systems have been common for decades.

“Those are big bold ideas, not some piecemeal cosmetic approach that doesn’t work,” Smith said. “What’s the greater good?”